John Galea's Blog

My blog on Gadgets and the like

Fitbit Surge review

I have been looking at these for a little while, it peaks my curiosity. It has a lot of potential like a lot of these new wearables have. But more often than not this potential is not realized. At this point I have played with numerous Android wear devices most recently the Samsung Gear Live, as well as the Moto 360 but in the end the battery life on them sucks. If your lucky you get through a day by not touching the watch. Both have pedometers (but sadly Google fit remains an island of data that you can’t get off) as well as heart rate monitors (though wildly inaccurate, especially on the moto 360). I do love the ability to constantly change the watch faces (on Android wear). I’ve also played with a Garmin Forerunner 305 as well as Garmin Foretrex 401 (still my favorite device and I don’t go out for a mountain bike ride without it) and lastly Garmin Forerunner FR70. Fitbit wise I’ve played with the One, Flex and lastly Charge HR

So with these experience points in mind I was interested to see what this device could do. For another point of view be sure and checkout DC Rainmakers review of this device.

My firmware is at

Ok probably best to start out with what can’t this device do. It might rule it out for you right off the bat.

1) It can not connect to a Bluetooth heart rate monitor for more accurate exercise tracking. Wrist based heart rate monitors are not always the most accurate.
2) It can not be used to navigate even though it has a GPS. The GPS is used ONLY to log where you have been and calculate distance. By the way in a sport like mountain biking where you are doing a lot of twisting and turning GPS distance can be off quite significantly (compared to a wheel sensor), like 10-20%. It has to do with how frequently it samples the location.
3) The heart rate monitor on the watch can not pass heart rate data to anything other than FitBit app
4) you can not customize the watch face (outside of the watch faces provided). And no where does it tell you the current temperature (passed from the phone or otherwise).

So what can it do. Let’s start with the basics. It can do basic watch functionality including clock, date, timer, stop watch and alarms, all of which can be done on the watch itself except the alarm. Alarms can only be set on the web or the App.

It can also do everything the Fitbit Charge can do including continuous heart rate monitoring as well as exercise heart rate monitoring (more on this later), steps taken, floors climbed, auto sleep, etc. all the usual activity tracker functions.

This device also has a built in GPS which you can use in outdoor activities (hike, bike and run) to track your route etc.

There are also modes for indoor sports (non-GPS) including generic exercise (based on heart rate), elliptical, spinning etc.

On paper the device sounds like it is a jack of all trades. As always the devil is in the details so let’s jump into the details.

I’ve had a ton of experience with wrist based optical heart rate monitors from the Mio link to Android wear’s heart rate monitor. And if there is any constant its that for me, they all suck. Really badly. But then again maybe what is needed isn’t new tech but a level shift in expectations. If you focus rather on a point analysis of the heart rate data (which more often is an act of fiction) but instead on averages then maybe you have a more realistic expectation. And at the end of the day what really matters from a calorie count point of view is not high/low etc, it’s about the average. And if you can swallow this sad reality (these wrist based heart rate monitors are not that accurate) then maybe there is a place in this digital world for these devices.

Let’s start out with the display. This is a backlit LCD display making it a much better device for battery life and outdoor viewing when compared with the more traditional smart watch. And easily readable in the dark as well. The backlight can be set to off (for sleeping), on, and auto. In auto mode it attempts to detect when it’s needed. And if your sleeping that could be while you are tossing and turning. And in the dark if you turn the back lighting off your out of luck. You will need to wait until you get into the light to turn it back on. Why Fibit didn’t turn the back lighting on when you press the home button is beyond me. An over sight for sure.

The battery gauge is small and not the easiest to read. On the portal and the app all you get is a high medium or low for the battery. So it’s not easy to know just how much juice is left 😦 Fitbit make no attempt to tell you anything other than your battery is low charge it soon.

The experience (as a daily watch) is mired by a HUGE bezel as well as a shockingly poorly designed watch face featuring a small time display (on the default watch face) leaving a TON of wasted space on the wrist. The screen isn’t that big to start out with and to waste even a cm of it is a crying shame let alone how much of this watch face is often unused. This is a HUGE disappointment. And what a crying shame. Let’s put some numbers so you get a feel. The watch has a hard profile on your wrist of 33mm x 62mm. The screen itself is 20mm x 25mm. The default watch face shows the time in a 5mm x 10mm. So it utilizes 50/500 or 1/10th of the real estate. Ridiculous, and with an aging population whose eye sight including mine is fading fast. And if you take the whole profile it is using 50/2046 or 2.5% of the space. Silly. And it is really obvious when you see it on the wrist. I won’t say it looks bulky but to say it looks elegant would be a HUGE over exaggeration even to geek like me.

You have a total of 4 watch faces to choose from.
With the largest possible time display it’s 25mm x 8mm or 200/500 or 2/5ths of the display. This one is at least readable without my glasses. This is at least something I can hope fitbit will fix in future firmware releases.

Physically the watch is square with sharp edges that love to catch shirt and jacket sleeves. I found this an issue in everyday use as well as with exercise clothes for the cooler weather.

I have a super small wrist for a guy and I bought the small and this time around they really do mean it. It barely fits me. So be careful. I’ve read that the large and the small use the same electronics and just a different length band but can’t confirm that. The band itself is the typical rubbery stretchy band. It does not seem to be easily changed/replaced. Some have reported rashes from it. I found I had a minor irritation after a couple weeks right where the optical sensor is. It’s definitely functional and works fine. At least Fitbit didn’t try and reinvent the watch band unlike others.

