BodyMedia Link Bluetooth Fitness Monitor Really Wants You To Hate It [Review]

By

wpid-Photo-04102012-1431.jpg
BodyMedia's Link puts the 'F' in 'Fugly.'

 

 

Bodymedia’s Fit fitness tracker is a hideously ugly, and is supported by one of the most willfully customer-hostile web services I have ever seen. Yet despite this, it actually does its job very well.

There are two trackers, the $120 Core and the $150 Link. I tested the Link, which connects to your iPhone via Bluetooth, and to your Mac (or PC) via USB. You wear the Link on your upper left arm, using an included gray elastic band to hold it securely over your tricep.

Once settled, it uses its sensors to track your activity and calculate your calorie burn. Inside are accelerometers and sensors to detect “galvanic skin response” (sweat), skin temperature and “heat flux” (the speed that heat exits your body).

Pressing the button on the device switches on the Bluetooth radio and — once paired with your iPhone or other iDevice — will immediately send its data to the companion app.

The Good

The Bodymedia is comfortable. Its stretchy velcro-fastened strap is easily adjustable and sits safe on your arm. I have been wearing it almost 24/7 for the past few weeks (taking it off only to shower) and it’s as easy to sleep in it as it is to train in.

The iOS app works great too. It’s nice to have an up-to-date reading of your calorie burn, and as you can also enter your food log into the same app, you get a live calorie deficit, too. This is better than the FitBit (the last-gen one, at least) which requires that you sync it with your computer, not your phone, to get all you updates in one place together.

The food log is also worth a mention. When I used the FitBit, I entered every morsel of food that I ate into the MyFitnessPal app, an ugly but comprehensive piece of software notable for not being U.S-centric in foods and measurements (cups? Seriously? In 2012?).

The BodyMedia app goes one better by offering up raw foods as the first search results, and letting you input them in the weight system of your choice (metric, for the civilized world). This is way better than almost every other app which offers up packaged tomato sauces when all you want to know is how many calories are in that tomato and onion salad you just made.

The back.

 

 

The Bad

Oh, where to begin? At the beginning, I guess.

Imagine you have just bought a $150 fitness accessory, and you want to get started and pair it up with your $600+ phone. It’s Bluetooth, right, so you can just toss away the packaging and get started? Wrong.

Before you can even download the Mac or PC software, you need to set up an account with Bodymedia. Fine. Except that you also need to give it your credit card details to register. You get a free trial period with your purchase, but even to use that you need to submit payment details for when it ends (the service costs $7 per month).

I got around this by talking to the Bodymedia PR people — there’s no way I’m giving up my payment details to do a review — but actual paying customers won’t be so lucky.

Once done, you can download and install the software on your computer. Plug in the device and… Communication error! I tried a few times and went back to my FitBit.

Then, a few weeks ago, I lost the FitBit. It jumped off one night, so I figured I’d better give the Bodymedia another shot. I plugged in it and it worked just fine. My guess is that the Fitbit daemon, or the FitBt cable, or something, was causing a conflict.

Once working, the armband syncs with the computer automatically every time you plug it in to charge. Doing this while you shower provides enough juice to keep it ticking along. And as I mentioned, you can sync it with the iPhone app whenever you like.

But even though your iPhone is permanently connected to the internet, the two don’t speak to each other. If you have synced the device with your iPhone, new data won’t be sent to the web app, and vice versa. As my old grandad used to say, WTF?

Compared to the FitBit website, the BodyMedia web app is a model of bad design. Too much is crammed into the page, while at the same time its almost impossible to find the info you want as it has been folded away into drop-down menus.

However, if all you need to do is track your calories then you’re good. The Link seems as accurate as anything, at least when you’re walking around.

Switch to cycling, though, and all bets are off. I usually put in an hour of fast cycling every day — around 30 kilometers (that’s about three feet or something). For a good part of this my heart rate (as measured by a chest strap and Garmin EDGE 500) is at 155bpm or above. And yet the Link doesn’t even class this as “moderate” activity, let alone vigorous. And no, I’m not a non-sweating, cold-blooded lizard, so those sensors should be picking me up.

Overall, though, the daily calorie count comes in very close to the FitBit (I’m going on nerd memory here, as the loss of the FitBit, and the technical connection issues meant I couldn’t test them side-by-side), even though the calorie counts for an hour of cycling vary widely between the Garmin and the BodyMedia.

One final note on the design. If you want to put a big plastic wart on your upper arm, then you’re good to go. The Link looks like a medical device, and is just about the ugliest gadget I have ever used, let alone worn. It is also on full display when wearing short sleeves.

Amazingly, wearing even a tight-ish sweater will cover it. For me at least. If you wear really tight tops, then you will likely suffer a big bulge over your tricep.

The Verdict

The new FitBit will work direct with your iPhone via low-power Bluetooth 4, is way better-looking, $50 cheaper and free to use forever (there’s an optional monthly plan for extras). It also plays nice with plenty of other services thanks to great APIs, looks cool, and has a display on the unit itself so you can quickly check up on your progress without syncing it first.

The BodyMedia Link, on the other hand, is huge, ugly, has no built-in display and offers a first-use experience rivaled only by the worst low-cost airlines (buying plane tickets from Ryanair or domains from GoDaddy will seem like shopping in the Apple Store after registering the Link).

The only things the Link has going for it are a nice simple app, a great food diary, and the fact that you don’t have to keep re-clipping it to you every time you change clothes (like the FitBit).

Would I buy it? No freaking way. The experience is way too customer hostile. Which is a shame, as with a little bit of a case redesign, and a whole new sign-up process, and a lower price, this could (could) be a winner. The rating below reflects the off-kilter balance between the terrible customer experience and the great accuracy and reliability of the hardware/software.

 

[xrr rating=50%]