TIME Gadgets

Fitbit’s New Charge 2 Is a Much-Needed Upgrade

Fitbit

The Charge 2 has a larger screen, more features and new customization options

The good: Bigger display makes it easier to view information, Useful breathing exercises, Easy to use app, Good battery life
The bad: Lacks integrated GPS, Sometimes hard to read text messages, No way to control music playback
Who should buy: Those looking for a simple fitness tracker that goes beyond basic step tracking

One of Fitbit’s most popular bands, the two-year-old Charge HR, is starting to feel dated compared to newer wearables. The Charge HR’s screen is tiny, making it difficult to view a lot of data at a glance. The band isn’t interchangeable, meaning buyers will have to stick with the look they chose when purchasing the tracker. It doesn’t remind you to take a few extra steps each hour to reach your daily goal, like newer Fitbit devices and the Apple Watch do.

Fitbit is addressing these setbacks and more with its new Charge 2, which launches this month for $149.95. The Charge 2 tracks a wider array of health metrics, brings more customization options, and features a roomier display. Here’s what I think about the Charge 2 after spending about a week using it.

What’s New

Among the tracker’s most noticeable upgrades is a larger screen that makes it easier to view stats and incoming alerts. Wearers can cycle through different metrics by tapping the screen and pressing a button situated on the band’s side. These tap controls are relatively new to Fitbit; older Charge bracelets only had a side-mounted navigation button.

The Charge 2 also includes two completely new software features meant to help you capture a more vivid picture of your overall health. A Relax function guides wearers through controlled breathing exercises. Meanwhile, a new metric called Cardio Fitness Level issues users a rating based on their resting heart rate and information in their profile that compares their fitness against other people of the same gender and age range.

Fitbit also packed in several features absent from the Charge HR that have debuted on other previous devices. These include the ability to see texts and calendar alerts on your wrist, multi-sport tracking, compatibility with your phone’s GPS sensor to track location data, and reminders to take a few extra steps each hour.

Fitbit’s Charge 2 fits with a range of straps, unlike the Charge HR. In addition to selling its Classic sporty band in various colors for $29.95, the company will offer premium leather bands in pink, brown, and indigo for $69.95. Fitbit will eventually sell special edition trackers in gunmetal and rose gold finishes for $179.95.

Design and Comfort

Those who are familiar with Fitbit’s products will find the overall design and aesthetic similar to the company’s previous offerings. The Charge 2 comes with Fitbit’s classic rubbery band, which I found to be comfortable for all-day usage.

But don’t expect the Charge 2 to be mistaken for a piece of jewelry or an elegant wristwatch. Fitbit hasn’t done much to mask the fact that the Charge 2 is a fitness device the way it has with the Alta or Flex 2. Still, the Charge 2’s larger form factor allows for features that fans will probably find useful, including a heart rate monitor and a larger screen.

Fitness Tracking

When it comes to monitoring health statistics, Fitbit’s new band checks just about every important box. The Charge 2 can measure your heart rate, automatically track some exercises without being manually put into workout mode, nudge you to cram in a few more steps before the hour is up, and log your sleeping patterns. That’s on top of more basic fitness wearable features, like tracking your total number of active minutes, calories burned, steps taken, and floors climbed throughout the day.

One drawback: The Charge 2 doesn’t have a dedicated GPS chip, which means you’ll need to keep your phone nearby if you want to map your runs or bike rides.

The Charge 2’s new breathing exercises guide wearers through a two- or five-minute inhale and exhale session. It’s promising to see Fitbit expand beyond physical exercise and nutrition by acknowledging stress management as an important factor in one’s overall health. Apple made a similar move recently when it announced a new Apple Watch feature called Breathe, which performs similarly. Fitbit says the Charge 2 also integrates information from the heart rate sensor to customize each breathing session.

The Charge 2’s new Cardio Fitness Level metric, meanwhile, helps users make more sense of the data it tracks. The stat is an estimate of your VO2 Max rating, which is the maximum amount of oxygen your body uses when working out at your hardest (higher scores are generally better). Fitbit gathers data from your profile and combines it with your resting heart rate to generate a score, which is then compared against those of other people in your age bracket. To get a more precise result, Fitbit recommends running on flat terrain for at least 10 minutes while your fitness band is connected to your phone’s GPS.

