Monday, 10 October 2016 15:17

Fitbit Surge – fitness tracker with GPS (review)

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The Fitbit Surge was introduced in early 2015, so it is one of the first fitness trackers with some limited “smart” benefits.

I have reviewed several fitness bands – Samsung Gear Fit/2, Strava, Microsoft Band 2, and many smartwatches with fitness benefits from Huawei, LG, Moto and more. What I have discovered is that it is a combination of the hardware and the app that makes or breaks it.

Fitbit Surge has a total of 8 “sensors”, good battery life, and its excellent app covers almost everything a normal user would want.

Fitbit is the global leader in the fitness tracker space, having sold about 50 million devices. Being the market leader means a huge user base, great social media presence, and the largest fitness community to compare one's performance against.

So to the review. 

Out of the box

It’s a big watch – meant for meaty hands and thick wrists although you can order it with a small band (14-16cm wrist circumference), large (16-19.8cm) and X-large (19.8-22.6cm). I think smaller wrists would be better served by the Fitbit’s new Charge 2 with HR, but that does not have GPS.

It has the following sensors/motors (note that most fitness bands use a single, 3 to 6 axis accelerometer):

  • 3-axis accelerometer, which measures motion patterns and determines steps taken, distance traveled. This data is used by the app to determine calories burned, active minutes, and sleep quality, weight control, etc.;
  • 3-axis gyroscope (direction – I suspect this is part of the accelerometer);
  • 3-axis magnetometer (compass – ditto);
  • Altimeter, which measures floors climbed;
  • GPS receiver, sample rate 1GHz, which tracks location during a walk or run;
  • Vibration motor – alerts to alarms, reaching a goal, when a GPS signal is found, and when a call or text is received;
  • Continuous optical heart rate tracker, which measures BPM (beats per minute) at rest and when are exercising. It samples every second during exercise and otherwise every five seconds; and
  • An ambient light sensor, which turns on the backlight in low-light conditions (I was unable to get this to work and night/dark conditions made it impossible to read).

Also, it has a processor, memory, battery, Bluetooth 4.0LE, and a touchscreen monochrome LCD housed in an elastomer strap with a stainless buckle. It is water resistant but not meant to be used while swimming or showering.

The battery will last several days under constant use (wearing it 24 x 7) or 5-10 hours with GPS. Recharge time using the proprietary USB cable supplied is about two hours from zero using a 2.1A charger.

The memory will store seven days of minute-by-minute motion and other data.

Fitbit surge pic

Using the Surge

Charge, strap it on, set it up in the app, and importantly it auto senses most activity – walking, sleeping, running, etc. You can manually select from Run, Exercise, and Timer – than for example under Run, there is free run (with GPS), Treadmill run (no GPS), LAP run (timer, GPS), etc.

Heart rate monitor

Compared to the Microsoft Band2 and Samsung Gear Fit2, it was within a range of 20%. It is more accurate at resting heart rate and a little less so when active. Placing it further up the wrist did reduce the variance a little.

The app – perhaps the main reason to buy

The app is one of the most comprehensive I have seen. It will satisfy anyone from the casual to the average user. It is the strongest feature of the Fitbit family and works across all Fitbit devices. 

It is available for iOS, Android, macOS or Windows 10/Mobile/HoloLens (Universal App). The latter is important as it allows you to use a Mac or Windows PC/notebook/tablet to bring up a very easy to use the desktop version of the app with more analytics. It also comes with a USB dongle to connect to a Mac/Windows device that does not have Bluetooth.

Fitbit app

It did everything most other fitness apps do, and once you get used to its layout, you will not be disappointed.

Nag screens/Friends

The app will give “Badges” for meeting targets that you define – steps, floors climbed, etc. It is all part of the motivation, and you can share these with your social network or via email, etc. It also measures exercise frequency and estimated calories burnt.

You can set challenges – Workweek Hustle, Weekend Warrior, etc., and compete against yourself or friends. You can also set multi-day “Adventures.”

It has a “Friends” segment where you can compare and track progress with other Fitbit friends.

Third Party Integration – compatible apps

Fitbit has the largest ecosystem, hence many wellness, exercise and food apps work with its devices. To name a few – Weight Watchers, Strava, MapMyRun, and RunKeeper. Note that these are the Android or iOS versions that run on a smartphone and integrate with the Fitbit.

Sleep

The Surge automatically tracks sleep. That can be a little inaccurate as it works on body motion. You can select normal or sensitive mode – the later tracks all movement and provides insight into a restless sleep.

GPS

The GPS satellite detection time was at times frustrating. Some mornings it took less than 10 seconds and others it took 120 seconds – all tests were under clear skies with a good line of sight.

There is a quick start function that will start the run and estimate your initial route – it was perfectly adequate. GPS is accurate, and made it easier to calibrate my step length (in the app), so the pedometer gave a similar distance.

It was within 100 metres of both the Microsoft Band 2 and Samsung Gear Fit2.

Notifications

This is not a strong point of the Surge. Notifications are limited to texts (choice of only one – Messages, Skype or Hangouts) and call notification (from either Contacts or Skype).

If comprehensive notifications are a requirement, look elsewhere.

Overall impressions

Fitbit calls this its Fitness Super Watch.

Sorry, it is a good fitness tracker with GPS and heart beat measurement, has an extensive app that will satisfy most non-professional, active users, but lacks comprehensive smart notifications and a night time usable screen (backlight).

So if you are a person that likes to know your daily calorie burn, heart rate, sleep, and steps and is not interested in the smart notifications, this will do it with aplomb.

It’s RRP is $399.95, but it can be found at retailers like Bing Lee and JB Hi-Fi at under $300.

What I like is:

  • The long battery life (without GPS) which means charging every three to four days – and I have been wearing it 24 x 7;
  • The app provides everything I need for a run-of-the-mill, average user;
  • It is easy to set up, and there is lots of information and FAQs online;
  • The app runs on all major OS – the desktop version is terrific and is reason enough to buy;
  • I don’t mind the styling but you either love it or leave it. There have been reports of the non-replaceable band breaking; and
  • It is comfortable to wear

What I am not so enamoured with:

  • Sometimes long GPS satellite location times;
  • It is a monolithic, big, device – yes, that is to accommodate a larger battery so live with it;
  • The 1.25” square mono-screen (but that is for battery life so live with it) is sometimes a little unresponsive and backlight did not work;
  • Lack of full notifications – annoying and could probably be fixed by an app update;
  • Cannot set an alarm without using the app; and
  • Its age shows – later brands do more.

Not to take away from the Surge, but the Microsoft Band 2 is, in my opinion, still the leading fitness band in this class with 11 sensors, a colour OLED screen, full notifications, and a very comprehensive Health/Band app working on iOS, Android, and Windows, and Windows 10 Mobile. It offers features like comprehensive guided workouts and has UV and galvanic skin response as well. Regrettably, recent reports indicate it has sold out globally and won’t be replaced anytime soon.

Also, consider Samsung’s Gear Fit 2 which is kind of the Swiss Army knife of fitness bands. It has 4GB storage for onboard music and functions without a smartphone in your pocket. The downside is the app lacks a web portal and seems to have been developed by programmers – not fitness experts.

I will be reviewing the Fitbit Charge 2 soon, and I suspect that apart from the lack of a GPS (uses the smartphone) it will be the winner in its category.

Fitbit Charge 2

 

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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw ray@im.com.au  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!

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