Fitbit Surge review:

Fitbit's deluxe fitness watch isn't worth the extra cash

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3 stars

CNET Editors' Rating

3.5 stars 3 user reviews

The Good The Fitbit Surge has an always-on display, vibration for a silent alarm, automatic sleep-tracking, all-day heart rate and GPS to track runs.

The Bad The watch is big and bulky. It can't be worn while swimming or when in the shower. The accuracy of the heart rate is questionable when working out and there's no feedback or coaching features. Battery life could be better and notifications are limited to text messages and calls.

The Bottom Line All-day heart-rate tracking is a step in the right direction, but the smart features aren't nearly smart enough and the fitness side of the Surge is too basic to justify the higher price.

6.6 Overall
  • Style 6.0
  • Features 8.0
  • Ease of use 6.0

Fitbit pitches its newest wearable as a superwatch. The Fitbit Surge is part smartwatch, part GPS running watch and part activity tracker. It can display text messages and calls from your smartphone, can track your runs and daily activities, and includes all-day heart-rate tracking, which, theoretically, should help improve sleep tracking at night and estimated calorie burn throughout the day.

As a lifelong runner, I was excited when I first got my hands on the device, but I have since discovered that it's far from perfect. I found the fitness features to be rather basic and the notifications were too limited compared to the other smartwatches on the market. The Surge is also more expensive than the comparable Microsoft Band and Basis Peak. It will run you $250 in the US, £200 in the UK and AU$350 in Australia.

Design

The Surge is big and not particularly attractive. This has been the case with most wearables that include GPS, such as the Garmin Forerunner 15 and Polar M400 . (The Sony Smartwatch 3 and Microsoft Band are an exception to this trend.) I place the Surge in the middle of the pack. I don't think it's nearly as bulky as the Forerunner 15, but it's not as nice (in terms of design) as the Smartwatch 3. To make matters worse, the band isn't replaceable.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The Surge is available in three different band sizes: small, large and extra large. The small is for wrists that are between 5.5 and 6.7 inches (14-17cm), the large for 6.3 to 7.9 inches (16-20cm) and the extra large for wrists that measure between 7.8 and 9.1 inches (about 20-23cm). Fitbit has a handy online guide that can help you find the perfect size. I wore a large and it fit without any issues. The different band sizes don't have an impact on the overall size of the watch.

All three models include the same 1.26-inch (3.2cm) grayscale touchscreen, Unlike on the Fitbit Charge and Charge HR , which require you press a button or double tap the screen to wake the device, the display on the Surge is always-on. It's incredibly convenient to be walking, running or working out and be able to tell the time or check your activity level with a simple glance of the wrist. There were some visibility issues when in direct sunlight, but for the most part the display was easy to read.

Most importantly, it could still function when I tapped and swiped on it with my sweaty post-run fingers, an issue that plagued the Microsoft Band. For you night owls out there, there's a backlight, which by default is set to auto mode to conserve battery, so you can continue to use the watch even after the sun sets.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

When you flip the Surge over you will notice two rapidly flashing green lights: this is the optical heart-rate sensor. These green lights illuminate your capillaries and allow the sensor in the middle to measure the frequency at which your blood pumps past. The sensor is on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, although it can be disabled if you please in the settings menu.

Fitbit has said that the Surge is "sweat, rain and splash proof," meaning you can wear it in the rain, when working out or while doing the dishes. But, Fitbit's website confirms that the Surge has been "tested up to 5 ATM," or pressures equivalent to about 50 meters (it's important to remember that water resistant ratings for watches are measured based on static pressure and not depth). Those 5 ATM should be more than enough for showering, as we have seen in the past from products by both Garmin and Polar. Now I'm not suggesting you wear it in the shower, as Fitbit clearly recommends against it...but the Surge may be more water-resistant than it lets on.

