Jeff's Guide to Personal Health Trackers
July 2014

For a few years now, I've been using technology to help myself lose weight and to be healthier.  I have used a fitbit, basis watch, Samsung gear watches, heart rate monitors, blood pressure monitors, wireless scales, and numerous apps.  At this point I have a good sense of what works, and what's a gimmick.  Now that both Apple and Google have both introduced health platforms, and the industry is buzzing over the possibilities, I thought I would share my experience to put a lot of the hype into perspective.  Based on the opinion pieces and reviews I have read, a lot of perspective is needed.  Not to worry, I'm here to help.

Keep in mind that I am writing this from the perspective of a relatively healthy individual.  A person with health complications will have different needs, potentially negating my comments below.

Jeff's Guide to Electronic Health Stuff

Let's start with the hardware, and focus on what I consider to be helpful.

Heart Rate Monitors (HRM)
There's no better way to measure your cardiovascular fitness than to use a heart rate monitor.  Also, there's no better way to count the calories you are expending at exercise.  I'd say an HRM is a must, but chest straps are a pain in the ass.  Not to worry.  I've been using the Mio Alpha wrist HRM for most of this year, and it works great.  Not perfect, mind you, but generally consistent and reliable.  Beware of devices with a HRM add-on, because they don't do as well as a dedicated HRM.

Wireless Scale
I'm a big proponent of weighing-in everyday, and I have a Withings Wireless Scale to log my weigh-ins effortlessly.  This allows me to see trends in my weight that can go missed with a more casual approach to monitoring weight.  It may sound silly, but I see this as a must have.  Yes, any scale can measure your weight, but the tracking is invaluable, and who has time to manually track each weigh-in?  With a wireless scale, you don't have to, and the results can often tie in to other apps.

Tracking steps is a great proxy for your movement and exercise for a given day.  And there's a bonus here: any pedometer will do.  Don't sweat the accuracy, it's consistency that matters, and every pedometer I've ever used has been consistent.  Right now I use my gear watch, and that works fine for me.  A fitbit is better as you can sink up your activity and incorporate that into various apps.  But I find recording steps less valuable than simply looking at your results midday and then deciding to try to walk a bit more, etc.

So that's the good stuff.  Here's stuff that's nice to have, but actually not that useful.

Sleep Trackers
I have owned two, the fitbit and the basis watch.  The latter was much more accurate in terms of when I started to sleep and when I woke up.  But in both cases, there just isn't much you can do with the information.  You know now if you don't sleep well, and the answers aren't that complicated.  You either need to dedicate more time to sleeping more, or solve the conditions which are causing you trouble such as being too hot, or having too much stress.  Measuring your sleep won't give you any additional useful advice, at least to the extent that these devices can measure your rest.  I would avoid this.

Monitoring Heart Rate Outside of Exercise
As with the sleep monitors, this information provides interesting but ultimately useless data.  What can you possibly do with the results?  If your pulse is too high, then you can find that out by checking your blood pressure.  You don't need to monitor your pulse hour by hour, or minute by minute.  It sounds great, but trust me, the information you get is worthless.

Blood Pressure Monitors
Resting heart rates and blood pressure do not change dramatically from day to day, assuming you are reasonably healthy.  I have a blood pressure monitor, and I like to track my stats, but much like before, there's nothing I can do with the information but compile it.  If you are curious about your BP, just go to a store that has a public monitor and that will give you all the information you need for a while.  No need to buy one of these.

Enough With the Hardware, Let's Talk Apps!

Actually let's not.  I could write a book with all the apps I've used.  There are so many out there, and a lot of them do the same things as the others, that in a lot of cases the app you use comes down to preference and the types of exercise that you do.

