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Jawbone's Up3 Hardware Drags Down Smart Software

Such high hopes for the Jawbone Up3.

Lauren Goode

We need to talk about the Jawbone Up3.

The $180 Up3, for those who haven’t been following trends in wearable technology, is the new flagship activity-tracker from consumer electronics company Jawbone. It’s also the pricier, feature-packed sibling of the Jawbone Up2 ($100), which replaces Jawbone’s earlier Up24 band.

One of the most notable features about the new Up3 wristband is that it has bioimpedance sensors that interpret your resting heart rate, among other metrics. It’s the first Jawbone product to offer this; combined with its improved software, the company is striving to give a more holistic view of your health.

Lauren Goode

But this new product from Jawbone is hitting stores at a critical time for the company. The Up3 was announced last November, and was expected to ship shortly afterward. It didn’t. Jawbone says the delay was due to the company’s attempts to completely waterproof the new wristband, an effort it ultimately nixed.

In the meantime, rival Fitbit released a new line of wearable products — and then the Apple Watch came out. (I’d be curious to see the resting heart rates and sleep patterns of Jawbone execs during this time period.)

So, now that the Up3 is available, is it any good?

I was really looking forward to testing the Up3, because the earlier Up was one of my favorite activity-tracking wristbands. And the Up3 does offer a comprehensive look at your health, from step-counting to sleep-tracking to food intake to heart-rate measurements. Unfortunately, I’ve had some frustrating hardware experiences while wearing the Up3, with the occasional “Aha!” moment when it worked well.

My first Up3 loaner stopped working

My goal was to wear the Up3 wristband for a full month before making an assessment, because the company has insisted that the value of Up’s system becomes more evident over time. However! Within the first two weeks of wearing the silver Up3 band, my preproduction unit stopped working.

I happened to be traveling overseas during that time, so I couldn’t get a new band until the following week, which meant fewer testing days. One day I was all, “Look, I took 15,000 steps in Ho Chi Minh City!” and the next day I was emoji-sad-face about a wristband that simply wouldn’t sync with the Up app.

The new testing loaner I received was a black Up3, which has worked fine for the past seven days. Jawbone says the silver band caused issues for other early users, too, but that the models shipping directly to consumers should be fully functional.

The Up3 hardware has a mind of its own

The wristband itself is made of smooth rubber, with a plastic portion that’s touch-sensitive. This plastic part show a series of tiny lights as alerts: A blue moon signals that you’ve put the band into sleep mode, an orange “running man” means you’re in daytime/active mode, and a white message box lets you know that you have notifications within the app. It’s a stylish-looking wearable, more like a bracelet than a geek band or a prison shackle.

Some activity-tracking wristbands just “know” when you’ve gone to sleep, based on your activity levels. The Up3 requires you to manually switch between modes, and this is where things get tricky. To switch between modes, you’re supposed to tap twice on the plastic part of the band, then press firmly once.

But this didn’t always work, and I’d end up rapping on the top of the band like I was in some sort of international time-keeping competition. Sometimes, the Up3 had a mind of its own. Activities that bent my wrist even the slightest bit — pushing a grocery cart, pressing a stubborn button on the treadmill — would occasionally cause it to vibrate and toggle between daytime tracking and nighttime mode.

Lauren Goode

Jawbone says it’s continuing to adjust the sensitivity of the capacitive-touch top of the band. But it’s a delicate balance: It has to be responsive enough to switch modes easily, but not so sensitive that it reacts to touch when it shouldn’t.

Then there’s the clasp. Wearable companies that have opted to include heart-rate sensors in their bands have to ensure that they fit snugly against the wearer’s skin; otherwise, readings could be skewed. Jawbone’s earlier Up products were clasp-free, capped wristbands that coiled nicely around the wrist. The one-size-fits-all Up3 has a tiny metal slide-in clasp that requires the one-handed dexterity of a proctologist. I grew more adept at putting it on after a while, but even then, it wasn’t as easy as it should have been.

