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Fitbit Charge 2 review: ​The best Fitbit of the bunch

Just about everything you need for fitness... except GPS and water resistance.

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Scott Stein
Scott_Stein.jpg

Scott Stein

Editor at Large

I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets.

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8 min read

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Update, August 20, 2018: The Fitbit Charge 3 has been officially announced, replacing the Charge 2 reviewed below. The new model delivers several key new features, including waterproofing and a larger screen, while retaining the same price as the Charge 2. The original Charge 2 review follows.

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8.2

Fitbit Charge 2

The Good

Swappable bands. A multi-line OLED display that can show time and fitness data. Always-on heart rate. A great companion app. Affordable price. Five-day battery life.

The Bad

Not water-resistant for swims or showers. Lacks GPS. Phone notifications on the Charge 2 display are limited and hard to read.

The Bottom Line

If you don't need water resistance and GPS, the Fitbit Charge 2 is the best overall fitness tracker you can buy.

Lots of things track steps now. Tons of trackers and watches -- and even phones -- do a good enough job.

In 2016, you buy a fitness band for its app and software. Fitbit does what it does so well and so simply, and across enough platforms and phones and social networks, that it wins out as a platform of choice.

And the best overall Fitbit hardware you can get right now? That's the new Charge 2, which costs $150 in the US, £130 in the UK, AU$250 in Australia. (A slightly pricier special edition at $180, £150 or AU$290 with a different band finish.) It's the follow-up to our previous favorite (an no longer available), the Charge HR. The Charge 2 is a slight redesign, with a few new features. I still don't think anything else nails the combination of app, feature set and functional, affordable design like it does.

If you're a dedicated long-distance away-from-your-phone runner, or want to swim, or want a fully-connected smartwatch, go with other choices. But the Charge 2 is a do-everything band for the average person. I've worn one for about a month now and it's won me over. It's the easy answer to "which fitness tracker should the average person buy?"

Just don't swim with it.

Editors' note, March 27, 2017: The Charge 2 was previously awarded an Editors' Choice award in September 2016. While the Charge 2 is still a very good device, we are now recommending the new Fitbit Alta HR as our best all-around fitness tacker, which is available for the same price as the Charge 2.

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Compact design, larger display.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It's a Fitbit Charge HR with extras

As I said, the Charge 2 is a similar band to the Charge HR, replacing that older model in Fitbit's lineup at the identical price. It still has five-day battery and always-on heart rate tracking, but adds a much larger OLED display that shows all the data I wanted it to in the first place. And its design, while still a bit bulky, is sharper: a steel body, larger screen (covered in clear polycarbonate) and swappable leather or rubber bands. It isn't the most jaw-dropping design of all time, but its watch-style buckle fit me securely (it comes in three sizes).

If you're looking for a small snug band, this might be too bulky for you. Consider the Fitbit Flex 2, a less expensive no-screen waterproof tracker that lacks heart rate.

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Multi-line display, at last.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Bigger screen is better

The Charge 2's new selection of watch faces and the larger vertical LED display mean I can see time, steps and heart rate all at once.

Its screen is not always on, but a lift-to-look gesture works fine, or you can tap the display, or you can press the side button. That side button shifts between modes on the tracker, while tapping on the display brings up extra data (estimated calorie burn, or pace, or resting heart rate).

Onboard features include a stopwatch, exercise tracking mode, heart rate and a new "Relax" mindfulness app. Notifications pop up in a limited way -- texts, calendar appointments and phone calls, which scroll slowly across the bottom of the vertical screen. Not great, and you can't respond to anything, of course, but it's better than nothing.

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Trying to calm down.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Relax = a little mini-mindfulness, sorta

Fitbit's one small step into the expanding mindfulness wearable tech world is Relax, which only lives on the Charge 2: much like the Apple Watch's Breathe app, it is a focused timed breathing exercise that aims to encourage relaxation. It doesn't sync back any data to the Fitbit app. It gathers a simulated respiration rate from heart rate data, and encourages timed inhale-exhales over 2 or 5 minutes, showing your heart rate afterwards. That's it. It's designed to time breathing based on actual heart rate readings, which is interesting.

OK, it got me to focus. But it's not anything that a regular meditation exercise couldn't also do. I don't use it much, but as a freebie bonus, it's not bad. I just didn't know what to do with it, and I wasn't encouraged by my Fitbit to ever go back and use it on a daily basis.

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Fitbit's new trail-based challenges are kinda fun.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Better software, better features

Fitbit's own app has gotten pretty comprehensive. It's great. It's easy to use, and tracks everything you'd need: standing, stair climbing, weight loss, nutrition, water intake, heart rate, exercise, sleep...and oh yeah, steps. And unlike the -- twice as expensive or more -- it also tracks stair climbing and sleep.

The easy-glance dashboard design has won me over, and I can pair enough other things into the experience, such as hooking in a Withings scale to sync weigh-ins via the cloud, that I never feel like it lacks anything I need.

