Introduction and design
I’ve been scratching my head for a while trying to figure out how to review the Fitbit Charge HR. In fact, fitness trackers of this kind, from the Garmin Vivosmart to the Jawbone Up, to the ostensibly more sophisticated likes of the Microsoft Band are a very troublesome area.
Here’s why: on a fairly profound level, the Fitbit Charge HR and its ilk just don’t work. Anyone who’s used as many as I have in the last few months is aware that their step counting is generally wrong, that the sleep tracking is both shallow and of minimal use.
Oh, and also frequently wrong. And don’t even get me started on their feeble attempts to track exercise that doesn’t involve walking.
- Check out our selection of the best fitness trackers you can buy right now
Actually, scratch that. You don’t need to have tried as many of them as I have; just a quick glance at the step-counting or calorie-burn screens of just about any fitness tracker, as you stroll along, tells you all you need to know.
So why have I given the Fitbit Charge HR four stars? This, after all, is a tracker that costs US$150 (£120, AU$200) that’s not expensive in the great scheme of things, but it’s also certainly not a trivial amount, and it’s at the top end of what you can pay for this kind of tracker.
There are three reasons. First, Fitbits in general and this one in particular are more accurate than most rival products. Secondly, for this kind of tracker, strict accuracy per se is actually less important than consistency. Even if it’s just consistently wrong in the same way, by the same degree.
The third reason is more difficult to explain because it’s an emotional response: the Fitbit feels like a good product. It gets enough right to make me less peeved about what it gets wrong.
What does that look like to you? That’s right: it’s a wrist that doesn’t have a rash on it. That’s despite me wearing the Charge HR non-stop for three weeks, apart from showering – it’s not waterproof, which is ridiculous – and charging it up.
Some users, however, have reported rashes, and Fitbit advises us to regularly take it off. But I ignored that advice and appear to be fine. If it’s true that the straps on the Charge HR and other Fitbit devices can be problematic because they contain nickel, that is also ridiculous.
It’s well known that nickel is toxic to human skin and, correct me if I’m wrong, is not generally considered an essential ingredient in watch straps.
However, for whatever reason, my arm is fine. Perhaps I have super powers.
Now what does that look like to you? Correct: a proper watch strap, with a proper buckle. Not two little pointy bits that must be engaged into two lugs, in an exercise only slightly less frustrating that attempting to nail jelly to a tree. This is a classic watch strap and it works.
Actually, it’s better than a classic watch strap. What you can’t see above is that the little band around the strap (far left) also has a little retainer that goes into the last hole on said strap to hold it in place. This seems to me about as perfect a system for attaching something to your wrist as it’s possible to make.
Every other fitness tracker maker: copy the Fitbit Charge HR. And that includes you, Fitbit; I remember the original Fitbit Charge had a different, crappier strap.
Now this, right here, is the optimum position for your Fitbit Charge HR. The manual suggests about a finger’s width from your wrist bone but I found it actually worked better for heart-rate reading a little further up.
I know everyone has different tastes but this, for me, is perfect fitness band design. It’s black, it’s the right width, it’s discreet, the screen is small but super-bright and legible in any lighting conditions, and it doesn’t scream, “Look at me, I’m a big idiot counting my steps!”
Speaking of light, under these, rather bright photographic conditions, you can see that the Charge HR weathers rather like a pair of expensive, technical trainers.
You may find this form of wear a cool feature that will eventually leave your device as charmingly gnarled as a 40-something ultramarathon runner. Or you may find it a bit irritating in a device that costs 120 quid. Up to you. It isn’t very noticeable in day-to-day use anyway, if I’m being honest.
Counting steps, battery and screen
So yeah, counting your steps. The Fitbit Charge HR, as I must keep referring to it for SEO reasons, does this about as well as your phone (if you’ve got a relatively recent smartphone) and better than most bands. It also counts flights of stairs, via an altimeter supposedly, and does this latter job about as well as your average blind, innumerate person.
I tested the step counter by taking a number of counted bursts of 100 steps. I’m not gonna claim it was superlatively accurate.
In fact it counted one burst as 120 steps and another as about 85. Still, you put those together and you’ve got about 200 steps and the Charge HR was generally only a little wrong, rather than wildly wrong.
