Runtastic Orbit Hands-On: A Fitness Tracker With a Few New Tricks

Since it seems like every company and its mother-company has a fitness tracker these days, it's refreshing when we see one that actually brings something unique to the table. Runtastic (the company behind my current favorite running app) has a new tracker called the Orbit. It's different!

Like some other trackers, the Orbit is basically a little pod that can be worn in a couple of different ways. You'll probably primarily wear it on your wrist in its silicone band (it comes in black and blue in the box, but you'll also be able to get them in the colors you see below), but it also comes with a clip, or you can just drop it in your pocket.

Runtastic Orbit Hands-On: A Fitness Tracker With a Few New Tricks

The pod has a small array of light blue LEDs that act as its display, similar to the Fitbit One (and the ill-fated Fitbit Force). There's also a big silver button on the front of the device which borders on absurdly prominent, but at least you won't be fumbling around for it, I guess? The uber-button allows you to scroll through your standard fitness tracker screens: Steps taken, active minutes, estimated calories burned, and time of day. Long-pressing it puts it in/out of sleep mode for tracking dreamytime.

All of that may sound pretty standard, because it is. But what sets the Runtastic Orbit apart is how it interacts with Runtastic's other apps. Most significantly, if you're out for a run with your phone and you're using Runtastic to track it, you can look at the screen of the Orbit to see your time/distance/pace in realtime instead of having to call it up on your phone's display. In the future Runtastic plans on compatibility with cycling, swimming, and even its other, lesser-known, more specialized apps like Pushups and Six Pack (abs).

Runtastic Orbit Hands-On: A Fitness Tracker With a Few New Tricks

Other standout features include waterproofiness to a whopping 300 feet. That is well beyond what we've seen from most other activity trackers, which are barely shower-safe. It has an ambient light sensor on the front which will (eventually) tell you when you've had enough sun and should seek shade. A very cool idea. It's also got a MagSafe-like USB charging cord, which is nice from a design standpoint.

Along side the Orbit is a new app called Runtastic Me, which is designed to be a sort of unified hub for all of your Runtastic data. It'll pull the steps from your Orbit and your runs from the standard Runtastic app. Eventually it'll log pushups and stuff, too, if you use other apps for it. It's a very good-looking app, but we weren't testing the final build and it was largely broken for much of our time with it.

Runtastic Orbit Hands-On: A Fitness Tracker With a Few New Tricks

Using It

So, we have some good ideas here; How well does it pull them off? With the big caveat being that we were testing pre-release hardware and software, we're still not too sure about this thing.

For starters, it's on the bigger, chunkier side of activity trackers. It feels very prominent on your wrist and it isn't particularly attractive. But the real problem is that it kind of fails at its primary mission: Being a more convenient display for the Runtastic app. First of all, the LEDs just aren't bright enough to be seen while running in direct sunlight, which is probably where you'll be running a lot of the time. I had to use my other hand to shield the screen so I could see it at all. Second, the screen is so small that it can only display one data-field at a time, and it's really hard to figure out which stat you're looking at, when. Third, the band would come out of sync with the app several times per run, but again, that may just be pre-release bugginess.

Runtastic Orbit Hands-On: A Fitness Tracker With a Few New Tricks

The weird thing is that there's already a much better way to view your Runtastic stats while you run. Runtastic's app already works with Android Wear (and several other smartwatch platforms). Using the Galaxy Gear on the same wrist as the Orbit, I could see three of the most important data-fields simultaneously, and do other important things like play/pause music or skip tracks. Plus the Gear tracks your steps and has a whole, ever-growing suite of apps. Yes, it costs $80 more and it can't track your sleep (yet), but you get so much more, and so much better. Then again, if you use an iPhone you're left out of the Android Wear goodness, at least until the iWatch becomes a real thing.

The Orbit's best shot at being a good buy will be in features that are still on the way. We haven't seen an activity tracker track sun exposure before, and that's pretty smart. If Runtastic releases a swimming app that works with the Orbit and accurately counts your laps/strokes, that would be a very big deal, as dedicated swim watches cost a whole lot more. And while we certainly prefer the Galaxy Gear, it's nice to have on something that you only have to charge once a week (you charge the Gear pretty much every night, which really does suck).

Runtastic Orbit Hands-On: A Fitness Tracker With a Few New Tricks

So, there's potential here, and at $120, it's not a bad price. That said, we would definitely advise waiting on this to see if Runtastic can deliver on its promises and iron out some of the bugs (of which there were many in the penultimate version of the Android app). We salute Runtastic for this effort, though. It's not every day you see a company primarily known for app branch out into the physical, hardware realm. That takes guts, especially when the field is already so crowded. Anyway, you can buy it now, but you should wait and see what happens. [Runtastic]