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Fitbit Charge HR review

I last reviewed the Fitbit One before I lost. Fitbit replaced the lost One but I figured I would simply loose it again so I went ahead and sold it and this one caught my eye. Getting a decent day to day heart rate monitor (the HR in Charge HR is for a heart rate monitor built in) has been a bit of quest for the holy grail I’ve been on for a while. The Samsung Gear 2 Neo, and Gear Live both did not work all that well as a heart rate monitor. They provided a heart rate when asked but no other time than that. The Motorola 360 takes heart rates through the day but given the abyssmal battery life of the Gear Live it’s a good thing it doesn’t try and do that. I’ve had my eye on a Garmin FR70 for a while but have not been able to snag one for a price I am willing to pay. That and the thing is just plain ugly. And then I saw this one. I like the functionality of the One. And like how it is back end integrated with Endomondo to allow you to put all your fitness data in one place.

Let’s start with expectations. I do not expect the heart rate on this device to be all that accurate. My previous experience with three other wrist based heart rate monitors (Mio Link, Samsung Gear 2 Neo, and Smasung Gear Live) all leave me with low expectations on accuracy. But for an always on device accuracy for a specific point in time may not be all that important. Averages, trends etc are. Now if I was using this as a fitness tracking device then my needs would be different, and I would not choose this device for that purpose.

My Charge HR for this review is at Firmware version 64 according to the Fitbit portal. I couldn’t find it anywhere in the app. (I’d swear it use to be there).

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Physicals
The Charge HR is a relatively small device with an exercise watch like rubber band with a hard part in the center of the band that is the electronics. The electronics are not removable from the band (or not easily) as they are in the Fitbit Flex. You have to choose your size based on your wrist. Me, I ended up either being at the larger edge of the small, or the smaller edge of the large so I went with large. It means I have only one or two holes left when tightened. I don’t know if the electronics are the same size on the small and large but I do notice that the watch is slightly wider than my wrist leaving it on the edge of my wrist bone. When the band was tight this was noticeable and somewhat uncomfortable. Less noticeable when loose. With the Mio link they said I had to keep it tight to avoid ambient light getting underneath. It’s worth noting, I have a small wrist.
20150210_152956wrist-2

I won’t go so far as to say it’s ugly, but it isn’t stylish either. The display on it is a little on the smaller side but easily read. The display comes on when you push the button on the side or double tap the screen. It makes no attempt to detect your wrist being rotated to turn the display on the way a smartwatch does. Once on it stays on for 3 seconds and then right back off. If there is a place to change the time the screen stays on I couldn’t find it. All in pursuit of maximizing battery life. The button scrolls through what is displayed on the screen and what is displayed can be setup in the app or web portal.

The bottom side of the device shows the heart rate sensor as well as the charge port. The charge port uses a proprietary cable. Plugging into the back of the device is not the easiest thing and it does not have the greatest feel as you are putting it in. Why they didn’t use a standard microUSB as Sony did on the smartwatch 3 is beyond me. Fitbit say you should get 5 days battery life so at least you don’t have to play with the charge cable every night. The bottom side has some edges and the like that leave lovely patterns in your skin. I won’t go so far as to say sharp, but not soft either. The edge of the Charge HR is raised enough and sharp enough as to catch shirt sleeves. A rounded egde would have been far better.

After 4.5 days of use with background sync turned off on the very first charge I got notice that the battery was getting low. It is absoloutely incredible that Fitbit have managed this. And I would go so far as to say there is NOTHING on the market that I can think of that can manage this feat. 4.5 days of 24 hours a day of heart rate monitoring! Wow impressive.

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Included in the box is a USB BT 4.0 dongle for use with a computer, a charge cable, the Charge HR itself (duh) and a piece of paper that simply directs you to the fitbit web site. Getting into the box was less than an obvious task. The easiest way is from the bottom? There is no manual in the box, oddly there is one on the Fitbit web site. If your wanting to use this device with your phone, you will need to insure your phone has BT 4.0 support. Otherwise it ain’t happening 🙂

Loading up the Android app, and setting up the device takes a bit of time, especially since it looks for updates, which there were. It took about 10 minutes to complete initial setup (which it does warn you). There is only one thing to load so at least there is that. And most setups of the device go as defaults so not much to setup.

