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Purrell Owens turns out to be an ideal candidate for the Nike FuelBand (Omar El Akkad/The Globe and Mail)
Purrell Owens turns out to be an ideal candidate for the Nike FuelBand (Omar El Akkad/The Globe and Mail)

Nike FuelBand: World-class cat monitor, so-so exercise tracker Add to ...

For a device that constantly sends you inspirational messages regardless of how miserably you’re doing, the Nike FuelBand can still be unusually cruel.

The FuelBand, which landed on our desks last week and is now available in Canada (as of October 30), is the latest entry in the world of fitness trackers. These devices promise to keep track of all kinds of metrics as you work out – calories burned, steps taken, jacks jumped, etc.

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And in the case of the FuelBand, Nike has added a new piece of data: the Fuel point. What is a Fuel point? It’s a measure of how active you are, so the more you move, the more Fuel points you gain. Another way of answering the question is to say that a Fuel point is a marketing phrase Nike just plain made up.

The FuelBand, which will set you back a cool $150, wraps around your wrist like a bracelet. It comes in black and two see-through flavours (black and white). The only one I’ve seen in Canada is the regular black one, which is made of a somewhat weird-smelling plastic rubber and generally feels like a much sturdier LiveStrong bracelet.

There’s only one button on the device, and clicking it repeatedly cycles through the Fuel points you’ve gained that day, calories burned, steps taken, and a digital time readout, so you can use the gadget as a watch. At midnight, everything resets.

Every once in a while (the battery on this thing lasts for days on end), you plug the FuelBand in to your computer to recharge. At that point, the wristband sends all the data it has accumulated to your Nike+ account, which logs all your activity. You can access your Nike+ account from any web-connected computer, or through a smartphone app.

The idea behind the FuelBand (and pretty much all fitness trackers) is to give you a kind of objective measure of how much activity you’re getting. The personal metrics subculture has sort of exploded over the past few years, mainly because it turns out there there are a lot of people out there who are stats geeks and also want to get in better shape. It also turns out there are a lot of people who want everyone to know exactly how much working out they’re doing, and want to share that data on Facebook, Twitter and just about anywhere else. Nike is trying to cash in on those demographics.

And if you do fit that description, you’re probably going to love the FuelBand. It’s easy to set up, easy to use and fairly bomb-proof when it comes to taking an exercise-related beating. If you aren’t part of that demographic, however, you might quickly get the sense that the FuelBand is often operating on blind guesswork.

In the first few days I tested the FuelBand, I put it through a whole host of workouts, from cardio machines to weights to rock-climbing. After every workout, I’d optimistically tap the button on the FuelBand, hoping to see some sort of progress commensurate to the workout. But unless I was running or flailing my arms wildly, it just never happened. After one depressing ab session that included an exercise called dragonflags that absolutely wrecks me every time, I came home and slumped on the couch beside my cat, only to discover that the whole workout had barely earned me a couple hundred Fuel points (a day’s work is between two and five thousand). I would have gotten more Fuel points playing with my cat.

Then it came to me. You know who has a neck roughly the same circumference as my wrist? That’s right, this cat.

A few seconds of disingenuous petting later, my cat was sporting a brand new piece of feline digital neckwear. And wouldn’t you know it, the FuelBand quickly determined that this animal showcased all the statistical hallmarks of a world-class athlete.

(For the purposes of this story, I’m temporarily renaming my cat Purrell Owens).

In about five minutes of chasing a plush bird dangling from a stick, Purrell racked up as many Fuel points as I’d accumulated from an hour-long gym workout. In many ways, this seemed accurate, given that he was jumping twice his body length and was generally more enthused about the whole bird-on-a-stick endeavour than I was about sleepwalking my way through half an hour on the elliptical machine while watching a Dragon’s Den rerun. But it also illustrates the FuelBand’s very bizarre view of exercise.

The FuelBand really, really likes wrist movement (or, if you’re a cat, neck movement), which is to be expected, given that it’s essentially a wrist-mounted accelerometer. In five minutes of light jogging, I picked up as many Fuel points as a 45-minute ab workout. Two-thirds of my daily Fuel points tend to come from walking to and from work (a six-kilometre round trip), as opposed to the furious cardio and rock-climbing sessions I have been cranking out over the past few days in the hope of meeting some arbitrary Fuel points goal I set when I first signed up for a FuelBand account. If you’re a runner or a basketball player or the guy who waves the checkered flag in a NASCAR race, you’re going to generate lots of Fuel points. If you’re a Dhalsim-level yoga guru or a spin class instructor, the FuelBand will likely be frustratingly blind to your kinetic output. Sit on a stationary bike for an hour, and as far as this device is concerned, you may as well have been sipping on a lard smoothie.

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