Living with the Surge

The Surge can be worn on either your left or right wrist. From there it will track the steps you take, distance you travel, your heart rate (beats per minute), calories burned and floors climbed. Everything seemed relatively accurate on the watch. Step counts were generally around 2,100 per mile for me, which is comparable to other fitness trackers, and I saw nothing out of the ordinary with calories burned.

I did notice that distance tracking (without the GPS enabled) was a little off. As long as you're consistent and attempt to walk more steps each day, this really shouldn't be a major issue. To test the accuracy, I walked on a treadmill for a mile and compared the mileage from the treadmill to the mileage recorded on the watch. This test was performed three times to ensure accuracy. I also made sure to use the same exact treadmill each time and walked at the same exact speed (3.5 mph to be exact, about a 17-minute pace). You can view the results below:

Fitbit Surge Tracking Data

Test Steps Distance (miles) Difference (miles)
1 2,105 0.94 -0.06
2 2,110 0.91 -0.09
3 2,107 0.94 -0.06
Average 2,107 0.93 -0.07

My colleague Scott Stein experienced irregularities with the "floors climbed" metric in his Charge HR review, but I found the data to be relatively accurate with the Surge. Every now and then it would add an extra floor or two, but for the most part it was spot on. I decided to take the stairs a couple of days last week to test this. The Surge counted every single floor I breathlessly climbed to my apartment, all 17 of them.

There's no need to enter a special sleep mode or manually input specific times when you are preparing to crawl into bed. The Surge will automatically track your sleep. The actual results, however, cannot be viewed on the device. You must instead fire up the company's mobile app or head to the website to see your sleep data.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Even then, I found the information lacking. You can see how long you slept, the amount of times you woke up and how restless you were. What bugged me was that there is no information on the quality of your sleep or even the amount of REM sleep you got. All of these should be possible with the continuous heart-rate tracking, something the Microsoft Band did particularly well.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

One of my favorite features is the silent alarm, which can be set to gently vibrate to wake you up in the morning without disturbing your partner. I find it much more enjoyable to wake up this way than to the alarm on my smartphone.

Running with the Surge

There's more to the Surge than your average activity tracker: its built-in GPS and all-day heart-rate sensor are bound to appeal to athletes. But it's not all it's cracked up to be. There are presets for a wide range of exercises including weight lifting, hiking, spinning, yoga, elliptical and kickboxing, but these are just timers that show your calorie burn and beats per minutes on a single screen. Activities like running and hiking add data recorded from the GPS.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

I found the GPS performed well: it took between 30 seconds and a few minutes to acquire the signal in New York City, which is normal compared to most GPS watches I have tested. Once the signal was acquired, it remained strong and accurate. I compared the Surge to the Garmin Forerunner 15 and Polar M400, and all three watches had similar results for pace and distance.

While running, the GPS will measure distance and total time of your workout. These two metrics remain static on the screen. With a swipe of your finger either left or right you can rotate between your current pace, average pace, beats per minutes, calories burned, steps and a clock. These options aren't customizable, though, so you're out of luck if you want to view data like pace and heart rate at the same time.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Pressing the bottom right button will pause your workout, and the top button will end it. At the end of your workout, the Surge will show distance, how long your workout took, average heart rate, average pace, calories burned, steps, and estimated elevation climbed.

While the Surge can automatically record a lap when you reach a mile, there aren't many of the advanced features you will find in watches from Garmin, Polar or one of the other running companies. There's no auto pause, personal records, race predictor, recovery advisor or VO2 max estimator. It's even more basic than the basic dedicated running watches, which tend to be much cheaper than the Surge.

Smart features: Few and far between

Fitbit is calling the Surge a so-called "superwatch." This is because in addition to GPS tracking and all-day heart-rate and activity tracking, the watch has features that are more commonly found in smartwatches. The Surge is capable of displaying text messages from smartphone and will notify you when someone is calling. You can also control your music (after the watch is paired to your phone over Bluetooth Classic), but that's it. You can't get alerts from email or apps such as Twitter and Facebook. I would hardly classify this as a smartwatch.

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