Most of us want some idea about our weight even when we aren’t fitness nuts or actively dieting. We dutifully step on the scale every morning, often wincing as we peer at the display and learn the cost of that extra slice of chocolate cake last night.
It’s the most basic measure of health: Do I weigh the right amount? Or is it just that these jeans do make my butt look fat?
Mechanical scales – the kind you grew up with – use levers, springs, and a rack and pinion arrangement to turn the display dial. Those old-fashioned bathroom scales had vague displays (“Is that 107 pounds? 109? Oh well, I’m under 110 anyway!”). However, most of today’s scales are electronic and battery-operated. A tiny video screen authoritatively displays 108.8, as if that extra digit of precision would prevent any more regrettable dessert choices.
The most obvious criteria people use in choosing a bathroom scale is accuracy. After all, if it doesn’t tell us how much we really weigh, what’s the point of owning a scale? But the true measure of a bathroom scale is whether it is “accurate enough.”
We had an inspector from the state of Arizona Department of Weights and Measures test each scale, and compare the results to a Mettler Toledo state “official scale.” An individual (me) who weighed 108.6 on the Mettler weighed 109.0 on the Withings, 109.3 on the Fitbit, 108.8 on the EatSmart, 108.2 on the Etekcity, 108.0 on the Weight Gurus scale. That’s right: a different result on every scale, with a range of almost a pound, even when the scales were carefully placed on the same floor tile. But still: It’s just one pound.
The truth is: No scale you’d buy for home use is calibrated for fine-tuned accuracy. The scales at a fitness club or doctor’s office probably are more accurate – at their price they should be – but you can’t be 100% sure of them, either. The only scales that are licensed (and thus inspected) are those that involve transactions, such as scales you find in grocery stores (if you pay for 5 pounds of chicken, you should get 5 pounds), pawn shops, and airports. And that’s fine, since a variance of a pound or two rarely is critical (even if fitting into your old prom dress is).
Weight is only one measurement, though. Some bathroom scales evaluate BMI (Body Mass Index) as well, to identify how much of your weight is fat versus muscle. “Without tracking actual body fat, the consumer has no idea where their weight loss is coming from,” says Jim Cipriani, a personal trainer. “Just as ‘all calories are not created equal,’ all body weight is not created equal. Losing lean muscle weight is not good at all. With that, the resting metabolic rate drops making further weight loss harder... and, in fact, the ability to regain fat weight easier,” he says.
So if you work out, you might lose 3 pounds even after a lot of exercise. Yet, examining the body fat trends, it may turn out you lost 16 pounds of fat and added 13 pounds of muscle. You might not see your progress on the scale, even if you see the difference in clothing, waist measurements, and wolf whistles.
However, the BMI measurements included in consumer bathroom scales only calculate for body fat in the legs and buttocks region, says Dr. Barry Sears, president of the nonprofit Inflammation Research Foundation. “That is the route to complete the electric circuit use for the calculation of body fat,” he explains. “To get a true indication of overall body fat, you need to also look at the body fat in the midsection and the arms.” Fitness club scales are more likely to include those more complex measurements.
That doesn’t mean the bathroom scales’ BMI measurements are useless – quite to the contrary. “Something is better than nothing,” says Dr. Sears. “Excess body fat is a more powerful predictor of future illness than is excess body weight.”
What matters most are trends, in both weight and BMI. If you want to evaluate whether your diet is working, the bathroom scale shows if you lost weight or gained muscle mass. Similarly, parents can see the effect of their kids’ growth spurts.
So while those are the most obvious criteria in choosing a scale, they are far from the only ones. You should also pay attention to user interface issues, multiuser support, and mobile application integration.
The simplest way to test any scale is obviously to step on it, read the results, and identify whether the results are reasonably accurate – or at least consistent. Pretty much any scale manages that task.
Needless to say, we looked at several additional criteria.
You’re going to be looking at these scales first thing in the morning, before you’ve had a cup of coffee. Can you read the display without your glasses?
All of these scales are backlit, so you can see the display even in your pre-dawn weigh-in.
These scales all turn on when you step on them. The scales that measure BMI expect you to wait a few moments to do its analysis, ideally while you are in bare feet. For the prototypical Tuesday-morning weigh-in, that’s fine.
