Pursuing the Perfect Pedometer

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Which pedometer is right for you? If you are looking to track, record, and motivate your daily physical activity and/or count steps taken, a pedometer is just the ticket. OutdoorGearLab once again leads the way in reviewing the best of the best; we scanned the market and chose nine of the best devices available. We tested under harsh outdoor conditions, but mainly in more pedestrian day-to-day applications, assessing each device for depth of data, data management, accuracy, ease of use, and portability. Read on to see which device will best fit in your life.

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Test Results and Ratings

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Analysis and Award Winners


Review by:

Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Friday
November 11, 2016

Best Overall Pedometer


Fitbit One


Editors' Choice Award

Price:   $100 online
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The Editors' Choice winner needs to be comprehensive, representative, and well-made. It needs to do all one would expect of the category, and then some. It needs to do so elegantly and cleanly. By these criteria, the FitBit One was an easy choice for our highest honor in the this particular category. It is the only product in the review that tracks steps, distance, and sleep while showing that information on both a smartphone app and on the device itself. Its accuracy is satisfactory, and the ease of use is well refined. The main drawback we found, as compared to the other products we assessed, is the need to periodically recharge the battery; the Fitbit One requires recharging about once a week. Beside the battery concern, which is admittedly minor, the FitBit One validates our overall scoring matrix by topping the charts. At first glance we liked it the most, and our scoring rubric brought it out on top. That is the way it should be.

Top Pick Award for Simplicity


CSX Simple Walking 3D


Top Pick Award

Price:   $17 at Amazon
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The market for pedometers is a broad one. There are technophiles living "the quantified life" that enjoy the process and technology of monitoring their activity as much as they like the health benefits of increasing that activity. On the other end are luddites that only want to know how much activity they have partaken in and how much more they should do. Those in this latter category will love the CSX product. The CSX Simple Walking 3D the simplest pedometer we have ever tested. It counts steps, displays that count in large print, and does nothing else. The count accumulates until you want to reset it. That is all. Setup is super easy, the device is the most accurate in our test, and, while we didn't test it long enough to verify this, the LCD display and watch battery will work together to provide months of service between battery replacement intervals.

Top Pick Award for Women


Bellabeat Leaf


Top Pick Award

Price:   $115 at Amazon


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The Bellabeat LEAF is both the most specialized product in our test, and the most feature-laden. As a product both branded to women and a product whose defining characteristic is menstruation tracking, it is as gender-specific as a pedometer can be. This specificity eliminates half the population. In this category, however, the LEAF brings the greatest breadth of data. In addition to step count and distance, fairly standard categories, the LEAF and associated app monitor sleep, breathing, and menstruation while prompting the practice of meditation.

Best Buy Award for Smartphone Users


Jawbone Up Move


Best Buy Award

Price:   $10 at Amazon
Sale - 80% Off


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The Jawbone UP Move is a pedometer in the neo-classic definition of the term. It counts steps and distance, monitors sleep, and syncs that information with a smartphone app for organization and monitoring. It does all this at less than half the price of our Editors' Choice product, with arguably a better battery situation. The main drawback of the UP Move is that it does not allow the user to view data on the device itself. The only way to see your actual step count or distance is to sync to your phone, open the app, and look at your screen. In a world increasingly reliant on frequent and lengthy screen time, it is nice when one has the option to not consult your phone at any moment. Our highest scoring product has fairly comprehensive data viewable on the device itself, while the Jawbone cuts this out to hit a lower price point. If phone reliance is fine with you, the Jawbone Up Move is a good way to save some bucks.

Best Buy Award for a Self-Contained Unit


Omron Alvita Optimized


Best Buy Award

Price:   $16 at Amazon
Sale - 41% Off


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We granted two Best Buy winners. In the market for a budget pedometer there are two distinct camps. There are those that will want absolute simplicity, and there are those that will want comprehensive function and data management. For the former, there is the Omron. The Omron Alvita Optimized is an entirely self-contained contender that tracks steps, distance, calories consumed, and a couple other categories. It stores this data for the most recent seven days. For many many users, this is all that is required and all that is desired. For the budget-conscious user looking for a comprehensive data collector that doesn't require a smartphone, we recommend the Omron.