The Opening screen on the app shows you a lot of what you need to know, and drilling into any of the fields gives you historical graph data etc. Like any Fitbit this measure steps taken, your current heart rate, kms walked (calculated), calories burned (calculated, including basal calorie count see more below), floors climbed, hours of sleep etc. The app does allow you to track your weight, water drank, food consumption etc none of which I would use so I won’t comment on them. My heart rate took quite a while to initially display anything. I have no idea why. I tried rebooting the phone and nothing seemed to fix it. Then miraculously it started working. Oddly the data was on the portal so it was an issue with the Android app.
Screenshot_2015-02-10-14-50-38
As an amusing aside, the prominently displayed “Read the Charge HR 101 Guide” is a broken link. Oops.

The Fitbit portal is well done and allows you to set a bunch of stuff for the Charge (alarm times, options, etc) as well as see your data on something other than your phone screen. A nice added bonus.

From my One review here is my rant on calories. It’s the same on the Charge HR:
And now we come to one of my biggest complaints with the fitbit. The calorie count. If you were to sit totally still for a day the body consumes a certain amount of calories to exist. This is called the basal calorie. There are calculators that can give you an approximate number for your age/sex (yes please 🙂 )/weight based on averages. The fitbit includes this number not only on your end of day numbers but throughout the day. And does not even tell you what it uses as your basal calorie count. So you are left trying to see a number from walking in the hundreds of calories buried within a number that is 10s of hundreds of calories. It makes it difficult to see or encourage you to do extra steps or stairs. Totally stupid IMHO. I’ve seen comments that you can turn this off but I have tried and see no way.

Let’s use my numbers to illustrate the issue. Using the calculator I mentioned above I would guess my basal number to be 1462 calories. And remember fitbit is doing some sort of math to spread the basal calories out throughout the day as well as when you sleep, meaning you can only do this calculation at the end of the day. So as an example, at the end of a day when I had walked over 10,000 steps it said I had consumed 2171 calories. Now if I manually (because Fitbit doesn’t do it for you) subtract the numbers I get that walking consumed 709 calories. Samsung S.Health says 308 calories. Now that’s not to say that S.Health’s number are unquestionable but the difference, over 50% seems suspicious. Now Fitbit does take stairs into account (which it says I did 30 flights of stairs), so maybe the calorie count has some foundation. But all in all this is a very poorly thought out feature. Here’s fitbit’s article on it’s calorie counting.There is an app called Fitwatchr for Fitbit which does take care of this.

Heart rate monitor
Ok so now a bit about the heart rate monitor. It has three modes auto (turn on unless charging, or off your body), off and on (no idea what you would want that for). Auto also detected when I took the device off to shower (it`s not recommended to wear it in the shower, unlike the Flex) and turned the heart rate monitor off. Leaving it off should extend your battery life. I would guess out to 7 days (from 5) based on what the Charge (non-HR) gets. Sadly you can not turn the heart rate monitor on or off on the device itself, only from the portal or app.

The heart rate monitor is always on and always recording (I read somewhere it samples once a second). This data is then graphed at the end of the day. You can start an individual work out and you get a nice graph of your heart rate during that workout. You do get an average HR for workouts, but that’s it for stats. No average for the day, no max, no min nada. So while the HR is there and always on, it’s only moderately useful. And to top it off there is no way to export the heart rate data. With a premium of only $30 to get the HR I am not sure why anyone wouldn’t get it. You can always turn it off. Here’s a graph of a work out I did, a short walk:
walk
Like most wrist based heart rate monitors the more still you are the more accurate it is. Of course if your trying to exercise then this is problematic.

At the end of the day here is the graph you get of your heart rate. Sadly it will only show you 24 hours at a time. Most folks sleep through midnight, it would be nicer to be able to see 48 hrs. Heart rate maybe a way to tell quality and depth of sleep.
charge-hr-1
Interestingly if you hover it does show some sort of running average HR data:
charge-hr-2
Here`s a view that would be helpful (but isn`t available, I patched it together)
charge-hr-3

I tried to get some correlation data using BLE Heart rate monitor (an Android bluetooth low energy heart rate app) and my Rhythm+ heart rate monitor and every time the Fitbit app sync’d with the Charge HR it interrupted the connection to my Rhythm. The same thing happened with Endomondo (the heart rate connection was interrupted by Fitbit app connecting to the charge HR). I have no idea why this is, but it sure sounds like Android not sharing the Bluetooth Low energy stack between two apps. This is worth noting if you are using a bluetooth low energy heart rate monitor as I do. Turn off background sync in the Fitbit app or you could loose your connection to other bluetooth low energy devices.

