February 23, 2024

State of the Art: Wearable Devices Nudge You to a Healthier Lifestyle

The most popular such gizmo — or at least the most heavily marketed — has been Jawbone’s stylish, rubberized, shower-proof Up band ($130). For about a week on a battery charge, it quietly measures your movement, whether you are awake or asleep, and displays the results on your iPhone or Android phone.

The trouble with the Up band, however, is the way it communicates with your phone. You remove the bracelet. Pull off a metal cap about the size of a blood cell. Plug the newly exposed connector into — get this — your phone’s headphone jack. Open the app. After the data transfer, disconnect the band, find the cap, snap it back on and put the bracelet on again.

No wireless? What is this, 1957?

The inconvenience is bad enough, but — well, let’s put it this way: There’s a reason Up sells a three-pack of replacement caps ($10).

Now Fitbit, whose original 2008 tracker clipped to your clothing, has entered the bracelet game with a screamingly obvious improvement: Bluetooth. Its new Flex band ($100) communicates with your phone wirelessly and automatically. You don’t have to remove, dismantle or even touch the band on your wrist. The Flex’s factory setting is to transmit the data only when you open the Fitbit app on the phone, so you sacrifice little phone battery life.

(The Nike FuelBand, $150, also uses Bluetooth, though it’s a simpler device; it doesn’t try to track sleep or diet.)

The Flex band makes little attempt to score style points. It’s just a thin, solid gray or black rubber strap, a half-inch wide, thicker as it crosses the top of your wrist. But it’s incredibly light and comfortable. In fact, without looking, it’s hard to remember if you’re even wearing it.

Compared to the Up — which is shaped like an overgrown C, with overlapping ends — the Flex’s design has three advantages.

First, it’s a complete circle, so it doesn’t catch on clothing, fly off with your sweater or gouge your hugging partners.

Second, it has a sort of screen. It usually looks like a dark stripe across the band, just a graphic accent. But if you tap twice on it, a line of bright LED dots lights up — up to five, indicating your progress so far that day toward whatever activity goal you set for yourself (say, 10,000 steps). Each dot indicates 20 percent toward your goal; achieving 100 percent earns you a vibrating, five-light flashing rubber-band celebration.

The third improvement is that you can remove the Flex’s heart — a tiny, shiny black capsule that’s held snugly in a pocket within the rubber. (In fact, you must remove it to charge it. The capsule snaps into a USB charging cord for that purpose. One charge lasts about five days.)

The beauty of this design is that you can snap that capsule into other Flex bands. You’re not stuck with the look of the original. Once you have bought the original gray-band or black-band Flex kit, you can buy a $30 set containing teal, orange and navy blue bands. And Fitbit may offer other styles in time.

Which is lucky, because the Flex has one sizable disadvantage: it’s hard to put on. The clasp — two metal prongs that snap into cutouts in the rubber — holds fast, but it’s fussy to connect.

Fortunately, you don’t have to take it off much. You wear it sleeping, exercising, eating, swimming, showering. At any time, you can open the phone app to read the latest stats for the day: steps, distance, calories burned and so on.

The Flex even comes with a tiny plug, about the size of half your thumbnail, that plugs into a USB jack on your Mac or PC. Any time you walk by the computer, the band transmits the latest measurements. In other words, you can use the Flex band even if you don’t own a trendy phone. It’s a terrific stunt.

In all of these ways, the Flex hardware is more convenient, more flexible and less expensive (by 30 percent) than its archrival, the Up band. Alas, the software isn’t nearly as impressive.

E-mail: pogue@nytimes.com

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/27/technology/personaltech/wearable-devices-nudge-you-to-a-healthier-lifestyle.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Bucks Blog: Finding a High-Yield Checking Account

Interest rates on most savings and checking accounts remain anemic. But for those who are comfortable with electronic banking and who are active debit-card users, high-yield checking accounts offered by smaller, regional banks and credit unions can be a more lucrative option.

The financial site Bankrate.com examined 56 “high yield” checking accounts across the country, and found an average yield of 1.64 percent. That’s considerably lower than rates the site found last year. But it looks quite good in comparison to most interest-bearing checking accounts, which had a national average yield of just 0.05 percent.

The catch is that to benefit from the accounts, which are federally insured, users have to meet some requirements each month.

For instance, all of the accounts reviewed by Bankrate require at least 10 debit-card transactions a month, and all require that users receive their monthly statements electronically. Most also require direct deposit or automated bill payments.

The penalty for not meeting the requirements is severe — the average interest rate drops to just 0.07 percent.

If 10 debit transactions are required a month and you make just nine, you’re out of luck, said Greg McBride, senior analyst at Bankrate.

In addition, the accounts all carry balance caps — maximum balances on which the above-market interest rate applies.

The average cap is about $17,000 (down from about $19,000 last year), but the highest-yielding accounts tend to have the lowest caps. None of the 14 best-paying accounts available nationally, for instance, have a cap above $15,000, so if you had $20,000 in the account, the additional $5,000 would not earn the higher rate.

