Will the Apple Watch Track Fitness Accurately?

I have repeatedly highlighted how inaccurate fitness trackers can be, showing how wrist-worn devices have much worse accuracy than devices you wear on your belt, such as old-fashioned pedometers. It’s surprising that this more people don’t complain about this. I think most people never have the opportunity to compare two devices, to see how inaccurate one of them can be. I’ve compared the Fitbit One to a number of devices – such as the grossly inaccurate Fitbit Charge – and found that the One is the most accurate fitness tracker I’ve tried, simply because it is worn like a pedometer.

This isn’t a simple problem. If you want to wear a device on your wrist, you have to accept that some of your movements will be interpreted as steps. At one point, I found that merely tying my shoes while wearing the Fitbit Charge led to 20 steps being counted.

Nike realized this by using “Nike+ Fuel,” rather than counting steps. What’s most important in tracking activity is trends; were you more active today than yesterday? Did you attain your activity goal? Nike+ Fuel was designed to measure overall activity, since steps are not the only metric that should be counted. (Of course, even movement is not the only metric worth counting; you don’t move a lot when you work out with weights, yet you burn a lot of calories.) Personally, I think steps are a useful metric, because my exercise of choice is walking. So I want to continue to count steps no matter what.

Also, not all steps are equal. Steps on a slow treadmill desk are in no way equivalent to steps you make when walking briskly, or when running. Lots of people use treadmill desks, thinking that clocking 20,000 steps a day is somehow worth 20,000 steps of walking or running. While standing for a long time can be beneficial, treadmill desks, due to their unnatural pace, can cause injury, and even make you less productive, and less accurate in your work.

Apple will come under scrutiny about the accuracy of the Apple Watch. Unlike Fitbit, who offered no explanation when I contacted the company about how inaccurate the Fitbit Charge is, Apple has much more at stake.

Will Apple be able to make the Apple Watch more accurate? I think they will, and I have a feeling that they’re going to couple the Apple Watch and the iPhone to count steps and activity much better than other devices. The Apple Watch will be able to count steps without the iPhone, but when you have the iPhone in your pocket, it’s nearly as accurate as a pedometer. I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple has figured out a way to compare your activity on both devices, using the iPhone as the benchmark, so movements made with the watch alone are counted more precisely.

Apple watch activityThe other possibility is that, while the iPhone can count steps, the Apple Watch will not present this metric to users. The Activity app, on the Apple Watch, only displays three metrics: Move, Exercise, and Stand. Move is a calorie-based count of your activity (which, while probably linked to a step count, since it’s called “Move,” is probably more than that. Exercise is a time-based count of activity “at the level of a brisk walk or above.” And Stand is the amount of time you stand during the day. Ignoring steps as the default metric may mean that Apple doesn’t have to worry about accuracy.

Yet that brings up another question: how much activity will get recorded by wrist movements? We’ll find out in a month, but, for now, I’m curious as to whether Apple has solved the problem of accurate fitness tracking.