Editors' note (August 29, 2016): Fitbit has announced the Charge 2, a new tracker with a larger OLED display and swappable bands. The new model will replace the Charge HR reviewed here.
I was a little bit wrong about the Fitbit Charge HR.
While I liked it when it first debuted, I thought it could do better. The Charge HR is Fitbit's step-counting band, plus a round-the-clock heart-rate tracker. It tracks sleep at night, exercise during the day, and active heart-rate levels when resting or working out, and it syncs with nearly every major smartphone and computer on the planet.
I expected more out of the Fitbit Charge HR's heart rate measuring, and how it translated that data into useful coaching. I wanted more app features, too. And I thought the band itself, a basic black device that doubled as a watch with its little LED display, could have been better designed.
Most of a year has passed, and the fitness-wearable landscape hasn't been able to beat what the Fitbit Charge HR does. No heart-rate band costs this little, feels this small, and connects to as good an app. Fitbit folds nutrition-tracking, sleep-tracking, heart rate-tracking, and social challenges with friends into one pretty clean phone experience -- and syncing is fast and easy.
The Charge HR fits well and has impressive battery life for its size: over four days, beating most continuous heart rate-tracking bands. And its little LED display-slash-clock is basic, but it's easy to lift your arm and see the time, or tap the display to see steps and other data.
New software and firmware updates have improved syncing and tracking, adding automatic sleep and activity-session tracking awareness and making tweaks to how it measures heart rate. It's smoother and better than when I first reviewed it. And it now feels like a truly automatic band.
It's the all-in-one fitness band I'd buy, especially for its low price ($150 in the US; in the UK, £120; or AU$180 in Australia) -- and it can be had even lower if you catch it on sale, which we've seen frequently. It's not perfect, but few wearable gadgets are -- and none of the other watches and bands have been able to beat it at its own fitness game.
Editors' note: This review was originally published on January 29, 2015, and updated significantly on November 24, 2015. The rating has been raised from 7.8 to 8.0.
Design: Basic, but it works
The Charge HR looks nearly identical to the older Fitbit Charge, and the discontinued Fitbit Force before it. It has an innocuous rubberized wraparound band, with a narrow black LED display that tells time, steps, and other data. That LED display isn't always lit, but you can set the Charge HR to show the time when you raise your wrist, or show time and fitness data by tapping the screen. It's a functional but unattractive everyday watch.
The band attaches with a standard watch buckle-type clasp, making it more secure and less likely to pop off. It fits snugly, but sometimes feels uncomfortable on my wrist: an optical heart-rate monitor with green LEDs bulges out of the bottom, pressing against the skin a bit when the Charge HR's properly secured.
Fitbit recommends wearing the Charge HR a finger's length above the wristbone on your arm for ideal heart-rate readings, which is farther up my own arm than I prefer to wear things. But I found it generally worked no matter where I wore it.
The Charge HR comes in several muted colors; my review unit was black. It comes in several sizes, too, although each can be adjusted significantly.
The Charge HR comes with its own proprietary USB dongle for charging, plugging straight into the bottom. Don't lose it.
Heart rate: All day on your wrist
Once attached, the Charge HR immediately flashes its green LEDs to gather heart-rate data. It does it all the time. That, plus a built-in accelerometer and barometer gather data on steps, heart rate, elevation (steps climbed) and intensity of exercise (walking or running).
It works automatically, from the moment it goes on your wrist. The Fitbit Charge HR found my heart rate quickly and held onto the reading, so I could access it quickly by pressing the side button or tapping the display, cycling through to heart-rate mode. Like many other on-wrist heart rate readers, they're more accurate when resting. The reading fluctuated during active exercise. That's true of Apple Watch, the Microsoft Band and many others; it comes with the territory. The Charge HR feels as good as those.
The Fitbit Charge HR can also track individual exercise sessions by holding down the side button -- or, thanks to a software update, it will sense and track sessions automatically (a trend in recent fitness bands). This starts a separate timed event with its own heart-rate recording, which gets synced with the Fitbit app as its own discrete activity. It also tracks average and peak heart rate in that session. You might prefer to track a session yourself if you're an active runner or gym rat, but smarter awareness is a nice touch for average folks like myself who want credit for everyday activities.
