Fitbit Charge 2: Australian Review

Fitbit Charge 2: Australian Review
Image: Fitbit

After two years in the wilderness — so to speak — Fitbit has a replacement for its now-middle-aged Charge and Charge HR fitness trackers. The new Charge 2 adds GPS tracking for your workouts — although not built into the wristband itself — and a host of other fitness tracking software features, like a new Cardio Fitness Level metric for you to base your overall fitness on. The hardware has evolved, too, with a bigger screen and removable wrist straps. One of the best fitness trackers you could buy is now even better.

What Is It?

The $249.95 Fitbit Charge 2 is a Bluetooth-enabled, activity-tracking wristband — you might call it a fitness tracker, you might call it an activity tracker, and with the Charge 2 you might even call it a smartwatch — available in both large and small wrist strap sizes, with replacement wrist straps available for $49.95 and luxurious leather bands for $119.95. Two ‘special edition’ Charge 2 trackers with fancy geometric-design bands are available for $289.95, but you can’t buy those bands separately elsewhere. The Charge 2 is sweat- and rain-proof, but you can’t take it swimming with you.

  • Bluetooth: Yes, Bluetooth v4.2
  • Display: Yes, OLED, four lines
  • Battery Life: (up to) 5 days
  • GPS: Yes, via phone

Built upon the solid foundation of the original Fitbit Charge and Charge HR, the Charge 2’s removable bands and stainless steel sides make it look quite similar to the Fibit Alta, although the Charge 2 stands out with a much larger screen than its predecessors. Despite that significantly larger screen, Fitbit rates the Charge 2’s battery life at around five days, just like the originals, with charging only taking a couple of hours at most.

Because the Charge 2 replaces both the base Charge and the heart-rate-monitoring Charge HR, it integrates the higher-end model’s PurePulse heart-rate monitoring, which runs 24/7 to give you a (relatively) accurate view of your current heart rate. Beyond that, the Charge 2 also adds a Connected GPS option that hooks into your (Android or iOS) phone’s GPS receiver and closely tracks an active workout over a distance — jogging, running, cycling and the like — and then displays a summary of that workout within the Fitbit app. In that way, the Charge 2 stands up to much more expensive GPS-enabled fitness watches, as long as you keep your phone with you.

The bigger screen of the Charge 2 translates pretty simply into it being able to display more fitness data at once. Like with other Fitbits, you scroll through the data with a quick tap on the screen to switch from steps to heart rate to floors climbed to distance and calorie burn and everything, but unlike on Alta and the original Charge you can just see more. And, like before, there’s a single button on the side of the Charge 2 that you can use to start a stopwatch or begin an activity — or, in the case of the Charge 2, begin one of the guided breathing meditation exercises that is unique to the new fitness tracker.

What’s It Good At?

Fitbit Charge 2: Australian ReviewImage: Fitbit

The Fitbit Charge 2’s most significant improvement on the original Charge is in its new Cardio Fitness Level graph. It’s an informal VO2 max level, a statistic representing maximal oxygen intake — how much oxygen your body can take in and use in one minute — that’s often used as a reference point for an athlete’s overall fitness. For the average Fitbit wearer, it’s a statistic that can be improved upon over time — lower your Cardio Fitness Score, and it’s a representation of how much fitter you’ve become. Having that number to measure against is every bit as effective a psychological tool as calories burned or steps taken in one day, too.

Having a range of notifications — calendar alerts and messages now, in addition to the previous buzzing notification of calls — on the Charge 2 makes it much more valuable as a smartwatch, and — for some users — will mean it can replace a smartwatch during the workday. It doesn’t work with third-party apps, though, so you won’t have your Facebook Messenger pinging you with chat notifications every second. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, especially during an extended session of exercise, is up to you.

Where the Charge 2 has really evolved is in the way that it intelligently tracks every part of your day to bring it into relief as part of a whole picture of your fitness. Everything from automatic sleep monitoring with silent alarms for your morning wake-up call to regular five-second tracking of your heart rate and intelligent recognition of impromptu running or other workouts means the Charge 2 is a fitness tracker that you don’t have to spend minutes paying attention to before, during or after you exercise. Since this can be a genuine psychological impediment to exercise, it’s useful that Fitbit takes it out of the equation.

Connected GPS means that when you do make a point of setting the Charge 2 to track a serious outdoor exercise, and as long as you keep your phone with you — which you probably would anyway, at least if you’re listening to music while you exercise. With that connected GPS feature, you do get a better image of the workout that you completed, and it’s available for review through the same Fitbit app that you’ve come to know and love if you’ve used a Fitbit device in the past. It’s not a patch on the versatility of a watch with GPS integrated, but to be honest I like the look of Fitbit’s app more than many of its competitors.

