Why Activity Trackers Still Trump Fitness Apps

Why Activity Trackers Still Trump Fitness Apps

A few days ago, my Fitbit Force wristband finally threw in the towel. Not even the little Bitbelts I'd bought could keep the band attached to the activity-tracking device it once supported.

So it seemed like a good time to go without a wearable and test a new activity-tracking app for the iPhone 5s, Endomondo Life. It's one of several similar apps you can use for free, if you have an iPhone 5s, thanks to its M7 motion coprocessor chip. The experiment made me wonder: With new wearable activity trackers coming out all the time, and Apple expected to announce one Sept. 9, do I really need such a device? Or is an app enough? More on that later.

Endomondo Life tracks daily activity using the M7 chip. When installed, Endomondo Life imports the last seven days' worth of activity recorded by the iPhone's chip. You don't have to log in or create an account to use the app, but you can if you want to.

As you go about your day, Endomondo Life tallies your steps and calculates the approximate distance you walked and calories burned. You don't need to stop or start the app. You can view stats by week or day, via charts within the app. The software lets you know when you reach your step goal.

Endomondo Life works as promised, and in my tests it caused little if any noticeable battery drain. It doesn't offer a leaderboard, however, to view friends' or other Life users' stats, and it doesn't provide an easy way to brag about your accomplishments on social media. If all you want is to track steps and calories with your iPhone, Endomondo Life is worth a download.

FitnessKeeper's Breeze, released earlier this summer and also free, does pretty much the same thing for iPhone 5s users, but it offers more features, including the ability to share your successes on Facebook, Twitter and RunKeeper. Breeze's interface is a bit slicker, too.

Moves is another free, iPhone 5s activity tracker app. But as of this writing, it hasn't been updated since May and has a low average customer rating. Fitbit's iOS app (free) lets you track daily steps without a Fitbit device, and it is easy to use.

You can also use an Android smartphone to track steps. Google added a low-power step-counting feature to Android 4.4 (KitKat), which is supported by Google's Nexus 5 and other smartphones. Free Android apps such as Moves and Runtastic Pedometer count your steps and provide feedback.

Back to my intial question: With all these free apps, do you need a Fitbit or other wearable device? I say yes, if you're truly serious about fitness tracking. Chances are you won't always have your iPhone on you -- when playing sports, for example. If you ask me, a step not logged in Fitbit is a step not worth taking.

Also, some wearable activity trackers, including Fitbit Flex ($100) and the new Runtastic Orbit ($120), offer a silent alarm, which is a delightfully low-impact way of awakening.

Apps like Endomondo Life are a great way to test the activity tracking waters. But the more you get into it, the more you're probably going to want a wearable -- especially if, as expected, Apple comes out with something that rocks your world.

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