If you haven’t started quantifying yourself by this point, you’re probably feeling a little self conscious. How many steps have you taken today? Calories burned? Glasses of water drunk; what’s your resting heart rate compared to peak activity, how many hours of sleep did you get last night, huh? HUH?! Jesus, man, we have the technology, what are you waiting for?!
Quantified Self enthusiasts (let’s call them “Quanties”) like to break down their most mundane habits – eating, sleeping, moving – into data that can be examined in pursuit of an improved self. This was initially the provence of varsity-level spreadsheet jockeys who not only enjoyed data input but were disciplined enough to do things like write down how many times they woke up during the night. Suggestions that perhaps they’d sleep better if they didn’t get up to write down that they had woken up were generally ignored.
For those looking to understand and influence their daily activity at a granular level, it is the best device we’ve seen of its kind.
The guts of these devices are all somewhat similar. They utilize accelerometers to identify motion that they interpret into steps, which they then use to draw broad conclusions about your daily activity level. The devices distinguish themselves through design – Jawbone’s skeletal textures versus Fitbit’s minimalist strap versus Nike’s chunky status-symbol FuelBand – and math. Those accelerometers feed proprietary algorithms tasked with making sure you don’t get undue credit for things like typing or hand shaking, while you are acknowledged for a long walk that you took with your hand in your pocket. That info is then fed through more proprietary algorithms to determine your calories burned or, in some cases, vaguely defined metrics like Nike’s “Fuel Points.” There’s also the Web- and app-based interfaces, which handle the logging and display of all this info in various ways.
All of which brings us to the new Basis B1 ($200), arguably the first entrant into the field that brings some new (old) tech to the table. What is that tech, and how does it stack up to its competitors? Let’s find out.
Features and design
The B1 benefits aesthetically from the current 80s retro trend (seriously – have you heard the new Daft Punk album?); the digital readout has a chunky 8-bit style that will be comforting to those of us who grew up in an Atari 2600 world and funky to those who didn’t. Then again, the fact that I’m aware of retro 80s being a “thing” that’s “happening” probably means it’s three quarters over, so you better get your Basis now if you want to benefit from it.
The chunky theme extends to the watch itself. The removable rubber band (currently available in white or black, as well as a few interesting artistic collaborations) is wide and thick, giving it a more substantial feel than other wrist-born fitness trackers. The body of the watch is really thick – almost uncomfortably so, as it frequently caught on my shirt cuffs and the sleeves of my jackets. There’s a reason for that thickness, though: It accommodates the aforementioned new (old) tech.
Most of the B1’s competitors pack little beyond accelerometers and Bluetooth capabilities. The B1 carries a significantly heftier tool belt, including sensors that track skin temperature, perspiration, and heart rate. That last one accounts for one of the B1’s cooler features: the underside of the watch includes an optical sensor flanked by two flashing green LEDs. Practically, these function similar to the heart rate monitors doctors slide over the tip of your finger (hence the tech not being “new”); the LEDs illuminate capillaries, allowing the sensor to calculate pulse and then heart rate. Aesthetically, it looks like a tiny Eye of Sauron, staring into your soul and calculating how lazy you’ve been.
On the front of the watch, there are four small buttons, one on each corner of the face. They serve to illuminate the screen, switch the view from Time to Date, and step up or down through the data available on the wrist: steps, calories burned, and heart rate. This is fairly limited information, but don’t be deterred. The four cryptic-looking dents on the side of the watch are an entry point to way, way more info. These are the contact points for the USB dongle that serves as a charger and a method of syncing the device to your profile on basis.com. There’s also an Android app that syncs via Bluetooth.
It’s within your basis.com profile that you’ll reap the rewards of all the extra sensors on the watch. The portrait of your activity is impressive, and you can discover what your skin temperature and perspiration, calories burned, and heart rate was over the course of a given day, down to the minute. This should result in simple information overload, but the visual design on the various views Basis breaks the data into makes it all surprisingly easy to digest. The longer you spend on the site, the more you’ll begin to appreciate that the watch is actually the peripheral in this system; it’s the information itself that’s the real product.
Performance and use
Aside from the aforementioned wardrobe malfunctions, the watch performs well in the wild. One of the metrics the B1 tracks is how consistently it’s worn, which encourages you to keep it on. To its credit, doing so results in a surprisingly clear picture of your day. While many of its competitors half-step toward sleep tracking, the B1’s Eye of Sauron allows it to actually track the quality your sleep because tossing and turning (or really bad dreams) elevate heart rates. It’s water resistant enough to shower with, and you can track with precision the exact moment an ill-time toilet flush shot your shower temperature down 15 degrees by seeing your corresponding heart rate spike.