What’s It Not Good At?

Fitbit Charge 2: Australian ReviewImage: Fitbit

The addition of breathing exercises is a small but useful addition to the Charge 2, and it does come in handy for a quick two- or five-minute relaxation session, but compared to the guided breathing that Apple has built into the new Apple Watch, it comes up short. On Apple’s platform, you can adjust the speed of the breaths that you take as well as how long you take them for, and you have the additional option of either watching the (beautiful) on-screen display, feeling the Watch’s vibrations against your wrist or resting a forefinger on the screen. Fitbit’s implementation feels basic by comparison. If guided breathing is highly important to you, there are better options out there.

Update: Fitbit says that “the Relax mode of the tracker is personalised and automatically adjusts to your breathing rate”, rather than being set manually on the Apple Watch.

While Fitbit does make small and large straps for the Charge 2, you have to wear it further up your arm no matter the size of your forearm — past the end of the ulnar bone in your wrist, the thing that I called the ‘wrist knuckle’ up until a few minutes ago. That’s because while it’s a relatively slim wearable, the lugs where it connects to the removable wrist straps are quite rigid and unforgiving, and that can mean it can feel bulkier than it actually is. I’m used to wearing trackers between my hand and forearm, after the ulna, so wearing the Charge 2 felt a bit foreign to me.

Apart from the connected GPS, a lot of the new features of the Charge 2 are largely software-driven. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does lead us to wonder how much is different under the hood versus the original Charge HR, and it makes us a little more sceptical about the value of upgrading from that device. From an original Charge, there’s the excellent heart-rate tracking that helps to sweeten the deal. Similarly, the Charge 2 is going to face increased competition from proper smartwatches, albeit at double the cost, like the Samsung Gear S3 and Apple Watch Series 2 which offer the additional value of tracking swim strokes.

And, as usual, the caveat that I mention with almost all of my fitness tracker or smartwatch reviews is that the inclusion of a heart-rate monitor is not a substitute for any kind of professional or high-end fitness tracker. You can get a relatively accurate reading from the Fitbit Charge 2, but the key word in that sentence is relative. If your heart rate is significantly higher on the Charge 2 during exercise than when you’re relaxed, that’s a good sign that it’s working correctly. But using it as anything more than a guide — and this is true of all smartwatch heart-rate monitors! — is asking for trouble.

Should You Buy It?

Fitbit Charge 2: Australian ReviewImage: Fitbit

The $249.95 Fitbit Charge 2 is a worthy improvement from the original Charge and Charge HR, making good strides in everything from design — it now has interchangeable bands! — to the size and utility of the on-screen display, which on the old devices was a point of mediocrity on what was otherwise the activity tracker to beat in 2015. If you already have a Charge, and you’re locked into the Fitbit ecosystem, a Charge 2 is a good upgrade, but the same might not be so true for the Charge HR, which already has useful heart rate monitoring.

Fitbit Charge 2

Price: $249.95

  • Overall excellent fitness tracking suite.
  • Cardio Fitness Level is another new metric.
  • Screen now shows more, supports notifications.
Don’t Like
  • Guided breathing done better by competitors.
  • You still need your phone for GPS tracking.
  • Hard to justify upgrade from original Charge.

If you’re one of the Charge 2’s users intending on giving it a bit of moderate, regular usage more as a fitness tracker than a simple activity tracker — if you’re going to be taking it for a regular jog and you want to get an accurate idea of your distance and elevation covered and the speed at which you covered it — then the addition of a connected GPS mode using the smarts of your smartphone is a massive boon. In this way, the Charge 2 competes with much more expensive dedicated running and multi-sports watches from hardcore GPS brands.

The Fitbit app remains one of the best long-term health tracking systems on the market, and consistently displays updated data, as well as integrating with other devices (like the Aria) and services (like MyFitnessPal). Other extras like guided breathing, the add-on feature that every wearable has to have this year, are less useful on an everyday basis, but still add a bit of extra value to an already impressively-specced watch. That’s an important point, too — it is a watch. Lots of fitness trackers these days can run double duty and, y’know, tell the time, so you can do away with an analog wristwatch if you’re still wearing one.

With the Charge 2 changing a few of the small bugbears I had with the previous Charge HR — the lack of removable bands, more versatile notifications on both Android and iOS, and a little more integration into everyday activities — I’m now finding it very easy to recommend. Anyone that just wants an easy purchasing decision for a smartwatch or fitness tracker that lasts more than a couple of days at a time will be happy with what they get out of Fitbit’s latest wristband. The Charge 2 adequately replaces the Charge HR and becomes the fitness tracker that all others will be compared against in the year to come.