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Analysis and Test Results


In this review we limited our choices to devices that count steps and distance and that clips to one's shoe or pocket, but there are many different types of electronics that can monitor distance and activity. Most people look to acquire this gadget for one of two primary reasons: some will be simply looking to track their daily activity or exercise while others are looking to motivate further daily motion. If you are physically active already, and interested in using a device to track that, your needs will be slightly different from he or she who is looking to use a device to inspire healthy habits. That being said, every device in our test will serve either of these types of user.

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The entire selection of 2016 tested Pedometers. From left to right: FitBit One, LEAF, Jawbone, CSX, 3DFitBud, Fitbit Zip, Misfit, Omron

Functions



Data Collection
If you are looking to quantify your daily physical activity, virtually any model will suffice. The most basic units count up the total number of steps taken in a day. Most store that data for at least a few days. The simplest products simply log steps until you reset. Next up, in terms of complication, are those that store days worth of data in the device, disposing of older data as new data is generated. If the user is to keep track of long term trends, the information must be manually transferred to a notebook of some sort. Other devices interface with specialized smartphone, computer, or web-based software that stores and organizes the information.

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Lead test editor Jediah Porter unboxing the tester collection. Like most modern electronics, these models all came with concise and easy instructions to get the user started.

Activity Motivation
These devices are also used for physical fitness motivation. Almost every person will benefit from more physical activity. And almost everyone is strapped for time and motivation. Tracking and inspiring movement in even the busiest schedule is an idea whose time has come. Busy travelers, professionals, and desk-jockeys everywhere are making the most of their days by setting and reaching activity goals with electronic activity monitors. We walk a great deal in our daily lives. Tracking that with an unobtrusive and easy to use device gives a starting point for anyone looking to increase their energy output. Some manufacturers are using social media, data correlation, and clever games to motivate and organize individuals and communities in exercising more.

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The sleep tracking screen of the Jawbone UP. The fact that it tracks sleep sets it apart from close competitor FitBit Zip Wireless.

Criteria for Evaluation



Data Management


All these devices collect reliable data. However, it is the way the information is viewed, saved, and shared that sets them apart from one another. On one end of the spectrum, the simplest and least expensive self-contained (as opposed to requiring a smartphone or computer) device in our test, the CSX Simple Walking 3D gathers accurate data, but stores only a running tally of steps, until the user resets the count. Next up, one of our Best Buy Award winners, the Omron Alvita, stores the most recent seven days' information and can't be backed up or transcribed except by hand. Many will like this simple interface. For the luddites out there, syncing their device to a smartphone is a step they don't need to take.

Others that have this simple on-device management in our review are the 3DFitBud Simple Step Counter with a special mention of the Striiv Smart. The Striiv can be used entirely on its own, with basically all the quantitative and motivational attributes available even without another device. One can also store the data and activate other features with the attendant computer application. The instrumentation in these simpler tools like the Omron or CSX isn't much different than that held in the spendier options; what is different is the interface and data collection.

The more expensive and higher-rated models in our test come equipped with very well thought out interactive apps or on-device screens. For sustained use and efficient integration of one into your daily life, an interactive and effective interface is crucial. For what it's worth, none of our testers maintained the organization and motivation to use a non-app-connected device for more than a week or so at a time. Both the Editors' Choice winning FitBit One and Best Buy Jawbone UP Move have excellent accompanying interfaces. The Bellabeat LEAF, also a Top Pick Award winner, has a very robust app data management system as well.

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The main "home" screen of the excellent and streamlined FitBit App.