It was also consistent in its wrongness, giving me confidence that I was walking further than I did yesterday, even if the number of steps was not precisely correct. And that, really, is what this type of tracker is all about.
I tested the stair counter by, yes, climbing some stairs. My block of flats (or “apartment condo”, if you’re reading this in American) has eight floors. The counting here was generally wrong by a factor of about 25-30 per cent. But again, it was consistent in its wrongness, which gives you some kind of platform to build on.
Where things went more weird was with tracking running or cycling. You can let the Fitbit Charge HR know you’re doing some more exacting exercise by holding down its one button till you feel a vibro-wobble. What happens after that is a little hard to gauge.
I initially thought that it was converting my cycling efforts into steps taken and stairs climbed, based on the number of calories I burned. However, on consulting with Fitbit, it transpired that it was basing the stairs climbed whilst cycling on the built-in altimeter.
Now, I am not an unfit guy, but I like to think that if I’d cycled up the equivalent of 20 or so flights of stairs on my 5-mile work commute – which is what the Fitbit Charge HR claimed – I would damn well know about it.
It also logged a number of “steps” while cycling, based on who-knows-what – the slight up and down motion of the handlebars presumably. Again, this was consistent, if weird. At the end of the day, it kept telling me i’d done 10,000 steps, which it probably wouldn’t have done if it had ignored the cycling entirely, which would be totes unfair. So, call me weird if you will, but I took all this as a fair indication of the amount of exercise I’d done and was happy.
I was even happier when I realised that on reaching 10,000 “steps” (or cycles, or Everests cycled up, or whatever the hell it’s measuring), the tiny screen gave a faithful recreation of the fireworks at the FA Cup/ Superbowl/ whatever that game is you have in Australia with the guys in tiny shorts beating each other up on a massive oval pitch.
Battery and screen
One of the things the Fitbit Charge HR gets not-so-right is the balance between screen attractiveness and battery life. The charger is at least small unlike the monster you get with the Garmin Vivofit, and it juices up your band in a couple of hours meaning you likely won’t need to leave it on charge overnight.
The battery on the Charge HR then does its duty for about four days. That’s not amazing if you want to wear it all the time, which I did.
This is despite the fact that the screen, though impeccably clear, is both tiny, and designed to switch itself off after no more than a couple of seconds.
Let me tell you, photographing the Charge HR while its screen was on was no easy task. This rapid switch-off also hurts functionality in certain ways – the heart-rate monitoring, most notably.
Heart rate monitor, app and sleep
Those little (not very) glowing lights to the left of the charger port are the pulse reader. This could be a killer feature for the Fitbit Charge HR, and it also gives the device the two initials on the end of its name. However, it’s actually kinda sketchy.
It works fine for giving a rough idea of your resting heart rate. However – and I hate to break this to you, if it’s news – resting heart rate means nothing if you’re not a really intense athlete.
And if you’re using a Fitbit Charge HR as opposed to a Garmin Forerunner 920XT or similar, I’m going to go right ahead and assume you’re not an intense athlete.
When it comes to tracking active heart rate, there are two major problems and one lesser one.
The first is the fact that the screen turns off after about two seconds, so you can’t see your heart rate, and hence you can’t tell what heart-rate zone you’re in, when doing any kind of demanding activity. So it’s not much use.
The second is that if your arm gets sweaty, it sometimes doesn’t work. Now, if Fitbit would like to tell me how I can stop my arm getting sweaty under a band whilst working out, I’ll be delighted to do so. As I am human and therefore, alas, sweat when hot, this is an issue.
Thirdly, weight lifting specifically seems to also make it not work. So if you like to pump iron, maybe this isn’t for you.
So with neither watch nor app giving you any useful feedback on the heart rate readings, and the readings themselves being suspect at best, the only real use they have is to make the Fitbit Charge HR’s calorie burning readings more accurate.
This is actually quite a major plus with this kind of tracker, and in fact the Charge HR is the first one I’ve used where calorie-burn estimates aren’t laughable. If I were on a diet, I’d put a fair amount of trust in what it’s telling me, even if I wouldn’t consider it gospel.
