Everything You Need to Know about President Obama’s New Fitbit

For watch enthusiasts, gadget lovers and fitness freaks, March 2015 is a time of nervous anticipation. Those of us wearing traditional watches — that are neither “smart” nor “connected” nor capable of “tracking” anything other than the time of day — may be suffering equally from vertigo and anxiety.

The Apple Watch will be out next month. Maybe it’s time to upgrade the flip-phone to an iPhone, and get the Apple Watch as a wrist-mounted display / remote control? Do I want the basic model (at $349) or perhaps something in 18 karat gold (at $17,000).

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TAG Heuer has announced a partnership with Google and Intel. Maybe the right line-up will be a Samsung tablet with the TAG Heuer connected watch? For the past 32 years, my running log resides on Index cards and paper calendars [yes, it’s true].  Surely TAG Heuer and it’s partners will offer a better solution.

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My favorite brand of running gear is Under Armour, and UA has just acquired Map My Fitness, so perhaps it’s time to let Under Armour provide not only the clothing but also the tracking?  Vertigo sets in as we consider Apple vs. Android, fitness trackers vs. smart phones, and form factors ranging from postage stamps to “Plus” sizes.

As I consider these choices, and tighten my grip on the flip phone and index cards, perhaps I can learn something from the fact that another watch enthusiast, gadget-lover, fitness-tracker has made his decision. Indeed, the Commander in Chief of the United States, President Barack Obama, has recently made his choice, adding the Fitbit Surge.  If this one is good enough for him, shouldn’t it be good enough for me?

Spotted – President Obama’s Fitbit Surge

The Fitbit Surge model was introduced in the United States toward the end of January 2015, so President Obama was an early adopter.  My review of hundreds of publicly available photos of Obama over the past few months suggests that he first wore the watch around March 2, 2015.  Shown below is a photo of Obama, at a White House press conference, following his meeting with members of his Task Force on 21st Century Policing.  [Click HERE to see a close-up image of the watch.]

On March 13, 2015, Obama wore the watch on a visit to Gilbert, Arizona, to meet with Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg.  Remsburg had been was injured serving in Afghanistan and was presented with keys to his new home, which was purchased by the Army Ranger Lead the Way Fund and renovated with the help of Jared Allen’s Homes for Wounded Warriors. Obama had met Remsburg on five previous occasiona, at various stages of his recovery.

That day, the folks at Fitbit spotted Obama wearing their watch, and posted the following on Twitter

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Three days later, on March 16, Fitbit posted another Tweet, confirming the fact that President Obama was indeed wearing a Fitbit Surge.

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Postings covering President Obama’s new Fitbit Surge became more widespread, on St. Patrick’s Day (March 17), when President Obama wore his Fitbit in a White House meeting with Irish Prime Minister, Enda Kelly.  Here are postings in the Daily Mail and Business Insider.

Barack Obama, Enda Kenny

The Fitbit Surge – On the Wrist

Marketed as the “ultimate fitness super watch”, the Fitbit Surge may be described as an activity tracker, in the form of a watch, with GPS tracking and a heart monitor.  The form factor is chunkier than the smaller Fitbits that have become so common (the Flex and the Charge), as the Surge contains eight sensors (specifically, three-axis accelerometer, gyroscope, compass, ambient light sensor, GPS and heart rate).  This is Fitbit’s top-of-the-line model, and retails for $249,95.

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The accelerometer measures motion patterns, which compute steps taken, distance travelled, active minutes, floors climbed and calories burned. The heart-rate sensor on the Surge is optical, meaning that it detects the heart-rate by using two LEDs to illuminate capillaries in the wrist, measuring the frequency at which your blood pumps past.  Chest straps detect the heart rate by detecting electrical pulses.  Reviewers have concluded that the heart-rate monitor on the Fitbit Surge is reasonably accurate.

The display on the Surge is “always on”, meaning that you need not push any buttons or tap a screen to see the time of day.  [Wow . . . just like a real watch!!]  You can easily move between screens by swiping the touch-screen display.  This allows the user to easily move between the displays – the watch, step count, heart-rate, distance covered, calories burned and floors climbed.

FitbitSurgeFeatures

When you are within 20 feet of your mobile device, the Surge uses Bluetooth to provide you with notifications of incoming text messages and phone calls.  The Surge displays 32 characters of a subject field and 160 characters of a text message.  The Surge can also be used to control music being played on an iOS device, allowing the user to pause / resume music and skip to the next track.

The Surge comes in three sizes, small, large and extra large, and three colors, black, blue and tangerine.  The head unit is the same size on all three sizes (TBD millimeters across the dial, and TBD millimeters, from top to bottom), with the only difference between the sizes being the length of the strap.  The strap is integrated to the watch, meaning that it cannot be replaced.  Battery life is up to seven days.

