Two Surprises in Fitbit's New Charge Fitness Tracker

Fitbit's latest wearable activity tracker, Charge, is a solid product that just might surprise you, according to apps reviewer James A. Martin. However, with two more Fitbit wearables due early next year, it could be a good time to hold off on a new fitness tracker.

At long last, Fitbit released its successor to the ill-fated Force. The Fitbit Charge ($130) is a solid product, especially if you're already a member of the Fitbit camp. Charge and Fitbit's iOS and Android apps, also surprised me in two notable ways — one of which has me considering some lifestyle changes.

Earlier this year, Fitbit took the Force band off the market when a small percentage of users experienced skin irritation after wearing it. I continued to wear my Force anyway — until the band broke off. As a former Force user, I waited (not always patiently) for Fitbit to replace that device with something better. 

With Charge, Fitbit did indeed upgrade the Force. I like the Charge's improved, textured wristband and clasp. Charge is comfortable to wear, though I wish I didn't have to remove it before showering. The screen, like the Force display, is easy to read in bright sunlight, which isn't the case with Fitbit's One ($100). I also appreciate the caller ID notifications that come from my Bluetooth-paired iPhone and show up on my Charge screen.

Now, about those two surprises.

First, setting up call notifications for my iPhone was more challenging than I expected, given how simple it is to set up Fitbit's other products. On two different occasions, I had to restart both the Charge and my iPhone to get call notifications to work. Restarting once isn't a big deal. Having to reset twice, however, makes me wonder if I'll have to keep resetting in the future to get notifications.

Charge's automatic sleep tracking provided the second surprise...sort of. Charge, like Force before it, automatically determines when you're sawing logs and records the time. It wasn't actually the automatic sleep tracking features that surprised me — it was the data the feature recorded.

Around this time last year, while wearing Force to bed, I apparently slept for longer and more restfully than I do now. According to Fitbit, I'm losing an hour to 90 minutes per night of sleep due to "restlessness."

Fitbit sleep tracking

(Fitbit's sleep tracking FAQs say "a restless state of sleep indicates that your body transitioned from a very restful position with little movement to movement, such as turning over in bed.")

Those sleep numbers leave me wanting to know more:. For example, why am I sleeping more restlessly than I was at this time last year? What, if anything, can I do about it?

Therein lies the limitations of Fitbit devices and most wearables to date: They track your activity (and inactivity) but frequently don't offer enough insight to take intelligent action. At any rate, it's good information to have, and I'm already altering some late-night habits (no more reading on a tablet in bed) to see if I can decrease restless sleep time.

By the way, if you're considering a Charge purchase, be aware that it's the first of three new Fitbit wristband activity trackers that offer smart notifications. With both Charge and Charge HR, which is expected in early 2015, you get caller ID notifications from your Android or iOS smartphone, along with the traditional Fitbit activity stats. For $20 more, Charge HR ($150) adds continuous heart-rate monitoring.

Fitbit Surge ($250), also expected in early 2015, will be a larger fitness smartwatch with GPS, music playback controls and smartphone notifications beyond caller ID.

If you're unsure whether or not you’ll want the advanced features of Charge HR or Surge, or you’re toying with the idea of an Apple Watch (also expected in early 2015, for $350 and up), don't rush out to buy Charge. Then again: Charge is a perfectly good product, a few months is a lifetime in the tech world, and you can always sell it later on eBay. So your decision, either way, isn't worth — sorry, I have to say it — losing sleep.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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