Remember fitness bands? Back in 2013, you couldn't walk down the street in San Francisco or New York without seeing a half-dozen wrists encircled by Fitbits, Jawbone Ups, and other rubberized guilt cuffs.
I had a fitness band. Actually, I had three. The first two broke just weeks after I started using them, victims of shoddy construction and worse-than-advertised waterproofing. The third had such terrible battery life that it was practically useless. And then, around the six-month mark, I got annoyed and quit. Using a fitness band had helped me get in shape and remember to walk. But tracking my step count began to feel like a forced march, and counting my sleep hours produced a constant nagging voice in my brain. One day, after it ran out of battery, I put my band in a drawer and forgot about it.
Then, a few weeks ago, a friend told me he'd ordered a $15 fitness band from a Chinese electronics company called Xiaomi.
If you're unfamiliar with Xiaomi, you shouldn't be. It's the third-largest smartphone maker in the world, behind only Apple and Samsung. It sells cut-rate electronics to a stupidly large Chinese market, and it's gone from replicating Apple's entire product line (down to its CEO's turtleneck) to making passable gadgets of its own. Last year, during its annual flash sale, Xiaomi sold a staggering $335 million worth of phones in just 12 hours.
Xiaomi doesn't distribute its products in the U.S., which is why most Americans haven't heard of them yet. But if you're willing to pay the cost of shipping from China (which varies by location; mine cost about $15), you can get Shenzhen's finest delivered straight to your door. Which is how I ended up with the Mi Band — the company's low-end fitness bracelet, and the best gadget I've bought in months.
As fitness bands go, the Mi Band is pretty unassuming. It counts your steps, tracks your sleep, and lets you know with a vibration when you've reached your goal for the day. It's got a nice, thin rubberized band, and three little LED lights that light up depending on how much of your step quota you've reached. Like other fitness bands, it comes with a mobile app for your phone that syncs via Bluetooth and lets you input exercise, step goals, and body weight.
The Mi Band hasn't been reviewed by any of the major U.S. gadget sites, but it's a solid, modest piece of hardware. The band vibrates when you receive an incoming call. It can also unlock your phone if you have a Xiaomi phone, which you probably don't, considering they're not widely sold in the U.S. yet. A metal oval containing all the gadgetry slides into a slot in the middle of the band, which makes it look a little dorkier than the Jawbone Up, but it also means that you can swap band colors to match your outfit.
But two killer features set the Mi Band apart from the pack.
The first is battery life. My old Jawbone Up band needed to be charged every five or six days. But I haven't charged my Mi Band for 12 days, and here's what the battery life indicator looks like:
74 percent! At this rate, my Mi Band's single charge will last 46 days. I have no idea how this is possible — the Mi Band is thinner than a Jawbone Up, so it's not like they're stuffing an enormous battery in there — but it's wonderful.
The second advantage of the Mi Band is that it's absurdly, nonsensically cheap. At $15 apiece, it's practically disposable. You could buy a new one for every day of the week and still spend less than you would on a Jawbone Up4 ($199.99). I shudder to think about the labor practices that are required to produce a wrist-bound mini-computer for $15, but the result is a fitness band that you don't have to fear losing or breaking. (In Xiaomi's defense, part of the reason it can offer its goods so cheaply is that it doesn't have huge marketing budgets or costly retail stores — it's all word-of-mouth online sales.)
A big question about the Mi Band, of course, is whether you want to wear a fitness bracelet. I'm not suggesting you should. I like wearing one because I sit at a desk all day, need to be reminded to go out and walk around sometimes, and don't mind the daddish look of a rubber computer on my wrist. If you're opposed to fitness bands on sartorial or practical grounds, the Mi Band won't do much to dissuade you.
However, if you've been wanting to try a fitness band but don't want to shell out for a Fitbit, or if, like me, you had a Fitbit and it broke, consider getting a Mi Band. If you like it, you'll have a new, motivating fitness gadget to play with. And if you hate it, you're only out the price of a large pizza.