Fitbit is such a tease. In October, the company announced three new fitness trackers just in time for the holiday gift-giving season -- but decided not to ship two of them till 2015. Well, having now spent time with the Charge, Charge HR, and Surge, we believe the Charge HR is the one you want.
The $199.95 Fitbit Charge HR doesn't look like much, and that's generally a good thing. It's a nondescript band (I tested the black one) you wear on your wrist 24 hours a day. While it definitely doesn't look fancy or expensive, it's subtle enough that it will go with pretty much anything you wear. Unless you get the bright orange version, in which case your fashion problems likely extend far beyond the realm of wearable tech.
Superficially, it's a dead ringer for the normal Charge and the ill-fated Fitbit Force, which was recalled when a few people complained of skin irritation. Which means it's basically just a rubber band with a small LED screen and a single button on the side. The display is small and thin (like the bottom third cut off a postage stamp), and it stays off unless you push the button to wake it up. It also scuffs pretty easily. When it's clean, it's bright enough to read in sunlight, but I'm already having a little difficulty due to early wear and tear.
Physically, there are really only two real differences between the Charge and the Charge HR. The Charge has a half-assed clasp mechanism that made the band absolutely refuse to stay on my wrist when I reached into a bag or took a jacket on or off. It's kind of a miracle that I didn't lose it. The Charge HR, on the other hand, has a standard watch strap with a closure that works like a belt buckle, or any Casio watch you wore as a kid. It's a bit less comfortable (especially when typing) but I got used to it after a couple days, and it's roughly 100 times more secure. I'll take the trade-off.
The most significant difference between the two Charges, though, is the Charge HR's namesake heart rate monitor. Flip 'em over and take a peek at their underbellies, and you'll see the Charge HR has a little bit of a hump. That's what lets it keep tabs on your pulse 24/7. That hump presses into your skin so you don't need to ratchet down the band too tightly. (Our current favourite fitness monitor, the Basis Peak, employs the same trick).
Why is this important? Well, most fitness trackers out there are really just glorified pedometers. They count your steps, how much time you spend being "active," and better ones even have an altimeter to gauge how many floors you've climbed. Still, that's a pretty abstract picture of your health. Think about it: you might send your heart racing while snowboarding or riding a bike, but because the associated movements don't look like steps they won't count. Heart rate data, on the other hand, gives you a much better idea of how hard your heart has been working, which gives you a much clearer picture of your real caloric burn. It's about as good an estimate as you can get in your day-to-day life, really.
The good news is that I've found the Charge HR to be very accurate. I checked the pedometer by walking a set amount of steps and checking the Fitbit's readout before and after. One time I started at 7,460 steps, then I walked, counting out 1,000 steps as carefully as I could. At the end, the Fitbit showed 8,455. Just five off! Really impressive. With the HRM, I took my pulse (or had a friend take it) and then check the display. In nearly every test the Charge HR was within two to four beats per minute, which is a very small margin of error.
The Charge HR is also very easy to use. You basically just pair it with your iPhone or Android phone, enter some basic data about yourself into the Fitbit app, and then you just wear the thing. It also comes with a wireless USB dongle if you don't have a smartphone and would rather just pair it with your computer. From there all you really need to do is wear the thing. Fitbit claims the Charge HR will last "up to five days" on a fully charged battery, but I actually found that it did a little better than that -- I got almost six full days (Sunday night through Saturday evening). For a small device that's constantly monitoring your pulse, that's really good. The Basis Peak only gets about four days on a charge.
Want to see your data? Just press the button on the band to cycle through. In order, you can see the time of day, number of steps, current heart rate, estimated miles walked, estimated calories burned, and floors climbed (10 feet of elevation gained = one floor). Holding down the button starts a stopwatch, if you like. Sleep tracking is now automatic (thank the heavens), so you never have to remember to turn sleep mode on when you're groggily going to sleep or remember to turn it off when you're (even more groggily) waking up.
The biggest Cinderella story may be Fitbit's app. It used to be clunky, ugly, buggy, and extremely unintuitive. It is now hands-down the cleanest, easiest fitness tracker app out there. Jawbone's excellent UP app actually looks confusing by comparison. The Fitbit app gives you all the day's most important info on a single page. It's a quick, at-a-glance view that tells you everything: steps, calories, floors, average heart rate, sleep, everything. If you want more info on any of those things, you just tap it, and it will dive deeper. It even has handy little explainers in each category to help you understand what your metrics mean. You can also use it to set silent alarms to wake you up in the morning without disturbing your bedmate.
There are some advanced features, too, like food logging. The app now includes an easy to use food logging screen that lets you search for items and scan food barcodes too. It's way easier to use than Jawbone's version, and it's prettier and cleaner than the popular MyFitnessPal. (If you're trying to lose weight, monitoring your calories in and your calories out is the best way to do it -- sorry, fad diets.)
The app also leverages your phone's built-in GPS, so you can track runs and get coaching while you exercise. Personally, I still prefer to use standalone apps like Runkeeper or Runtastic, but since those both share data with Fitbit's app, it doesn't really matter.
