This past week, under the stars and accompanied by a 10-degree wind chill, I found myself walking my neighborhood in pursuit of a goal that only 24 hours earlier would never have crossed my mind. I was on a mission. Not a mission to find some unfortunate lost animal or to seek peace to resolve some internal crisis, but a mission for steps — hundreds, maybe even thousands, of steps. Somewhere, my competitor was doing the same thing; and with only two hours left in the day, I wasn’t about to lose my first fitness band challenge. I was officially hooked.
It sounds dramatic, but if you have a competitive streak in you, throwing on a fitness band and challenging some friends to complete a daily goal is a great way to light it up. About five minutes after strapping it on (and several hundred recorded heartbeats later), I realized my new Fitbit Charge HR was going to be a welcome addiction. Ever since writing an article late last year about people’s experiences with various fitness bands, I was intrigued enough to try one myself. Having a desk job and knowing full well the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle, I wanted to find a way to gauge my daily activity levels and gain simple motivation to do even more. After researching the various products out there, I settled on Fitbit’s recent Charge HR, which features a built-in heart rate monitor. One week in, here are some of my impressions of this little plastic strap and why you too may find yourself walking outside in the dead of night for no particular reason.
The Fitbit Charge HR is similar in looks to its sister product, the Fitbit Charge. Both feature a small OLED screen that is useful for displaying the time, steps taken, and other stats. The Charge HR band, however, is made from a different material than the Charge, which may reduce the skin irritation issues some users have experienced with previous Fitbits. So far, I’ve not had any issues with itchiness or redness, but I’m early in the game. The HR also features a different stainless steel clasp than the Charge, which I can confirm is conveniently solid. I’ve not yet felt that the HR was going to fly off, no matter the level of physical exercise. The whole thing is extremely lightweight and comfortable.
The Fitbit Charge HR on my wrist. (Photo: Michael d'Estries)
As for looks, it’s a simple design. I wasn’t interested in the Fitbit Surge with its massive screen, nor the soon-to-be-released Jawbone Up3 with its lack of one. The tiny OLED is easy to read and unobtrusive at the same time. I’m not saying I would wear it with a suit, but for business casual, it’s fine. Since I don’t have a watch at the moment, it’s playing double-duty on my dominant wrist, but it will likely move to the other wrist down the road.
My only complaint on the design is that you still can’t take the HR into the pool. While the HR can be “gently” submerged, Fitbit says the water resistance of the tracker won’t be able to withstand the force of the strokes associated with swimming. Interestingly, the company says showering with the Charge HR won’t hurt it, but they also don’t recommend it since “wearing it 24/7 does not give your skin a chance to breathe.” I previously shied away from showering with the tracker on, but may give it a try later this week. I have a feeling my skin will be fine.
It's alive: Two LED lights on the bottom of the Charge HR use Fitbit's "PurePulse" tech to monitor heart rate. (Photo: Michael d'Estries)
The biggest feature of the Charge HR is its continuous heart rate tracking via something Fitbit calls “PurePulse” technology. Basically, there are two small green LED lights underneath the tracker (shown above) that reflect “onto the skin to detect blood volume changes” and determine if you’re in one of three heart rate zones: peak, cardio or fat burn.
It’s a neat feature, since at the touch of a button you can see your real-time heart rate. I found myself curious during and after certain physical activities about how my heart was reacting. Looking back over the course of a day via the Fitbit app, I could easily pinpoint spikes that related to drinking coffee, chopping wood or taking a hike. It was also fascinating to see my heart rate during sleep and/or when my daughter woke up screaming at 3 a.m. and scared me half to death. (That's my chart at the top.)
As for accuracy, without a chest strap of some kind to compare with, I really have no idea. It definitely appears to follow my activity well, but who knows if it's on the mark exactly. For the feedback I’m looking for, I’m happy with it.
