Fitbit Alta HR: Australian Review

Do you want to get fit? We all do, really. Do you want to know exactly how far you're walking -- or not -- each day, and to know exactly how long you're sleeping -- or not? How about your heart rate after all those coffees? Fitbit's latest Alta HR fitness tracker is by far its most refined device yet, and one of the first we'd actually recommend for the everyday wearer doing everyday things.

What Is It?

The $249 Fitbit Alta HR is a fitness tracker that promises week-long battery life, accurate step tracking and detailed sleep tracking. It will measure your heart rate every few seconds as long as you're wearing it, too. And it backs all this up with a screen that shows you how you're going and a complementary smartphone app that gives you a more detailed picture of all the metrics that the Alta HR's sensors are picking up along the way.

One of the big hooks of the Alta HR is improved sleep tracking metrics, with more information on the state and quality of your sleep as well as more detailed recognition of when you actually fell asleep -- through the fitness tracker's gyroscopes as well as its heart rate monitor -- both of which contribute to a broader picture overall. That heart rate tracking happens once every five seconds for the entire time that the Alta HR is strapped on to your wrist, and it gives a holistic picture of your activity, mood and stress on an everyday basis.

You can buy the Alta HR for $249 in either a small or large wrist size, and Fitbit has printable wrist templates that you can check against if you're unsure. More interesting than that, though, is the fact that Fitbit's ecosystem of fashionable accessories like its leather straps and gold bangles work with the latest Alta and make it look a lot nicer than it already does -- and it already looks like the nicest fitness tracker that you can buy outside of ones from actual fashion brands.

The Alta HR displays notifications for incoming calls and texts and some other supported apps from your phone to your wrist, but it's hamstrung by that small display. In reality, it's more effective as a secondary ping that you're actually getting a notification in the first place -- my ideal usage was to leave my phone on mute and use the Alta HR as a surefire vibrating reminder. In any case, it will tell you when things are going on with your smartphone.

What's It Good At?

The Fitbit Alta HR boasts much improved sleep tracking compared to older models, which should interest anyone that struggles to get a good night's rest -- or, more importantly, anyone that finds that inconsistent sleep is keeping them down. The biggest improvement that the Alta HR makes is in its software representation of your sleep; it'll now more accurately display your REM cycles and periods of deep and light sleep. I'm an awful sleeper both by genetics and by circumstance, so reading my Fitbit data is more depressing than anything else, but it's good to have in the first place.

The design of the Fitbit Alta HR shows just how much Fitbit has evolved as a company. It isn't perfect -- more on that later -- but it's much improved from previous, more angular, wearables. The design of the band is slick and sophisticated, and you can unclip the actual Alta HR wearable and upgrade to some seriously fashionable accessories if you really want it to suit your outfit. That elevates the Alta HR from middling everyday fitness tracker to a piece of wearable technology that you actually want to wear, and that's half the battle in tracking fitness in the first place.

Battery life during everyday use and more strenous actively-tracked activities has always been the crucial feature for any fitness tracker to nail, and plenty have delivered mediocre results in the past. I'm very happy to say that Fitbit has nailed it with the Alta HR, delivering a full week of charge -- in line with Fitbit's promises. In reality, over the time that I've used the Alta HR, I've found myself charging it on a Friday night before the weekend and a Sunday night after it, so I have the charge for an active weekend and a passive week. It works well.

Fitness trackers have to do at least one thing well to be worthy, and that's accurately track steps. The Alta HR does that, to its credit -- compared to my actual counting (yes, I went out and walked a big loop and counted to 10,000) and other fitness trackers with GPS assistance, the Alta delivered very close results that were only very slightly optimistic. When I walked 10,000 steps, the Alta HR reported roughly 10,250. That's very close, and should speak to the accuracy and versatility of Fitbit's sensor suite inside its latest fitness tracking devices.

What's It Not Good At?

Fitbit's band designs have, for me, always been a little inferior to some of its competitors. I'm one of the few that loved the much-maligned Jawbone UP's flexible band (although that was its downfall, soooo) and having the watch-style clasp at the base of the Alta HR makes it a little uncomfortable when you're resting your wrist on a table -- when you're writing this review, for example. I find myself taking off the Alta HR every now and then to give my wrist a rest. It's a good idea to air it out anyway, of course, but just don't expect to wear it 24/7.

You need to go into the process of buying the Alta HR with the mindset that it's a jack of all trades and a master of none. It's not as accurate for measuring short-term heart rate measurements as a dedicated heart rate strap (I use an UA Heart Rate band that is excellent), and there are dedicated sleep trackers like Withings' Aura that will do a more detailed and better job in that area too. But if you want everything in one small wrist-wearable, it's hard to go past the Alta HR.

With HR in the name, it's a given that you should expect good heart rate tracking from the Fitbit Alta HR. And it does a good job, with measurements every five seconds throughout the day, but I did find that there were several instances throughout most of the days that I've been wearing the Alta HR that it didn't get an accurate measurement, skewing the overall results somewhat. It doesn't handle a sweaty workout as well as the Apple Watch Series 2 that is my wrist-wearable heart rate benchmark, although that's understandably also twice the price.

And one last, increasingly minor complaint -- the Alta HR's single-line monochromatic display hasn't evolved at all from the original Alta. That's not a huge deal, because the Alta's display was decent in the first place, even if tapping through menus is (for my money) not the quickest way to check on your step count, but it would have been nice to see a little more detail or a more information-heavy user interface with the latest iteration of the Alta HR.

Should You Buy It?

The $249 Fitbit Alta HR is, for most casual fitness users' needs, just about the best fitness tracker you can buy in its price range. It's simple -- very important for fitness tracking newbies -- and has excellent battery life compared to a fully-fledged smartwatch -- important for anyone that can't commit to an overnight charge every single night.

Much improved sleep tracking is a useful feature for the busy everyday users out there, too. it's more detailed and offers more insights and reminders to get you into good habits. Having that kind of data isn't the most important thing compared to the fundamentals of step tracking, but it contributes to an overall health picture, and that's important in and of itself.

As notifications go, there are much more convenient devices out there -- on Android you'll still find the Alta HR wanting compared to any Android Wear smartwatch, and on iOS the gold standard is still the Watch inside Apple's own walled garden. It's fine, but you'll still find yourself pulling out your phone to actually get a full picture of what's going on.

At its core, though, relatively accurate step tracking, good battery life, accurate heart rate readings -- and a good number of them in the background throughout the day, too -- as well as a best-in-class app and insights and the crucial software side means that unless you have some really specific needs for your fitness tracker, the Fitbit Alta HR should keep you happy and healthy.