This would be a good place to talk about the Fitbit Surge for a sec. The Surge is basically a hybrid between the Charge HR and a smartwatch. (At least I think that's the idea.) It has all the same features as the Charge HR, but it's bigger and it has more robust notifications. The Charge HR can vibrate and display the names of incoming callers, but the Surge can display incoming texts, too. The Surge also has a built-in GPS, so you can track your outdoor runs, hikes, and bike rides without needing to have a phone with you. Personally, I think it's generally a good idea to have your phone with you anyway, plus I like listening to music while I run, so I don't think the Surge is worth the added bulk or the additional $US100 that it costs. That said, you should still read our full Fitbit Surge review, written by the esteemed Mr. Eric Limer.
Oh, speaking of exercise, Fitbit warns that if you're engaging in an activity that requires a ton of arm movement (like boxing, or some P90X workouts) there may be points where the heart rate monitoring will cut out. It claims, though, that these momentary aberrations don't screw up the overall data, as it will extrapolate from the periods where it's getting good heart rate data and give you an average heart rate for that period. It's not a perfect solution, but none of these wrist-mounted HRMs fair any better. If you want the absolute best data for your workout, chest straps are usually still the most accurate (though they're annoying to use), and the upcoming category of HRM earbuds are actually very accurate as well.
One potential dealbreaker: The Fitbit Charge HR is not waterproof. It's "sweat, rain, and splashproof," but it is not swim-proof or shower proof. This is dumb. I mean, the good news is that I accidentally forgot about it and wore it in the shower every day and it seems to be fine, but it sucks that you can't swim with it. It's a missed opportunity.
My only other real complaint about the Charge HR is that there's a teeny-tiny groove between where the screen ends and the rubber wrist-strap begins, and that gap is just big enough to collect some unsightly gunk. Somehow I got some white gunk in mine. What is that? How did I get there? I don't know, but it's really hard to scrape it out. It's a little thing, but it makes it seem slightly less polished and/or premium than it otherwise would.
It's just so damn simple to use.
Nice and subtle looking, and the screen is generally easy to read.
Battery life is very good (almost 6 days), and step counting and heart rate monitoring were both highly accurate.
The web-based interface is nice, too, and it integrates with popular workout apps like Runtastic, Runkeeper, Endomondo, Strava, and others.
The plastic display is easily scuffed which impacts its visibility and also just makes it look cheap. The small gaps around the screen that let grime in don't help either.
Uses a proprietary charging cable, which I am almost definitely going to lose (probably tomorrow) and then I'll be screwed. Why not microUSB?
The clasp on the under side of your wrist can be slightly uncomfortable (but it's still better than the non-locking clasp on the regular Charge).
If you can get caller ID notifications then you'd think it could display SMS messages, too. Maybe they will add that in an update at some point.
Very dumb that it's not waterproof, swimproof, or showerproof.
Should You Buy It?
Yes. You should. If you want a standalone fitness tracker. This is a really, really good fitness tracker and it's reasonably priced for what it can do. Not only that, it's very accurate, it's super easy to use, and it's not bad looking. Fitbit really did a good job with this one, and I wouldn't hesitate to call it the best Fitbit yet. But is it the best wearable, period?
We currently have the Basis Peak in our top slot for Best Fitness Tracker. The Peak has a few more capabilities, but it's also bigger, bulkier, more expensive, and not quite as intuitive. It did, however, just release a major software update that brings real smartwatch notifications. I'm going to retest the Peak before I make the final call, but my gut says that the Charge HR is probably better for the majority of you lovely folks. Unless a lot of your activity takes place in the water, because the Basis Peak is actually waterproof. Down to 165 feet, anyhow.
But for me, personally, would I buy the Charge HR? No, and I'll tell you why. After testing numerous Android Wear devices, I'm officially on the smartwatch bandwagon, and honestly, I'm much more likely to keep wearing the Moto 360. Yes, despite its mediocre battery life and lack of sleep-tracking. It still does the 24/7 heart rate monitoring, which gives me a good estimate of my caloric burn, and it's just so damn convenient. I really love not only getting notifications on my watch but also being able to reply to text messages, see turn by turn directions while walking, and use it with my favourite running apps. I actually feel like it keeps me more engaged with the world around me. It's kind of a different category, but I only want to wear one device on my wrist, and I'd rather it be a smartwatch. But yeah, if all you really want is a fitness tracker, then get the Charge HR.
In case you're wondering if you might be better off with the Fitbit Charge instead of the Charge HR, let me make it very easy for you. There is not a single reason that you should buy the Charge over the Charge HR. Not one! You lose, so, so much functionality without the heart rate monitor, and you're only saving $US20. If it were $US50 cheaper, then maaaaybe, but I'd still say you should just shave your allowance for an extra few weeks.
PSA: Fitbit recalled the Force because a small group of people complained of some very major skin irritation. I'm certainly not going to blame the victims, but I'm also suspicious of the claims that it was because of the materials used. There was very little evidence for that, but Fitbit did the recall out of an overabundance of caution. The reason I'm dubious is because over the last few years of testing wearables, I've had rashes develop like that, and it's usually just because I'm wearing the band too tightly or because I'm not taking it off, cleaning it, and letting my wrist breath every once in a while. If you buy any wristable, please, swap wrists every now and then, clean it off, and let your skin breathe from time to time. Trust me on this one.
The Charge HR is available now in four different colours (black, blue, plum, and tangerine) for $US150, and as of today, it's the fitness tracker I'd recommend first. [Fitbit]