The only thing to bear in mind is that it’s always telling how many calories you’ve burned IN TOTAL, rather than just through exercise. So no, that run you just did at the end of the day probably did not, in fact, burn 2,500 calories – but that’s what your body’s burned off as you’ve strived, stepped, gone to the toilet and laid down for a bit of a nap. We’re always burning calories, you see!
That little USB nub you see there is the sync receiver for your computer. It connects first time pretty much all the time, and syncs rapidly, as does a Bluetooth sync with your smartphone – even the iPhone, which is usually so irritating to sync with via Bluetooth that you end up wanting to eat it.
Once you’ve synced your fitness data is when the Fitbit Charge HR really comes into its own. Fitbit kick-started the fitness wearables market and it has had a lot of time to hone its app, its social integration and to build its user base. This has paid off.
The Fitbit app offers integration with the likes of Endomondo, MapMyRun and MyFitnessPal, with its wealth of user-sourced food calorie counts – essential if you’re a dieter, which thankfully I’m not. There’s also support for apps that tell you how to lose weight, how to sleep better and how to keep active at work.
There’s also a clearly-presented daily view of your fitness goals and achievements, as well as weekly and monthly overviews of your ever-improving fitness and health, plus comparisons to both your peers, via step “challenges” and social, and to the world at large (although this latter feature is only via the desktop app and the paid-for Fitbit Premium service, for which there’s a free one-week trial.
This is what’s undeniably groovy about the Fitbit Charge HR. You could get away with just using the watch on its own to keep you on track day-to-day. Add the mobile app and you can burrow down into greater detail and make use of the social, fun side of Fitbit.
Go to the desktop app and you’ve got a semi-serious personal trainer, although I really think this is totally a tool for getting motivated to improve general health and, if you will, “wellness” (ugh) rather than getting in shape for marathon running, triathlon (you can’t swim with it for starters) or cage fighting.
Notifications, sleep and other features
Well this won’t take long. Keep Bluetooth switched on on your mobile and you’ll be notified on screen and via vibration when you have a call. Want to be notified of texts, emails or WhatsApp, or control your phone’s music? Tough luck. Call notifications is all you get.
Via the app, you can also set alarms. Not just one alarm, Withings and Garmin; as many alarms as you damn well like. Great job. The Fitbit Charge HR’s vibro-alarm was enough to rouse me from slumber and I have literally slept through bombs going off and fires on the floor above, so that’s good enough for me.
Are there any other non-fitness features of note? Well, it tracks sleep and you don’t need to hold down a button to do so. I’d trust the sleep “analysis” about as far as I could throw it, but it’s good to get an overview on how many hours of shut-eye I have or have not had in any given week. I guess.
To go into just a tad more detail on that, here’s a graph of my sleep from the Fitbit (left) next to a similar graph from the Withings Aura, a device specifically designed for tracking sleep, which monitors your heartbeat, movement and light and temperature levels in the room:
As you can see, there’s a two-hour discrepancy in the amount of sleep logged, and less detail on the Fitbit graph. However, they also share a number of similarities in when they’ve noted “restlessness” (Fitbit) or “REM sleep” (Aura).
The main thing the data from each has is in common is that there’s not a lot you can do with it. You can’t challenge friends to a “sleep off” and to be frank, if there are environmental reasons why you’re not sleeping (noise, too much heat, too much light), there will often be a limit to what you can do about it.
The only use I can find for sleep tracking is that if you’re consistently not getting enough because you’re repeatedly waking up during the night, the Fitbit will tell you so, and perhaps you could go to bed earlier. However, I don’t think I trust its sleep tracking enough to make any kind of call based on what it’s telling me.
Here’s the original Fitbit Charge, and it may suit you a little bit better than the HR edition. It works across all phones, like most Fitbit devices do and also comes in a little bit cheaper than the Fitbit Charge HR.
The design is exactly the same as the Charge HR and it all comes down to whether you want the extra heart rate features on the your Fitbit.
If you’ll be using this wearable for extensive exercise, you’ll like want the heart rate monitor to keep a closer eye on how you’re doing. It all comes down to that and if you want to spend that little bit extra.
- Read our review of the Fitbit Charge
Jawbone Up 3
This is going to cost you more than the Charge HR, but it may be worth spending that little extra money and going for the Jawbone Up 3. It comes in at US$180 (£150, AU$249), but bear with us.