The folks at Basis don’t consider the B1 a fitness tracker – it’s designed for everyday use, as opposed to precision training data – and real-time display of the heart rate on the watch is easily interrupted by excessive movement. But we wore it on our daily bicycle commute and found the heart rate data logged to our profile to be in line with other heart rate monitors we’ve used.
It looks like a tiny Eye of Sauron, staring into your soul and calculating how lazy you’ve been.
Like we said, the accelerometers used to calculate steps in all of these fitness trackers are similar, so it’s the algorithms, which interpret them, that really matter. Basis claims the B1 measures steps conservatively, and in side-by-side testing with a FitBit Flex, that proved to be an understatement. The Flex routinely double or even triple counted our steps, while the B1 normally undercounted by 5-10 steps per block. We were particularly amused keeping track one morning when we changed from our commuter kit to our office clothes and scored nearly 350 steps on the Flex while the B1 counted none. It wasn’t unusual, at the end of the day, to be 2500 or even 3000 steps further ahead on the Flex – no small number when the default steps daily goal on both devices is 10,000.
We’re a little less confident with the accuracy of the third metric we have at our wrist with the B1: calories. During a month of testing, we failed to achieve our set goal of 2250 calories burned in a day even once. This, despite online calorie calculators usually gauging our calories burned around 2500. It’s possible that we’re just projecting disappointment in ourselves, however, since we actually gained a few pounds during testing.
Gaining a few pounds is not something we would normally notice (we try to start each day avoiding a shot of self-loathing by not stepping on a scale), but Basis’s Web interface is designed to make it difficult to resist engaging with all this data. While the aforementioned granular info is readily available under “Data,” the default landing page is entitled “My Habits,” which displays goals you set for yourself on a series of tiles that display your daily progress.
After setting up a profile with Basis, you’re prompted to select three “Habits” with names like “Wear It,” “Move It,” and “Get More Sleep.” You set goals for each habit – wear the B1 for 12 hours a day, be active for 45 minutes a day, sleep eight hours – and accrue points as you reach your goals, which in turn unlocks new habit tiles. Pretty soon, you’re setting goals for calories burned, consistent sleep or wake up times, and the amount of time you spend moving around during the day.
The habits information, as well as a third data view called “Insights,” which provides a condensed view of each day and contextualizes it within your progress during a given week, is readily available through Bluetooth pairing with Basis’s mobile app. The more granular “Data” view is not visible here. The app is currently only on Android, although an iOS version is said to be coming soon. Our early version of this app was buggy and failed to consistently sync with our B1, an issue Basis support suspected may have been due to a hardware fault resulting in insufficient water resistance. We had far better luck syncing with the dongle and using the Web interface, which also charges the battery. Battery life ranged from 7 days at first to between 4-5 days after several months use.
The Basis’s gamification of activity is clearly – but cleverly – skewed toward breaking the many mundane bad habits so many of us tolerate, which, over time, can have real impacts on our quality of life. Doctors have been saying for years that calm and consistent sleep patterns, regular breaks from our self-imposed computer hypnosis, and a brisk daily walk are keystones to long-term health, but the fact that they keep having to tell us means we’re not listening.
The current deluge in fitness technology and quantified self gadgetry masks the fact that most of these devices are distinguished more by their style than their substance. The Basis B1 should be commended for its robust onboard tech and the impressive amount of data it makes accessible. Fitness freaks should probably seek out hardware more specific to their activities, but for those looking to understand and influence their daily activity at a granular level, the Basis is the best device of its kind that we’ve seen.
We eventually responded to Basis’s gamification strategy the way we respond to most games – by getting bored of it – but we don’t consider this a problem with the B1. Rather, we feel it speaks more to limits of the quantified self concept. Ultimately, what we learned from our time with the B1 is that we don’t walk enough or get enough sleep, and that our normal level of exercise isn’t enough to overtake the fact that we probably eat and drink too much. None of this was a revelation, but now we have vivid, exhausting evidence to back it up.
That our B1 didn’t inspire us to change isn’t Basis’s fault; it’s our own. Maybe we’re just not ready to join the Quanties.
- Onboard heart monitor
- Vast and varied data sets
- Impressive online profiles
- Accurate step and activity calculation
- Sort of hip looking (for now)
- No iPhone app
- App syncing issues
- May not work for fitness enthusiasts
- Bulky, can get stuck on your cuffs and clothing