Fitbits Most Advanced Fitness Tracker Is Pretty Underwhelming – Gizmodo

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Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo

I should be more excited about Fitbit’s Charge 5 fitness tracker. Unlike last year’s iterative Charge 4, the latest model adds a snazzy new always-on color touch screen, an electrodermal activity sensor, electrocardiogram sensor, and a new metric called the Daily Readiness Score. On paper, this is a significant upgrade over previous iterations of this tracker. In reality, half of these features aren’t new and the one thing that actually is new isn’t quite ready to try yet.

Don’t get me wrong: I like the Charge 5. It’s easily one of the best fitness trackers you can buy at the moment. It’s just hard to get excited over yet another solid activity-tracking band that repackages cool features from other Fitbits, rather than bringing anything unique to the table.

Beautiful Always-On Display Is a Battery Drain

Fitbit’s Charge philosophy is usually: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That’s changed a bit with the Charge 5. This time around, Fitbit has lifted features from all its other devices to give its most popular tracker a major makeover.

Visually, the Charge 5 takes its cues from the new Fitbit Luxe. Like the Luxe, the Charge 5 has a shiny new full-color, always-on AMOLED touchscreen. The company says it’s twice as bright as the Charge 4’s screen, and the case is also marginally thinner. This is actually a neat upgrade. The display is easy on the eyes, easy to read in sunlight, and reading notifications on this screen is a much better experience than on previous Charge trackers. Seriously, as someone with terrible eyesight, I deeply appreciated the difference the display made. My main complaint is the bezels are still pretty large, but it’s not all that noticeable due to how Fitbit’s designed its watch faces and screens. Overall, the device is comfortable to wear and the sleek design is definitely an improvement. With a nice strap, the Charge 5 is a tracker I wouldn’t be ashamed to wear to a dressy event.

The beautiful always-on display is, unfortunately, a totally battery drain. Fitbit’s trackers are known for lengthy battery life and I can hardly remember a time when a Fitbit didn’t last for at least five days on a single charge. The Charge 5 has an estimated battery life of seven days, but not if you enable the always-on display. Even though you can enable a setting where the AOD turns off while you’re sleeping, you’ll still only get about two days worth of battery. In all fairness, always-on displays usually do a number on battery life in general. But it’s a shame, because battery life is one of the things Fitbit’s known for, and the always-on display is excellent when it’s enabled.

One last note about the battery: Fitbit introduced yet another proprietary charging dock that uses USB-A with the Charge 5. Seriously, it’s 2021. We need another solution.

New Sensors Are Underwhelming

Image for article titled Fitbit's Most Advanced Fitness Tracker Is Pretty Underwhelming

Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo

On each side of the display, there are now two sensors: one that allows you to take electrodermal activity (EDA) readings to measure your stress, and one that takes electrocardiograms. Both of these features were introduced with the Fitbit Sense last year, but this is the first time we’ve seen these advanced features appear on one of Fitbit’s more basic trackers.

But as of this writing, only the EDA sensor and its associated stress measurement features were available for testing. I wasn’t able to see how well ECGs work on the Charge 5, though I could still get abnormal heart rate notifications.

That’s disappointing, but there’s one consolation: The addition of these sensors means Fitbit finally did away with its capacitive button interface. Instead, you now swipe left or right to scroll through apps (i.e., exercise, EDA scan, notifications, smart alarms, etc.), and tap once to select. Swiping up will show you a daily summary of your activity while swiping down will bring you to quick settings, Do Not Disturb mode, and Fitbit Pay. Double-tapping the screen will bring you back to your default watch face. This is a much more intuitive interface and is a hell of a lot easier to use when on the go or mid-exercise.

Otherwise, the Fitbit Charge 5 has mostly all the features that you’d expect from a fitness tracker these days, including an SpO2 sensor, continuous heart rate-monitoring, built-in GPS, and NFC payments. Again, none of this is terribly exciting. The only thing the Charge 5 is really missing is a built-in microphone, without which you don’t get digital assistant support. That may or may not be a downside, depending on your priorities.

The always-on display drains battery like hell. Also, YET ANOTHER PROPRIETARY CHARGER? C’mon.

The always-on display drains battery like hell. Also, YET ANOTHER PROPRIETARY CHARGER? C’mon.
Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo

Altogether, these updates make for a Charge tracker that’s superior to every other version that came before it. That said, it’s not like any of these things are new. We’ve seen everything the Charge 5 has to offer other Fitbits as well as competing trackers and smartwatches. On the one hand, this is great for long-time Charge users in need of a new tracker. On the other, it feels like the Charge 5 is a bit of a Frankenstein Fitbit.

A Solid, Accurate Fitness Tracker

Fitbit continues to perfect its fitness-tracking capabilities, and with the Charge 5, the company has addressed some gripes I had with the Charge 4. For starters, the Charge 5 is much faster than the Charge 4 at finding a GPS signal during outdoor exercise. In terms of GPS accuracy, I found my maps were more accurate and no longer had me running in the middle of the East River—a problem I had with last year’s Charge 4. Likewise, the overall reported distance was much closer to accurate. On a 2.8-mile run recorded by my smartphone, the Fitbit Charge 5 logged 2.78 miles while the Apple Watch SE registered 2.72 miles.