Still, Mr. McBride notes, consumers who can handle the requirements may still benefit from the accounts, perhaps as a place to park emergency funds or other cash.

Roughly a third of the high-yield accounts that Bankrate surveyed are available nationally, although some require a visit to a branch to open the account. About 39 percent of the accounts have some geographic limitation, like in-state residency.

Ouachita Independent Bank in Monroe, La., for example, offers a 3.01 percent annual percentage yield — but the account is available only to residents of Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi.

Do you have a high-yield checking account? Do you find it easy to meet its requirements?

Article source: http://bucks.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/03/finding-a-high-yield-checking-account/?partner=rss&emc=rss

Bucks Blog: Average A.T.M. Surcharge Reaches New High

A woman uses an ATM in Atlanta.Associated PressA woman uses an ATM in Atlanta.

It’s getting more important to consider the size and scope of your bank’s network of A.T.M.’s if you use them frequently.

An annual analysis of checking accounts from Bankrate.com finds that the average A.T.M. surcharge — the fee charged by the machine’s operator to a noncustomer — rose 4 percent to a new record of $2.50.

This is the eighth consecutive year that the average surcharge has increased. And, for the first time, all of the banks surveyed by Bankrate.com for the report charge noncustomers to use their A.T.M.’s.

The increases are part of an overall attempt by banks to replace fee revenue lost because of new caps on the amount they can charge retailers for debit-card transactions.

The surcharge gets even more expensive when your own bank gets into the act, charging you — its customer — for using a competitor’s machine. This fee rose 11 percent, to $1.57.

For a customer encountering both fees, the average total of $4.07 is also a new record. It is up almost 7 percent from last year.

What steps do you take to avoid A.T.M. surcharges? And what’s the biggest one you’ve ever paid?

Article source: http://bucks.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/25/average-a-t-m-surcharge-reaches-new-high/?partner=rss&emc=rss

Bucks: A New Type of Reward With Your Debit Card

Many banks are canceling or scaling back debit-card rewards programs, due to a pending cap on the swipe fees that bigger banks can charge merchants for processing transactions. USAA Bank, for instance, is canceling its debit rewards program as of Sept. 1.

But there’s a new kind of debit rewards option cropping up at some banks, this time, offering customer discounts that are funded by retailers eager for business, rather than by the banks themselves.

So-called “merchant debit rewards” are programs in which retailers team up with banks, with the help of an outside contractor, to offer discounts to debit card users. But instead of getting rewards points or cash back from their bank, card-holders get discounts funded by the store selling the goods. The merchants pay a small fee to the bank for sending the customer their way, so it actually can make some money for the banks.

That’s why you may soon be hearing about the program from your bank, says Alex Matjanec, co-founder of MyBankTracker.com, a bank comparison site.

There hasn’t been a huge rush yet by banks to offer the programs. They may have been waiting to see what happened regarding the swipe-fee caps, he says. But a few online banks and regional financial institutions already offer the programs, including Ally BankBeneficial Bank and the South Carolina Federal Credit Union.

The systems operate through the banks’ online banking sites via third-party servicers, like Billshrink, for instance, which calls its offering Statement Rewards, and Cardlytics. Bank customers receive the offers via their online bank account.

Here’s an example of how it works: Say I like to shop at Macy’s, using my debit card. So Macy’s offers me a deal of $10 off my next purchase, if I spend $50. I shop at Macy’s and later get the $10 deposited into my account; Macy’s pays my bank a percent of the total sale as a fee, and the bank pays a portion of that fee to the company that manages the service. (In some options, the discount is automatically applied at the point of purchase; it depends on how the bank wants the service to work).

Details of the systems vary, but in general, to get your offers, you log on to your online banking account and click on an “offers” tab, or something similar. If you see a deal you like, you click to activate it, shop at that merchant, and the discount is applied the next time you shop at that store.

In addition to department stores, other merchants testing the service include Subway, Apple’s iTunes, Amazon and Sports Authority, says Mr. Matjanec. If consumers use the deals carefully, he said, they can eke a bit more benefit out of their checking accounts, beyond the paltry interest they may be earning.

In addition to rewarding existing customers, the rewards also can be used as a way to attract new customers. For example, if I frequent Starbucks, a local coffee shop may offer me a discount to try their brew instead.

The question is whether customers want a service that, essentially, brings advertising to their bank statement. And the  programs may make some consumers wary, because it involves making offers based on their purchase patterns. But Schwark Satyavolu, chief executive of BillShrink, says no information is revealed to outside vendors. “Our platform is built so no information is exchanged,” he said. “Merchants cannot see who bought what.”

Billshrink’s research shows a majority of consumers are interested in the service and would even switch banks to gain access to it, he said. He says many more banks will be rolling out the program in coming months.

The marketing consultant Adam Hanft, though, says he thinks the new rewards programs may be a hard sell. Consumers watching their pennies during tight times may not be eager to see pitches to spend more, even if it’s couched as a discount at stores they already frequent, while looking at their checking account balance. “I think it’s a gimmick,” he said.

Would you use a merchant reward service, if your bank offered it?

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=7509c6ab8c29fd1b1a76e0c1f2e24ef5