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‘Smart scales’ make weight loss a social experience

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Fitbit Aria (Credit: Fitbit)

"So how much do you weigh?"

It doesn't get much more personal than that, especially if, like most of us, you're a little self-conscious about your mid-section. But wouldn't you be a little more conscientious about your workout routine -- or your habit for going big with dessert -- if you knew you'd be constantly sharing the ups and downs of your body-fat percentage with all of your friends?

If the answer to that question is "yes," you're the perfect candidate for a new breed of bathroom scales that do more than just measure your weight. They'll also analyze your body composition and your BMI, uploading all that info to a web site where you can watch the numbers change as the months go by, and even disseminate it to the world at large via social sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Sound crazy? It kind of is. But to find out exactly how crazy, we tried out the two front-runners.

Fitbit Aria

Price: $129.95

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Fitbit Aria (Credit: Fitbit)

The Aria scale is a new offering from Fitbit Inc., the company behind the popular, wearable, pedometer-on-steroids of the same name. We like the Fitbit a lot -- its simple approach to fitness tracking means you're more likely to stick with it, long-term -- and the Aria scale shares the same mentality and many of the same tools.

[Related: Hi-tech tools for getting -- and staying -- in shape]

It's a sleek little black number (or, if you prefer, a sleek little white number) with a circular display embedded in the top. It's easy to integrate into your bathroom decor, although like any scale it doesn't work so well on thick-pile carpets.

Setting it up is straightforward, as long as you have a laptop handy. Its software supports as many as eight different users, and uses weight and body fat measurements to differentiate between them. As long as you're all sufficiently different in those departments, it'll assign your weights to the right account -- if not, you'll likely have to sort them out by hand. But once that's done your stats stay private…unless you want to share them.

It's here that the Aria really impresses, offering a wide range of easy-to-configure options that'll let you choose just how open you want to be with the state of your waistline. Fitbit users will already be familiar with the company's keen understanding of how social networking can motivate fitness and weight loss, and you'll find the same ethos at work behind the Aria.

Will it make you lose weight? No, of course not. But if you're motivated by the acquisition of achievements, earning badges, or the simple pleasure of watching your numbers gradually drop on your computer screen -- and the success of social-networking toys like Foursquare indicate plenty of us are -- it'll probably help.

Besides, some academics believe bribery is actually an effective tool for getting folks to lose weight. While you won't earn cash for shedding weight on the Aria, getting something for losing something may be just enough motivation to keep you going.

Withings Body Scale

Price: $159.00

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Withings Body Scale (Credit: Withings)

The Aria isn't the only game in town, however.

On the face of it, the Withings Body Scale offers much the same feature-set as the Aria: it tracks weight and body-fat percentage, uploads via wi-fi to a tracking website, and supports multiple users in the same household, each with their own login and privacy settings. It even looks very similar, although it's somewhat larger and heavier.

In use, the scale is a touch slicker than the Aria, too. The bright display is easier to read, especially on bleary-eyed mornings. And if you happen to share your scale with someone of comparable weight, you can assign your weigh-ins to the right person from the Withings Scale by shifting your weight to select your initials.

[Related: Diet Glasses: The Future of Weight Loss?]

It's been on the market rather longer than the Aria, and its maturity is particularly evident when you look over the enormous list of web sites and services it supports. If you like to use a variety of different fitness or diet trackers -- or you're still trying to settle on the ones that best suit your lifestyle -- you'll probably find the Withings a better bet, simply because it supports just about every health-related web site you've ever heard of, and ten or twenty more you haven't.

Which isn't to say that the included software is bad, because it isn't. In fact, it's excellent. Like the Aria, it'll show you your weight charts on your computer and your iPhone, but unlike the Aria, Withings also has a native iPad app, and its software offerings are markedly prettier and better featured, especially in the social arena. Want to update your Facebook page with your weight every time you step on the scale? No, of course you don't. But if you did, Withings would have you covered. More usefully, it can also do things like share your weight curves with your physician.

All the same, it's more of a single-tasker than the Fitbit setup. There's no food diary, no activity log, nowhere to record how much you slept. It's a piece of the health-and-fitness jigsaw, not the whole set, as it were, and for functions beyond weight tracking you'll need to head for one of the many other sites it supports.

The bottom line

So pound-for-pound, which is the better bet? Both are likable products, and both offer comparably simple setup and reliable operation. Ultimately it's all about your needs. Looking for a simple, all-in-one solution that'll give you some extra motivation and encouragement? You want the Aria. Already using online fitness trackers or food diary sites, and wanting to take your data to the next level? You're probably better off with the Withings, if you can foot the bill.

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