The Charge HR can not be used by anything other than the Fitbit app. With some firmware the Charge HR could have been used as a generic Bluetooth low energy heart rate monitor for other apps. Sadly this is not there. Other apps that have embraced wearables such as Endomondo also for now do not support the Charge HR device. So what you get from the Fitbit app is what you get.

Accuracy
This is a tough one. First off expecting a step counter to be accurate is unrealistic. But how inaccurate is it? This is going to vary. Some days you may walk with longer strides, some shorter. Since it counts only steps the distance is a calculation based on some formula. Something each vendor is going to do on their own. First up I went for two walks and used Endomono (which is using a GPS, and a Scosche Rhythm+ heart rate monitor) to compare distance, heart rate and calories.
charge-accuracy
The AVG HR tracked VERY well, calories reasonably well, but distance, not so much. I was surprised.

I did another data run. I was reasonably inactive, walked around a bit, climbed a few stairs etc for about 2.5 hours and used BLE heart rate monitor connected again to my Scosche Rhytm+ and compared it to the Charge HR:
charge-hr-accuracy-4
As you can see the average heart rate compares quite favorably over a long period of time!

So let us compare the Fitibit Charge HR, with Samsung S.Health running on a Note 3 and Google Fit (Google Fit thrown in just for shits and giggles).
charge-accuracy-2
As you can see step count between S.Health and the Fitbit tracked pretty well. Better than I expected. Distance was reasonably inaccurate and calorie count is way off. And this is with basal calories removed. And as expected Google Fit running on a Samsung Gear Live is a wonderful act of fiction.

Since I can not export the heart rate data making an accurate comparison is virtually impossible, or at least impractical. The best I can do is put up two charts for you to visually compare. These are comparing Endomono running with a Scosche Rhythm+ heart rate monitor verses the Charge HR. The graph is pulled from the repective portals and roughly scaled.

charge-hr-accuracy-1charge-hr-accuracy-2charge-hr-accuracy-3

The first point of note is that the data from the charge seems very blocky. This could simply be the way the portal is displaying the data but the data from the Scosche is a whole lot smoother. Maybe sampling more frequently? The data while not completely tracking is not quite as bad as what came out of the Gear Live heart rate monitor. But then again I was able to do a much more exacting comparison.

So is it good enough? Tough one. No where near for fitness use. Not enough stats or data display and no export ability leaves me wondering if it the heart rate monitor is of any use?

Stairs
What is a floor? This device tries to measure floors. Now what is more important I suppose is the relative number, noticing you climbed a number of floors today Vs yesterday. I did a little test and walked up 3 floors. It recorded as 2. And it seems to count floors completely randomly. The One did a much better job of accurately counting floors. I get home after a day and it says I’ve climbed 40 floors. Ya right.

Auto Sleep
The Fitbit One required you to manually put the device in sleep mode. This one attempts to figure it out itself. In fact there is no manual way to start a sleep on the device, although you can add one manually yourself on the portal or on the app. On day 1 it picked up the start and stop time I went to sleep perfectly. It even correctly noticed when I took the Charge off to shower and did not think I had gone back to bed. Worked well. On day two it misinterpreted my sitting on the couch watching TV as sleeping, then noted I woke up for a minute, and lastly did not properly interpret when I woke up and took the Fitbit off to shower, thinking I was still asleep. So this feature seems hit and miss for now.
Screenshot_2015-02-12-07-22-58

Here is a graph you get out of the sleep data. It is pretty basic. I did find the hard electronics in the Charge noticeable and even uncomfortable while I slept.
sleep-charge

Notifications
This device can do notifications. I originally had a dream that maybe this could replace a smartwatch. Then reality hit. The Charge alerts ONLY when your phone rings, silent alarms and when you reach your goal. The phone ringing vibrates only once, and shows you who is calling. Virtually useless. Fitbit could add alerts for other apps, but for now that is it. Couple with it, the fact that the Charge does not have an always on mode and there is not a chance your using this as a replacement for a watch. Pity. Almost makes me wonder the value equation of the Charge Vs the Flex.

