Fitness monitors have evolved and the top dogs in 2015 all tend to share one similarity: heart rate monitoring. Two of the largest players recently unveiled new devices set to reaffirm their position as leaders in the segment. Though some folks (myself included) had early access to some of these devices, I’ve waited to publish this comparison until they were all readily available to the general public. (Minus some delays, see details within) In this installment we will compare the Fitbit Surge vs Fitbit Charge HR vs Jawbone UP3.
Note: The Jawbone UP3 keeps getting pushed back so I’m publishing this review now, with plans to update/revisit this once the Jawbone device actually becomes available. Look for a review late-Spring or early Summer which will include hands-on with BOTH the Jawbone UP3 and the new Apple Watch.
FITBIT CHARGE HEART RATE (HR)
Just before the holiday season began I acquired and began testing the new Fitbit Charge HR (Heart Rate) device over the period of a few weeks and into the New Year. Having been an owner of the original Force, and also having recently tested the regular Fitbit Charge, this device was a logical step up for me to review. Here is a quick snapshot of the differences between all the current Fitbit devices:
My experience and interaction with blog visitors, friends, and family tells me that a good majority of people buying these products want to get in better shape, and often include some weight loss goals. Exercise tends to be a big component of those goals, with cardio exercise being on top. I’ve long been saying that there is no better way to record cardio exercise than with a heart rate monitor, so spending an extra $20 for the HR-version of the Fitbit Charge HR is a no-brainer.
At this point I’ve reviewed the Fitbit line of devices ad nauseam, so here are some broad brush strokes about the HR. First off, the device feels great in both size, and quality/comfort. I’ve worn enough of these devices by now to say that many of them are just too in-your-face when you have them on. The Fitbit devices I’ve tested prior tend to be light, soft, and blend nicely into your day. The same can be said about many competitors, but Fitbit really trumps in this category.
Their app remains the best, too (but I’ll dig deeper into that below with the Surge). Many people spending $120-150 for a Charge (regular or HR) are going to expect more than just telephone call notifications, but for me this was the perfect blend of “smart” and battery-friendly. By having only phone call alerts on your wrist the amount of times the display awoke or the unit had to vibrate was kept to a minimum, giving this device a solid 5 or more days of battery life (where my wife’s Surge below survived only 3-4 days during many weeks). Also reading texts on such a small screen would have sucked, so I think Fitbit’s design and feature choices were wise in this instance.
However, the Charge devices fall short of being truly waterproof, at least based on their recommendations (some third-party testing indicates they might be better than Fitbit tells us). For me I loved that my old Fitbit Flex and/or Misfit Flash could be worn while swimming or any other situation where water was a concern. It would be smart for Fitbit to improve the future Charge series of devices by adding more than just basic splash resistance, or at least admitting if they are more waterproof than they are advertising.
Beyond that, the color selection is decent, although a bit boring compared to the Flash and Flex options. Visually the unit is bland in style, though some people may enjoy the understated design. But wait– enough babbling — what about heart rate? Since the heart rate features in BOTH the Charge HR and the Surge are identical, I’m going to save ALL my discussions about the heart rate stuff for the next review.
Bottom line for the Charge is that it is a great device, and it is my current favorite device at the sub-$200 price point. See the “competition” section later in this article to see how others stack up. To learn more about the heart rate features, see the next section in the Surge.
As exciting as my Charge HR above was, that all pales in comparison to the new Fitbit Surge Fitness Superwatch that my wife has been using since mid-December. This device takes the Charge HR, adds smart-watch type features, GPS capabilities, and a touch screen to boot. It is the big-daddy in the Fitbit lineup and without a doubt their flagship device.
Overall the device has a fit, finish, and feel like the Charge before it. However, you can’t help but notice the extra heft of this device. It isn’t so much that it is heavy, because it isn’t really. But it is flat, and the black color and square shape just gives it a somewhat big, bulky appearance. This modern design isn’t particularly sleek or sexy, but it is comfortable to wear, and the nice curved top/bottom sections of strap make it relatively easy to slide under your long-sleeve shirts or jackets (though it can snag a bit now and again).