At least the Up3’s battery life was close to what the company has promised. Jawbone says you should get about a week’s worth of use on a full charge; during my testing, it lasted between six and seven days per charge.

Jawbone’s Up software is its saving grace

Over the past couple of years, Jawbone has really tried to differentiate itself from other digital health companies by making its software smart and accessible to users. The free Up mobile app runs on iOS and Android devices, and the Up3 syncs to this app wirelessly over Bluetooth. (By the way, that means that if you don’t have one of these mobile devices, you shouldn’t bother getting an Up band. Fitbit, on the other hand, works with iOS, Android and Windows, and also has a website users can log in to.)

One of the areas where the Up app stands out is in its sleep-tracking analysis. I can’t vouch for the scientific accuracy of Up’s sleep tracking because I wasn’t comparing it with data recorded in a sleep lab. But the app clearly breaks down the differences between REM sleep, light sleep and deep sleep, and the health effects of each.

It makes suggestions for what time you should go to bed, and, if you forget to toggle your band to sleep mode (as I sometimes did), the app guesses how long you slept and prompts you to confirm or correct the data.

Lauren Goode

The app also has a “Smart Coach” that feeds you interesting tidbits of health-related information, and a “Today I Will” feature that encourages you to make small, daily commitments — to get to bed earlier, drink more water, etc. Baby steps, right?

It did indeed take a few weeks for me to see where Jawbone is going with all this, and I was impressed when I did. After 14 hours of air travel and a glass (okay, a few glasses) of wine, the Up3 wristband measured an abnormally high resting heart rate the next morning. When I synced the wristband to the app, the app immediately suggested that I was dehydrated, and showed me a “Today I Will” promise to drink eight glasses of water.

Sure, I suppose my headache and overall lethargy could have also clued me in to this. But the fact that the Up3 had interpreted this made me pause and say, Oh? Tell me more.

That doesn’t mean the app is perfect. It sometimes takes a long time to wirelessly sync data upon opening the app. And the fact that logging food — especially combo foods like coffee with milk or toast with peanut butter — can require several taps within the app drove me bonkers. When it comes to food-logging, MyFitnessPal is still my go-to.

Up3 is not the best dedicated workout band

While Up3 measures your overall activity throughout the day, it’s not the best wristband for hardcore workout sessions, for a few reasons.

The heart-rate sensors currently don’t measure your heart rate during workouts, though Jawbone says this is in its long-term plans.

Also, it doesn’t have any sort of clock or timer, and there’s no way to start and stop recording a workout on the wristband itself. If the wristband senses a spike in your activity, the app will later ask you if you were active during that time frame, but you’ll have to manually enter in this information in the app.

Lauren Goode

Finally, Jawbone has data-sharing partnerships with a variety of other workout and health apps, like RunKeeper, MyFitnessPal and MapMyFitness, and works with IFTTT, which lets you concoct “recipes” for your Up device (“If I exceed 10,000 steps, send a tweet”). But there are some limitations around this. For example, I use Strava to record my workouts, but the Jawbone Up app only imports Strava workouts categorized as “running”; Strava won’t share cross-training, cycling or yoga workouts to the Up app.

Walk, don’t run, to buy Up3

I haven’t yet worn the Jawbone Up2, the company’s less-expensive, heart-rate-free activity-tracker. For some people, that band may be sufficient, and they’ll still get Smart Coach insights from the Up app. For others, a Fitbit may be the better choice — although I personally like the Jawbone Up app much better than Fitbit’s app.

This is all assuming, by the way, that you’re in the market for a step-and-sleep-tracking wearable. Plenty of people may not feel the need for an activity-tracking wristband.

Overall, Up3 still feels like a work in progress. That’s not uncommon for these products, actually. Lots of companies (including Apple) have released wearables with the promise of “more to come.” But what’s more concerning is that Jawbone is asking consumers for even more patience with its flagship product, while more and more competition is popping up around it.

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