After pairing your phone with the Fitbit app (available for all mobile devices), a bevy of daily stats will be available to you. (Photo: Michael d'Estries)
Like the Charge, the HR also records steps, distance, stairs climbed, and automatic sleep tracking. The latter is particularly useful, as previous trackers required users to engage a sleep mode before actually going to bed, a manual touch many forgot to do. The HR has does a marvelous job of accurately tracking when I fall asleep, if I get up in the night, and when I wake up. Via the Fitbit app, an easy-to-read graphic shows you all of those moments in lines of red (awake), light blue (restless), and dark blue (deep sleep). Drag your finger across the timeline and you’ll see the exact time of each event.
Fitbit confirms that, yes, my children contributed to a terrible night's sleep the evening of Jan. 25. (Photo: Michael d'Estries)
Tracking stairs climbed via the built-in altimeter has been the most inconsistent part of the Charge HR, at least during this first week. My first day was accurate, with 60 flights (one flight equals a 10-foot change in elevation) conquered. The second day recorded only 10 flights,despite a similar routine. One week in, the Fitbit is now back to recording normally, but it’s a worrisome glitch.
I’m just starting to scratch the surface of what this thing is capable of, but one other feature I like is the most unexpected. The Charge HR comes with a built-in Caller ID feature which, when paired with your phone, will buzz your wrist and display the person’s name. It’s on by default, so imagine my surprise when my wrist started buzzing and my wife’s name scrolled across. Since my phone was in my back pocket and on silent, I would have never realized she was calling. It’s since come in handy a few more times and I’ve grown to really like the notifications. My only wish is I could answer the phone via the Fitbit, but that’s likely for another future release.
Fitbit claims the Charge HR will last five days on a one- to two-hour charge. I’ve found my own experience to be falling far short of what’s advertised, with the HR requiring a charge every two-three days. A quick search on Twitter shows some people are experiencing the same thing, and some with even worse results. Fitbit’s current response has been to send people to a page detailing the factors that might play into crappy battery life, but as I’ve been following the “best practices” since the beginning, I’m not hopeful the fix is part of any online knowledge base. My only hope is that a firmware upgrade will give me the five days promised. My hunch is that something with the heart rate monitor is the issue. Right now, I wouldn’t consider it a giant deal breaker (after all, it only takes an hour to charge it fully), but it’s definitely a disappointment considering what other fitness trackers deliver.
Social challenges coupled with a large install base, make finding friends to compete against a breeze. (Photo: Michael d'Estries)
By far, my absolute favorite part of owning a fitness tracker is the built-in social challenges. Via the app, you can see who in your contact list owns a Fitbit and then throw them a request to become friends. From there, you can challenge individuals or entire groups of friends to step-based challenges like the “Weekend Warrior,” “Daily Showdown,” or the “Workweek Hustle.” It’s surprising how motivating they are, with both the app and friends either taunting or cheering you on via notifications throughout the day. The basic idea is to meet the recommended daily goal of 10,000 steps — but you’ll likely find yourself going above and beyond to vanquish your foes. Along the way, you’ll also earn some amusing trophies like the Urban Boot (15,000 daily steps) or the Lighthouse (60 flights climbed).
The social challenges take what’s otherwise a personal feedback loop and turn it into a competition. I love that, since there’s only so much motivation my daily heart rate or step count can provide. My only gripe is that all of the challenges focus on steps. I’d definitely love to see challenges that take advantage of the heart rate monitor and subsequently get me into the gym more or hitting the pavement.
Having never owned a fitness tracker before, I can honestly say that I’m pleased with the very limited time I’ve had with the Charge HR. It has changed my daily routine, as I now skip elevators and take the long way to get to any destination. As long as I’m competing with someone else, I don’t see that necessarily getting old, though I have heard of some people hitting “tracker fatigue” after four to six months of use. Many of the features, especially those that require manual input (like calories eaten or water consumption), I’m confident I’ll never use, though I can see why they would be useful.
There are certainly cheaper fitness bands out there, but I like the all-in-one feature set of the Charge HR, as well as the feel, OLED screen, and minimalist look. Having a robust app and large user base for social challenges is also a big plus. That said, I’ll be curious to see what other brands like Jawbone, Garmin, Microsoft and Apple come out with in competition.
In the meantime, if you need me, I’ll be taking a midnight stroll around the block.
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