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Friday, August 27, 2010

First Impression Review Of The Omron HJ-720ITC Pocket Pedometer

A pedometer or step counter is a device, usually portable and electronic or electromechanical, that counts each step a person takes by detecting the motion of the person's hips. Pedometers are handy and convenient motivators to help people set exercise goals and achieve them.

Pedometers have become quite inexpensive nowadays, so their use has spread from exercise enthusiasts and trainers to common people. You can get pedometers at most sports stores and sometimes gyms and health food stores sell them too.

My company recently gave out these Omron HJ-720ITC pedometers to employees who wanted them as part of an overall push towards making people more fit. Several employees signed up, and I got my pedometer last Thursday. I have been wearing it on my hip every waking minute since then, and the novelty has not yet worn off fully.

The pedometer did not cost me any money because my company gave it away for free, but you can buy this from Amazon.com and other stores also. This pedometer is somewhat unique in that it comes with a USB port that allows results from the pedometer to be uploaded to your computer. It also comes with software that allows the computer to interface with the pedometer, and to analyze the data uploaded from the pedometer to the computer.

Omron HJ-720ITC PedometerThe pedometer itself is quite small. It comes with a couple of straps that you can use to hang the pedometer around your neck or wrist. It also comes with a belt clip that allows the pedometer to be worn at your hip, either attached to a belt or to the top of your pants or shorts. The package also includes a software disk, standard USB cable, a user's manual, an exercise log, a watch battery and a small metal "screwdriver". It put that in quotes because the user manual refers to it as a screwdriver, but it is just a small piece of metal with one end narrowed down so that it fits in a screw head. It does not have a plastic handle like most "normal" screwdrivers do.

The pedometer does not come with the battery installed. So, the first thing you have to do is open up the battery compartment at the back of the pedometer, and install the battery. The user manual has instructions for this, and it is quite simple and straightforward. The display then comes to life, and the next step is to set the pedometer up for use.

This involves setting the time first. This is an important step because the pedometer stores the number of steps taken on a daily basis. At midnight of each day, the display resets to zero steps taken for that day, and the previous day's steps are stored in memory. The next step is to enter your weight. This is used to calculate the calories burned. The third and final step is to measure your stride length and enter it in. You take 10 or 20 steps, measure the distance covered, divide that by the number of steps, and enter the result into the pedometer in feet and inches. The pedometer allows you to set stride lengths all the way from 1 foot to 4 feet, and it is difficult to imagine anyone having a normal stride length outside this range.

The stride length is used by the pedometer to calculate approximately the distance you have walked. This measurement is obviously quite inaccurate because you don't always walk with your normal stride. If you run, your stride length increases. If you are in a crowded place, you may take shorter steps. There are lots of things that change your stride length from what you have entered into the pedometer. So, take the distance calculation with a large grain of salt.

Using the pedometer with the belt clip is trivial. You just slip the pedometer into the clip housing, and then attach the clip to your belt or trousers. You can also clip it onto the front of a shirt pocket if you prefer. The clip, however, is not very large, so even though I wear a pretty narrow belt, the clip does not go all the way to the bottom of the belt. Several users have complained about the insecurity of the belt clip because of its inadequate length and grip. It is possible for the clip to slip off your belt or clothes and fall off if you are not careful, so you might want to look for third-party clips or carry the pedometer in a cell-phone pouch if you want to be extra careful.

The user manual has some pictures of how to attach the straps to the pedometer if you want to use it with the straps rather than the belt clip. However, the pictures looked quite confusing to me, and did not help me in any way. Since I was not planning on using the straps, I did not pay much attention to them anyways.

The pedometer is a 2-axis pedometer. This means that there are sensors inside that can detect steps in two of three planes with respect to the pedometer, but not in the third plane. The third plane in which this pedometer can not count steps is when the pedometer is horizontal with respect to the ground. So, to use this pedometer, it has to be vertical with respect to the ground. It can be on its bottom, sides or top, but it can not be flat on its back. This makes the pedometer capable of being used with the wrist straps or hooked to your clothes with the belt clip (these methods make sure the pedometer stays vertical with respect to the ground). But it will not work if you put the pedometer into a large bag because the bag can not prevent the pedometer from lying flat with respect to the ground. And when the pedometer is lying flat, it can not count steps.