Fitbit's app is cleanly designed, and heart-rate data is folded into the app with multiple charts to look at. Making sense of what to do with this data isn't always clear, but at least your heart rate is color-coded by different intensity zones. (Heart-rate trackers aren't medical devices, so use this information as a carrot on a stick to get exercise, not a health barometer.)
The app tends to count the minutes spent in higher heart-rate target zones and calculate it as exercise. The problem is, higher heart rate doesn't always mean active exercise. Sometimes, my own heart rate drifted into a "fat burn" mode, but I knew it was more likely due to having had too much coffee.
The Charge HR calculates heart rate "burn zones" based on a formula of 220 minus your age included in the Fitbit profile, but you can customize your own as well in the app. Zones are color-coded as yellow, orange or red (fat-burning, cardio and peak), and on the Charge HR you can see your heart icon in one of three positions to indicate whether you're currently in that zone.
I should get a certain amount of cardio a week, or so my cardiologist says, but the Charge HR doesn't make it all that easy for me to target and achieve those goals. I didn't even know what the "burn zone" data meant until I dug up the information under Heart Rate in settings, and even the pop-up icon on the OLED display isn't all that intuitive. But, it's still better to have this information than not -- and it makes exercise tracking on stationary devices possible, like bikes.
The Fitbit Charge HR can show incoming call notifications, like the Fitbit Charge. It's useful in case someone's calling while you're at the gym, but the Fitbit's buzz is so quick that I missed it a few times.
Notifications require you to turn on an extra pairing setting in the Fitbit app, that allows for notifications and continuous syncing. Pairing happens quickly, and syncing is fast.
The Charge HR can also automatically track sleep, a feature in other recent Fitbits, too. Yes, it noticed when I drifted off and logged my hours resting, but its measures of restfulness seemed more forgiving than other, richer sleep-tracking monitors. The Fitbit's sleep tracking just showed big chunks of blue with tiny, tiny, lines of interruption. There's no way I slept that well. But, at least it knew when I went to bed most of the time. You can also set silent alarms to wake you up with on-wrist vibrations, a personal favorite of mine.
Fitbit's app: Versatile, but could be better
The Fitbit app is nothing if not versatile. It runs on iOS, Android and Windows, and you can sync with Windows or Mac, too: an included USB dongle syncs to your computer wirelessly, or you can connect via Bluetooth provided your phone supports Bluetooth 4.0. Connecting the Fitbit on an iPhone was relatively easy.
The app also connects with a ton of third-party applications, making it one of the most plugged-in ecosystems around.
I still don't feel like the app's basic list of steps, calories, distance and heart rate, and its spin-off charts do as good a job of synthesizing all the data into one summary as I would have liked. There's lots to look at, not to mention the benefit of social challenges and achievements, but I'd like more lifestyle coaching. Jawbone's Up app excels at that, and I think it's still a much better app. I just don't like Jawbone's hardware as much.
I still don't think heart rate is easy to understand, either. Steps can be gamified by setting a 10,000-step goal and hitting it, but heart rate doesn't quite work that way. It doesn't feel fun or easy to check, and heart rate charts don't seem useful to pore over. It's a problem with heart rate tracking in general, and Fitbit hasn't cracked the solution yet.
Fitbit's app is good, and offers plenty of customizations -- turning heart rate on or off, setting up tap gesture shortcuts on the Fitbit, and tracking food, water and weight, but the whole experience still feels a step behind the times. I want something predictive, intelligent and distilled.
Battery life: Five days, more or less
I was able to get a solid five days of use out of the Fitbit Charge HR, while continuously connected and measuring heart rate, and with notifications turned on. That's better than nearly any other heart-rate wearable I've ever seen. It's less overall than standard pedometer-type trackers, but I think the addition of heart rate to the equation is worth the slight drop in battery life.
Is the Fitbit Charge HR worth it? (Yes.)
If the Fitbit did that better, and dangled the fitness carrot on the proverbial stick in ways that motivated me more, I might love it more. As it is, it's the best all-day heart-rate-tracking casual-use fitness band that's currently available. That could be good enough for you. It's the platform most people use, and it works easily. Maybe, next year, it'll take another step forward with its coaching smarts.