Review: Fitbit Charge HR fitness tracker

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Gizmag reviews the Fitbit Charge HR fitness tracker (Photo: Gizmag/Simon Crisp)

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The new Fitbit Charge HR has got a lot of competition in the increasingly crowded fitness tracker market. With countless devices vying for the chance to monitor your activity and tell you you're not doing enough exercise, can the Charge HR stand out with its built-in heart rate monitoring, activity tracking, and gentle encouragement? We've recently spent a couple of weeks with one to discover whether it can encourage us to be more active.

If the Fitbit Charge HR looks familiar, that's because it bears a striking resemblance to the Fitbit Force, which was unceremoniously pulled from shelves last year amid skin irritation complaints. However, the Charge HR isn't just a rebranded Force. That little HR in its name, which distinguishes it from the standard Charge, also means it boasts constant heart rate monitoring – which could give it a distinct advantage when it comes to calculating calories burned and helping you maintain workout intensity.

For many shoppers, the Charge HR could hit a sweet spot. Its heart rate monitoring, dubbed PurePulse by Fitbit, could be tempting to buy over the cheaper model, or rivals like the Misfit Shine and the Withings Activité. It also has watch functionality that the Jawbone UP3 doesn't offer, and requires less wrist real estate than Fitbit's own Surge and the Basis Peak.

We were pleasantly surprised when we unboxed the Charge HR and strapped it on. The strap was comfortable, the size and minimalist styling meant we were happy wearing it in most situations, and the traditional watch-style fastening felt secure. Perhaps unkindly, my wife suggested it looked a little like a criminal's electronic tracker – but if you're worried about that, the Charge HR is also available in purple, blue and orange to lessen the recent parolee look.

Setting up the Charge HR was a simple process which involved plugging a wireless sync dongle into a PC and installing the Fitbit Connect app. From there, we created a Fitbit account, entered personal data and preferences (measurement units, which wrist we were wearing the Charge HR on…). We also installed the Fitbit app on a smartphone which allows wireless syncing via Bluetooth 4.0. Ready to instantly check activity information on the computer, phone or the OLED screen on my wrist, it was time to see what this bad boy could do.

The Charge HR is pitched at active users who do a reasonable amount of exercise, but are not fanatical about tracking that data. While the heart rate monitoring moves it above basic activity trackers into fitness territory, it's not a dedicated sports tracker. The Charge HR cannot natively track things like cycling, weights or rowing (you'll have to manually input this exercise information if you want it to count towards your totals). Also, while its water resistance is fine for using it in the rain, or during particularly sweaty workouts, you'll need to take it off for swimming and showering.

Instead, the sensors in the Charge HR track steps taken, distance, floors climbed, active minutes, calories burned and heart rate. So after a day of wearing the tracker I opened the smart and very easy to use companion smartphone app to assess the damage and see how little I actually do on a daily basis. I was quite pleased to find that with just over 13,000 steps I was above the recommended minimum of 10,000 steps.

For the next couple of days I became obsessed with checking my activity levels. I was constantly pressing the button on Charge HR to see how much I'd moved throughout the day, how many calories I'd burned, and how close I was to my daily goals. I'd also opted to receive countless notification updates from my phone, yet there were still times I wanted to check activity information in even more detail. For those occasions the smartphone app and web dashboard made information easy to find, and it was also easy to modify fitness goals and target as I went along.

In terms of accuracy, the distance numbers provided by the Charge HR generally seemed to tally with the occasions we also measured a route on Google Maps. The accuracy of heart rate monitoring seemed slightly more hit or miss, as wrist-based optical monitors tend to be. That said, it was more than accurate enough for our casual use, to give us an idea of resting heart rate, and help maintain a level of intensity during a workout. Icons make it easy to see whether your exercising heart rate is in the fat burn zone (50 to 69 percent of your maximum), cardio zone (70 to 84 percent of maximum) or peak zone (greater than 85 percent of maximum).