Like the Charge line of devices, the Fitbit Surge can notify you with vibrations of silent alarms, or once you’ve met your goal for the day. And it also supports call notifications. But thanks to its larger screen it adds text/SMS and other notifications too. Sadly it is a one-way communication, so you can read (and dismiss) these texts on your wrist, but you can not reply from the Surge. Our testing was done with my wife’s iPhone 6-Plus and it worked flawless, though we did find that battery life was compromised by having these alerts/notifications turned on. (You can disable this feature at your wrist, but the info is still getting beamed over during the day by Bluetooth low-energy).
Heart rate features, part of Fitbit’s new PurePulse technology, is what makes the Surge and Charge HR amazing. Not long ago I had tested the Basis Peak and Microsoft Band (see that review HERE), and was unhappy with the comfort levels wearing those devices, plus it dropped my heart beat frequently. That was not the case with Fitbit, whose devices held on stronger to my heart rate (or my wife’s), even during movement. Additionally the comfort level at the heart sensor location of the wristband on the Fitbit devices was of higher quality than either of the competitors aforementioned. Fitbit suggests you let your arm breathe occasionally and I do agree with this. My wife would sleep with the Surge on either her other arm, or off entirely, every few nights. But both of us found the “marks” on our wrists from these sensors were minimal, especially when compared to the Peak/MS-Band. Any device that needs to be pressed against your skin to record heart rate has potential to be less comfy, but with the tang-style watch clasp and sleek design Fitbit’s bands have earned my praise.
As you’ll see in the photos at the top gallery of this page, the Surge and Charge HR record your heart all day. Though it uses your early morning wake-up pulse as your resting BPM, it still records throughout the day so that it can auto detect exercise or allow you visibility where desired. Where the Charge HR can be put into manual activity mode to record HRM data, you still have to adjust later the “name/type” of activity. In contrast, the beautiful big LCD touch screen on the Surge allows you to pick from a series of different exercises.
Below is a short video showing off the menu and display on the surge.
Note that beyond what you saw in the video there are other exercise options (from yoga, to weight lifting, and many more). Essentially you just get to pre-select the name/type of activity which makes it easier in the future to compare and review that workout. Crucial to this step is that it differentiates between indoor vs outdoor, saving the GPS for only those instances where you actually need it. This was a smart move by Fitbit, and goes beyond just cataloguing your workouts to actually recording just the data that matters (i.e.: steps don’t matter on the bike, but GPS would if you’re outdoors, etc)
Since Cleveland, Ohio USA (our location) has been freezing the past month we did not get ample chances to try out the GPS features on the Surge, but I’ve seen decent reviews online from other bloggers. It does drain the battery more swiftly, however, so do keep that in mind. For our testing of workouts we stayed indoors, using our treadmill and stationary bike. Since our data and logging paled in comparison to other reviews, if you really want to see the accuracy and HR data in action check out Ray’s even better, deeper review HERE. He talks in good detail about how the device works, accuracy comparisons, and so forth. He does this for a living, for me this is just a hobby– so if you’re worried about the real finite details, give his review a read!
Fitbit provides visually stunning graphs both on the phone, or on the web portal. They do not allow you to export the data without upgrading to their monthly cost premium service, and the data isn’t nearly as groovy as what Polar or Garmin would show you on their devices. But for many, I’d argue the Fitbit provides just the right level of info for the average consumer. (True athletes will probably consider Polar/Garmin better options). Working out shows you data on your wrist real-time just like the Charge HR.
Yet the Surge lets you see more, and also lets you visibly see the music you’re listening to (and you can control that music from the Surge, too!). For the casual runner this device is stellar, perhaps the best option on the market today. There are other choices (see next section), but those usually require some extra strap you’ll likely lose or forget. All of these great features rolled into one wrist bundle is superb, but the big sacrifice you need to remember is battery life. Charging is something you’ll be doing twice a week, possible thrice, especially if you actually use it to exercise regularly.