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At $249.95, the Surge is priced at a significant premium to the Flex ($99.95) the Charge ($129.95) and the Charge with heart rate monitor ($149.95).  Have a look at the Fitbit website for a comparison of the models.

The Fitbit Surge – OnTheDash

Our description so far has focused on the Surge, as a watch-like device that you wear on your wrist.  The real power of fitness tracking comes when your day or workout is over, and you synch the Surge to the Fitbit.com dashboard, installed on your computer or mobile device.

FitbitSurgeDashboard

The dashboard provides graphs and other detailed displays of historical data, allowing you to monitor your progress toward fitness goals.  You can compare your runs for a month, and determine exactly when your were restless during the night’s sleep, and also share your data with your friends.

Why I Bought a Fitbit Surge Two Days Ago

I bought the Fitbit Surge for approximately six reasons:

  • I have written about the four other watches that Barack Obama has worn while President and have found that even with common style sports watches, it is useful to have the watch in hand (or on the wrist) when writing about it.
  • With the Apple Watch coming in a few weeks, I want to gain a better understanding of what the smart watches are all about.  While the Fitbit Surge is not a smart watch, as a “connected watch”, it should help me understand the Apple Watch.  I don’t expect to buy an Apple Watch, but I do want to understand it and be able to discuss it.
  • TAG Heuer has announced that it is in a partnership with Google and Intel to produce a “connected watch” by year end.  As a 15-year  Heuer / TAG Heuer enthusiast, I want to understand why the company is pursuing this strategy and I want to be prepared to evaluate whatever “connected watch” TAG Heuer will be introducing.
  • Beyond these two specific devices, that I want to understand, I want to gain a deeper understand of “fitness tracking” as a social phenomenon.  Fitness trackers taken hold as mainstream devices, and I suspect that the smart watch will quickly achieve this status, very soon.  As someone living in this society, it just seems like time to figure out what these categories of devices are all about.  Why are there people walking the floors of our parking deck, at lunch time, on rainy days?  They are all wearing these damn things!!
  • I really do like to track my runs and monitor my heart-rate.  Maybe this type of device will represent an upgrade from the stack of index cards that track my runs and the index-finger-on-wrist approach that measure my heart rate.
  • I like gadgets.

Putting those factors on one side of the scale, and $249.95 on the other side of the scale, this was an easy decision.  They were in stock at Sports Authority, so I bought the black model . . . just like the President’s!

Fitbit Surge — 48 Hours on the Wrist (of an Absolute Novice)

I had expected that in this section of the posting, I would lament the fact that the set-up was difficult, that the features were unusable, and that wearing the Surge for two days had only added to my confusion about what my next device should be.  I imagined some lines about whether Obama had his “body man” set up the Surge for him and whether this body man might be available to help me with mine.  That could have been a good angle, right?

In fact, my 48 hours with the Fitbit Surge have been amazing.  It’s too early to say “life changing”, but that’s not out of the question.  I don’t want to turn this posting into a product review — especially one that I am not smart enough to write —   but let me provide a few highlights.

The most surprising aspect of this experiment was that the Surge was the simplest, easiest device to set up and use of any sports watch or similarly complex gadget that I can recall.  Everything worked perfectly, right out of the box.  The watch; the dashboard; the synching . . . absolutely everything seemed usable, within my first 10 minutes with the watch.

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The most amazing 34 minutes and 18 seconds with the Surge came this morning.  I woke up early (after 5 hours and 11 minutes of 99% efficient sleep), read the manual for five minutes, and departed for my first run with the Surge.  The watch, and the run, were absolutely incredible.  I was able to use all the features; the visibility was great (even in the pre-dawn darkness); and the handling was perfect.  I learned that swiping the screen is far easier than pushing buttons, and that it’s a pleasure to be able to see the duration of the run and distance (which are constant displays) and to swipe between pace, heart rate, steps and and time of day, as you may choose.  Yes, I wanted to keep running, beyond the allotted 35 minutes.  This might be the most powerful thing about this or any other fitness device, right?  I just wanted to keep running!

Once again, I will resist the urge to turn this into a product review, but let me at least mention another amazing aspect of the Fitbit Surge.  Five minutes after getting back home, I clicked the Fitbit dashboard on my computer, and saw a beautiful display of graphs and other data about the run.  Minute-by-minute pace, heart rate and elevation changes, as well as a map of the run.  Mind boggling, at least for the first time user of a fitness tracker.  The urge?  You guessed it.  To run again tomorrow, to generate even more of these beautiful graphs.

