The Basis Band is the best fitness tracker on the market. It's the best because it works with your life rather than requiring that a whole bunch of extra new steps be added to your life. It encourages you to get in shape, get a better night's sleep, and live more healthfully. Previous fitness trackers were content to merely measure and present you with raw data of your current state of fitness, like a cat dropping a dead vole at the foot of your bed. The Basis Band is like a cat that digs up voles that were eating your plants and deposits said voles in the garbage can. It's the first truly next-generation fitness tracker.
It's a watch with fitness superpowers. It's available in black or white--my test unit is black--with a square face containing a small black-and-white display. Surrounding the display are four small silver touch-buttons that look kind of like the heads of tiny screws. The band is wide, sturdy rubber. It's waterproof, to a point; I wouldn't go deep-sea diving with it, but I showered with it every day and had no problems. To sync or charge it, you snap a square frame on the Basis and connect it via USB.
So, the Basis Band has a whole bunch of sensors in it. It has an accelerometer and pedometer (very accurate, by my testing--was never off by more than a few steps), just like all those other fitness trackers, but it has a few more unusual sensors that put it solidly above the crowd in terms of utility. Chiefly: it has a heart rate sensor and a perspiration sensor. The heart rate sensor is really an optical blood flow sensor; it works kind of like those finger clips you wear at the hospital, bouncing light off your capillaries and measuring the reflective rate. (There's a cool little green light on the underside of the watch face, pressing against your wrist.) It's not perfect--its position on your wrist, movement, and ambient light can all impede its abilities, and I did find a few times that it was unable to figure out my heart rate--but it worked very well most of the time, getting within just a few beats per minute of any other heart rate monitor I tested it against.
Having the heart rate monitor is a huge advantage over other fitness trackers, and actually makes you wonder why anyone bothers with the other ones--what could be more important to tracking your fitness than measuring your heart rate?
The way the Basis Band thinks about fitness is also different from its peers. Fitbit, for example, is a pure "tracker," in that it collects data and then presents it to you. I'd say this is at the lowest level of utility for a normal person who doesn't want to spend hours looking at line graphs of steps taken over time. The Jawbone Up is slightly better, in that it's strapped to your wrist at all times, but it thinks at the same low level: it tracks your stats and shows them to you. The Nike Fuelband has a points system, but that's a very opaque way to track fitness. So you've gotten a thousand Fuel points. Uh, okay? And the Fuelband is very limited in its featureset, with only a pedometer.
The Basis Band instead tracks "habits," which are individual goals. Those are wide-ranging but simple, including wearing the band for at least 12 hours a day; having a consistent sleep schedule and wake time; taking a short "trek" in the morning, afternoon, and/or evening; burning a certain number of calories; and my favorite as an office-dweller, "Don't Be A Sitter," which commands you to get up and walk around during the day. You start out with access to only a few of these habits, but unlock more as you use the Band. It's easy to unlock them, though I wish there was an option to forgo the gamification aspect if you don't want to bother ramping up slowly.
At the moment, since the mobile apps haven't been released yet, you sync your Basis Band with your computer. Basis recommends you do this once a day, for about 15 minutes--that much charging should get you through without worrying about the Band's battery life. And you can comfortably wear the Basis Band while it's charging, as long as you're stationary (which I am, because I am a professional typist). The web app is excellent; it's super clear, very modern and attractive, easy to use and never overwhelming. Basis told me that their whole idea is to be "passive and automatic," and the web app is a perfect example. I love that the habits are front and center, with the stats on a second tab--the habits are what you care about. They're the next step up from the pure stats, a step none of the other fitness trackers can take. The raw data is cool, but looking at raw data is the kind of thing that quickly gets tiresome. The analysis is what keeps you going.
The web app also shows "insights," which is another way to see your progress. It's nicely encouraging; here's what it says about my amazing ability to wear the Basis Band on the regular: "Way to work your Wear It habit! You made your daily target 4 days so far. Keep on keepin' on; clearly it's paying off." Aw, thanks, Basis. But the "insights" aren't all that insightful; they're more like a text and chart presentation of my habits and stats. How does it come up with my sleep quality rating? What does it mean if my sleep is interrupted five times during the night? What habit should I add next? Why? But Basis views this product as more a software platform than a mere hardware fitness tracker, and says they'll update the app often.