But we do use our scales to measure other things. These scales don’t begin to notice items under about 10 pounds, much less to promise accuracy below that weight. If you need to estimate what it’ll cost to ship your kids a box of cookies via UPS, that might be a problem. And it means you cannot press the scale into use as a kitchen scale.
All these scales let you measure in both pounds and kilograms.
Many old-time scales claimed (relative) accuracy up to 300 pounds. That used to be enough, but with today’s increased obesity you may need a scale that can manage a heftier individual.
The weight supported also affects physical dimensions. A wider platform is easier to stand on, especially for users who have larger feet or mobility issues. These scales are all 12”-13” wide and are unlikely to present a problem.
Note, though, that few scales work on carpet, and they all expect a level surface in order to promise accurate results. If your bathroom is carpeted, either find a block of wood or tile onto which to place the scale, or look first to the Withings scale, which includes separate carpet feet.
Perhaps the best reason to invest in a more expensive bathroom scale is the opportunity to save your data to mobile and web applications, which makes it easy to track trends. If you’re trying to get healthy, it can be heartening (or, okay, depressing) to see the trajectory of your weight and BMI over time.
But the data collection gets even more useful when it’s used in conjunction with other applications or shared with health professionals. If you use Withings’ blood-pressure monitor and also buy its scale, for instance, you can see whether there’s a relationship between your weight and your blood pressure readings. Fitbit’s software logs all sorts of data, such as the daily number of steps recorded by one of the company’s trackers or the food you consumed (and which you can enter manually, if you have that kind of self control).
Depending on the scale, data can be shared with other software, too, such as Runkeeper or MyFitnessPal. On an iPhone, the mobile apps can be set to communicate with the Apple Health app, which makes it possible (if not precisely easy) to provide a doctor with exercise data, including weight and BMI.
The data collection and tracking has other implications. One is connectivity: Does the scale use Bluetooth or Wi-Fi? How much tech-savvy does it take to set those up? Another is multiuser support: Each family member’s data is collected separately, which raises questions about the number of mobile devices supported.
Each bathroom scale addresses these issues differently.
Want to track your weight without investing in another fitness or health devices? The Greater Goods Weight Gurus scale is rather a Goldilocks choice: Not too big, not too small – just the right size. And it has a reasonable price, too.
With a bright, backlit screen, it’s easy for a casual user to get a fast weight reading – and a lot more. The Weight Gurus scale also records BMI, body fat, lean mass, water weight, and bone mass. As with the other BMI-enabled scales, the accuracy is iffy (claiming 24.% body fat percentage compared to 28.2% on the fitness club’s scale), but suitable for anyone looking for “Am I getting better?” trends.
All that data is stored in its friendly mobile app and (if you like) synced with others, such as Apple Health. It auto-detects up to eight users (a feature we did not test extensively), and stores data on each users’ own phone.
A strong plus is customer service that begins before you even get the scale. As soon as the order is received, the company sends an acknowledgement e-mail message with a link to a video showing how to set up the scale. That’s a nice touch, especially since those instructions worked perfectly the first time out.
You do need a smartphone or other mobile device that’s equipped with Bluetooth, but it doesn’t always have to be nearby. The scale displays the results when you stand on it, and it catches up on data syncing the next time you do weigh yourself with the phone in arm’s reach.
If you’re looking for a straightforward, unfussy bathroom scale at a modest price, it’s easy to recommend the Etekcity unit.
Don’t look for any bells and whistles, much less electronic geegaws or data tracking. It’s just a scale. But it’s an exceptionally nice one.
The 6mm-thick tempered glass isn’t as nervous-making as the EatSmart unit. Perhaps that is because of its black background, but it gives a mental perception of sturdiness.
When you step on it, the Etekcity gives you near-immediate results. Its display is big enough to read without effort, and bright enough to be visible even in a darkened room.
Withings has its fingers in many health and fitness pies, from sleep bracelets to blood pressure monitors to activity-tracking watches. Each, naturally, is integrated in a mobile app so you can collect and view your progress. And if you care about your health, naturally it makes sense to keep track of your weight, too.
Except the Withings Smart Body Analyzer looks at far more than just your weight. Like the Weight Gurus scale, the Withings scale also captures fat mass, muscle mass, water, and bone mass (assuming you’re barefoot). An Athlete setting evaluates the numbers differently.
But it doesn’t stop there. You also see your heart rate (or you’re supposed to; it never worked for me), indoor air quality tracking, and a weather prediction. The latter sounds a bit wonky, but hey, it’s a good idea to check the weather when you’re getting dressed in the morning!