To track a specific period of exercise, you can hold the button for a couple of seconds, until a vibration tells you it's time to get your work-out on, doing the same at the end of your exercise. You can then add more information about your work-out via the various mobile and online tools. We found this to be a handy feature for comparing performance on regular exercise routines (in my case a 5 km/3 mi run around the local woods). You can also use the smartphone app alongside the tracker to make use of GPS data to map your route and pace in more detail.

The Charge HR is intended to be worn while you are in bed as well as out and about. However, in our experience, automatic sleep tracking was the weak point for the device, though we did appreciate not having to activate it when going to bed (it kicks in automatically when it sense you're lying down). For the first couple of days with the tracker it was in "Sensitive" mode and only recorded sleeping for two hours per night (when we know it should have recorded much longer). When we realized this and switched it into "Normal" sleep tracking, the Charge HR registered a more believable 7-8 hours of sleep per night.

However, on occasion it didn't notice I'd woken up when I could clearly remember doing so.

Bizarrely, it was one of the most basic features of the Charge HR that we found both the most useful and frustrating: its ability to tell the time! The lovely OLED screen can be used to display the time with a number of clock faces, but only briefly after being double-tapped or having its button pressed. It was great not to have to whip out a phone out to see the time (like in the old days before smartphones replaced watches for many of us), but annoying that it still took the press of a button. Apparently an always-on clock wouldn't be good for battery life, but OLED screens should be able to handle this without much problem (as evidenced by many recent smartwatches).

You can also set silent vibrating alarms, though it's a shame the Charge HR does not feature something like the Idle Alert which impressed us with the Jawbone UP24, by alerting users about periods of inactivity. Caller ID also uses this vibration (and the screen) to notify you of incoming calls to a compatible and paired phone. It isn't as smart as some fitness devices (like the Fitbit Surge and Basis Peak, which can also receive text notifications and control music playback), but it is smart enough to be useful.

As part of the Fitbit system, users of the Charge HR can also add additional fitness and health information via the web dashboard and smartphone app. This includes things like weight, water and food intake, with the option of searching for items or scanning the barcodes from food packaging to gain calorie intake information from an (admittedly US-centric) food database. An annual fee of US$50 also gives access to Fitbit Premium, which gives more analysis of your data, ranks you against peers and offers more personalized training plans.

Fitbit also makes it easy for users to share fitness information and compete with friends and family with a number of group challenges such as Daily Showdown, where the user with the most daily steps is declared the winner. While we can't say we've gravitated towards these features, the gamification of activity will no-doubt appeal to a number of users. And Fitbit says it's found that users who share information with at least one other person increase their own activity levels by 27 percent.

After two weeks with the Fitbit Charge HR, we're left impressed. The information it tracks is accurate and substantial enough for monitoring and adjusting exercise habits. We've particularly liked having the live heart rate information to keep workouts within certain levels of intensity. The way this information is presented is also very easy to access and understand, with the device, phone app and web dashboard all playing distinct roles.

However, the Fitbit Charge HR is not perfect. Our biggest gripe is the inability to have the watch-face always on, even if it would have meant sacrificing some battery life. Ideally, we'd also like it to squeeze in extra features like GPS, tracking for other sports and be waterproof, but that's being greedy in a product of this size and cost.

If you're in the market for a fitness tracker and looking at the Fitbit line-up, the Charge HR is quite compelling. The addition of heart rate tracking is a big deal and only costs $20 more than the non-HR Charge.

But the Fitbits aren't the only fitness trackers out there. In addition to all of those already mentioned there's the Garmin Vivosmart, the Microsoft Band, several smartwatches with fitness tracking built-in … and by the time we finish typing this sentence probably about five more new ones. But for many shoppers, the Charge HR is going to hit a sweet spot – giving you the nudge you need to be more active, but without too many bells and whistles.

The Fitbit Charge HR is available now in Black, Plum, Blue, and Tangerine for $150. The companion app can be downloaded for free for iOS, Android and Windows Phone and allows wireless syncing via Bluetooth 4.0. For more compatibility details you can check out the product page below.

Product page: Fitbit Charge HR

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