Depth of Data


All the devices we tested count steps. It is in the title of the category; pedometer translates to "step counter." Our Top Pick CSX Simple Walking 3D and the 3DFitBud Simple Step Counter do exactly that, and nothing more. Additionally, most of the products collect other sorts of information as well. Steps are counted with an electronic "accelerometer" that simply senses movement. It is algorithmic digital processing that deduces steps from this movement. The device can further interpret that step information to deduce distance traveled. The rest of the products in our test estimate distance traveled.

The Omron, Fitbit Zip Wireless, and Striiv Smart all track steps and distance travelled, but use the accelerometer for nothing else. Beyond steps and distance, the accelerometer can be used to roughly quantify the quality of one's sleep. In our test, the Leaf, the Editors' Choice Fitbit One, the Jawbone UP, and the Misfit Flash all measure sleep quality. The most obscure use of the device's accelerometer is in the Bellabeat Leaf's meditation and breathing attributes. Basically, the associated app directs different meditation drills, and the Leaf device itself, placed on the chest, monitors and records the movement associated with breathing.

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A walk in the woods should be simple. Tracking your steps can be simple too. The CSX is a super simple tool for quantifying the number of steps taken. Period.

In addition to the data derived from the accelerometer, the apps associated with some of the devices can record various types of user-entered information. This attribute can used, for instance, to collect information about your food consumption to log alongside your activity information for calorie balance information and weight control. In terms of user-entered information, the LEAF is the big winner. We granted the Bellabeat product a Top Pick Award for the depth of data collected. In addition to the information derived from the accelerometer, the leaf directs meditation, breathing drills, and monitors a woman's menstrual cycles. Other products in our test, notably the Fitbit devices and the Jawbone UP Move, collect diet and mood information in their apps.

Accuracy


The sensor portion of a pedometer is relatively simple and reliable. In our testing, however, accuracy varied between the devices fairly significantly. The least accurate device had a margin of error many times greater than the most accurate. In a remarkable performance, the Top Pick CSX Simple Walking 3D had nearly perfect accuracy. This CSX product only counts steps (no distance measurement) but it logged close to perfect step counts in multiple quarter mile trials.

At the other end of the spectrum Misfit Flash Link and the Striiv Smart demonstrated up to 20 percent error, with an average deviation from the actual of about 10 percent each. Best Buy winner Omron Alvita logged high accuracy scores in both step count and distance, while the remainder of the pack fell between these obvious outliers. The Editors' Choice FitBit One deviated from the actual by an average of 4.3 percent, the Best Buy Jawbone Up Move scored 2.3 percent in the same tests, while Top Pick winning Bellabeat LEAF missed 5.5 percent of steps and/or distance.

If and when the user's goal is to track relative amounts of exercise and activity from day to day, the degree of error is hardly a factor. Provided the user uses the same device from one day to the next, the trends in his or her activity level will be clear. Therefore, degree of accuracy is not very important in overall consideration. It is important to note the limitations of these various devices, but the actual accuracy is not as important.
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Testing distance and step count on a foggy New York trail run.

Ease of Use


We evaluated each products ease of use in terms of the setup process, and then ongoing user-friendliness. You will most likely set up your pedometer just once, but some of the devices are much easier to get using than others. Notably, the Striiv took a long time to sync with its downloadable pc interface. The non-connecting devices (Omron, CSX, 3DFitBud) had easy-to-read instruction manuals and quick setup procedures.

The app-enabled products come with streamlined and efficient setup procedures. Nonetheless, there are inherently more steps with these products. Jawbone, Bellabeat, Misfit, and Fitbit are ever refining their setups, but one will always have to deal with apps and batteries etc. The CSX is the absolute simplest contender we have ever used. We granted it our Top Pick Award for exactly this reason. Activate the battery, and start walking. Reset the count whenever you want.