Having said that, I do have an app to recommend.  Digifit is a fantastic app that also has a web portal (Digifit is the company, the name of the apps vary a bit, but are available on both Apple and Android).  Why do I recommend it?  For the following reasons:

"    It can incorporate data from certain other health trackers such as my HRM watch and Withings scale.
"    It provides a great aggregation of my health data, and has a calendar to display the work outs, weigh-ins, and HRM recordings that I have done.
"    It can show you your heart rate performance during exercise, illustrating where your effort falls into various intensity bands.
"    The use of a HRM comes with a one-time fee, where with other apps a ongoing subscription is required.
"    You can post the results of a work out onto social media such as Facebook.
"    You can map your exercise using your phone's GPS.  Maps and graphs include elevation and heart rate data to really tell a story about your work-out.

If you're into calorie counting, I highly recommend MyFitnessPal, but I won't go into that now.

So that's my two cents on this health thing.  Here's a final tip.  We're going to hear a lot about sensors and tracking things we have no idea about today.  Beware.  Most of what we're going to hear is how to track things we can't do anything about.  Health data is interesting, but before you buy a shiny new gadget, ask yourself this question:  "What can I do with the data I will be collecting?"  In many cases, as evidenced in my examples above, the answer is: "nothing".  The basics you need are already out there.  It's unlikely we'll be seeing anything as useful as a HRM or pedometer any time soon.

Surface Pro 3: Part Laptop, Part Tablet, All Slamma Jamma
August 2014

For a few years now, Microsoft has been touting its Surface Line of hybrid tablet/laptop devices.  They've done this through a series of simply terrible commercials where users dance around in choreographed fashion, often balancing the device in the process.  It's eye catching, certainly, but in the wrong kind of way.  Those adverts, coupled with commentary of the devices, caused me to steer clear of ever wanting one.  But through a sequence of events that I won't describe here, I have ended up owning a Surface Pro 3 device.  And guess what, I love it.

I'm going to break this review into two pieces, because the discussion of the device changes dramatically depending on how it is used.  Let's start looking at it as a laptop computer.

Part Laptop

The Surface Pro series are actually full blown computers.  They have computer grade processors and a full version of Windows.  Anything you can do on a normal computer, you can do on this device.  It's not a gaming rig, but then again, few computers are.  For web browsing, office work, and doing finances, this is a fully functional machine.

The screen is 12 inches to the diagonal, which places it in the range of many of today's top notebook computers.  The Surface does not come with a keyboard, but it would be silly not to buy one, even though a type keyboard costs a full $130.  It's worth it though.  This is a full keyboard that also serves as a cover for the screen when not in use.  They keys are comfortable to type on, and the touchpad never gets in the way.  The keyboard has a little give, but is generally quite sturdy, and can be deployed in an angled fashion unlike laptops that are laid out flat.  All of this lends to a comfortable typing experience without weighting the device down.  In fact, the tablet and keyboard combined weigh over two pounds, -- another advantage over traditional notebook computers.

There is a USB port for connecting devices like a mouse.  However, with touchscreen capability, and the type cover track pad, using a mouse isn't required.

Every surface device has a kickstand, and the Pro 3's is the best ever.  You can set the screen to pretty much any angle you want.  You would think the kickstand might dig into your legs when setting it on your lap, but it doesn't.  Everything about the computer's hardware screams first class.  It had better given the price, but we'll get to that later.

This is a computer that is designed for mobile work.  In sleep mode, it takes 25 seconds of booting until you are ready to go, including time to enter a password.  Shutting the device down is even faster; either close the type cover or press the power button, and then retract the kickstand.  That's it.  In 3 seconds this computer is ready to be stowed away.  Easy on, easy off, easy to carry, there just isn't much to dislike about this device as a laptop.

With an additional dock, you can also use the Surface as a desktop replacement.  I'm not sure if I would go that far.  Desktop setups are fairly cheap and can provide more power, but it's good to know the option is there if needed.  The only real limitation of the Surface Pro 3 as a computer, from a performance point of view, is around high-end gaming.  The graphics prowess is simply limited on this device.  But outside of that, I was able to run Microsoft Office, do computer aided design via the Lego Design Drawer tool, conduct web browsing, play mobile game apps, and watch Netflix with no performance issues at all.