From the round display around the clock that shows you the current hours activity levels, to the backlight on the LCD being far superior to that of the competitors, the Fitbit Surge garnishes more praise from me than it does gripes. But it isn’t without those either. Again the same waterproof concerns arise– Fitbit’s web site says ATM 5 resistance, but within the help manuals it says the unit is water-resistant yet not suitable for showering or swimming. Boo! Ray’s post linked above found the unit to be more waterproof than advertised, however.
Beyond that the device does check off all the boxes, has the best companion app on the market today, and isn’t too pricey at $249 considering all the features it offers. In the future beyond adding water-proofing, it would be nice to see a broader spectrum of colors, perhaps a more attractive style to the unit, and a color display. Oh, and better battery life, too! Yet in this segment I feel strongly that the Fitbit Surge is the best option money can buy, even when compared to the competitors below.
Obvious contenders in this segment would be the Basis Peak and Microsoft Band, and those units are worth comparing given their price point sits nicely between/around these other units. But the Peak failed to wow me, was unable to work for indoor exercise accurately (not at all for spinning/cycle indoors), and the display felt cheap.
The MS Band was nicer in display, yet felt far less comfortable to wear, and still needs more polishing. Microsoft did recently release a firmware update to that unit, but I’ll hold-off re-testing it until down the road. The MS Band offers more apps and gimmicks, but at this point I’d spend the extra cash for the Fitbit if you’re serious about exercise. I see the MS Band as a gap for those who want a hybrid smart-watch and fitness tracer, where the Surge/Charge focus more on fitness and less on gadgetry.
More obvious of a comparison would also be with the new Jawbone UP3, which I fully intended to bring head-to-head against the Charge HR based on their similar pricing. But Jawbone keeps pushing back the release date, so I’ll have to update this blog post down the road when it actually gets released. However, Jawbone has said that their device will NOT have true 24/7 heart tracking. While the Jawbone will provide resting heart rate metrics, it will not (At least initially) be capable of recording heart data during a workout. That right there puts it at a huge disadvantage against the Fitbit line-up, IMO, on top of its already late-to-market release.
Really then only a few other all-in-one options exist, such as the Mio Alpha 2, which you can read more about HERE. And then of course you could always buy a chest strap bundle with a wrist strap, like the Garmin Vivofit or Garmin Vivosmart bundles. There are pros/cons to some of those devices, but when it comes to purchasing an activity tracker you want to consider customer service, support, and user base.
With Fitbit still commanding more than 50% of the market their brand has more users, better software (apps), and more experience. Jawbone is a close second, but again, not out yet (UP3). There are smart-watches out there that are comparable in price to the Fitbit Surge but they tend to lack the fitness scope, instead focusing on “apps” and other smart-watch goodies. And if you’re a more serious athlete, none of the devices in this review are probably truly the best for you. For those training for a marathon or a proper athlete, neither of these devices is likely to offer you the scalability you may want, or the accuracy you are going to need.
For most of you reading this, the general “consumer” user, the best all-in-one exercise device is certainly the Fitbit Surge. If you find the $249 price too steep, remember that many Fitbit devices can use the GPS on your phone if you prefer. And plenty of folks don’t need SMS/text notifications either. For those of you who fit that description, consider the more cost-effective option of the $149 Fitbit Charge HR. Both are superb devices as we head into 2015, and are unlikely to be bested by anything else for many months to come!
ONE LAST THOUGHT….
Beyond the forth coming Jawbone UP3 is an even bigger release– the much-anticipated Apple Watch. Based on expected price alone I suspect those spending $149 on the Charge HR will not be the same folks rushing to buy the Apple device. And that isn’t a fitness device as much as it is a smart watch, like a Moto 360 or Asus Zen Watch.
However, I suspect that both my wife and I will end up with the new Cupertino wrist gadget, and neither of us are hard-core athletes. Realizing this, I’ll still make sure to review items on this site, but probably a more limited basis– just covering those items which hit my interest. In the coming months I plan to shift more of my free time testing home automation devices, and less fitness. But do stick around, because I will still compare items with some regularity. Thanks for reading!