If you’re in the market for a fitness tracker, you’re more than likely hoping to modify your health behavior — whether it’s remembering to walk more, tracking how often you work out, or making sure you’re working out appropriately hard when you do. The wearables market is saturated with options, but you won’t find one that’s much more affordable than Xiaomi’s latest Mi Band 4. It’s packed with features for half the price of counterparts from Fitbit and Garmin.
There’s a lot to like about the Mi Band 4. For $40, you get a fitness tracker that has waterproofing, a heart rate monitor, workout tracking, text and call notifications, sleep tracking, and an impressive battery life of up to three full weeks, depending on usage. Compared to the monochrome Mi Band 3, version 4 has a 0.95-inch full-color OLED touchscreen with a 400-nit peak brightness. The screen is colorful and vivid, responding quickly to up and down swipes to browse through menu options for music control, alarms, workout tracking modes, or settings. The raise to wake the screen option wasn’t always successful, but I do like that it allows you to only turn this feature on between certain hours of the day so it doesn’t suddenly turn on while you’re tossing and turning in bed.
One of the best features of the Mi Band 4, by far, is its battery life. I wore the band for two weeks and only needed to charge it on the 13th day. (By that point, it was at 15 percent and probably could have lasted another night.) Of those 13 days, I used it to track 10 days of 35-minute workouts. Compared to my chest-strapped heart rate monitor that I wore while exercising on a Peloton bike, the output numbers didn’t vary too much. The heart rate numbers were nearly identical, and calorie burn calculations were off by an indiscernible amount.
To get the Mi Band 4 to track your workouts, however, you do have to manually tap it to begin; the band does not automatically detect sudden spikes in heart rates as a potential start to an exercise. You also have to manually stop it when you’re done, which can be annoying to remember to do if you’re like me and you hop right into the shower after you’re done with a workout.
Although the Mi Band 4 offers sleep tracking, I found that the estimations didn’t always seem accurate. Most days, I wake up and start the morning by reading in bed, and the Mi Band wouldn’t recognize me as being “awake” until I got up and walked to the bathroom. (The Fitbit Inspire HR, the last fitness tracker I tested, had no problem identifying this lounging in bed behavior.) There was another day when I came home and promptly passed out on the couch at 9:45PM (no judgment, please) and briefly woke up around 1AM. The Mi Band 4 did not detect this movement, and it concluded that I slept for 10 hours and 51 minutes that night.
I could tell you that the Mi Band 4 is a perfectly fine fitness tracker. It’s cheap, easy to wear, fairly discreet and lightweight, and it does everything most $100 fitness trackers can do for less than half the cost. The problem I had with the Mi Band 4, and what I’d like to spend the second half of this review discussing, is how some of the messages on the device and through the Mi Fit app appear to be a bit lost in translation. It got so frustrating that I found it to be too annoying to recommend, especially if you’re a beginner looking for an inexpensive way to start changing your lifestyle.
Let’s face it: changing habits is hard. Cognitive scientists will tell you that positive language is key to restructuring your brain to encourage better behavior, and this is where the Mi Band 4 utterly failed.
Take, for example, the analysis of my first night of sleep with the Mi Band 4. Despite getting eight hours of sleep, I woke up to find some oddly worded, fearmongery tips, such as how sleeping after 11PM is going to speed up aging and wreck my immune system (which is especially not fun to read, given that I already have half the immune system of a normal human). It also vaguely suggested that I can improve my deep sleep times by not “strain[ing] myself,” making “arrangements for work,” and keeping a “good mood.” Um, what? That’s as “helpful” as your partner saying the meal you cooked could be improved by “making it tastier.”
The Mi Band also sends notifications to remind you to keep moving, as most wearables do, but its version of this message had a rather off-putting tone. After sitting at my desk for an hour at work, the Band buzzed and told me, “You’ve been sitting down too long.” Again, I’m no psychologist, but shouldn’t sustainable behavioral change be encouraged with a positive outlook? To each their own, perhaps. Maybe you’re the kind of person who prefers this type of sternness to get moving, but I felt like this gadget nagged me more than it motivated.
Avid exercisers will also tell you that muscle weighs more than fat, but the Mi Fit app seemed mostly focused on thinness as signified by an icon of a female figure slimming down in an overview of my weekly steps. (This icon was used regardless of whether you identified yourself in your profile as male or female.) Diet and weight loss are historically feminized, as Eater’s Jaya Saxena has written, when it comes to product messaging that can often be fatphobic. All of the Mi Band 4’s language just felt vain.
Mostly, I attribute this cultural mismatch to the fact that the Mi Band 4 and Mi Fit were made to first serve the company’s home market in Asia, which has different ideologies in terms of what constitutes health and happiness. But if Xiaomi wants its bands to be more effective in areas outside of Asia, it might want to consider updating its software to suit other markets.
The easiest way to bypass this mess is to just pair your Mi Band with Google Fit, but it requires having a Mi Fit app to do so, which adds digital bulk to your phone. It’s ironic, given the push by Mi Fit for a lean and conservatory lifestyle. Even if you do skip the fitness tracking features in the Mi Fit app, it’s still worth taking a moment to talk about messaging because part of pursuing a healthier lifestyle is mental. If Xiaomi wants its products to be consistently used, the language should encourage it rather than drive users away.
All that said, the Mi Band 4 is a solid device. You really do get a lot for a fraction of the cost of other fitness trackers, and most of my gripes with the device can be solved with a push of a software update. If you’re looking for an inexpensive, basic wearable, you could do much worse than the $40 Mi Band 4. After all, it’s a fitness tracker that does just that: it tracks. Just don’t look to the app for any help on how to improve your actual health habits.
Photography by Natt Garun / The Verge
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