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Motorola MOTOACTV: A capital (letter) experience for fitness geeks

Motorola’s MOTOACTV is geek fitness chic. It’s a utilitarian square piece of metal and plastic, a low-powered ARM processor and 8GB of storage; some sensors and an accelerometer; a pair of headphones and some cloud sync capabilities. It’s not going to change your life unless you let it, and just like every fitness utility, you get out only as much as you put in.

But at its core, the $249.99 MOTOACTV appears to be one of the best, and most versatile, options for the avid runner, cyclist or golfer (more on that later).

Design

MOTOACTV’s design is nothing more than a reframed iPod nano, a square housing with an optional clip; the front is glass, the back a reflective mirror metal. It feels well-made, and likely is if it stands a chance against the elements; I dropped it several times (on purpose, and a couple times by accident) and it fared extremely well. Its 1.6-inch screen has a tired resolution of 176×220 pixels, and is covered with a smattering of Gorilla Glass.

There are five buttons and a capacitive area: volume up, volume down and power are on the right side; Start and Music are on top; the Android back button is on the face, under the screen. This limits its use to a single orientation, something I wish Motorola had taken into account when designing the device, since it’s not easy to consistently clip it the right way to a jacket or shirt. It involves having to remove it from the included clip and reorient it.

Start and Music operate independently: the former jumps into a workout screen while the latter either jumps into the music screen or pauses the current song. There is a microUSB port for charging and syncing with the computer, covered by a piece of rubber. In this case I’d say the rubber is welcome, since the MOTOACTV claims to be sweat resistant and rain proof.

The back area, as stated, is made of metal and has raised edges that allow the unit to slide easily into a number of proprietary accessories. The included clothes clip is the cleanest and likely most useful; I found it to be extremely tight, and fell only once despite numerous attempts to disengage the clip. I also had a chance to try the $19.99 Sports Arm Band, which uses the same attachment technique. Both accessories are well made and fundamental to the enjoyment of the gadget, and there are optional bike mount, watch strap and both wired and wireless headphones, each sold separately. It’s clear that Motorola is attempting to sell you the razor as well as a number of pricey blades here.

Usability

The Android-based interface is sparse but robust. There are four main areas in which you’ll spend your time: Watch, Workout, Music and Notifications.

The MOTOACTV is a bit too bulky to be used comfortably as a watch, but it can be configured as such. There are a number of timepieces available, ranging from the “train station” digital design to an apocalyptic analog face and many in between. That same screen also displays the calories burned and steps taken, which is reset at midnight each night. The device uses the included accelerometer to gauge the level of activity, but I found it easy to trick, and by the end of the day usually had a few thousand unearned steps in my tally. I can’t vouch for the caloric accuracy, either, but to have both is a reassuring presence.

The Watch screen also allows you to configure a digital timer, stopwatch and enable or disable a wakeup gesture, which will turn on the screen if you not-so-vigorously shake the unit. The problem is that with this gesture turned on the screen tends to wake up and go back to sleep every few seconds while walking, wasting precious battery life. At the same time it’s very useful if you’re using it as a watch; I wish there was a way to adjust the sensitivity of the shaking.

The Workout screen is, if you’re an avid runner, cyclist or even walker, where you’ll be spending the bulk of your time. It allows you to configure time, distance (or both) as well as calorie goals for the specific workout. You can also just press start and work it all out at the end. The MOTOACTV takes care of GPS location (though it was occasionally difficult to find a satellite lock), calories burned, speed and distance travelled. The MotoActv.com service also lets you upload these results to Motorola’s portal, tracking individual workouts and improvement over time.

As of a recent software update, the MOTOACTV also allows you to download golf course information from around the world, tracking distance, ball location and a number of other stat-junkie goodness. You’re not limited to those activities, though: the device is pre-programmed for Elliptical, Step Machine, Walking and Cycling, in addition to running. You can also set a custom activity such as Badminton, Baseball, Hockey and more. Each of these provides enough material to gauge improvement over time, and if you enter personal information such as weight and height when beginning your training, the device will tell you how much you need to work to hit a certain weight target.

Music

The MOTOACTV also comes with 8GB of internal storage, and a number of pre-loaded workout songs that I found completely all over the map. However, in addition to Motorola’s MotoCast app, which allows you to sync iTunes playlists to the device, you can merely drag and drop songs or albums in Windows’ or OS X’s file manager and the unit will parse all the necessary metadata.

Music plays into workouts in inestimably important ways, and Motorola thought ahead on this one, too. By default there is a permanent playlist called Fitness Music. You can choose individual songs to add to this playlist, which play when you start exercising. The harder you work while listening to a particular song, MOTOACTV’s algorithms figure out when and how often to play the song. If you take a particular running route every day, and tend to lag during an uphill, for example, the song that gets you the most pumped will begin playing as soon as the previous one is finished. It’s an excellent feature that I appreciated, especially during early morning runs when I wasn’t very happy to be out in the cold.

