Review: Jawbone UP by Jawbone
A threshold question we ask whenever we're reviewing a new product is whether it makes sense on a conceptual level. Aliph's original Jawbone, for instance, solved a real problem that many users had -- it was a Bluetooth earpiece with excellent noise-canceling technology and an atypically stylish design. The later Jawbone Jambox similarly met a real need for small wireless speakers, albeit at a problematic price point. This month, the company debuted a new accessory called UP by Jawbone ($100), and it's something totally different. Pitched as a health-monitoring bracelet with iOS compatibility, UP pairs a battery-powered motion sensor with an app, promising to help you "track your activity, sleep and meals 24/7." While UP is aesthetically attractive, it doesn't quite live up to the promise of its concept, which is itself somewhat shaky. In its current form, it feels like an expensive solution in search of a problem, though tantalizingly close on the technology end to actually making sense for mainstream users.
Like other Jawbone products, UP comes in a small, thoughtfully designed box that consists of hard plastic and cardboard elements, displaying the bracelet in its clear upper chamber while hiding instructions and extra accessories in the bottom. Planned for sale in four different sizes and seven different colors, each with a zig-zagging rubberized texture, UP is equipped minimalistically by comparison with its older brothers: all you get besides the bracelet is a stubby gray charging cable that is surprisingly short, creating a real challenge if you hope to plug it into the back of a desktop computer. This is particularly problematic because unlike other recent Jawbone accessories, which will also work with any micro-USB cable you might have sitting around, UP requires this special proprietary cable for charging. If you don’t have a USB port on the front or side of your computer—iMacs, Mac minis, and some PCs—this may be an issue for you; you’ll need to supply a USB wall adapter of your own, because none is in the box.
Every one of Jawbone’s accessories thus far has looked somewhere between “pretty nice” and “neat,” and on first inspection, UP follows that pattern. The bracelet is tipped with silver plastic on both ends, one side a square button and the other a larger removable cap for the 3.5mm plug. Most bracelets—and watches—form a single complete loop when they’re put on your hand, but UP instead has overlapping ends, a design decision that frees both ends of the band to be used for the aforementioned functions, while enabling the band to grip varying wrist thicknesses. In a particularly awesome move, UP’s box includes a flip-up thin plastic panel on the outside so that you can know for sure whether a given size of band will fit your wrist without having to open the package, and the large version we picked after trying the other package sizers was definitely the right choice for our wrists. While the band isn’t as ideally sized as a typical wristwatch, it’s pretty close, and it’s water-resistant enough to be worn in the shower; you just need to avoid charging it while its metal headphone plug connector is wet, or otherwise doing things that might damage its rechargeable battery.
The first hitch with UP’s open-ended band is that the ends tended to catch on things—clothes, pillows, and the like—when we were wearing the bracelet, making us feel somewhat uncomfortable with its presence, and in one case actually knocking the bracelet off while we were sleeping. Secondly, the need to pull the headphone plug cap off creates a risk of loss that added to our discomfort with the solution, and we actually briefly misplaced the cap at one point during testing. Third, because of UP’s sub-optimal headphone plug interface, you need to turn the headphone port volume on your iOS device up to the maximum amplitude in order to use UP, as well; even doing so, we experienced frequent synchronization errors with our test iPhone 4S. Fourth, UP is really an on- and off-again accessory. Users have to remove the bracelet for every synchronization, and separately to that stubby little charging cable for power; Apple’s devices cannot recharge UP’s internal battery, which will need to be refueled roughly once per week.
There’s very little question that UP would be a lot easier to use if it communicated with iOS devices using Bluetooth, charged inductively, and formed a single loop around the wrist. Normally, we might give a new product some slack if these things required technology or engineering beyond the scope of the price point, but UP isn’t cheap, and there’s little question that it could have at least included wireless functionality and a single loop band for $100. This is purely a guess, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if Jawbone was planning annual replacements of UP akin to its ever-changing Bluetooth earpieces, and has priced today’s model high enough to replace it with a wireless version in 2012. Given what Apple and Nike accomplished for $19 with the wireless Nike + iPod Sensor years ago, it’s hard to see $80 of additional value in what UP brings to the table.