On the underside of the device is where the sadly proprietary charge cable connects. Fitbit says 7 days (non GPS), 5 hours GPS battery life with a recharge time of around an hour. A charger is not included. Use a standard USB charger or plug it into your PC.

The cable is used only for charging and all data transfers are done using Bluetooth. The device supports both older Bluetooth (it refers to it as Bluetooth classic) as well as Bluetooth 4.0. You can disable classic Bluetooth support which likely saves battery life. They also include a bluetooth USB dongle in case your PC does not have bluetooth.

I searched and searched looking for how to do a factory reset of the device. I eventually discovered that pairing the watch with a new phone wipes all data and resets everything. I had to call their tech support to find out this one. And pairing the new device was done from the fitbit app not from the Bluetooth setup screen.

Once setup I was off to go.

The watch is controlled by a series of three buttons and a touch screen. It’s responsive enough and while not always intuitive you can easily get use to the controls.

The watch can do notifications from your phone for text, and phone calls. The notifications are strong and well done. You can drag it down and read the message but there is no ability to respond.

In bike mode (for example) the watch displays distance on the top in a small font, time in the middle in a large font and a selectable field of (current time, heart rate or calories) on the bottom in a small font. Beyond this the fields are not selectable. Garmin does a much better job of allowing the user to put what they want on the screens. Once an exercise tracking is started you can not move to the time display and put the tracking the background. Your stuck on the one screen until your done.

And the absolutely dumbest thing the device continues to track steps even while tracking biking (for example). So I got off my ride and it recorded over 7000 steps and 70 floors. Similarly it continues counting steps while your out running. Both end up double counting work outs. After 8 emails with Fitbit trying to describe to them the issue, I gave up 😦

At the end of the ride you get a on device summary. Very nicely done and probably the first time I’ve seen that.

Wearing the device is comfortable enough to be worn all day and night, and since battery life is multiple days you can use it as a sleep tracker. I did however find that wearing through a 2.5 hour mountain bike ride left my wrist sore from it bouncing around on it. There were no bruises perse.

Occasionally while riding I would compare the heart rate on the Fitbit with that of my Scosche Rhythm+ heart rate monitor (all the while trying to avoid trees 🙂 It’s all fun and games until there is bark on the ground!). The Fitbit was off by as much as 15%. With a max heart rate of 200 on the ride this meant at times it was off by as much as 30bpm. But at the end of the ride the average heart rate over three different rides saw a variance of -2.5%, -1% and -13% or in bpm -4, -1 and -19. Each person has an acceptable amount they are willing to live with from an accuracy point of view. For me 10-15% is not great but not horrible either.

Heart rate data with fitbit is like the hotel California, you can checkin an time you like you can never leave. They do not allow you to export your heart rate data. So getting a clear picture of accuracy is really hard. So what I did was take a screen shot of the heart rate data of the first ride (that was -2.5%) and overlaid the data from my Scosche. It’s the best I can do. The graph actually shows the Fitbit tracked quite well. This is actually mountain biking too so rough terrain.

The second time around not so well. I am not sure if maybe it was looser around my wrist of if the right hand was worse than the left, and this time it was road riding which I would expect to be less challenging given the smoother terrain. This is the graph for the -13% ride.


Calories is always an odd one. In reality what matters is more about the relative calories than the actual number of calories so you can compare workouts. That said let’s compare the results from the same three different rides. I used Endomondo with a heart rate monitor for comparison. Ride 1 Endomondo 2004 calories Vs the Fitbit at 1240 or a difference of -38%. Ride 2 964 Vs 618 or a difference of -36%. And ride 3 1305 Vs 683 or a difference of -48%.

Distance numbers on all three rides was pretty spot on, so one can say the GPS is accurate. Here is the data:

I compared Google Fit running on a Moto 360 Android wear smartwatch with the surge and the number of steps compares well, but the translation to distance and calories is not great.

So to figure out how accurate the Fitbit is I went on a 1.5km walk measured by a GPS. Fitbit recorded it as 1km so it would seem that the fitbit translation into distance is a way off. Sadly I see no where to adjust your stride that would allow you to correct this error.

Wearing it sleeping is also comfortable enough. The backlight kept coming on as I moved around and sadly there is no easy way to 100% turn the screen off. You can manually turn the backlighting off. At the end of your sleep you get a report of how many hours, how it compared to your sleep goal, and how restless your sleep was. On the portal you even get a sleep efficiency (but not on the device oddly). And it doesn’t stop counting steps while your sleeping so you wake up in the morning and it has recorded steps. Last thing I checked I don’t sleep walk so it’s detecting tossing and turning through the night as steps. I also had a restless night where I was awake off and on through the night and instead of giving me a sum of the parcels of sleep I did get it gave me a couple of small sleeps. And this of course throws off the numbers. Less than perfect but not horrible either.

You can swipe and see the current stats for calories burned, current heart rate, steps etc. There is no screen to show constant heart rate, and no where can you see the current altimeter.

My bud setup the Android Fitbit app on his Blackberry Passport and the app works to some extent allowing you sync your steps etc but notifications would not work and regularly the app would complain about missing Google Play services which is a common issue with Android apps on Blackberry.

So in the end I am both impressed and disappointed. As an every day watch I really would LOVE to see better time display. As an exercise tracker it is convenient and acceptably (IMHO) accurate. The exceptional battery life is a huge step forward from Android wear. Is it a “superwatch” as they call it? Well I think that’s a bit of a stretch. And the price tag isn’t cheap for what your getting. But all in all I do like it. Enough to keep it? Hmmmm


October 19, 2015 - Posted by | Activity Trackers, Electronic gadget reviews, GPS Stuff

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