It’s a helpful metric for assessing your overall physical wellbeing in ways that other stats can’t. If you regularly walk more than 10,000 steps but rank as “Fair” on the Cardio Fitness Level chart, that could mean that you may need to get in better shape if you’re planning to try out for a sports team or run a marathon. Still, it’s worth keeping in mind that these scores are partially based on Fitbit’s PurePulse heart rate tracking technology, which has come under scrutiny after a class action lawsuit claimed the technology was inaccurate.

I found that the heart rate readings I’ve received from the Charge 2 were in some cases significantly different than those I’ve gotten from my Apple Watch. In a few instances, the two were off by about 10-20 beats per minute. I have no way of verifying which device is more accurate, but Fitbit offered the following statement regarding the accuracy of its PurePule heart rate technology.

We stand behind our patented PurePulse technology. Our research team rigorously researched and developed PurePulse technology for three years prior to introducing it to market. We continue to conduct extensive internal studies to test the features of our products against properly calibrated industry standard devices like an EKG chest strap across the most popular activities performed worldwide – including walking, running, biking, elliptical and more.

In addition to our own validation, Consumer Reports independently tested the heart rate accuracy of two of our products with PurePulse technology, Charge HR and Surge, and gave both products an “excellent” rating.

Fitbit’s app also makes it easy to parse information about your daily habits. The app’s new layout puts your step count, miles walked or ran, calories burned, active minutes, and floors climbed at the top of the screen, while arranging other bits of data like exercise, heart rate, water intake, and sleep in tiles toward the bottom of the screen. I prefer this layout over the approach Fitbit rival Jawbone has taken with its UP app, which mixes achievements and fitness tips together in a single, chronological stream.

Notifications and Battery Life

Like some other modern fitness trackers, Fitbit’s latest device can display calls, text messages, and calendar alerts. Receiving these types of notifications make wrist-worn devices like Fitbit’s all the more handy, but I sometimes found it hard to read texts on my Charge 2. After receiving a message, there’s a short pause before the text begins to scroll across the display. The extra few seconds between getting a buzz on my wrist and seeing the actual text was distracting, especially while working out.

One of my favorite aspects of the Charge 2 is its long-lasting battery, which survived for between four and five days during my experience. That longevity means users will be able to wear it overnight to track their sleep habits, rather than taking it off for a recharge. For comparison’s sake, I typically get about a day and a half out of my Apple Watch and a little over three days from my Samsung Gear Fit2. These batteries in these devices likely depletes faster since the Apple Watch and Gear Fit2 come with color touch screens and offer additional features.

Conclusion

Fitbit’s new Charge 2 is a modest refresh that brings much-needed capabilities like a larger screen to the company’s flagship wristband. For those seeking a basic tracker that goes beyond simply measuring steps, the Charge 2 is among the best options available. Thanks in part to the new Cardio Fitness Level feature, it’s better able to help users make sense of the data it gathers.

The Charge 2 feels like something between a casual fitness tracker and a dedicated sports watch. It boasts more fitness tracking capabilities than wearables like the Apple Watch. But the Charge 2 doesn’t come with quite as many sensors as devices like the Gear Fit2 and Microsoft Band, the former of which includes an internal GPS chip while the latter also offers sensors for measuring such obscure data as skin temperature and UV exposure. Runners and swimmers specifically might want to look elsewhere, as the Charge 2 doesn’t include integrated GPS for mapping routes without your phone and isn’t water-resistant enough for a dip in the pool.

I generally prefer Fitbit’s simple, stripped-down approach compared to some competing devices. That said, one missing feature I’d like to see on the Charge 2 is some sort of music playback option. It’s a shame the Charge 2 doesn’t have music controls like some of Fitbit’s other products, because that’s such an important part of the workout experience for many people. That said, Fitbit’s latest wearable is likely to please the average person seeking a well-rounded fitness tracker that has some smartwatch functionality.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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