The user manual has a section devoted to various factors that can cause the pedometer to not count steps correctly. In addition to the pedometer being flat on its back or front, the pedometer will not count accurately if you take inconsistent steps, when you climb up or down vertically on steps, ladders, etc., or when your steps are very slow. In practice, I have found the unit reasonably sensitive and has counted my steps in most circumstances, including when I am climbing up and down normal staircases that are not too steep. The pedometer can not count when you bicycle either.

The pedometer has 3 buttons on it below the display. The left-most of these is the "Set" button which is used during set up of the unit, but rarely after that. If you give away your pedometer to somebody else, they can use that button to reset the time, their weight, their stride length, etc. If you accidentally press it, just press it a few more times until you get the normal display back (the old settings are preserved). No data stored in memory is erased when you set the pedometer.

The middle button is the "Mode" button. When you press this button, the display cycles between 4 modes: total number of steps, the number of aerobic steps along with the number of minutes of aerobic walking, number of calories with amount of fat burned, and distance walked. All these displays pertain to your activity for the current day.

The user manual defines aerobic walking as walking more than 60 steps a minute, and walking more than 10 minutes at that pace continuously (breaks of up to 1 minute are ignored). So, the second display mode displays the number of steps you took in aerobic mode during the day.

The number of calories, as mentioned earlier, is calculated using your weight and the number of steps taken. There are inaccuracies in this calculation and the user manual has a table that allows you to adjust the numbers based on your age. However, everybody's body and metabolism are different, so counting calories is not going to be super-accurate under most circumstances.

The distance walked is calculated from the number of steps and the stride length. If your walking involved steps of different lengths (which is not only possible, but also quite probable), then this measurement will be off. As mentioned earlier, running can throw this measure off quite significantly.

The third button is labeled "Memo" and has a an upward facing arrow next to it. It allows you to scroll back in history through 7 days worth of stored data. The pedometer has enough memory for 42 days worth of data storage. The last 7 days are accessible directly from the pedometer through this history scroll button. The historical display pertains to the display mode you have the pedometer on before you start scrolling through history (thus, if your display mode is not the number of steps, but the distance walked, then as you scroll through history, the pedometer will show you the distances walked in the last 7 days). You press the "Mode" button to exit history mode, back to seeing today's data.

The middle button also has an "Event" mode which I don't understand fully. You can press the middle button for 2 seconds and it will put in an event for you at that time. I am guessing that you can can somehow use the event mode to set the start and stop times of some important activities you did during the day or something like that. But the functionality is very unclear, and the user manual is completely useless in explaining this.

The back of the pedometer contains a small reset button in addition to the battery compartment cover. The user manual advises users to press this button in case the display starts showing garbage and other unrecognizable characters. You lose that hour's data when you do this, but the rest of your data is not affected by resetting the pedometer using this "Reset" switch.

The software that comes with the pedometer is Omron's Health Management Software that can be used with either this pedometer or with Omron's Blood Pressure Monitors. The software gives you the ability to analyze the data uploaded from the pedometer to your computer. The software is only compatible with Windows PC's, so if you have a Mac, you can not upload the data to the computer or analyze it using this software. If you lose the software disc, you can download the software directly from the Omron website.

Omron Health Management Software ScreenshotThe software enables you to set up goals and track your progress against these goals. In addition to daily data, the software enables you to track the number of steps on an hourly basis within the day, which the pedometer itself can not display. I have not played around too much with the software, but it is decent and reasonably intuitive. You can export data from the software in CSV format for import into a spreadsheet, but you can not import data into it from a CSV file. The pedometer itself keeps track of data that has been downloaded, and if you do not download data for more than 35 days in a row, the pedometer display shows you an icon to remind you to download the data.

There are many complaints out there from people who find that the data upload suddenly starts failing for no reason, with seemingly no solution. The problem seems to be that the data stored in the pedometer can sometimes get corrupted. When this happens, the software does not know how to download the data, and the data transfer fails. If this happens, you have two options. You can wait for the corrupt data to leave the memory as the days roll on since only 41 days' worth of data are stored in the pedometer. After the corrupt data leaves the pedometer memory, and is replaced with good data, the transfer should work again.