The Basis Band is by far the best sleep monitor I've ever seen on a fitness tracker. (That's excepting gadgets like the Zeo, a brainwave scanner which can detect phases of sleep. But it requires strapping a headband to your skull, which is just the kind of "new unnatural life-habit" Basis is trying to avoid.) The Fitbit One has a "sleep tracker," but lord, is it awful. The Fitbit requires you to take the gadget out of your pants, put it in a wristband, press and hold a button right before you fall asleep (how is this even possible?), and then press it again as soon as you wake up. I managed this pain-in-the-ass exercise maybe twice in two weeks. But the Basis Band requires no extra work. It uses its optical blood flow sensor in concert with its accelerometer to measure your sleep--if you're stationary and your resting heart rate dips, you're asleep. The use of both those sensors allows it to figure out if your sleep was interrupted, even if you didn't get up from bed. And the web app gives your sleep a very simple rating, showing how long, how many times it was interrupted, your resting heart rate, and then your "quality" of sleep. Last night I scored a 94. Not sure if that was out of 100 or 1,000, but it was a good night's sleep.
The Basis Band is only sort of available. The company is small, and the Band is backordered, but they're definitely shipping out units, though you can't just go to the website and buy one right now. It's not totally ready; a very key element of the Basis Band will be the notification aspect, which I called for in this article. I think fitness trackers will only truly be useful when they can give real-time notifications and, well, think for themselves. The Basis Band will be able to, though I wasn't able to test that.
Soon, you'll wear your Basis Band all the time. It'll sync with your smartphone (Android first: Basis says that app will come by the end of March. I saw a demo of it at CES so I can confirm it's on its way. iOS is coming soon after that). If you have "take an afternoon trek" as one of your habits, and by 4PM you haven't done that, your Basis Band will communicate this laziness to your phone, which will give you an alert. "Hey, idiot, get up and walk around if you want to hit this goal." That is awesome.
The Basis Band does not track your eating habits. Fitbit and Jawbone do--very poorly. Damon Miller, Basis's director of marketing, told me that food tracking has a "high initial engagement but a quick drop-off," meaning people are excited to manually enter their food items and estimate calorie counts, but only at first. Then they stop, because it is a huge pain. I love that Basis doesn't even bother--it only does what it's good at, and doesn't add useless clutter. For a gadget that does an awful lot, it is nicely minimalist.
I am very particular about watches. I have small wrists, because I am a frail New York blogger-type, and so I cannot wear most watches, because the watch trend is for oversized showy watches and those make my wrists and hands look even smaller, which is embarrassing. I will not wear a Fitbit Flex or a Jawbone Up or a Nike Fuelband because I like my watches to look like watches, not moon-bracelet props from an aborted Lost in Space reboot. The Basis Band looks okay! It's not a small watch--the face is about a centimeter thick--but it's minimal and sleek, and to my relief, it is non-garish. That is a big compliment in the wearable-tech world!
And using the Basis was surprisingly seamless. It never locked up on me or did anything I didn't understand, it was immediately intuitive and easy to use, it's comfortable, it only needs charging every four days or so (and if you sync every day, it shouldn't even need that), the web app was totally clear and useful and I actually found myself looking forward to using it. It's a fitness band for the people; it's not a cheapie like the Fitbit or an in-your-face Xtreme gadget like the Fuelband. It's quiet and helpful and talks to me like I'm an adult, it looks nice and feels nice and doesn't demand more of me than I want to give it.
The flaws are minimal. The screen isn't great, being monotone and kind of dim and reflective. It is not a small watch; I think it would probably look silly on a small woman, for example. As the mobile app is not yet available, I can't test it, but at launch it won't perform any smartwatch-type functions, like the Pebble (displaying text messages and emails, that kind of thing). The watchband is not replaceable, so I hope it doesn't wear out as quickly as my watchbands usually do. (Correction: The watchband is replaceable, but is not a standard band.) But those are minor complaints.
The only other issue I found was that the habits, which are the bread and butter of the Basis Band, are a little limited, and you can't add your own. What if I wanted to add "go to the gym three times a week," or "bike to work twice a week," to the list? Surely that's possible with a smartphone app. It could also do a little more explaining; I appreciate the desire to keep all the data in the web app as approachable and simple as possible, but sometimes it can be a little mysterious.
The Basis is the most expensive fitness tracker I've tried, at $200, but I certainly would not recommend any of its competitors, which are often only slightly cheaper and are far, far less capable. It's a damned awesome product, and I'm going to keep wearing mine.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.