So the full-featured smart watch lies ahead, and the TAG Heuer connected watch even further down the timeline, but this $249 and 48 hours bought me some incredible learning about these new categories.  And the Fitbit Surge also informed me that I had taken 23,709 steps over these 48 hours and have a reliable resting heart rate of around 55.  Not bad at age 59!

Why is President Obama Wearing the Fitbit Surge

As fascinating as it may be to consider why Jeff Stein bought the Fitbit Surge, perhaps there will be even great interest in the question of why President Obama is wearing this watch.

My best explanation of why President Obama decided to go with the Fitbit Surge derives from his identity as a gadget guy and as a workout guy, with the overlay that he is also a watch guy.   And one of the things that draws us to watches is that they are (usually) private, one of the few fashion accessories that a man can enjoy and one of the few private pleasures that the most public man in the world can enjoy, every day.

Throughout his adult life, Barack Obama has worn a variety of watches, each conveying some sense of his station in life and his self image. He wore a TAG Heuer Series 1500 watch in the early 1990s, when he left law school and entered the work force, which also coincided with his marriage. During his 2008 campaign, he switched to the Jorg Gray Secret Service watch, a gift from his Secret Service detail, which became a lucky watch as his campaign gained momentum. All along, he has had a plastic sports watch, for vacations, recreation, inspecting oil spills and other casual events.

SELMA, AL - MARCH 04, 2007: Democratic Presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama waits to address a crowd gathered for the commemoration of the 1965 Voting Rights March at Brown Chapel AME Church March 4, 2007 in Selma, Alabama. In the 1965 march which was to go from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama police used tear gas and beat back the marchers when they reached the Pettus Bridge. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Writing in the New York Times, Vanessa Friedman assesses the significance of President Obama’s new Fitbit, referring to his taking what has been effectively sold as workout gear, and bringing it into the Oval Office.  She refers to the “athleisure-ization of everything” and the power of an accessory to suggest what the wearer is into and the “cool factor” of what was once a dorky looking device.   What she misses, however, is that watches are different from most fashion accessories, spending most of the time hidden under the cuff.  As such, there is a stealth factor to watches.  President Obama couldn’t wear his running shoes to meet with a head of state, and he couldn’t drink from his favorite water bottle with Prince Charles, but watches are different.  They are more private; we enjoy them and they make us smile, but they are hidden from the public most of the time.

Barack Obama

Of course, when they are seen, watches convey information about the wearer and we we want them to convey the right impression.  The Heuer Monaco, worn by Steve McQueen in the film Le Mans, might convey some association with the “King of Cool”, just as the Rolex Submariner conveys the impression that the owner is an adventurer.  Ironically, Jorg Gray has demonstrated that a watch can suggest a connection with President Obama.

Presidents, They’re Just Like Us

In the end, my guess is that President Obama is not wearing his new Fitbit to send any messages to the public or to create an impression on anyone.  He enjoys gadgets and technology; he enjoys exercise and fitness; and, yes, he enjoys watches.  Regardless of what is happening in the world, in Congress, or in the polls, these are things that make him happy.

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I would expect that, in a given day, President Obama has very little time to himself, very few moments that he can enjoy, away from the public and the press.  His schedule does not allow for much personal or leisure time.  But when he does escape for a workout, or even when he is sitting in a car or on a plane or on a stage, the Fitbit Surge allows President Obama to enjoy an amazing gadget and to learn about some new technology.  Yes, these watches are amazing things and that’s why we are watch guys. yes, Presidents, they’re just like us.

Jeff Stein
March 26, 2015

Afterwards — A Brief Recap of Obama’s Watches

With the count now up to six, it is worthwhile to provide a quick recap of the watches worn by President Obama while in office:

TAG Heuer Series 1500 watch – The TAG Heuer Series 1500 watch appears to have been the only watch worn by Senator Obama and presidential candidate Obama.  He also wore it for special occasions during his first term as President.  Details HERE.

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Jorg Gray “Secret Service” chronograph – Barack Obama’s everyday watch during most of his time as President, he was also happy to wear it with dressy and formal attire.  Details HERE.

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Highgear Enduro Compass sports watch – President Obama’s first sports watch as President; worn on vacations and for casual and sports events.  Has not been seen recently . . . perhaps he is like so many other folks – when the battery runs out, it’s easier to replace the watch than to replace the battery.  Details HERE.

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New Balance N7 sports watch – We began seeing this watch for vacations, sports and casual events in early 2012.  It appears that this watch remains in the current rotation, with President Obama wearing it TBD in February 2015.  Details HERE.

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Fitbit Surge connected watch – See above.

Mystery watch – President has one other watch, one that he has worn  only on special occasions.  But that can be another watch, for another day!

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Additional References and Resources

Copyright, Jeffrey M. Stein, 2008 - 2017;   all rights reserved