The best device I'll tell you not to get

Date Published: 
December 30, 2011

There was more than one fitness gadget on my holiday wishlist this year – perfect timing as we hit New Year’s and the season of resolutions. Near the top of that list was the Up, from Bluetooth headset manufacturer Jawbone, which incorporates the functions of a high-end pedometer, meal-tracking software and sleep tracker into a bracelet and associated app.

I got that wish fulfilled, and I’m happy with my Up, but it’s one high-tech device I can’t recommend – yet – that you buy.

Jawbone has a pretty good track record with its devices – mostly Bluetooth headsets and speakerphone devices for cell phones, and it’s one of the leading manufacturers in the world of such devices.

But Jawbone’s launch of the $100 Up last month became a near-instant PR debacle, as a significant portion of early adopters have experienced problems with the device. Moreover, those who have had their device replaced by Jawbone or exchanged it for another one at the store have had many of them fail, as well, exacerbating the problem of customer relations.

Honestly, this is the hazard for the early adopter. If you find something you have to have as soon as it’s out, you not only pay a premium price on a device that will likely drop in cost over time but you risk being subject to manufacturing problems that didn’t crop up in significant numbers until the item was released to the world. You have to keep that in mind as you buy.

Early buyers of the iPhone 4 will remember when the first reports of problems with dropped calls started coming in. At first, Apple denied there really was an issue. Then the reports increased. In the end, they sent everyone who requested one a free “bumper” case that seemed to mitigate the issue for at least some.

The problems with Up came as a surprise to many. At first, there were reports that the device would fail to synchronize with its iPhone/iPod app. Then, some users reported its battery life had dropped off tremendously or that it wouldn’t charge at all, or was just plain dead.

Some had problems with the vibrating motor that is used as an optional wakeup device and reminder to get up and get moving. Others had lost the cap that covers the device’s headphone-style sync/charge connector, necessitating that they order more, at $10 for three, plus shipping and handling.

All of this was within a week of ownership for many of those impacted, and the reports seemed to be coming in from a significant number of Up owners, maybe as many as a third to half. With the replacement devices also breaking down, it was clear that there was a major problem in Jawbone’s manufacturing chain.

While they didn’t instantly admit there was such a significant problem, Jawbone stepped up where Apple had fallen down with the iPhone 4. They replaced devices that had stopped working correctly. They manned their online forums and Twitter and Facebook accounts, and they worked with dissatisfied Up owners.

Within a few days – though not before the tech reporting world had declared the product launch a debacle – Jawbone admitted that there was a major problem. And they did something I have never even heard of any company doing.

They recalled the product, stopping direct sales entirely, and they offered a full, no-questions-asked guarantee. If you bought an Up and weren’t satisfied or it just plain stopped working, you could request a refund – one that more than covered the cost of the device, including tax.

Moreover, if you took credit from Jawbone instead of a check, you got 150 percent of the cost of the Up in credit – enough to buy a second-edition Up when it’s released and then some, or a different Jawbone device or devices, if you preferred.

And you didn’t have to ship the device back to them. You didn’t even have to send in a UPC code from the package or a store receipt. You just had to provide your device’s serial number so they could avoid paying the refund more than once on a single device and promise that you wouldn’t attempt to also return the device to the store, sell it or otherwise aim to make a profit from it.

And, if your Up was still working fine, but you were nervous about its lifespan, you could still claim the refund and keep using the Up. And, if you kept using it and it died in the coming year, you could still have it replaced at no charge.

Now, that’s the way to conduct a recall. No shipping costs for the buyer if they want a refund. No paperwork to mail. No arguing with a store clerk that your used product is a lemon and should get a full refund. And a chance to keep using something that might, maybe, have a problem later on, without having to lose the ability to have it replaced or get a refund, if you so chose.

Other than admitting early on that there was a major problem and instantly instituting a recall, I don’t think Jawbone could have done it better.

Many of those who were having problems said they’d take store credit and happily wait for Up 2. Others chalked it up to experience and will walk away with their money back, ready to purchase a competing device – such as FitBit’s clip-on device – or something entirely different.

And then there are those of us who opted to keep our still-working Ups. We get to use this potentially great device with the assurance that if it does fail, we’ll be taken care of with the kind of class that Jawbone demonstrated with the recall.

A multi-functional health device on your wrist

Now, Up was in so many hands in its first month of availability because the promise of the technology is so amazing. People waited for this device to come out because it was the answer to a lot of needs.

It’s a pedometer that you don’t have to clip onto your clothes or fear losing (or laundering) so easily as ones in that form factor, a sleep-monitoring device that can help you figure out how to improve your nightly rest, an alarm clock and an exercise motivator.

Those using the free Up app are also encouraged to photograph and record their meals, which has been shown to be a key in making healthy eating choices. They can also participate in “challenges,” which range from taking a set number of steps each day to meeting exercise targets over longer periods to getting a full day of health, with a good night’s sleep, healthy meals and physical activity.

Up users whose friends also have Up can even compete with each other or take group challenges, increasing the motivational factor of the device even further.

In short – it’s a great concept for those looking to commit to making a healthy lifestyle part of their day-to-day existence over the long haul.

Waking up in better health

Thus far, my favorite part of using Up has been seeing exactly how well I slept. And I mean exactly. Once the device is synced to your iPhone or iPod Touch, it displays a graph of your night’s sleep, with light blue bars representing light sleep, dark blue bars for deep sleep and orange for periods of awakening.

If you’ve ever wondered why you’re exhausted after eight hours of sleep, it’s possible that Up could reveal that you’re not just tossing and turning but actually waking up multiple times each night, or that you hardly ever reach deep, restorative sleep.

