U.S. Markets open in 8 hrs 1 min

Fitbit's latest fitness tracker lets you monitor your kids

David Pogue
Tech Critic
Source: Fitbit

The government’s latest research shows that 18.5% of American children age 2-19 are now obese, a number that has more than tripled since the 1970s.

Why? You name it. Bigger portion sizes, daily soft drinks, more junk food, families eating out more often, ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup, increased stress—and, towering over all of it, shocking inactivity. Our kids aren’t out riding their bikes and playing stickball anymore; they’re on the couch on their phones or laptops.

Fitbit’s new wristband thinks it can help: The Fitbit Ace ($100). It’s the company’s (FIT) first fitness and sleep tracker for kids, 8 years and older.

The new Fitbit Ace, for kids 8 and up, comes in blue or purple.

Alta Minus

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Fitbit didn’t put a lot of effort into developing the Ace. It’s the Fitbit Alta with some features stripped away.

It’s not even based on the Alta HR, which is a fantastic tracker that monitors your pulse. Instead, it’s based on the Alta, which came out in early 2016 and doesn’t have a heart monitor.

The Ace’s silicone band is really small–smaller than even the Alta’s Small band, in readiness for younger wrists. My 13-year-old guinea pig—I mean son—is at the older range of the Ace’s intended audience, so he had to use the second-to-last hole on the band, and several buyers on Amazon complain that it’s too small even for their 6- or 8-year-olds.

Of course, we could, if we wanted, replace the band with any Alta band, which are available on Amazon for $6 and up, in dozens of styles, materials, and colors.

Some of the third-party band options for the Alta (and Ace) family.

As on other Fitbit bands, the Ace’s screen is generally dark. You awaken it either by raising your wrist, as though to check the time, or by giving it a couple of firm taps. Additional taps scroll through the different displays: Time, step count, active minutes, and so on.

The Ace’s charger is a spring-loaded clamp at the end of a USB cable. The battery lasts about five days on a charge. The Ace is fine to wear in the shower, but it’s not built to withstand swimming.

Features

Many of the Ace’s software features are identical to what’s on other Fitbit models:

  • A choice of clock-face displays—some horizontal, some vertical, with various amounts of fitness data on the same screen.
  • Little buzzes and animations when you reach your step-count goal for the day (the Ace suggests 10,000 a day for children).
  • Trophy graphics, badges, and congratulations in the app when you hit your goals.
  • Step-count challenges among family members.
  • Silent (vibrating) alarms to wake you in the morning.
  • Phone-call alerts (the caller’s name or number scrolls across the screen).
  • Bedtime reminder alerts.
  • App-to-app cheers, taunts, and typed messages among family members.
  • Reminders to move. If you haven’t stirred in 50 minutes, the Ace can offer a nudge to get in 250 steps before the hour’s up. (You can set that feature to shut up during school hours.) A graph in the app shows you how many of today’s hours you succeeded in moving at least those 250 steps.

Note, however, what is not available on the Ace:

  • Notifications of text messages. Yep, it notifies you only of phone calls. Weird.
  • Without heart-rate tracking, the Ace can’t display your sleep cycles, as all current grownup Fitbits do—only the actual hours you were asleep or restless. (My son felt ripped off by the 2016-era simplicity of the sleep graphs.)
  • Automatic exercise recognition. Grownup Fitbits detect when you’re running, riding your bike, or whatever, and record these activities automatically.
  • A record of how many miles you’ve walked.
  • An option to track your weight. (Other Fitbits let you enter your weight either manually or automatically if you have one of Fitbit’s wireless scales.)
  • An option to record your food intake.
  • Calories burned.

Fitbit has omitted all of that calorie-and-weight stuff on purpose, presumably to avoid giving kids a body-image complex at such a young age. These options appear automatically in the app when your kid turns 13.

There are also a couple of features that Fitbit says are coming soon:

  • The option to add friends (outside your family) to your kid’s circle of competitors and taunters. You, the wise parent, must approve each one.
  • A five-day family step-count battle option.

Kid view

One other big-ticket advantage of the Ace: You, the parent, can see your kid’s data in real time, on your own phone. In fact, in your Fitbit app, you can fully transform your screen into Kid View, so that you see exactly what your kid sees. Here’s a comparison of what an adult might see, versus the Kid View:

The normal adult dashboard (left) shows much more information that the kid’s version.

I’ve found it fascinating to observe my seventh grader’s activity and sleep tallies. I had no idea how much activity he actually got when he was at school, for example.

Once you’ve peeked in on the youngster’s progress, though, you run face-first into one of Fitbit’s most embarrassing software designs. It takes nine steps to bring back your own Fitbit dashboard:

  1. Tap the little Account button.
  2. Hit Switch to Parent View
  3. Hit Switch to Parent View again to confirm
  4. Enter your Fitbit account password
  5. Hit Confirm
  6. On the next screen, you’re asked if you want to create a new account (huh!?) or log in. Hit Log In
  7. Enter your Fitbit account email address
  8. Enter your Fitbit account password again
  9. Hit Log In

I mean, what the heck? I’ve seen bank accounts with less security. What’s the worry—that your youngster is going to get hold of your phone and (gasp) look up how you slept last night?

“We understand the user experience can be improved,” a Fitbit rep bravely admits. An upcoming software update will radically shorten that obstacle course. You’ll tap one button and then enter your password once to return to your own dashboard.

Aces away

$100 seems expensive for the Fitbit Ace—especially when the actual Alta, on which it’s based, costs only $30 more and adds features like calendar and text-message alerts and exercise detection. (The Alta HR adds heart-rate tracking and costs $150.)

Not every middle-schooler is going to be thrilled about the gift of a Fitbit, either. Yours might find that it carries a stigma; might find it creepy that you can peek at its data remotely; or might even get teased. (“Oh, so your parents think you’re fat, huh?”)

On the other hand, it’s absolutely certain that other kids will love it. A lot of children will find themselves motivated to move more and sleep better, just as Fitbit intends. They may even feel pride at being allowed to wear a Fitbit that looks just like their older family members’ bands.

Fitbit hopes that children, too, will be inspired to move more.

(There are other kid fitness bands, by the way. But virtually all of them are chunky, cheap, and childish. What’s nice about the Ace is that it’s just as sleek, slim, and high-tech as the one your kids see you wearing.)

The child-obesity crisis is real, and getting worse; our children aren’t moving much. The Fitbit Ace isn’t the solution. But for parents who can afford it, it’s a solution—and for kids who like wearing it, it’s a step count in the right direction.

David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, welcomes non-toxic comments in the comments below. On the web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. You can sign up to get his stuff by email, here.  

Read more:

Your old video games could be worth serious cash

Facebook employee morale is low

Why tech giants will love the Supreme Court’s ruling for digital privacy

Apple has new features to limit your phone addiction