Review: Nike Nike+ FuelBand SE
Nike's original Nike+ FuelBand was solid — not the most affordable or functional wearable fitness tracker we've tested, but arguably the best-looking, and certainly the one we were most looking forward to seeing improved in a sequel. More than a year and a half after the original debuted, Nike has released an updated model called Nike+ FuelBand SE ($150), and while it's not a quantum leap forward, it's been improved in one critical way with a variety of smaller tweaks that collectively make the user experience better.
Just like its predecessor, FuelBand SE is a wristband measuring 0.63” to 0.75” wide and 0.27” to 0.32” thick, made primarily from matte rubber-coated plastic with small metal components. Giving up on the translucent colors introduced midway through the first FuelBand’s life, Nike offers FuelBand SE in an opaque jet black version, as well as three black versions with small pink, red, or yellow accents inside. The original model’s silver clasp has been replaced with a black part, neutralizing the design even further than before; only a single button on the top and a bright five-character screen hidden underneath the rubber add intrigue to the band.
Nike’s pack-ins and sizing options are pretty much the same as before for FuelBand SE. The box includes a slightly modified USB charging cable that connects easily to the wristband’s integrated full-sized USB plug as needed, plus one extra link to expand the band’s size, and a tool that enables you to insert or remove links as desired. When we found that the M/L FuelBand SE was just a little too tight as delivered, it was easy to use the included tool to add the additional link — too big, we found — and similarly easy to swap the pre-installed small link out for the slightly larger spare, making the band fit perfectly. Nike sells three different FuelBand SE sizes, and urges people to order on the smaller side if they’re inbetween two models, advice that worked correctly in our case.
Once FuelBand SE has been sized for your wrist, it needs to be plugged into a computer for initial charging and setup with free Nike software, a step that we wish wasn’t necessary but wasn’t particularly painful, either. Using the software, you specify your height and weight so that FuelBand SE’s sensors better estimate your calorie burn, and wrist side choice so that the display is properly oriented towards your eyes. Nike also uses the opportunity to apply a firmware update to the FuelBand SE, as well as to link it to your Nike+ account online. As a result, you can install Nike’s free iOS app FuelBand and see not only your new FuelBand SE results but also any prior history of FuelBand readings without needing to do much work.
While almost all of this should be familiar from FuelBand, the killer change in FuelBand SE is the way the band communicates with iOS devices: Bluetooth 4. While switching to the latest Bluetooth standard costs FuelBand SE compatibility with pre-iPhone 4S devices, it enables the new model to achieve battery life that was unthinkable before: FuelBand ran for only two days between charges, and FuelBand SE gets closer to two weeks of battery life, which is fantastic. After a full week of daily use, FuelBand SE’s in-app battery indicator was just over the 50% mark and still reading “high.” No usage compromises were required to achieve this longevity, either; we used the app multiple times each day to sync current data and occasionally play with settings, as well as fiddling with FuelBand SE itself. We can’t speak for the battery life over a year or more of use, but as early performance goes, we’re thrilled by what we saw. [Updated November 18, 2013: FuelBand SE ultimately ran for 11 days before requiring a recharge.]
Nike has also tweaked the performance of FuelBand SE’s integrated button and screen. Press the button once and the screen will display “Time,” “Fuel,” “Hours,” “Cals,” or “Steps,” followed by a number if you do nothing or progressing sequentially through those choices if you tap the button again. To streamline the single-button interface, FuelBand SE remembers the last category you checked and displays it again the next time you hit the button, and the FuelBand app lets you delete all of the categories besides Time and Fuel if you want fewer screens to look at. As before, a line of pinpoint-sized red, yellow, and green dots under the main display provides a quick visual sense of how close you are to your specified goals, glamming up the FuelBand’s face in the process. Should you reach your goal, you’ll be treated to a small fireworks-like display on the screen when you press the button, one of several nice touches that really make great use of the simple but highly legible dot matrix display. Should you remain inactive for a while, the screen can automatically flash a reminder to get moving, as well.
Best of all, a double-tap at any time brings up FuelBand SE’s digital clock, which defaults to 12-hour time but can display in 24-hour mode if you prefer. Putting the fitness features aside, being able to quickly reach the clock as needed makes FuelBand SE a great minimalist alternative to a traditional watch, assuming that you’re willing to pay $150 for such a thing. It only helps that the watch is splashproof enough to be worn safely in the shower, and lightweight enough at roughly 30 grams to become all but forgotten even as you sleep. For the first few days you wear it, removing it will seem like the right thing to do, but between the extended battery life and on-wrist comfort, you might just keep it on continuously for days.