As a general music player, however, MOTOACTV does a decent job, though the Android-based interface is rather clunky. While there are slick transition animations, I would have loved to see gesture-based navigation such as on Apple’s fifth-generation iPod nano. Repeated use of the back button gets tiresome after a few clicks, and while you can hold it down to return quickly to the home screen, there is little panache to the procedure, especially when you’re shelling out nearly $300 for the device.

Conclusions

The MOTOACTV is something I’ve taken to wearing every day, even if I’m not exercising heavily. I use it as a pedometer and a calorie counter and, more recently, as a music player. It supports Bluetooth with A2DP profiles, so my stereo headphones play just fine; it can map out my walking routes and determine how far and how quickly I’ve been moving; and it lasts a long time. The battery can be relied on for 20 hours before it gives in, and Motorola has thankfully included a dual-USB wall charger with the kit so you can plug in your phone and the MOTOACTV before you go to sleep. That’s thinking ahead.

I noticed that, just sitting idly, the device depletes around 30% battery every eight hours, so be sure to plug it in. Battery usage will be inevitably higher if you choose to connect it to various ANT+ compatible sensors such as a heart-rate monitor.

Considering you can participate in challenges on MotoActv.com, and have people comment on your workouts, encouraging you to do better, the device succeeds as both a social tool and an individual motivator. For $250, it’s by no means cheap, and by the time you’re done paying into the various accessories you could be closer to $400. But if you’re serious about fitness — and an increasing number of geeks and non-geeks alike are — MOTOACTV is a very compelling product.

  • Public Mobile Phanboi

    No GPS? Fail.
    1st btw.

    • GB

      Has GPS, moron.

      Comment fail, as usual.

  • Watsan

    Being the owner of a current gen iPod nano, I’m hard pressed to justify the cost difference between these devices as, even with the Nike+ accessories it is still cheaper. Also, the nano has the same screen orientation issue as the motoactv; possible design limitation?

    Having said that, moto has done a great job with the foresight in designing a great fitness experience with the social factor as well as the music algorithm. No matter how you dice it, when you work out this makes a noticeable difference. That one song might just be what you need to get you over the hump- or maybe even that one cyber running buddy who always seems to be that half km ahead. This device is very tempting, and I may just have to justify the cost based solely on that experience. Great review!

  • Tom

    Sounds great but 2 things really annoyed me.

    1. Only full functionality with Motorola phones. I think that is a totally arbitrary restriction. Hopefully with Google buying Moto they will allow the full app to be used on any Android.

    2. Forced social. Not allowing me to set some of my data on their site to be private is another totally arbitrary restriction (in that it would be easy to implement). Whether I want my data to be social should be up to me. Same thing annoys me about RDIO.

  • Daniel Bader

    @PublicMobile,

    I mentioned that it uses GPS to track your workouts.

    -Daniel

  • FunkrIght

    Iphone 4s with a compatible Bluetooth strap and a ton of available/compatible/free apps works similarly :)

  • ELNY

    Wait a minute…you’re telling me this little device costs $300 and it’s only 8Gb? Even with the added features (that ALL smartphones can do) it’s a hard sell! I hope they don’t actually think they will be able to compete with the ipod nano?

    • Bri

      I agree… not a big fan of iPods/iPhones but this is way too expensive to compete with iPod Nano. Also, now that I’ve purchased nike running shoes, I want to be able to use the nike+. As an android user, I’ve always liked how the android devices exceeds iPhone in terms of customization, functionality, etc all the functionalities seem too complicated for such small screen. I’d get Nano over this device…

  • saliwok

    I’ve been using the 16GB model that I ordered in from Amazon a couple months ago. It’s a great device, but not without it’s flaws.
    I did want to mention that the app to link to a phone is available for all Android phones, now.
    I got rid of my Nano when I got this because the GPS is way more accurate than the Nike+. And I can’t wear my smartphone on my wrist.
    There are a lot of complaints that the battery tanks when it is paired with a Bluetooth headset. My workouts aren’t more than a couple hours, so not an issue for me.
    My biggest complaint is that there is no on-board editing of music playlists. The firmware updates have been significant, though, so they may get to this yet.
    Having said all that, it’s a great device and I’d recommend it.

  • David

    I got one of these and it is just amazing. It can do so much, but it works much better if you are into sport and tracking your progress. It is a beautiful device and works much better than the nike watch etc. It may seem a bit expensive but when compared to the $300+ gps watches out there that can only do a fraction of the Motoactv, it is quite a deal. I haven’t had the battery problem reported here, mine holds the battery pretty well. It can keep up with hours of workout while connected to heart rate monitor or bycicle sensors. Maybe it was the latest update. In any case, I think this is a brilliant device.

  • Micka

    I got the MotoActv wrist-strap for my MOTOACTV. I like wearing it on my wrist for ease of use. The wrist strap is cflmortaboe, and holds the MOTOACTV quite well.Unfortunately, I have had it for less than two weeks, and worn it approximately 4x, and it just broke. One of the two little metal pins in the strap came out. I did not use it unreasonably or aggressively, and it still broke. Very disappointing.I contacted Motorola Customer Service, and they were very kind. They are supposed to email me information to return my current strap, once they receive it, they are going to send me a new one. Let’s hope the next one lasts longer.

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