I came away from a recent product briefing at Fitbit's San Francisco headquarters thinking its new Charge 2 and Flex 2 have the potential to be genuine blockbusters — blockbusters on the scale of its recent Blaze and Alta wearables, which accounted for 54 percent of the company's second quarter 2016 revenue. Both Charge 2 and Flex 2 add welcome new features, refinements, and design choices to Fitbit's mid-range product line.
However, the new trackers aren't exactly unique. Fitbit's competitors already offer, or soon will, some of the new Fitbits' features. I'm also disappointed in one specific functionality.
Here are the four features I'm most looking forward to in the forthcoming Charge 2 ($150 to $180) and Flex 2 ($100), which will are expected to be released in September and October, respectively.
1. Charge 2 'Cardio Fitness Level'
Charge 2's new "Cardio Fitness Level" feature has two components: a cardio fitness score, and a cardio fitness level. The score is your "VO2 max" estimate (a number, such as l55), and the level (ranging from poor to excellent) indicates how you compare to other people of the same age and gender. And Fitbit's mobile app sends suggestions on how to improve your cardio fitness level.
I don't know if the new feature will motivate the general public, but hard core athletes in particular — people who, unlike me, already knew what VO2 max means — might appreciate it. I exercise nearly every day for cardio, so I am looking forward to testing the feature.
2. Charge 2 'Relax' feature
A second new feature, "Relax," will also be exclusive to the Charge 2 tracker. When you activate Relax on the device, you're guided via visual cues through a deep breathing session that lasts for either two or five minutes. Each session is personalized based on your heart rate at the time you begin. The goal is to help reduce anxiety and stress before bed, during a hectic day or any other time you could use a chill pill.
Relax is not unlike "Breathe," a forthcoming new Apple app for Apple Watch, which aims to calm your nerves. Other wearables with stress relief features are also already available, along with dedicated stress devices such as Spire ($130).
The new feature is Fitbit's way of starting to address stress management, an important aspect of health. I'm always chasing one deadline or another, so I really hope Relax helps me gain more balance during the workday.
3. A water-friendly Fitbit for swimmers
Fitbit's Flex 2 is water resistant up to 50 meters and is the company's first device that tracks swim workouts.
Flex 2 automatically detects when you're swimming and starts to to track your workouts. The thin, slim wristband records the workout's lengths, duration, calories burned and active minutes.
The support for swimming rounds out Fitbit's SmartTrack portfolio of workouts, or activities that it tracks automatically, which includes walking, running, outdoor biking, elliptical, and aerobic workouts. In my tests, SmartTrack works well, and it always differentiates my elliptical workouts from my runs and walks.
Many swimmers will likely be jazzed about the ability to track their water workouts, but Flex 2 does not convert swim strokes into steps. Of course, swimming isn't the same as walking. Fitbit's Senior Product Marketing Manager Michael Polin says the company believes its users want to track multiple activities, not just steps. And with Flex 2, you no longer have to remove your Fitbit to shower or take a dip in the pool.
Other wearables on the market, such as Misfit's Shine 2 Swimmer's Edition ($120), also track water workouts, so Fitbit isn't diving into unexplored waters. Polin says the company waited to release a swim-proof tracker until it could develop one with an industrial design that met its high standards for water resistance.
4. A Fitbit for folks who also wear a watch
I've been known to wear as many three activity trackers and smartwatches on a single wrist — at least for the benefit of a video camera.
That's obviously overkill, but I'm noticing more people wearing both smartwatches, such as Apple Watch, and wristband activity trackers, either on opposing wrists or the same arm. Flex 2's ultra-thin, super-slim profile makes it an ideal tracker if you want to wear it on the same wrist as a watch.
More noteworthy Fitbit Charge 2, Flex 2 features
I'm also excited about a number of additional new features in the Charge 2 and Flex 2, including the ability to view two health stats on one Charge 2 clock face. "Fitbit Adventures", a new personal challenge feature in the mobile app, looks compelling as well. The new trackers give users plenty of style options, with interchangeable bands. And both include Fitbit's "Reminders to Move." (The feature debuted on Alta, and it will be available soon on Blaze, via a software update.)
Future of Fitbit
So, can Fitbit keep up with the strong current in today's wearable waters? Or will it be swept away by a rip tide? Nearly every day, I see doom-and-gloom headlines about the company, such as this one from TheStreet.com: "Here is why fitness device maker Fitbit is destined to face-plant."
Fitbit faces stiff competition from Apple, which will beef up Apple Watch's fitness and health features this fall, as well as from other wearable makers such as Garmin, company that's cranking out quality wearables. The company has also faced its fair share of other troubles, including a class-action lawsuit that called its heart-rate monitoring inaccurate.
I won't discount those challenges. They're real, and they’re big.
However, I've tested many wearables from Garmin, Misfit, Jawbone and others, and I wear my Apple Watch nearly every day. Fitbit continues to do the best job (by far) of making activity tracking easy for consumers. It provides the best social community and leaderboard experience. And Fitbit offers a wide range of affordable, and increasingly attractive, devices. For these reasons, along with the previously mentioned new fitness features, Charge 2 and Flex 2 should help Fitbit remain competitive.