The main selling features are the design, which is a similar shape to the Charge HR but looks more premium than the Fitbit.
The Jawbone app is also impressive and the wearable also offers some great sleep tracking features. It may be a little more expensive than the Charge HR, but be sure to read our review before you make that call.
- Read our review of the Jawbone Up 3
Fancy a wearable that looks a little bit more like a smartwatch? The Fitbit Blaze may be the best choice for you. The design is certainly not to everyone’s taste, but it does everything the Fitbit Charge HR does and a little bit more.
Just like a smartwatch you’ll get text notifications to your wrist and you’re also able to control your music easily while you exercise. It doesn’t supply app notifications like a smartwatch would though, so don’t expect to receive Facebook Messenger buzzes anytime soon.
It offers up every feature you’d need, except for GPS tracking which is only on the Fitbit Surge. If you like the Blaze though, it’ll cost you a little bit extra than the Charge HR at US$199 (£159.99, AU$329.95).
- Read our review of the Fitbit Blaze
You may want to go for a Fitbit Alta instead of the Charge HR, but that’ll mostly come down to the look. It has a very different design to the Charge HR with a full color display on the front, but it does lack a few of the key features you may want to see on it.
The Alta doesn’t feature floors climbed in your results and also won’t give you heart rate measurements like the Charge HR does.
It does give you text notifications like the Fitbit Blaze though, which can be helpful so you don’t have to reach for your phone every five minutes during a run. The best bit is the price though, and it’s even cheaper than the Charge HR at US$129 (£99, AU$199).
- Read our review of the Fitbit Alta
So there we have it: an imperfect mix of accurate step-counting, rather curious counting of everything else, in a stylish and discreet band, with an app and background ecosystem that do an excellent job of making fitness “fun”, or at least more fun than vomiting after doing shuttle runs under the watchful eye of the drill sergeant from An Office And a Gentleman or Full Metal Jacket.
The Fitbit Charge HR looks good. It’s one of the best designed Fitbit products out there and while it’s not as stylish as buying a smartwatch, it looks good on the wrist compared to other trackers.
It also does its core job well. Step tracking works and there are added benefits such as the heart rate and sleep tracking. It also has a battery that lasts just long enough to be not annoying.
The Fitbit app is great as it syncs quickly and reliably. While the Charge HR as a whole is both more sophisticated than most other bands, more useful, and less riddled with things that are hugely annoying.
I’m not going to pretend there aren’t issues here. It’s expensive. It’s not the most costly of the Fitbit range but it’s at the higher end and it’s a shame it costs that little bit extra then the original Charge. I don’t see why Fitbit hasn’t just replaced the Fitbit Charge and put this in at the same, lower price.
The other problem is the Charge HR doesn’t really track anything other than steps in a way that makes much sense. That’s an issue if you’re after something that keeps an eye on the rest of your exercise.
Another big negative is the fact it’s not waterproof. I want to keep it on when I enter the shower and it’s a shame you can’t do that with the Charge HR. Plus the battery lasts only just long enough to be not annoying.
However, here’s the thing. I loved using the Fitbit Charge HR, and it actually did encourage me to exercise more. No other fitness device has had that effect on me.
I loved that it’s so discreet, I trusted it enough to use the figures it was giving me as motivation, I really liked the look and feel of it, I bored my friends with my stepping exploits and to be honest, I even liked its quirkiness; the way it gamely tried to add my cycling to my daily activity log, even though it was confused.
Yes, I know, I got mine for nothing. I also had to think up several thousand words to write on what’s basically a glorified pedometer, so sue me. Would I pay £120/$150/AU$200 for it? Maybe not. But I’d shop around/wait a while and gladly pay about £90/$120/AU$160 for it.
If Fitbit can make a few firmware and app updates that make the heart-rate monitoring more useful, I’d maybe shell even more.
Fitness trackers are weird tech. They’re more art than science, and all too statistically fallible.
However, if you’re not a hardcore runner, cyclist or iron pumper – and definitely not a swimmer, as this isn’t waterproof, a fact I can still hardly believe despite mentioning it three times in this review – if you’re a weight-watcher, an unfit person who wishes to change, or a fit person who wishes to show off, this is the fitness tracker I’d recommend right now.
First reviewed March 2015
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