Realistically, though, would anyone do that? That’s a more difficult question to answer. Each FuelBand’s stated mission is to encourage the wearer to be more active, and it’s here where SE falls somewhat short of seriously improving on its predecessor. Nike has developed NikeFuel as an abstract measurement of “all kinds of activities — from your morning workout to your big night out.” It’s “uniquely designed to measure whole-body movement no matter your age, weight or gender,” says the company, and the minimum target for activity is 2000 points, a number that isn’t identical to the (seemingly correlated) number of steps you’ve walked or (much lower) number of calories you’ve burned. Yet FuelBand’s fitness tracking hardware essentially consisted of a three-axis gyroscope, and the process used to calculate NikeFuel from it was opaque.
In rolling out FuelBand SE, Nike included testimonials and demonstrations from athletes to underscore that there’s a new software algorithm calculating NikeFuel based on frequency and intensity of motion — a change that was firmware-bumped to the original FuelBand, as well. The improved algorithm is supposed to make the FuelBands better at awarding NikeFuel points during activities that weren’t necessarily tracked well before, such as riding a stationary bike where leg movement is high but arm movement is minimal. By holding down SE’s button followed by a tap, you can also initiate “Nike+ Sessions,” a tracking mode that calculates “Fuel Per Minute” (FPM) and elapsed time, marking the start times for later in-app inspection of how specific activities influenced your NikeFuel numbers. Ideally, FuelBand SE wouldn’t require any user intervention for this purpose, but we suspect that battery drain is increased whenever a Session is started. Nike provides no estimate for FuelBand SE’s battery life, and we suspect that variables such as this are the reason why.
During real-world use, we really loved the FuelBand app’s updated design and visual incentives to keep active, but didn’t see a huge improvement in tracking: for instance, on our most active day of testing, involving everything from going out shopping to carrying and assembling a giant Christmas tree to walking up and down multiple flights of stairs with heavy items, FuelBand SE registered an aggregate activity level lower than on another day spent largely sedentary with only walking for motion. It’s possible that arm rigidity when lifting or carrying things limits tracking rather than facilitating it — a problem that any wrist-bound tracker would likely face. On another day, the FuelBand SE and/or app glitched in some way, displaying the same activity count as the prior day until the app was restarted, at which point the NikeFuel count was incorrectly tallied for that day. While we feel very confident that Nike will address the bugs, we have only modest confidence in the underlying activity tracking mechanism, which continues to be more of an aspirational incentivizer to “do stuff” than a precise tool to measure what’s really being done.
Apart from the value of the tracking technology, the biggest issue with FuelBand SE is how little it has evolved from its predecessor. Nike’s introduction event for the accessory was roundly met with disappointment as the company detailed what amounted to modest improvements — apart from color tweaks, Bluetooth 4-related enhancements and algorithmic changes, it’s effectively the same product as before. Heart rate monitoring, sleep tracking, and more advanced biometric features that were rumored to make SE more competitive with recent rivals were all AWOL, and Nike didn’t use the launch to expand the fitness tracking paradigm in any way. FuelBand SE is really just more of the same, a year and a half later, at the same price.
In all honesty, however, incremental change is going to be enough for FuelBand SE to succeed with plenty of people. From our perspective, a wearable accessory only wins if you actually want to wear it, and FuelBand SE has the right weight, sizing, and look to appeal broadly to a large cross-section of people. You’ll like it if you do nothing more than use it as a watch and passively benefit from the subconscious or conscious reminders to keep active; similarly, you’ll probably like it if you use it as an active fitness tracker, though you’ll probably begin to question the granularity and precision of measurements if you’re metric-minded. For these reasons, it merits our strong general recommendation and B+ rating. That said, if you’re looking for extra bells and whistles, you won’t find them here; rivals such as Fitbit’s Force and Withings’ Pulse offer more bang for the buck, albeit with their own compromises. Thanks to its simple UI, improved battery life, and quick iOS synchronization, FuelBand SE is really what the original version should have been last year. Those looking for a big leap forward in wearable fitness trackers will have to wait a bit longer.