Simpler is better -- not only for kids and the elderly, experts say, but for anyone with diabetes who uses a blood glucose meter. Fewer steps mean fewer mistakes, and reviews say the best meters are those that make the basic glucose-testing steps -- insert test strip, prick finger, apply blood, read result -- as foolproof as possible.
The Bayer Contour (*Est. $20) handily wins the title of best glucose monitor, according to the expert and user reviews we read. Judged accurate and consistent in independent tests, it's also compact, affordable and easy enough for a child to use. In fact, ChildrenWithDiabetes.com names it one of the best glucose meters for kids.
The Bayer Contour reads test-strip codes automatically, so you never have to enter them by hand -- and that makes it easy to use strips from different vials (at home and at school, for example). It reads blood samples from several alternate sites (palm, forearm, thigh or abdomen), so sensitive fingertips can take a break. And testers appreciate how speedily the test strip wicks up a blood sample.
"Anyone who has tried to check a glucose level while holding an uncooperative, squirming toddler will be amazed at this test strip," says ChildrenWithDiabetes.com. The Bayer Contour requires a 0.6-microliter droplet of blood -- not the smallest on the market, but less than the 1 microliter some other brands need. "One of our testers had no problem getting enough blood from an alternate site, and our other tester had no problem with a tiny fingerstick drop," says ChildrenWithDiabetes.com.
The Bayer Contour blood glucose meter is moderately priced and full-featured, too. If you want to track your blood sugar over time, the Contour can store 480 test results in its memory, and you can download them onto your computer to generate reports with Bayer's optional software. It's the only auto-code meter rated "excellent" for accuracy in a test published by Men's Health, and it's a favorite of users at Amazon.com, Walmart.com and Buzzillions.com. Replacement test strips cost about $25 for 50 strips.
Runner-up glucose meters all fall short of the Bayer Contour in one area or another -- price, consistency or ease of use -- but each one has a particular strength that wins reviewers' admiration.
The FreeStyle Lite's (*Est. $24) main claims to fame are its tiny size (it's no bigger than a pack of gum) and tiny amount of blood required (0.3 microliters). Like the Bayer Contour meter, it automatically reads test-strip codes and allows several alternate testing sites (palm, forearm, thigh, upper arm and calf), and the FreeStyle Lite adds a backlit screen to make it easier to test in the dark. But the FreeStyle Lite's test strips cost more than Bayer's, at about $30 for 50 strips -- extra cash that adds up when you're testing four times a day, reviews say.
The FreeStyle Lite blood glucose meter formerly used a type of test strip that wouldn't work for people who take sugar-containing drugs (including a certain kidney dialysis solution), but the strips were changed in 2010 so that is no longer a problem. However, also in 2010, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sent a warning letter to Abbott Diabetes Care, which makes the FreeStyle Lite, after inspectors found some problems with the company's manufacturing process. The FDA said Abbott didn't follow correct quality control procedures in some cases (for example, when scratches were found on FreeStyle Lite test strips) and that some Abbott managers didn't have the proper education or experience. Abbott said it was fixing the problems, but the FDA has not yet closed the case.
The OneTouch UltraMini (*Est. $20) is another tiny blood glucose meter. It comes in six colors -- a bonus for kids, ChildrenWithDiabetes.com says. The OneTouch meter proves very accurate and consistent in one test, and testers find it extremely easy to use. However, the UltraMini requires a bigger drop of blood (1 microliter) than the Bayer Contour glucose monitor. Plus it allows fewer alternate test sites (palm and forearm), and you must enter test-strip codes by hand. One expert source points out that the UltraMini's test strips cost more than other brands'. We found them for about $65 for 50 strips at a retail pharmacy or less at medical-supply outlets.
The pricey OneTouch UltraSmart (*Est. $70) "is arguably the Lexus, Cadillac and Mercedes (take your pick) of glucose meters," says reviewer Erich Schultz at DiabetesWellBeing.com. While other blood glucose meters are compatible with separate computer software, the UltraSmart has powerful tracking software built in. It can store more than 3,000 records -- not only your blood glucose readings, but also when and what you ate, how much you have exercised, what time you took your medication and the results of your latest medical exams, if you wish. The UltraSmart can generate on-screen graphs to show what your glucose levels have been doing lately, or you can transfer the data to your computer. Reviews say the UltraSmart blood glucose monitor otherwise has the same pros and cons as the UltraMini -- it makes testing easy, but it requires a bigger drop of blood than other meters, takes expensive test strips, and you must type in the test-strip codes yourself. If you won't really use the advanced data features, experts advise sticking with a cheaper glucose meter: "Don't be that person who buys the $3,000 digital camera and only uses it on the automatic setting!" Schultz says.
Blood glucose testing can be a budget-wrecker, reviews say -- mostly thanks to the test strips.
"The devices themselves don't cost much, typically only between $9 and $85," say editors at ConsumerReports.org. "Sometimes they are even given away. But the test strips can add up. A year's supply for a patient who uses four a day ranges from $645 to $1,900."
And each glucose meter works only with its matching test strips -- a "give away the razor, sell the blades" model that users say can cost you dearly, especially if your insurance doesn't cover your diabetic testing supplies.
One brand from Wal-Mart stands out in reviews as a good, cheap alternative: the ReliOn Micro (*Est. $9). It's the cheapest blood glucose monitor recommended by our sources, and its test strips (*Est. $20 for 50 strips) are among the cheapest, too.
"It's quite good," says Drew Golden, who tests the ReliOn Micro for DiabetesDaily.com. Golden tests the ReliOn Micro against the pricier OneTouch UltraMini (*Est. $20), Accu-Chek Aviva and FreeStyle Flash meters, and they all come within two or three points of each other. Other users at the same website find the ReliOn Micro's readings comparable to their lab-test readings -- unlike the ReliOn Ultima (*Est. $9), which some users find inaccurate. (In fact, millions of test strips for the ReliOn Ultima and some other Abbott-brand glucose meters have been recalled for being inaccurate, which can have deadly consequences. See our What to Look For page for more. ReliOn Micro strips are not affected by the recall.)
Experts and users find the ReliOn Micro glucose meter easy to use. It's compact (the size of a pack of gum), and it reads the codes on your test strips automatically -- no entering them by hand. Plus, the ReliOn Micro meter uses a tinier droplet of blood than most other meters (0.3 microliters, instead of the usual 0.6), and users say they get fewer low-sample error messages and therefore waste fewer test strips.
In some ways, the ReliOn Micro isn't as fancy as pricier blood glucose meters. It stores 50 tests in its memory (most can store 400 plus), and you won't get any computer software to help you track your blood sugar over time. The ReliOn Micro allows only fingertip or palm testing, and it also works a bit slower than other meters -- seven seconds per test, instead of the usual five seconds. But users who simply want a reliable, inexpensive blood glucose meter say they're happy with the ReliOn Micro.