Saturday, July 13, 2013

Review of UP by Jawbone - Great Design, Dubious Efficacy

A few people have been asking me about this thing I've been wearing around my wrist for the past month. The Jawbone UP is "is a wristband and app that tracks how you sleep, move and eat—then helps you use that information to feel your best."

Here are my thoughts on how well it works.


My main interest was in understanding my sleep better. The UP claims to measure your sleep cycle, in terms of light sleep, deep sleep and waking. By knowing how well you sleep each night, you could figure out how daily activities such as diet and exercise contribute to your sleep. You can see the screenshot below.
It was quite addictive at first, and every morning I would plug the UP into my phone's headphone jack to download the previous night's sleep data. I would find out that I had woken up even though I didn't remember, and how much deep sleep I got. When my toddler asked me to help him put his diaper on in the middle of the night, the UP registered the disruption.

But after a while, I realised a problem. While I cannot verify light sleep or deep sleep, I certainly remembered some of the times I woke up. In the screenshot above, it was a particularly restless night and I woke up 3 times between 1 and 5 am, but the UP did not register any of it. If it can't tell when I woke up (and checked the time on my watch, which is situated right next to the band), how can I trust it to tell light from deep sleep?


The UP is supposed to be a very advanced pedometer, and for an urban lifestyle it helps you set a goal (e.g. 10,000 steps) to ensure you have sufficient activity. It also comes with a workout mode, and the first time I tried it on a 2.4km run, it measured 2.3km! I was suitably impressed, especially since this was the run I was using to calibrate the distance. Subsequently, it measured another 6km run as 11km... not so impressed. (This could be because I switched from a mid-foot running style to a fore-foot running style, changing the length of my stride and arm swing, but that's not an excuse!)


Tracking calorie intake is not easy, and the UP doesn't particularly stand out in this. Apps try to tackle the biggest problem, which is that a lot of the food you eat doesn't come labelled with nutritional values. They do this by loading preset items for you to select from. However, the two challenges that remain are firstly that portion sizes are not always accurate, and even for a given type of food the calorie count can vary greatly. Just take a look at the array of choices MyFitnessPal provides for something simple like a chocolate chip cookie or a local delight like char kway teow.

Unfortunately, UP doesn't come even close to MyFitnessPal in tracking diet. The interface is beautiful with lots of colourful photos, but ultimately you are on your own to figure out the nutritional value.


The UP is very well-designed, both the band and the app are a pleasure to use. The band is waterproof and inconspicuous, the battery lasts at least a week and it is almost effortless. The app is well-designed and easy to use. My only issue is that it is not particularly useful. I'm not sure why the sleep and movement measures are so inaccurate, because Jawbone keeps the technology behind it tightly under wraps. So the only way to try it is to buy it - and I'm afraid I can't recommend others to do so.