The other option is to hasten the memory clearing process by repeatedly setting the time to 11:59 PM and letting the pedometer roll over midnight, thus forcing it to store several dummy data points repeatedly. Do this 41 times, and you would have cleared out your pedometer's memory completely, and the data transfer should start working perfectly again (until some corruption happens again).

What is good about the pedometer? First of all, it is quite accurate. I counted my steps in my head and checked it against the counts produced by the pedometer several times in the last few days, and the counts have been mostly dead-on, especially if I walk normally. If I walk irregularly, the count is thrown off slightly, but the pedometer is remarkably good at catching on and counting correctly. That is pretty much the most important aspect of judging the quality of a pedometer, and this one comes out with flying colors.

The availability of many attachment options, and the fact that it came packaged with straps, belt clips, etc., rather than these being sold as optional accessories is another point in favor of this pedometer. It is light and compact, and you hardly notice it when you are wearing it. This can be both good and bad, because if the clip comes off, and the pedometer falls off your clothing, you may not notice it right away either!

And that tops the list of what is not so good about this pedometer. The belt clip is not as secure as it could be. It is designed more like a clothes clip rather than a true belt clip, and as such, it would fit better over a wire or line than over a flat object like a belt or the waistband of your sweatpants.

Secondly, the pedometer lacks separate walking and running modes. Many advanced pedometers have multiple modes, and you can set different stride lengths for each mode. You can then press buttons on the pedometer to tell it whether you are going to run or walk, and the pedometer uses the different stride lengths to keep track of distances more accurately. Since this pedometer only has one stride length, the distances are often off since I run a couple of miles on most days. Even better would be an automatic detection of whether you are running or walking based on how your hips are moving, or the number of steps you take per minute.

The battery life of the pedometer is very poor. The user manual says the battery should last for about 6 months. After that, you have to buy and install a new watch battery. It is not expensive or complicated, but it is a hassle to have to do this so frequently. The main reason for this is that the screen is constantly lit. The pedometer display never goes to sleep so to speak. A better solution would have been to wake the screen up only when a button is pressed. Or at least, have the screen come alive only when steps are being taken. Having the screen on all the time when the battery is installed is just plain wasteful.

The software that comes with the pedometer is quite basic, and could be made more useful. I don't want to pass judgment on the software since I have not used it extensively, but the data upload failures because of minor corruptions in the pedometer memory are an inexcusable shortcoming. The software should have been designed to be more robust about ignoring and overcoming data defects rather than assuming that everything will be perfect all the time.

Last but not least, the pedometer is not as useful as it could be in motivating you to exercise. I would have liked to see some feature that, for instance, would remind you to take a break and walk around a few steps when the pedometer has not sensed any steps in some time interval. For example, you could program it to remind you to walk around if you have been sedentary for more than 2 hours between the times of 10 AM and 10 PM, or something like that. This pedometer lacks any such feature even though it should be trivial to include something like that given that the pedometer has all the data it needs to do the reminding if necessary.

The pedometer is capable of counting up to 99,999 steps and aerobic steps each day, and can keep track of up to 999.99 miles per day, 199.99 grams of fat burned per day and 99,999 calories burned per day. It is difficult to imagine anyone exercising such that these limits come into play. My best day so far has been just under 18,000 steps walked. Most days, I exceed 10,000 steps (which is recommended as the standard of fitness), usually concluding the day with between 12,000 and 14,000 steps.

I have not used other pedometers to compare the accuracy of this pedometer against others. In general, I have heard that some pedometers have very poor accuracy and can miscount by as much as 40 to 50%. The user manual for this pedometer claims an accuracy of within 5%, which is excellent. And I can vouch for the fact that it has been very accurate whenever I have tested it myself. I would be enthusiastic about recommending this if it did not have the flaws I mention above, or the flaws are corrected in a newer version of this product. As it stands, I would take away a few points for these flaws, and give this pedometer a 7.5 out of 10.0. Definitely worth having if you don't have one, and you need a motivator to get you to walk around instead of being sedentary.

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