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New Fuel for the New Year

Another wristband promising to keep you active. Is Nike's improved FuelBand SE enough?

It’s a new year. This is the year you’re going to be more active, right? Riiiight.

Maybe you’re looking into activity-tracking wristbands, because they’re all the rage. You don’t particularly care about tracking your sleep — you just want something to keep you moving. And you already use another health app, like MyFitnessPal, to jot down your food intake.

Oh, but you have a newer iPhone. Also, you like the Nike brand.

If you happen to fit this very detailed description, then keep reading. This is a review of the $150 Nike+ FuelBand SE, the company’s newest wristband that tracks your steps and performs a few other functions. Unlike the old Nike+ FuelBand, this one has Bluetooth low-energy and is more water-resistant.

Like many other sensor-filled activity-trackers, I’ve found that this one is incrementally better than the previous version. But if you don’t have an iPhone, or you do care about the sleep-tracking some competing wristbands promise, then I can tell you right off the bat this isn’t for you.

The Nike+ FuelBand SE — which stands for “special edition” — hit the market a couple months ago. I didn’t rush to review it then for two reasons: For one, I didn’t love the first FuelBand.

The second reason is that I’ve reviewed a bunch of activity-tracking devices over the past couple years, from Fitbits to the Jawbone Up24 to the lesser-known Larklife band, and have found that in order to measure their real effectiveness you have to use them for longer than a week or so. (In fact, if I had a work-related New Year’s resolution, it might be that: To spend a lot more time with each wearable product before giving my assessment of it.)

So I wanted to spend extra time with the new FuelBand, and have been using it on and off since the end of November. Last week, I finally gave it the real test: I used it every day during the consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, and regularly synced my data to the app.

The FuelBand SE has the same design as the first one, with some additional color accents. It’s an unbending, rubber-coated plastic band with a single button on top. Like most other activity trackers, it has an accelerometer. But unlike some others, it shows you your data right on the display. Press the button, and a row of colorful LED lights will flash the following info: “Fuel” count, calories burned, steps taken and time of day.

“Fuel” is determined by a proprietary Nike algorithm that factors in stuff like your daily movement and other metrics. At its worst, it’s known to be inconsistent. At its best, it’s just another number. For example, my daily step goal is 10,000, but the suggested daily Fuel goal is 3,000. Recently, in a conversation with another FuelBand wearer, I told him I had hit 8,000 that day and his eyes widened. Oh, right — I meant steps. He was asking about Fuel. You get the picture.

I was hoping the new FuelBand SE would offer a better design, but the wristband is still decidedly sporty-looking. It’s definitely not as chunky as the Fitbit Force, but it’s not the kind of band I’d want to wear with a dress, either, whereas I would with the Jawbone Up. Even though the FuelBand tells time, I still wore my nice watch to meetings last week.

The band snaps together firmly on the underside of the wrist. One end of the band acts as a USB-compatible charging prong. That means you don’t have to worry about losing some silly proprietary charging cord, which Jawbone Up and Fitbit products require.

The FuelBand SE syncs with a Nike+ iOS app, as well as a desktop app, which means you can view all your awesome activity data on either your iPhone, iPod or computer. But, as I mentioned earlier, if you’re an Android user, you’re out of luck.

Syncing requires a Bluetooth connection. One of the benefits of Bluetooth low-energy, also known as Bluetooth LE or Bluetooth 4.0, is that it offers a supposedly faster, more reliable connection. In my experience, this was true.

With the old FuelBand, syncing my data could be frustrating. I would have to press and hold down the band’s button each time I wanted to send my data to my phone. With the new FuelBand SE, I formally paired the wristband with my iPhone 5S just once, and after that my data synced every time I opened the Nike FuelBand app, provided that Bluetooth was activated on my phone.

Another benefit of Bluetooth LE is that it’s less of a drain on the device’s battery life. In my most recent test, I’ve been wearing the FuelBand SE for seven days straight without a charge. The app tells me the battery life is “low” right now, but it’s still kicking.

Let’s talk about the app. There are a handful of new features with the latest version of the Nike+ FuelBand app, but there were two that seemed most notable to me. The first is Sessions. This allows you to log a specific activity, instead of just reading your movement throughout the day. About to go for a jog? Press and hold the button on your band, wait for it to say “Start” and hit the pavement. Afterward, this will appear as a session within the app.

However, it still doesn’t allow you to get super granular. Jogging is different from yoga, which is different from swimming — and you can’t wear the band in the pool, anyway. In this way, it’s not unlike the Jawbone Up app, which allows you to record a workout (“Lifted Weights, Moderate Intensity”) but really isn’t that scientific.

The new FuelBand app also allows you to form Groups of friends who you want to work out with or compete with. So I was able to create a Group in the app called, “Let’s keep our resolutions!” with my friend Kristin, a SoulCycle fanatic, and set up a scenario for us to compete with one another. She still hasn’t accepted the challenge, probably a good thing, as she will undoubtedly beat me.

As I said, the Nike+ FuelBand SE is a definite improvement over the last FuelBand. But most other bands have Bluetooth LE, and they all claim to have the special sauce that will get us motivated. I was mildly more motivated by it last week, but it wasn’t a be-all wristband.

Based on what we saw at CES, more and more wearables will join the “arms” race this year (terrible pun intended). At the end of the day, they’re not going to pump your arms for you.

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