Data export
From the portal you can export some data (Settings, data output). As of now there is no way to export the heart rate data. Not sure if that simply is a matter of the portal not being caught up with the existence of the Charge HR or what. Here is what you get out.
Activities: Date,Calories Burned, Steps, Distance, Floors, Minutes Sedentary, Minutes Lightly Active, Minutes Fairly Active, Minutes Very Active, and Activity Calories

Sleep: Date, Minutes Asleep, Minutes Awake, Number of Awakenings, and Time in Bed

Likely due to the increase in data from the heart rate monitor, I noticed it takes longer to sync the Charge HR than it did the One.

Also repeated from my Fitbit One review, all are equally valid for the Charge):
As with any of these wearables there are always a ton of things that could have been implemented. Here are some of my thoughts on what’s missing:
– better social networking
– an alarm function that would alert you when it became disconnected from your phone. This could alert you to not forget your phone, or if the Fitbit fell off
– I did see an app that would automatically lock your phone if the Fitbit became disconnected called BLE AutoLock for Fitbit Flex
– at this point there is no support whatsoever for Android wear. There are a number of apps in the playstore to bridge this gap including Fit Wear, FitIt Wear Pro and others
– Fitbit could be used for more notifications
– but for me the MAJOR miss of the Fitbit is something that the Jawbone already does. Alerts you if you’ve been inactive to remind you to get up and walk around. There is an app called BActive but it only works if your doing background sync.

There are a variety of portals and apps that link with the Fitbit site. Fitbit have centralized this list to make it easy for you to find! I linked in Endomono (an Android exercise app) and was thoroughly impressed how seemlessly the data crossed over from Fitbit to Endomono. Interestingly, the calorie count comes over without the above mentioned basal number, so just the calories burned walking! Yay! Here`s an example of how the data comes across from Fitbit into Endomondo:
charge-endo
As an interesting side note using this I can see that Fitbit counted 2933 calories for the day, sent over that activities burned 1067 calories leaving that Fitbit thinks my basal calories is 1866.

So do I like it? Well it is an interesting device. The heart rate monitor is cute and always with you. I wish the app did a lot more with the heart rate data. Time will tell if the device is comfortable enough to wear every day. I can not say this is a device I would highly recommend buying. More of a curiosity than anything else. I can only hope that the heart rate is used in some way to calculate calories burned. And I can only hope the portal and app are improved to better support the heart rate monitor. For now, it is what it is, limited.

Update:
After having it a week I decided to return it. While it is data rich, it is information poor. I found the device itself uncomfortable on my wrist. I got somewhat use to it sleeping but when it was loose enough to be comfortable the green light from the heart rate monitor was noticeable. Especially in the dark. The issue with it catching on the sleeves meant I never used the display on the device either. Now we are in winter so I have a winter coat and fleece on, but none the less. So in the end it’s a comparison with other devices and for me the value equation just isn’t there. At $179 it’s not a bad deal for a heart rate monitor, but given the limited use of this feature, for me, there is not enough value to justify the price compared to the Fitbit Flex. So I returned it. I am pleased to let you know the return policies and process at Indigo, are amazing. Fast and smooth. I never would have thought of buying a device like this from a book store, but a colleague pointed out they had stock (and Futureshop did not) so I bought it there and was thoroughly impressed with the experience. Enough so I would not hesitate to buy from them again.

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February 15, 2015 - Posted by | Activity Trackers, Android

3 Comments »

  1. Nice review… I never cared much about the heart rate function on the HR enough to justify the price difference in my view.
    I like my charge very much as it does what I expected it to do: keep me motivated to keep walking at least 10000 steps a day.

    Comment by Camilo Leite | February 24, 2015 | Reply

  2. Great review. I think you covered exactly I was looking for. I was hoping the Fitbit Charge HR was able to display heart rate info on my endomondo app while I ran, but unfortunately it doesn’t. I’m an avid runner and I’m looking for an all-in-on wrist device to get HR and display my endomondo info (dist.,pace, time).

    Comment by Huy Nguyen | June 25, 2015 | Reply

    • Thanks! Glad you found it helpful! Come back often … tell your friends!

      Comment by johngalea | June 25, 2015 | Reply


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