As a pure scale, it’s good if not outstanding. The screen is comfortably readable even in dim light. The scale is the only one to include carpet feet, so you don’t have to find a hard surface on which to weight yourself. But the scale takes a while to collect the data – and then unaccountably only displays it once. Were you distracted when it showed your body fat number? Start all over again. It’s an odd misstep for an otherwise excellent product.
The scale can use either Bluetooth or Wi-Fi to connect to the mobile app. The app is better designed than most, with easy-to-grasp personalization, reminders, and goal setting options. The app recognized an “unknown measurement” of 13 pounds, and figured that it probably wasn’t the primary user’s data. The app provided an option to create a new user starting with that data, rather than forcing a whole new user-creation process.
If you use other Withings products, it would be silly to buy a different scale. And if you’re shopping for other fitness and health tools, the feature depth here should encourage you to investigate your other options.
The EatSmart scale is a no-frills bathroom scale. You step on it to turn on the device. It tells you what you weigh, and it’s done. It’s an excellent value for the price.
Among its most appealing features is an exceptionally large backlit display. The 3.5” screen is bright enough for even the most bleary-eyed slug-a-bed to read early in the morning. Nor do you need to wait for results; the results pop up immediately.
The sleek, tempered glass-and-metal styling may suggest fragility, as we’re trained to think of glass as breakable. However, the EatSmart scale feels sturdy underfoot.
The only (mild) caution is that this may not be your best choice if you move the scale around regularly, such as storing it on a shelf. It needs to be recalibrated every time it’s moved; that takes only a moment (stepping on-and-off), but it could become an irritation.
Fitbit is known primarily for its fitness trackers, the wrist bands that record your steps, distance traveled, and calories burned; some also monitor sleep patterns. The Fitbit trackers work with mobile apps and the company website, so you can see your performance and crow about your achievements.
If you use one of these popular devices and their ecosystem of add-ons, acquiring the Fitbit Aria bathroom scale is a no-brainer. It measures and tracks your weight, lean mass, body fat percentage, and BMI, making it easy to pay attention to the numbers you find most useful.
You won’t have anything to complain about in the Fitbit Aria’s scale features. A “guest” stepping on the scale gets a readable weight display. It takes a heartbeat longer to show the information than with the basic scales, but then it’s collecting more information. That’s particularly true after you create a login for each user (the Aria supports up to eight users, each of whom can keep their data private), since the scale needs a few moments to gather the BMI data and to upload it over your Wi-Fi network – showing a check-mark to congratulate it on a successful data sync.
You do need to stand on the scale with dry, bare feet, or it won’t measure body fat. Assuming that you trust its numbers, that is. The scale reported that I had 26.8% fat, while the whole-body BMI measurements at my fitness club say 28.2%. That’s close enough as a rough guideline for most of us.
Unlike the other scales we evaluated, the Fitbit Aria uses your home Wi-Fi network to sync data. On the plus side, that means you don’t have to worry about the scale being in Bluetooth range of your smartphone. But the setup is a little persnickety, particularly because it switches from an internal Wi-Fi network to your own. Some cussing occurred even in a tech-savvy household with lots of devices – or perhaps because of them. In any case, if you buy this as a holiday gift, expect to be invited for dinner to perform family tech support.
The real power comes from the Fitbit Aria’s data tracking. You can set goals, and use the dashboard on the Fitbit app or website to see graphs that track your progress. It doesn’t sync directly with the Apple Health app, however; you need a third-party app to perform that integration.
If you are among the many people who love their Fitbit trackers, it’s easy to add this device to your arsenal. Once you do so, the dashboard can help you correlate your weight and BMI to your active exercise program.
If you use Fitbit’s or Withing’s other products, it’s easy to recommend those companies’ scales. Both do a good job of leveraging the scales’ weight (and other) data, alongside their other devices, to give you useful health trends.
But if you want to keep it simple – and frugal – then there may not be a reason to invest in anything beyond the Weight Gurus unit. It tracks more information than you probably care about, has a mobile application that’s designed for mere mortals rather than techie or health geeks, and did I mention that it’s really affordable?
If all you want is a glowing device on your bathroom floor that’s ready to tell you how much you weigh, it’s hard to find a better value. The Etekcity scale is comfortable, painless to set up, and inexpensive enough for even modest budgets.