Every device in this review uses a miniaturized electronic accelerometer. An accelerometer simply detects movement. Each device uses a slightly different combination of sensors and algorithms to translate the movement of the device into a human's activity. All data displayed by or exported from the devices we tested is an indirect translation of the movement of the device. The translation of that movement is a function of the design and programming of the device as well as data entered by the user. In some cases, for instance, the user must enter his or her stride length. The device senses the movement of a single step, and distance is derived by multiplying the step count by the user's (or population's) average stride length. Additionally, some of the tested models come with accompanying smartphone and/or computer apps that can process and correlate user-entered data like subjective mood measure, food intake, body mass, etc.

Portability


The use of fitness equipment, especially pedometers, requires absolute convenience and simplicity. The product is of no use if the user doesn't have it on them. These tested devices, intended to be carried every hour of every day, must transport inconspicuously and handily. Portability scores and performance includes both the convenience and aesthetics of carting these around. One will carry these not just during exercise, but to meetings and dinners and events. All will work to some degree in the user's pants pocket, but none work if not on the body. Each person will have different wardrobe and comfort requirements and most workplace appropriate outfits can be configured to carry yet conceal a belt-mounted design.

Special mention must be made of the Striiv Smart. The Smart can be configured in a few different carry modes. The simplest version comes with a belt clip and key chain. The same device can be purchased with these same two options, as well as an arm band, soft rubbery case, and carabiner style clip. The Bellabeat LEAF earns its portability scores also with versatility. It comes equipped to be clipped, worn as a necklace, and worn on the wrist. It must be noted that in every configuration our test team found the LEAF to be visually pleasing. The clipped styles of the Jawbone, Misfit, Omron, and both Fitbits are utilitarian and compact. The ultra simple CSX and 3DFitBud tools are set up to be carried only in one's pocket. This simplicity of carry is not the liability you might expect. Testers across the board liked their smooth profiles and reasonable size.

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In clipped orientation, only the metal leaf design shows. We did have a little trouble with the integrity of the spring loading of the leaf clip. We were able to bend it back using included tools.

History


Biofeedback is a process that enables an individual to learn how to change physiological activity for the purposes of improving health and performance. These gadgets are biofeedback devices that tells a person how many steps they have taken or how far they have walked, usually within one day, with the intention of bringing more awareness to their level of activity. These differ from GPS-based motion tracking devices in that they are typically intended solely for walking.

A simple step counter uses a tiny spring-loaded pendulum to sense movement; it counts a step taken each time the pendulum swings. Sketches for a design were found among Leonardo da Vinci's notes. He apparently intended it to track how far troops moved each day. Many sources credit Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, with inventing the pedometer in the 1780s, although there is conflicting evidence that perhaps he merely imported the technology from France. He never applied for patents on any of his inventions, so who should receive the precise credit remains unknown. It is known that in 1780 a French watchmaker named Abraham-Louis Perrelet invented one that relied on the same technological developments as the self-winding watch, which he and others developed in the 1770s.

Widespread use of these products for biofeedback began in the 1960s in Japan when Y. Hatano sold and marketed the Manpo-kei, meaning "10,000 steps meter." Hatano provided research to prove his marketing claim that 10,000 daily steps was the perfect balance of activity for a healthy lifestyle. This round number, amounting to around five miles for the average person, persists to this day as the recommendation for "how much exercise is necessary to manage your weight" by the U.S. Surgeon General.

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The Misfit app is the most streamlined and simple of all those apps we tested.

The recent development of portable information devices has increased the accuracy and multi-functionality of modern designs. While the pendulum-based models are still in widespread use and are cheap, they can be inaccurate. This is exacerbated when converting steps taken to distance traveled or calories burned. Accelerometers are electronic devices that can sense movement in up to three dimensions. Smartphones contain accelerometers to orient the device for viewing the screen, and applications have been recently developed to use them as pedometers. In some cases these can be run without using the central CPU of the device, and thus don't drain the battery.
Jediah Porter
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