Part Tablet

The Surface Pro 3 as a tablet is a much more mixed proposition.  On one hand, the screen size is great.  Twelve inches is fantastic for watching videos, and the screen is sharp and pleasant to look at.  A great screen is critical for a good tablet, but so is weight.  Without the type cover, the Surface Pro 3 is 1.75 pounds.  For what it is, that's an incredible achievement, but while holding it with one hand you easily notice the weight.  Two handed operation is fine, but I like to read using one hand, and sometimes the weight of the device gets in the way of doing that comfortably.

Then there is the app store.  In order of size, iOS has the biggest store, Android is next, and Windows comes in third.  The difference between the selection between iOS and Android is quite small, with casual gaming more prominent in the former.  The gap between Android and Windows is fairly pronounced, so you can't always find apps for Windows that you can find on the other two systems.  Zite is an example of this.  But for the most part, the big names you expect to see in any app store are present. 

It's worth noting that the type cover is connected by magnets and can be removed easily with minimal fuss, while the chances of it dropping off accidentally are virtually zero.  Windows 8 features apps fairly well, and on the sharp large screen games like Angry Birds really come alive.  Finally, the Surface 3 comes with a nicely sized pen to take notes on the tablet.  This is leap forward from styluses that you need to use with most Apple and Android tablets, and is a huge win for the device.  It even features palm rejection where you can place your hand on the screen to rest without registering an input.  Nice.

Ultimately though, the weight and app store make the Surface Pro 3's foray into tablet space a somewhat limiting one.  The gaps in the apps store are forgivable if the device were easy to hold in one hand, but the combination of issues are tough to ignore.

Things that Impact Both Forms

The battery life of the device is really mixed.  I've had sessions where I was pacing for over 9 hours of use, and another session where I was pacing for just under 5 hours of use.  The differences in battery drain seem to stem from the type of programs or applications I used.  Microsoft Office, web browsing, and reading apps took little battery power, while the Lego Design Drawer and a few games sucked a lot more juice.  In sleep mode, the device seems to last around a week before a recharge is needed.

Windows 8.1 makes sense on a tablet and notebook computer.  I have few complaints about the operating system.  The transition from Metro interface to desktop interface can be slightly jarring though.  It's not always clear which mode you need to be in to close a program, for example, but these are minor drawbacks.  Windows 8.1 is a nice change of pace from iOS and Android.  I wouldn't say Windows is better than either of its competitors, but I wouldn't call it worse either.

Finally, a conversation about the Surface Pro 3 would not be complete unless we talked about the price.  Yes, this is an expensive piece of equipment.  The device I am reviewing costs over $1100 when you throw in the essential type cover keyboard.  Generally, the price is consistent, albeit a bit more expensive, than high end comparable notebook computers like the Macbook Air.  Given the versatility of the device, the price seems justified, but you would need to take advantage of that versatility in order for the pricing to make more sense.  The Surface Pro 3 can function as a notebook, a tablet, or even a desktop computer.  If you were considering buying this, and were going to use it for two of those forms, then I don't think the pricing is unreasonable at all.  But if you would only use the device for one function, say as a laptop only, then the purchase becomes a much tougher decision.


It's a killer as a laptop, and pretty good as a tablet.  I can highly recommend this device as the former, but am guarded by recommending it for the latter.  But overall, I think this is a good buy if you have the money and it won't be your primary tablet.  If the weight issue were resolved, then I could recommend this as a replacement for both devices, but we just aren't there yet.

Having said that, the device is super cool and useful.  The mobility is unparalleled for a notebook computer, and the fact that it also moonlights as a tablet is pretty slick.  It looks fantastic too.  This is a purchase I am happy I made.


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* 16 Years an Arsenal Fan (May 2014)
* Jeff's Guide to Personal Health Trackers (July 2014)
* Surface Pro 3: Part Notebook, Part Tablet, All Slamma Jamma (August 2014)
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