I also like Fitbit's tweaks to its other measurements, especially its reminders to move. Unlike many other bands, Fitbit makes you walk 250 steps to "earn the hour." It made me want to walk more, instead of just standing.

Cardio health: A new score

There's a sorta-secret feature in Fitbit's app regarding heart rate. Tap on the Heart Rate part of the app, and you can swipe to see a new Cardio Fitness score. That score is meant to more accurately represent where you're at in terms of overall heart health. Instead of the daily heart rate charts and an evening measurement of resting heart rate (which is considered a good baseline measure, but doesn't tend to change much for me), Cardio Fitness is supposed to present a number you can aim to improve.

Here's how it works: It does a basic reading of resting heart rate versus your BMI (body mass index, calculated via whatever you entered, or your weight from a synced smart scale), and charts that against a statistical age and gender range. If you run for a while tracking GPS via your phone (I jog-walked for 2 miles, but you could run for less), it pinpoints a more specific number based on a simulation of VO2 Max, a cardiovascular test for heart health.

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My estimated cardio fitness score, before jogging.

Sarah Tew/CNET

My number was 40, which is "good for men your age," according to Fitbit. I tapped the chart and was told I could do better with exercise -- it showed me where I could be if I lose the weight I promised I would in the app's goal settings. And to add a little extra kick, it showed me US marathon record holder Ryan Hall's Cardio Fitness score, which is 81. Thanks a lot, Fitbit.

I love the idea of gamified heart health and fitness, but it's hard to figure out what to do with heart rate when exercising. Fitbit's cardio score concept helps, to a tiny degree, but it could use some tweaks.

Don't take this all as medical advice: the Fitbit Charge 2 isn't accurate enough to provide on-the-spot heart rate you can completely rely on. Most wrist-based heart rate trackers aren't, but at least some also let you pair more accurate chest straps, too -- you can't do that with the Charge 2. It was fine when resting or walking, but when running or exercising it fluctuated. Sometimes readings were high, sometimes low, and sometimes it didn't sense my wrist and I would get a zeroed-out non-reading. (Fitbit acknowledges this as a bug that it's aiming to address in a future firmware update.)

But the important thing is that the averages worked out fine...and I generally got readings that were enough to keep monitoring how I was doing in a way that matched what I got on your average grab-the-rails-for-heart-rate gym machine.

The biggest advantage of Fitbit's heart rate is it's always on, and really quick to check. If it's showing on the main screen, all it takes is a tap to see the reading. (And by tap, I mean a hard tap; the display isn't touch-enabled, but responds to hard taps via the accelerometer.)

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The clip-on charger's also a little weird.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What the Charge 2 still lacks (hint: don't get it wet)

The Charge 2 has some shortfalls, certainly. The five-day battery life is OK, but other fitness bands and watches outdo five days regularly. Sleep tracking works, but the actual data of light vs. deep sleep is pretty thin. (Admittedly, on any fitness tracker, sleep tracking feels like sketchy science.) Fitbit logs the hours I slept well, but doesn't seem as aware of sleep interruptions.

There's no onboard GPS, either. Hardcore runners who like exercising without their phones will be annoyed, others will be fine -- the Fitbit tracks GPS by using your paired phone to map data, otherwise it still tracks heart rate, pace, distance and steps just fine.

But Charge 2's biggest downfall is its lack of shower or swim-friendly water resistance. Fitbit says the Charge 2 can take a splash or two, but doesn't rate it any higher than that. A rainstorm? No problem. A sweaty workout? Sure. A dip in the pool? No way.

It's annoying because Fitbit's late to this game versus other trackers. The Garmin Vivosmart HR has 50-meter water resistance. So does the new . The thinner Fitbit Flex 2 has 100 meter water resistance, but no display or heart rate.

I waited to finish this review until the Apple Watch Series 2 was announced. Apple's new watch is a totally different beast: more expensive, iPhone-only, more feature-rich, swimproof and has GPS. But its battery pales in comparison to the Charge 2, and the Apple Watch -- neither Series 1 nor Series 2 -- doesn't track stair climbing or sleep. Fitbit's more streamlined product will satisfy many more people at a much more attractive price. But then again, they're two pretty different products.

But still, this is a great non-swimming tracker

Fitbit makes a lot of fitness trackers. It's numbing. Clip-on ones. Thin bracelet-like ones. Ones with screens. Ones with and without heart rate.

Charge 2 would be the one I'd get. It has just about everything that the more expensive step-up Fitbit Blaze does, minus looking like a watch. For its price and compact size, it's the best compromise in an affordable tracker.

Garmin's Vivosmart HR has a few extra features, but Fitbit's app feels easier to understand. It has a greater social following. It's where you'll find friends and can challenge them to workouts. It's a friendlier mainstream experience.

That's why the Charge 2 is still the tracker to beat. It lacks a couple of features, but it's got heart rate and all the exercise tracking modes you'd need. Its overall package and price is pretty great. It even felt OK as a basic watch.

But Fitbit better make this thing water-resistant next time.

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8.2

Fitbit Charge 2

Score Breakdown

Design 8Battery 8Performance 8Software 9Features 8