Fitbit's best activity tracker just got even better

Fitbit's Charge 2 is the best all-around fitness wearable money can buy, and a substantial firmware update recently made the impressive tracker even more formidable.

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In my September review of Fitbit's Charge 2 [Find it on Amazon] ($150), I called it "the best fitness wearable money can buy." Nearly three months later, a firmware upgrade released Dec. 20 made the activity tracker even better — though it's still a few steps shy of perfect.

Here are five new features Fitbit's latest software update brings to Charge 2.

1. You can now pause exercise tracking

Some days, I get my exercise by walking, and I often incorporate a quick errand or two into my walk. However, it bugged me that I couldn't pause my exercise tracking on Charge 2 when I popped into a Walgreens or Starbucks.

With the new firmware update, you can now pause any exercise you track by tapping the Charge 2's button. You should be careful, though, because pushing and holding the button ends the workout. (The pause feature works only with what Fitbit calls "multi-sport exercise mode", or workouts that you manually start and stop tracking, versus workouts the Fitbit tracker automatically detects and records for you.) 

Of course, you must remember to tap the button again to resume tracking. And I'd love the new workout pause feature even more if it were automatic. For example, the Nike+ Run Club and Apple Workout apps on my Apple Watch automatically pause and resume workouts when you stop and then start again, as do some other exercise apps, such as MapMyFitness.

2. You can close your eyes during breathing sessions

Fitbit's Relax mode, which made its debut with Charge 2, offers guided breathing sessions to help you chill out. But you had to follow visual clues to know when to breathe in or exhale.

With the firmware update, Charge 2 provides haptic vibrations in addition to the visual cues. The device vibrates once when it's time to breathe in, and then again to nudge you to breathe out, repeating until the session is over. Now, you can close your eyes during a breathing session and still follow along.

The Apple Watch's similar Breathe app offered haptic guidance from the get-go. Apple Watch vibrates continuously during inhale, and when it stops you know it's time to exhale.

The update to Relax is a welcome improvement. Even so, I prefer Apple's Breathe app for three reasons: It reminds me to stop and breathe periodically throughout the day, though you can turn off the reminders if you want; Breathe keeps a record of your guided breathing sessions, so you can track how often you "breathe" during the week; and the Breathe app is more customizable.

Relax doesn't offer any of those features, except the ability to choose between two- and five-minute breathing sessions. On the other hand, Relax uses your heart rate to guide your breathing session, which makes a lot of sense. Apple Watch doesn't.

3. You get improved heart-rate visualization

When you track a multi-sport workout on Charge 2, you can tap the screen to toggle through exercise stats. One screen shows your current heart rate. The new firmware update enhances this feature with a visualization of which heart-rate zone you're in and how far you are from reaching the next level.

Adjacent to your heart-rate reading, you see three separate, partial circles. Fitbit calls this graphic a "tachometer-style" visual, and it's like the speed gauge on a car dashboard. The first partial circle represents your fat burn zone, the second is your cardio zone, and the third is your peak zone. It's a little confusing initially. Once you get used to it, however, you'll appreciate the visual guidance, especially if one of your main workout goals is to spend more time in your cardio or peak zones.

fitbit charge 2 heart rate James A. Martin

Charge 2 cardio zone as shown at the beginning of a workout (left) and at the end. 

4. Charge 2 now has a battery indicator

During my initial tests in September, I was surprised to find that Charge 2 lacked a battery life indicator. You had to check battery status in the Fitbit app. The firmware update adds this helpful feature to Charge 2's display.

5. A new do-not-disturb mode

Charge 2 can send call, text message, and calendar notifications to your wrist. But sometimes you don't want any interruptions. Now, you can turn off notifications, including the Reminders to Move, by pressing and holding the side button when the main watch face is shown. Or you can press the side button to toggle to the notification screen and then hold down the button to turn notifications on and off.

Latest Charge 2 firmware update is a big one

Charge 2 also got a new watch face that displays the hour, minute and second. Check out Fitbit’s blog post for more details.

Most of the time, Fitbit's firmware updates only fix a few bugs or perhaps add one new feature. This is one of the most substantial firmware upgrades ever from Fitbit. (Here's a list of all the different Fitbit firmware updates.) Bottom line: If you already own a Charge 2 or plan to buy one, you should waste no time installing the latest updates.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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