Just put Up into sleep mode, with a push of a button before you hit the sack, and you’ll get a good idea what your sleep patterns really are. From there, you can work on adjusting factors that may be keeping you awake, such as room temperature, light, noise, meal times, bed configuration and more.

And, since it knows whether you’re sleeping deeply or lightly, Up is also well-positioned to tell you when the optimal time is to get up.

Research has shown that waking up during a cycle of light sleep is best if you want to wake up feeling refreshed rather than groggy. Programmed with your preferred wakeup time, Up vibrates to wake you up during a light-sleep cycle up to 30 minutes prior to your wakeup time.

A workout tracker that keeps on trekking

For those wanting to track their activity or make sure they’re getting enough exercise, Up’s primary function as a pedometer is a focus.

Wrapped around your wrist, it monitors walking, running and workouts on treadmills and elliptical machines, though it’s less adept at keeping track of cycling and even running on a treadmill can be tricky for it if you keep your hands in place on the device rather than moving freely.

The first benefit you’ll see from Up is getting a good idea how many steps you’re taking every day. That baseline lets you see if you’re too sedentary overall and set a goal for how much activity you’d like to be getting in. It’s a great way to motivate yourself to take the stairs, park at the back of the parking lot and incorporate exercise into your daily regimen.

And, if you find yourself sitting at your desk for long hours, not even getting up to stretch or walk around, Up’s scheduled reminders – as frequently as every 15 minutes – can get that circulation flowing and that step count rising, and even give your eyes a much-needed rest.

Since Up – its electronics protected underneath a rubbery but hypoallergenic cover – stays on your wrist, it catches most of your daily activity without any action on your part. Up is even water-resistant, so it can go right into the shower with you – something most pedometers can’t claim.

Up more precisely details your workouts when put into activity mode, letting you see when you were working out hard versus just cruising along, and over time, that means you can see whether your interval training is paying off or whether you’re just as good, or even just less sore, if you take a longer walk at a more leisurely pace.

Some users have reported good results with Up tracking their swimming laps, but Jawbone has never recommended Up for swimming, though it is water-resistant to 3 feet deep. Saltwater is a hazard I wouldn’t want to throw at it. But splashing it while you’re washing dishes or even washing your hair is not a major concern.

A close race, but no photo finish

That brings me to Up’s other flaws.

First, that removable cap. There is no question that, when a company is prepared at launch to ship you three replacements for a component of a device, it knew you were likely to lose it.

While I haven’t had that problem, Jawbone should address that flaw in any design tweak for a re-released Up 1 or an Up 2, no question. To date, though, my only issue with the cap is making sure I put it in a safe place during a sync or charging, so I don’t lose it.

Second, while I haven’t had the rampant and final sync failures of some users, Up does sometimes seem reluctant to sync. Up’s sync connection is the headphone-style connector under that potentially wayward cap, and you have to make sure it’s connected solidly and that your phone isn’t on silent or low volume. For me, reconnecting once or twice has solved any sync failures.

Jawbone really needs to consider, though, changing the connection from the mini-jack to a wireless system. Already, Jawbone is a Bluetooth expert, so it’s a little mystifying that they didn’t go that way with Up. However, battery life may have been a consideration.

However, when it comes time for Up 2, the new low-power Bluetooth 4.0 specification was designed precisely for such devices. It uses much less power than today’s Bluetooth standard, and small, portable health-related devices, such as Up and other pedometers, heart-rate monitors and more, are its intended use.

So far, only the iPhone 4S has the specification in place, but for those interested in Up, a wireless Up device could be the perfect excuse for an upgrade now or in the near future, and it’s a no-brainer for this active-lifestyle device.

Third, Up’s included charging adapter isn’t ideal either, since the 4-inch device could be pretty easily misplaced and is difficult to find replacements for unless you don’t mind waiting for shipping.

It also requires you to connect to a USB port on a computer or USB charger, which isn’t going to be convenient for everyone. It only takes about two hours to charge from depleted to full charge, but that limits the times when you can do so, unless you don’t mind missing a chunk of your daily activity or sleep time. However, charging once or twice a week is a minimal inconvenience.

Another minor complaint is that the band’s overlapping design does leave its ends vulnerable to getting caught up on something and bent to the breaking point.

So far, in three weeks of use, I’ve only had it get caught up once – on a grocery bag as I carried it into the house. I don’t think this is a major concern, but it’s a design issue that deserves consideration.

Finally, there are the concerns about its reliability, due to the numerous failures for early buyers. Honestly, if Jawbone’s guarantee and their reaction to the problem don’t reassure you sufficiently, you’re better off with a different device.

But I’ve been left feeling very comfortable with the future of Up, and I’m mildly, but pleasantly, surprised that mine has lasted nearly a month without a significant problem. That leaves me feeling good about the purchase.

Overall, I’ve found Up’s insight into my sleep patterns fascinating. It’s served as a reminder to me not only to get more exercise but to stop spending so much time just sitting at my desk or on the sofa. That’s the way many of us live these days, and it’s just not healthy. Up is one way to get out of that bad habit – just in time for the new year.

I haven’t used the meal-tracking feature extensively, as I use Weight Watchers’ app for that, but this is a less involved way to monitor your eating habits and may do the trick for some.

Bottom line – while I can’t advise you to run out to try to find any remaining stock of Up in the stores – I can, without reservation, suggest it is a device worth considering when Jawbone brings Up back to the public in the coming weeks or months.

Up, priced at $100, is set to be available in black, dark brown, dark red, bright red, blue, white and silver. Sizes ranging from small to large were previously released, with an extra-large size also due for release in the near future.