Image for article titled Fitbit's Most Advanced Fitness Tracker Is Pretty Underwhelming

Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo

It appears that Fitbit has also improved its PurePulse 2.0 heart rate-monitoring algorithm. While testing the Charge 4 last year, I found that the device tended to lag behind the Apple Watch and my Polar H10 chest strap when it came to reporting my heart rate during exercise. That wasn’t the case this time around. Each time I checked, all three devices were either the same or within five beats per minute.

Fitbit’s stress management features are still the most thoughtful out there, and the addition of the EDA sensor is an excellent upgrade for Charge users. Given the Charge 5’s design, readings can be a bit awkward. This is a narrow device, and the default time for an EDA scan is three minutes. Holding still for that long while adopting the correct finger position was a smidge uncomfortable. Also, even when completely at rest, I found the Charge 5 reported a much higher number of EDA responses on average than the Sense. I don’t know if this has to do with the Charge 5’s form factor, or the fact that September is an incredibly stressful month for consumer tech journalists. But in any case, the readings were fairly consistent and changed appropriately when I was relaxed or anxious. Overall, I don’t think this is a serious accuracy issue.

Taking an EDA reading with the Charge 5.

Taking an EDA reading with the Charge 5.
Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo

Fitbit’s Health Metrics dashboard within the smartphone app offers in-depth metrics like heart rate variability. There are also mindfulness sessions, the ability to log blood glucose measurements, guided workouts, in-depth sleep metrics, and stress management scores based on activities, exertion, and sleep patterns. Fitbit Premium users who pay $10 a month get a bit more detailed breakdowns, nutrition content, wellness reports, and a greater selection of audio and video workouts, as well as guided meditations. Of course, the premium feature set is “better,” but the free options are also more than enough for casual users.

The Missing Metric

The Charge 5’s marquee feature is (was) a Daily Readiness Score. The idea is to get a personalized view of whether you should rest or push it a bit based on your exertion level, heart rate variation metrics, and sleep. A high score indicates you should challenge yourself, while a lower score means you should take it easy. The metric was also supposed to tie into Fitbit’s Active Zone Minutes metric. AZM is Fitbit’s metric for helping users see whether they’re getting the appropriate amount of cardio exercise per week, and the Daily Readiness Score was supposed to adjust your daily target based on how well your body has recovered.

I wish I could tell you how well this feature worked, but I can’t. It, along with ECGs, was not ready in time for the Charge 5’s launch. I think this is a great idea, and it’s one that’s been implemented in other recovery-based trackers like Whoop and the Oura Ring. However, until it’s live and I can try it out for myself, I can’t in good conscience recommend this feature as a selling point. As for when the feature will be ready, Fitbit only told me “later this year.”

Is It Worth the Upgrade?

Due to the addition of the EDA sensor, color touchscreen, and ECG sensor, the Charge 5 is $30 more expensive than the Charge 4 at $180. On the one hand, the improved design, better accuracy, and better user experience due to the color display are worthy upgrades. On the other, two of the main reasons to upgrade—the Daily Readiness Score and ECG—aren’t even ready to try.

The first thing to consider is whether you want a smartwatch or a fitness tracker. If it’s the latter, then I would recommend the Charge 5 over the Fitbit Luxe. Sure, it’s $30 more, but it offers more features, a more readable screen, and would look just as pretty with the right strap. I’d only recommend the Luxe if you really don’t want anything more than an extremely basic tracker, or have particularly petite wrists.

The Fitbit Luxe and the Fitbit Charge 5 are similar in design, but the Luxe might be better for smaller wrists.

The Fitbit Luxe and the Fitbit Charge 5 are similar in design, but the Luxe might be better for smaller wrists.
Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo

I’d also recommend the Charge 5 to anyone with a Charge 3 or older. Seriously, the display alone is worth it. That calculus shifts a bit with the Charge 4, which has been out for about a year. Unless you really need stress management, ECGs, and a snazzy display, it’s a bit early to upgrade. This is especially true since Daily Readiness Score and ECGs aren’t even live yet. If you’re really feeling the itch to upgrade, I’d say wait until those two features are available.

If health-tracking is your top priority, the way pricier $330 Fitbit Sense offers everything you get with the Charge 5, but you can also already use the ECG feature and you’ll get the Daily Readiness Score as well when that goes live. If you’re in the market for a smartwatch, you might want to sit tight and wait for whenever Fitbit announces a premium Wear OS 3 watch with parent company Google. Fitbit CEO James Park has confirmed the company is working on one in multiple press conferences, so we know it’s coming.

The bottom line is the Charge 5 is a solid investment for people who already love the Charge line and plan to stick with it. The new Charge’s upgrades are a little on the boring side, but the Charge 5 is a good tracker and the most significant update that this product line has seen in years. Maybe it isn’t the most innovative product on the block, but hey, there’s something to be said for reliability.

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