Written By Barefoot Dawsy
The FitBit. I’ve wanted to try out one of these since they first came out on the market a few years back, but let’s be honest, they seem like very expensive pedometers, right? As luck would have it, I recently got the chance to try out a FitBit Charge HR free of charge, and see if they’re truly worth the money that could otherwise be spent on race entries and minimal shoes.
Before even trying it on, I had to admit that this is an attractive bit of kit. I really love the minimal styling of the FitBit Charge HR, and can understand why this particular model seems to be the current most popular style.
I couldn’t help trying it on before charging it up, and with a nice wide band, and plenty of notches, it was easy to adjust and very comfortable on my wrist.
Actually setting up the FitBit was pretty straight-forward. I simply plugged it in and followed the instructions to download the client software to my computer (via a web link), and to my Android smartphone (via the Google Play store).
I left it to charge while the software installed and let it get fully charged before giving it the initial obligatory run-in-place test.
To my chagrin, none of my steps were being counted initially and my heart rate was in the mid hundreds. Sure I haven’t been exercising much recently, but that seemed like a very high resting heart rate. In retrospect, this issue may have been related to my device being a testing sample, and was likely refurbished or at least tried and returned at some point.
Others that I have spoken to had no such issues and their FitBit Charge HR just worked.
I admit it was a bit disappointing to have issues right out of the box, but at the same time it gave me an opportunity to test out the FitBit help resources. A quick Google search led me to the FitBit help pages, which are pretty comprehensive and very helpful. Within minutes I had learned how to reset my device, and my problems were resolved.
For such a small, and minimally styled device, the FitBit Charge HR packs quite a lot of features into a small package:
Heart Rate Monitor
The heart rate monitor is arguably the most high-tech feature on the Charge HR. It uses LED lights on the bottom of the device to track changes in the blood flow in the veins of your wrist. I was expecting it to need to be worn on the underside of my wrist, however it works fine in the regular watch position.
The FitBit lets you check your heart rate via a menu option accessed by the small button on the side of the display. I’m not sure why, but my heart rate usually appears elevated when I try to view it this way, though the recorded stats, viewable via the FitBit site or mobile app, seem about right. This is a bit annoying, and I wouldn’t use the device as a dedicated HR monitor because of it. I do find the historical tracking interesting though.
Other users have reported the same issue, so it may be fixed in a later update. Many users, however, report no such problems, so YMMV. Post your experiences in the comments section as I’d love to know if any of you have a similar issue.
The core function of all FitBits is the built-in accelerometer that is used primarily as a smart pedometer. The Charge HR is no different, and it does a great job. Like any off-the shelf pedometer, the device can count your steps as you walk around or engage in exercise. What makes the FitBit different is that it can work out when you’re driving or riding in an elevator, and stop recording your steps appropriately.
Of course, the pedometer isn’t foolproof and there will be times when it doesn’t record, or over-records your steps. Try to keep the air-drumming to a minimum though, and the differences should just about average out.
There is a default 10,000 steps goal programmed into the device which causes the device to vibrate and alert you that you’ve reached the goal. The amount of steps can be changed via the settings panel.
Sleep tracking is the killer app that you didn’t know you were missing. The data received from your device is compiled onto your FitBit account, where funky algorithms are applied, and the quality of your sleep is assessed.
It shows the duration of your sleep, periods of restfulness, and periods of wakefulness, measured based on the movements of your arm and what, if any, major movements or steps you’ve taken during the sleeping period.
As a parent with 2 sleep deprivation-inducing kids, I’ve found tracking this a morbidly fascinating experience.
From what I can tell, it’s pretty accurate, though it only records sleeps of more than an hour – power nappers and polyphasic sleepers, you have been warned.
On top of the built-in accelerometer, the Charge HR also has an altimeter, allowing it to measure distance travelled vertically. Like the pedometer, it has built-in smarts to avoid recording elevator or plane trips.
I know, right, a watch with a clock in it – how novel. Actually the only reason I mention it here is that the FitBit Charge HR has a neat feature whereby it turns off the display when you’re not looking at it. To activate it, just lift your wrist and turn the watch face towards you, and it lights up , showing you the time (or one of the other metrics if you choose to change the defaults via the FitBit site).
It’s a cool, futuristic-feeling feature that I like, though there have been many phantom wrist-lifts where it didn’t turn on, requiring a press of the button to light it up, or else a repeated arm movement (a sure-fire way to spot another FitBit user by the way!)
All of your stats are compiled instantly as your device is synced with your FitBit account via the included WiFi dongle, or bluetooth-enable device. A couple of these are also calculated and shown directly on the device.
These include Calories Burned, and Distance travelled. Calories Burned is calculated based on your basal metabolic rate using your provided height and weight, and factors in periods of activity and rest. It’s hard to say how accurate it is, though FitBit insists that it’s very accurate.
Distance travelled is also calculated based on your height and activity, though is not as accurate as a GPS would be, and as a barefoot runner with a short stride, I’ve found it pretty unreliable.
The FitBit Charge HR is designed to be worn as often as possible, during the waking and sleeping hours. It has a great battery life, allowing it to function continuously for several days.
I’ve found that taking it off and charging when showering (it’s not waterproof), gives it enough of a boost to keep it fully charged without losing too many tracked steps.
And that’s my next point. Wearing a FitBit really focuses you onto the number of steps per day you’re taking. I’ve never really given it much thought before, but now I find myself pacing, or taking the longer route home, or looking forward to forgetting something.
It’s a really strange and subtle change, but does make an impact. I’ve struggled for years to get back into a regular training routine. Being focused on steps has encouraged me to move more, which has in turn helped with setting up a training schedule.
With regards to accuracy, the FitBit pretty much behaves as you would expect. Steps counted seems reasonably accurate, barring jarring hand movements, etc.
As described above, the heart rate monitor seems accurate on the app, but not on the device. I suspect that there may be some extra noise filtering going on once the data gets online, which is why there is an apparent difference. I’m guessing here though, and don’t know for sure.
The sleep tracking has been a lot of fun to look at. It’s really fascinating to see just how well/poorly you slept, and how that is affected by external factors, such as late nights, big runs, alcohol, or kids. It’s one of my favourite features, and I hope they expand this metric in future iterations.
Another cool feature that I hadn’t realised was even on there until a spoke with a friend who has one is the Friends list. This lets you create a community of FitBit wearing friends, allowing you to compare steps taken (basic default), or else challenging each other to various missions involving activity within specified timeframes. It’s surprisingly motivating if you have competitive friends.
I’ve been using my FitBit Charge HR for a month now, and am honestly quite surprised at the results. Since week 1, I’ve increased my weekly mileage significantly, am sleeping longer, and am now consistently taking over 10,000 steps per day.
As a tracking device, it does a fair job of reporting metrics. Sure there could be some improvements in accuracy, but in all honesty, a minor improvement in accuracy wouldn’t change how I use the device, or give me much more useful information.
I was lucky enough to receive a testing device without charge, but knowing what I know now, the price tag (be sure to look around for deals as price can vary tremendously) seems more reasonable than it did at first, and if that’s all it costs to encourage me off the couch and onto the trails more often, then it’s money well spent.
Where the FitBit excels is as a conduit to more exercise. Its very presence encourages you to move more and pay more attention to your habits. I’m really looking forward to the next generations of these devices, to allow tracking of weight, food intake, etc. If they can do for those areas what they’ve done for movement, FitBit will be unstoppable.
Beginning barefoot would like to thank the fine folks at FitBit Australia for providing a device for testing. Have a look on Amazon.com or at a local retailer to try one of their devices out.