We’ve been wearing Fitbit devices since the days of the Flex, but the Charge HR is the first of the US company’s fitness trackers we can recommend (almost) without reservation. That’s because, unlike its forerunners, the Charge HR includes a heart rate monitor, and when you’re trying to track activity and evaluate fitness that makes all the difference.
The Charge HR looks almost exactly like the Fitbit Charge that preceded it. It has the same OLED display and a similar rubber casing and keeps the altimeter that set the Charge apart (which counts every 3m change in altitude as a floor climbed) but the strap has been changed and now looks more like a watch strap. It’s a sensible move as it makes it almost impossible for the Charge HR to come off accidentally.
Really, the only obvious difference between the Charge and the Charge HR is – as the name suggests – the heart rate monitor, but it’s absolutely worth forking out the extra cash for this feature. Like TomTom’s range of sports watches the Charge HR monitors the wearer’s heart rate by using light to measure the expansion and contraction of capillaries below the surface of the skin. Fitbit calls its heart-monitoring tech PurePulse.
With PurePulse, the wearer’s heart rate is measured constantly, making for far more useful data. With earlier Fitbit wearables activities like riding a bike or working out at the gym would do little to add to your daily tally of data, but because the Charge HR is constantly tracking your pulse anything (ahem, yes, anything) that changes it is recorded.
Anything, that is, except swimming. Though the earlier Fitbit Flex was waterproof, Fitbit advises against swimming, showering or bathing while wearing the Charge HR. The company says the device is splash, sweat and rain resistant, but stops short of calling it waterproof, and that’s a pity and a flaw in an otherwise excellent device.
But back to the heart rate monitoring. Connect a Fitbit Charge HR to the already excellent Android, iOS or Windows Phone apps via Bluetooth 4.0 and you’ll not only be able to see your current heart rate, but see your resting heart rate (a measure of fitness) over time and how strenuous exercise sessions are.
One of the pieces of information you’re asked for when setting up the Charge HR is your age (well, your birthday, specifically), and Fitbit subtracts this number from 220 to get a rough estimate of your maximum heart rate. It also uses this figure to work out your particular heart rate zones. By default there are three: the fat burn zone (50 to 69 percent of your maximum heart rate), the cardio zone (70 to 84 percent of your maximum), and peak zone (greater than 85 percent of maximum).
This makes the Charge HR a great device if you want to know how hard you’re training and want to track your day-to-day activity, but don’t want to spend a fortune on a top-end sports watch.
To the left of the display is a single button which, when pressed, cycles through the date and time, steps for the day, current heart rate, estimated distance, floors climbed, approximate number of calories expended and, lastly, any silent alarms you’ve set. Holding the button in starts a stopwatch that can be used to track activities (like running, hiking, cycling or similar) that can be added later using the Fitbit app or web-based dashboard. You can also set a particular metric to display when you double tap the Charge HR beneath the display.
If you connect the Charge HR to one of 150 supported mobile phones using Bluetooth it can also display incoming calls. When your phone rings the Charge HR displays the number of the incoming call (or the name and number if the caller is in your contacts) and the device vibrates. It can’t display messages or any other information, but its nevertheless useful, especially if your phone is in a bag or pocket. That said we’d like to see Fitbit add the ability to reject a call (perhaps using the single button on the side).
The Charge HR also tracks your sleep and presents you with a breakdown of how often you were restless or awake and how much sleep you’ve had in total. Thankfully, unlike earlier Fitbit devices, this now happens automatically so there’s no need to put it into sleep mode (or forget to, as we often did).
Despite all of this added functionality over the Charge, the Charge HR still lasts between four and six days on a single charge – depending how often you wake it up to check your stats for the day or sync it with your phone or computer – and charging it with the included USB cable only takes an hour or two.
However, as with previous devices, Fitbit has opted for a proprietary cable, which is incredibly annoying. Even more annoying is the fact that it’s a different proprietary cable to the one supplied with the Fitbit Charge, so if you’ve handed down your Charge to a family member and upgraded your device their cable is useless with the Charge HR.
Also less than ideal is the fact that the wristband that houses the Fitbit Charge HR can’t be replaced. Considering the device is made to be worn pretty much constantly that’s far from ideal because dings, scratches and general wear-and-tear are inevitable. Forced obsolescense, anyone?
Then there’s the supplied USB dongle for syncing the device to a laptop or desktop rather than a smartphone. It’s small, fiddly, easily lost and feels largely redundant given most modern laptops tend to include Bluetooth. Fitbit will no doubt argue that the dongle is for those without a smartphone (umm, but these same people can afford a fitness tracker?) or those who’d rather sync their data using a computer.
It would make far more sense to support data transfer using the USB charger or, you know, using a computer’s built-in Bluetooth. That’s right, you can sync a Fitbit to a mobile device over Bluetooth, but not to a laptop or desktop with Bluetooth. Nope, we don’t understand either.
Our final gripe is the fact that you can only view and amend certain information (like stride length) using the web interface. Considering how intuitive and otherwise comprehensive the supporting mobile applications are this seems bizarre.
These complaints aside, the Fitbit Charge HR is one of the best wearables we’ve donned to date. Clever features like its silent alarms – which prompts the device to vibrate – and an excellent mobile user interface combined with constant heart rate monitoring and respectable battery life make it a great compromise for those wanting to pay greater attention to their activity without investing in a full-blown sports watch.
However, those who do want even more features should hang onto their cash until April when the Fitbit Surge arrives in local stores. It features built-in GPS, a touch display, and the ability to display messages and other phone information, making it essentially a smartwatch with fitness tracking capabilities. The Surge is expected to cost around R4 000, which puts it well above the Charge HR’s R2 299 price tag.
For most people, even those who are pretty athletic, the Charge HR offers plenty of useful information in a discreet, comfortable and relatively affordable package. It’s definitely our favourite Fitbit to date.