Fitbit Surge review: Bigger isn’t always better

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Before the Surge, wearables company Fitbit made fitness trackers and left the fully-fledged sports watches to the likes of Polar, TomTom and Garmin. But, understandably, Fitbit wants a piece of the all-in-one fitness device pie. Enter the Fitbit Surge, a GPS- and touch-screen-packing sports watch that takes the features that have made Fitbit’s fitness trackers to popular the company is planning an IPO and added features that let you leave your smartphone (or competitor’s sports watch) at home.

The most obvious difference between the Surge and the Charge HR, Charge and Flex wristbands that preceded it is its size. The Surge is, well, chunky. This is to be expected given it’s got a GPS antenna in it and a battery that should still see it last a working week even with location-tracking enabled for a few hours a day, but it does make it far less unobtrusive than its forerunners and makes it resemble a bulky digital watch rather than a discreet fitness tracker like its siblings.

Fitbit-Surge-HR-trackingAll of the standard Fitbit functions are present and accounted for: step tracking, estimated calories burnt, number of flights climbed (thanks to the altimeter that appeared on the Charge), constant optical heart rate monitoring (which was ushered in with the Charge HR) and automatic sleep tracking. Add to this GPS tracking, which allows you to track activities like running, hiking and cycling and you’ve got a pretty compelling proposition… on paper at least.

The first problem with the Fitbit Surge – and one that’s dogged every wearable the company has made since the Flex – is that it’s not waterproof. It’s sufficiently water-resistant to endure the odd thundershower or perspiration, but Fitbit warns against bathing or showering while wearing the Surge and swimming is out of the question, which renders it useless for triathletes or, you know, swimmers.

It also means you won’t be wearing the Surge on any of those obstacle-based challenges like the Warrior Race, which seems precisely the sort of thing the person in the market for a device like the Surge might want to use it to track.

Then there’s the problem of the device’s bulk. Like its predecessors, the Surge is designed to be worn all the time, but we found it could make for overly snug cuffs when worn under a dress shirt and more than once we awoke in the morning to find a Surge-shaped indentation in our foreheads from inadvertently sleeping on it.

Another gripe is that, like the Charge and Charge HR before it, the Surge doesn’t give you the option to replace the wristband. Not only would this be welcome from a fashion perspective, but also because it would greatly increase the longevity of a device that, being worn daily, tends to accumulate nicks and scratches.

The Surge keeps the watchstrap-style strap introduced with the Charge HR, which is a good thing, but the end of the strap narrows so you end up with a gap on either side of it in the loop that’s included to hold it in place. Also, like the Charge and Charge HR the Surge comes with a proprietary charging cable, which is downright infuriating, particularly because it means you can’t use the cable from an older Fitbit device if you have one.

Fitbit-Surge-exercise-infoControl comes from the square touch screen and three buttons, one to the left of the face and two to the right. Swiping across the face cycles between the various metrics, while pushing the button on the left puts the Surge into exercise mode and the buttons on the right are used to start and stop activities.

We can’t help feeling like the added screen real estate on the Surge is somewhat wasted, though. Unless you’re using one of the exercise modes – which display things like time, distance and heart rate – most of the screen is superfluous because it only displays a single metric (steps, calories, etc.) at a time.

Even opting to get notifications for calls and messages from your smartphone on the Surge does little to assuage this feeling as the functionality is limited to voice calls and text messages (there’s no support for WhatsApp, Skype or the like) and you can’t actually reply with a canned response or interact with a notification in any other way at all.

To test the exercise capabilities of the Surge we wore it on one wrist and a TomTom Cardio Runner on the other and hit the road. We recorded half a dozen runs and found the Surge consistently reported 400m to 500m less distance than the TomTom over a 5km route we’d measured with a bicycle previously.

Nonetheless, heart-rate measurements between the two devices were extremely similar, and the Surge took just as long as the TomTom to get a GPS lock. Also, arguably it’s better to being told you’re underperforming than over-performing and at least the difference in reported distance was consistent, because ultimately the value in fitness trackers comes from the trends they illustrate over time.

Optical heart-rate tracking isn’t as accurate as a chest-based heart-rate monitor, pedometers will always count things that aren’t actually steps and sleep-tracking may miss an afternoon nap or record a dog jumping on a bed as a sleep disturbance, but this doesn’t really matter. Fitness trackers are about highlighting trends and increasing awareness, and the Surge does this with aplomb.

On the battery front the Surge performs well enough. We averaged around five days between charges with three to four hours of GPS tracking during that time. According to the paperwork the Surge should last at least 12 hours with GPS enabled the entire time, which should be enough for even a sluggish marathon.

Fond as we are of running with music to drown out the protests of our heart we’d like it if the Surge offered a few GBs of storage and the ability to stream audio over Bluetooth, but realise this would seriously reduce the battery life and (heaven forbid) might make the device even heftier.

One of our favourite features of the Surge is the constant heart rate monitoring. It’s great when training, but it’s even more pleasing between times. Because it’s always on, the heart rate monitoring also tracks your pulse during your sleep and uses this and your daytime measurements to calculate your resting heart rate – a solid measure of general fitness.

We found ourselves trying to sneak in an extra run whenever possible and over three weeks saw our resting heart rate drop by almost 10 beats per minute. And that’s where the Surge and fitness trackers like it really shine: they can, actually change behaviour and provide incentive to be less sedentary.

At R3 999, the Fitbit Surge is competitively priced given its feature set, but we can’t help feeling that if you want a sports watch you’re better off getting one with aquatic abilities and if you want a fitness tracker you’re better off getting the far more discreet and, at R2 399, substantially cheaper Fitbit Charge HR (read our review of the Charge HR here).

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