We say that because what you actually get with today’s UP for the asking price isn’t particularly amazing. There’s a motion sensor inside akin to the ones already found in the iPod nano and iOS devices, enabling the wristband to estimate how many steps you’ve taken in a day—just like the sixth-generation iPod nano’s pedometer feature. Also inside UP is a timer that you can manually activate by briefly holding down the silver button, which triggering a brief vibration in the band to provide haptic feedback. This timer is primarily there to count the number of hours you’ve slept and timestamp sensed motion, visually signaling that the sleep timer function is active by briefly displaying a blue moon icon through UP’s rubber surface. When the timer’s not active, UP instead quickly displays a star that changes colors to indicate the band’s power status, before turning off its light. Seeing the star shift colors is quite possibly UP’s coolest feature; we can only imagine how much better UP would have been if the band had been designed with a peek-through clock face, like Nike’s earlier and less expensive Amp+ watch. On that note, given that there’s a clock inside, it’s worth mentioning that it would be easier for some users to embrace UP as a watch replacement, rather than as another thing to wear on your wrist.
Most of UP’s work is handled by a free app called UP by Jawbone, which as of press time is on version 1.3, and uses technology developed by MotionX. The app uses clean, colorful graphics to provide representations of how close you’ve come to your daily sleep, walking, and food goals—none particularly well implemented—with a particularly attractive main screen that displays percentage bars for each activity. The app also includes Nike+ GPS-like features that can use the band’s motion sensor or your device’s GPS location services to track your movement, then provide pace and distance estimates, plus the opportunity to challenge individual or multiple friends to meet specific goals.
Additional graphs can be called up to provide granular details on your activity, generally estimated by the software using manually inputted information or assumptions based on the band’s motion. For instance, UP guesses that you’ve been sleeping deeply or lightly based on the “micro movements” you make while sleeping. It similarly asks you to take pictures of the foods you’re eating, name them, and then rate how satisfying they were before calculating a satisfaction index. And it archives all of this information over time so that you can go back and see how well you slept, walked, or ate towards your stated goals; this information can be kept private, shared publicly, or shared solely with friends on a social feed accessed from the app or the web.
There are a couple of other things that the UP by Jawbone app enables the wristband to do. A feature called Activity Reminder can be used to trigger brief vibrations in the band, occurring between certain hours at increments between 15 minutes and 4 hours, 45 minutes. “Smart Alarm” lets the wristband vibrate at “the best time within 30 minutes of the time you set” to silently wake you up. Both features are disabled by default.
It’s at this point that you’ll need to make a big decision on your own—do these sorts of features really strike you as useful, worthy of $100, and well-implemented? Or merely a collection of things that you could probably measure and accomplish on your own without wearing a wristband around all the time? All of our editors leaned towards the latter perspective, though it needs to be said that if you’re willing to fork over this sort of cash for a vibrating sleep timer or reminder to boost your activity level, UP’s wearability guarantees that you’ll feel these sensations in a way that some iOS devices can’t. But then, they have audible alarms and reminder features that cost nothing, and inexpensive apps offer similar functionality, as well.
As much as we’d hoped that UP would be spectacular, our experience with it was less than thrilling. The wristband design is pretty close to where it needs to be, the technology inside feels a generation or two behind the curve, the software is limited, and the price tag is just too high. Like most of the other Jawbone accessories, it looks good enough that no one’s going to laugh at you for using it, and there’s just enough functionality here to justify its existence. But it really begs for a more refined and capable sequel, preferably one that adds wireless capabilities to the mix and makes better use of the clock hardware inside, say nothing of adding other features. If Apple doesn’t deliver a similarly featured iPod nano next year, a next-generation UP could be a good enough alternative for some users. Today’s version is only okay.