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Fitbit Charge review: An improved band, but lacking heart rate

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The Good The Fitbit Charge has a comfortable design and a display for time and step-tracking. It gets call notifications and syncs automatically to a variety of phone platforms.

The Bad The forthcoming Charge HR adds heart-rate tracking and a better clasp for just $20 more; the Fitbit app is well designed but feels a little dated compared to the competition.

The Bottom Line The Fitbit Charge is a fine replacement for the discontinued Fitbit Force, but you're better off waiting for Fitbit's heart-rate-tracking upgrade.

7.3 Overall
  • Style 7
  • Features 7
  • Ease of use 8

The Fitbit Force was our favorite fitness tracker of 2013 next to the Jawbone Up24 , but it suddenly disappeared early this year, recalled due to skin rash reactions. Good news: the Fitbit Charge is the Fitbit Force reborn. It's actually even improved: the band has a better snap-on wristband, and Fitbit's firmware now allows for call notifications and automatic sleep tracking.

But here's the bad news: it costs $130 (£100 in the UK, and AU$150 in Australia). That's hardly a bad price for what you get, but the step-up Fitbit Charge HR , costs only $20 more (AU$30 in Australia) and adds heart-rate tracking and a more traditional wristband clasp. The price delta is so slight that it's an easy call: get the Charge HR instead, unless you really don't care about heart rate at all and can find this version on sale.

Editors' note (August 29, 2016): Fitbit has discontinued the product reviewed here. Consider instead the newly announced Fitbit Flex 2 or Fitbit Charge 2.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Design

The Charge has the overall look of a fitness band -- not unlike the Fitbit Flex -- but with a small, bright readout that takes it into smartwatch territory. The glowing OLED readout is vivid and shows time, steps taken, estimated calories burned, flights of stairs climbed, and distance traveled. But you need to push a side button -- or give a hard double-tap to the screen -- to read the display, which otherwise stays dark to conserve power.

The Charge comes in two colors for now, black and slate (the blue-gray model I reviewed). It comes in three different sizes. I wore the large. Each band can be adjusted a number of degrees, just in case.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The original Fitbit Force had a design issue that ranged from an annoyance to a deal-killer: the snap-fast wrist clasp had a tendency to unfasten spontaneously. In fact, we lost two of them while testing them at CNET -- you'd look down at one point in the day and realize that it was just gone. Thankfully, Fitbit has improved the band for the better. So far, the new band stays latched on and doesn't pop off even when I flick at its edge. It's still comfy, a bit like the innocuous sport bracelet design of the Jawbone Up band.

I hardly notice wearing the Charge, but you can't wear it all the time: it's not water-resistant enough for showers or swimming. Weirdly, because it feels so slight, remembering to take it off is sometimes a problem. Maybe I'm just spoiled by waterproof fitness trackers.

The Charge uses the same USB charge dongle as the Fitbit Force: a small plug pops in underneath the band. You can sync the Charge wirelessly to Android, iOS or Windows apps, or manually sync to a PC or Mac. Just don't lose that cable.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Fitness: Good, but could be better

Fitbits have been known to have the most accurate step-counting among fitness trackers. The Charge measures steps, distance, and also knows elevation (calculated as "flights of stairs climbed") thanks to a built-in barometer. The Charge also acknowledges "active" exercise, which amounts to jogging or running. CNET editor Dan Graziano tried testing distance accuracy with the Fitbit Charge, and found it a little off: he found it recorded a full mile that he walked on a treadmill as only .91-mile. Other fitness bands, like the Microsoft Band, actually fared better at distance accuracy.

The Charge can record targeted runs or workouts: hold the button, and you'll start a targeted timed run. It can use your phone's GPS to map your specific route in the paired phone app, if you have a phone on you. Otherwise, it'll just record distance and steps/calories, plus "active minutes."

The Fitbit app is pretty well-supported by a variety of other apps and services, which is great. It works across iOS, Android and Windows Phones, supporting over 100 devices (check out Fitbit's full list and compatibility chart). And it's one of most popular fitness apps and ecosystems among fitness bands for a reason. But there's room for growth.

Fitbit allows you to challenge friends to various competitions, much like Nike or Jawbone. The app is starting to feel a little aged, though. That's also because it's going to get upgraded soon: heart-rate tracking, a major part of the next Fitbit devices next year, hasn't been integrated yet.

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