Let’s stop and take stock for a moment…
The changes in the smartwatch market have been plentiful in the last couple of years. Without a doubt, the iWatch is the leader covering fitness as well as daily use for notifications and general function extremely well. Then there are other niche market manufacturers like Garmin, by far the leaders in GPS fitness trackers. Fitbit has been in that realm but were acquired by Google recently, giving the perception that perhaps there was a new direction for WearOS.
Fitbit has been consistent in its delivery of quality hardware and good user experience. That extends so far that people presume, a fitness tracker on your wrist is quite possibly — or probably — a Fitbit. So, the recent release of the Fitbit Charge 4 raised the question of whether the experience has had any influence from Google yet… Time to take a look.
What does it do?
The Fitbit Charge 4 is the latest evolution of their Charge fitness tracking band. This is in comparison to the watch style bands such as the Versa 2 which we recently took a look at. It’s remarkably light, so much so that I forgot I was wearing it a few times. The small physical size also means it doesn’t really protrude from your wrist like some devices. This minimises the chance of catching and damaging it.
The Charge 4 can be submerged in water up to 50 meters and has the capability to track multiple activity types including Run, Bike, Swim, Treadmill (tracks steps only, not GPS), Outdoor workout (I interpret this as a park-based PT session) and walking.
The touchscreen gives you a pretty good control function and the additional button on the side is very useful for when you’re a bit sweaty and the screen loses some sensitivity. Swiping down shows you your current notifications, swiping up shows your activity logs for the day and swiping from right to left goes into the menus including starting an active tracking of your exercise for the day.
There are some new or improved features in the Charge 4 including an altimeter, an optical heart rate monitor and a SpO2 monitor which helps in tracking your fitness and recovery. From a connectivity standpoint, Bluetooth 4.0, in-built GPS and NFC for Fitbit Pay are a nice addition.
This device has a “movement” focus to it versus activity and that’s ok but it means there are fewer options for tracking than I’d like to see for strength and other indoor activities. That’s my personal preference though in terms of the physical activities I regularly undertake.
Like previous Fitbit devices, I found that the Fitbit consistently detected a higher step count for the day. I’m confident that this is a result of more active tracking of steps versus the Garmin I regularly wear which often takes around 20 seconds of activity prior to adding steps to your total.
While there’s a pretty solid range of extra features on the Charge 4, I can’t help but feel that a number of them are very hit or miss. They’re well implemented, but they’re also functions that the Android OS or other apps already cover pretty well.
- Agenda – Requires sync to your calendar which isn’t really needed given calendar notifications come to the device.
- Timers and Alarms are very simple, but again… Android OS covers this well. The advantage is not needing to take your phone out of your pocket
- Weather is basic but quite useful to access at a single touch. It shows the current weather conditions for your location plus a 2 day forecast by swiping up.
- Relax offers a 2 or 5 minute guided breathing exercise to help calm your mind and reduce stress. Honestly, it’s quite effective if you can focus on nothing else for that 2 minutes.
- Settings: Covers all of the other tweaks and specifics around brightness, vibration intensity, heart rate monitoring, DND mode timings, Sleep tracking and heart zones.
If you’re not already using these features elsewhere, they may well be useful but for others just simply not engaging. It’s very much an individual assessment of needs basis.
What’s it good at?
Fitbit has done well once again with the interface for the device. It’s simple, intuitive and generally very responsive. The side button is well setup also, primarily as a stop or back function on any menu, which is handy when you’re super sweaty or just emerged from a swim and the screen loses some sensitivity.
The hardware being “swim proof” means that you can wear it all day, every day including in the shower or bath if you wish. After initial testing, I found it’s best to charge it every couple of days for half an hour while I shower and have only had it run flat once during my testing.
For a simple device, Charge 4 has excellent notifications that you can ignore, open and read or dismiss if you choose to. The screen resolution is sufficient for some basic reading, but there’s no capacity to respond with anything other than basic canned responses which doesn’t really cause an issue.
What needs improvement?
While it’s better than my phone and any WearOS device I’ve used in the past, I found myself disappointed with the battery. I know the specs say “up to 5 hours when using GPS” but that means that half an hour a day walking results in about 4 days battery life vs the potential 7 days of life. In fairness to FitBit, I did try only tracking my steps and after 4 days had 50% battery left. So expanding that out, you’re going to get the 7+ days promised but without using many features of the device.
The other issue I found, which is a bit odd for something that’s swim proof is the false touches swimming and shower. While it didn’t cause any major issues by altering settings, starting or cancelling exercise etc it certainly navigated menus by itself.
Personally, I’d really like to see a non-proprietary charger for fitness trackers and smartwatches in general. Whether that turns out to be a standard wireless charger, an agreed connection for wired charging or something — even resembling — standard to allow interconnectivity and less cost if you lose or break one. At the moment though, that’s merely a pipe dream and not a fault of Fitbit but more the industry.
Is the Charge 4 a 24 / 7 device?
The short and honest answer is yes, you can easily wear the Fitbit Charge 4 all day. It’s slim, lightweight and pretty unassuming. So much so that I (as earlier mentioned) forgot I was wearing it a few times until a notification went off. The only time you’ll need to take it off is to charge it and — if you get a decent routine around this — you’ll only need to charge it twice a week for short periods.
The other consideration in wearing the Charge 4 24 / 7 is that it increases the health data that the device captures including sleep. This increases the accuracy and will longer-term allow you to better analyse and understand your health and fitness.
The Fitbit App
Our team has reviewed Fitbit devices regularly for a number of years and while doing a full review of the app would be going over old ground, but it’s worth mentioning a few highlights.
For any fitness tracker, the app is key to the user experience. Over many years, the Fitbit App has evolved into what we see today. The dashboard is ready to use and customise, there are a huge amount of metrics you can track (including female-specific tracking, cycles and fertility) to understand your health.
An area I particularly like with the Fitbit App over others is the movement towards health tracking versus movement and fitness tracking. The ability to drill down into detail regarding your heart rate, sleep quality, weight, water or food intake (although this requires some manual input) all contribute to your overall health. For many users, this has the potential to remove a couple of apps from your device that monitors those areas of daily life.
Should you buy one?
As usual, that question poses several more but it’s more about establishing what you want from a fitness tracker. If you’re after an all-seeing, all-knowing and highly capable GPS device — for now at least — you’re probably looking at Garmin. If you’re after a simple step counter, then something like the Mi Band 4 may well be a better buy and significantly lower cost.
There’s some pretty solid functionality here to allow the Fitbit Charge 4 to be called a health tracker. While the activity tracking isn’t as comprehensive as many would like it to be, for many users it covers everything they need with a touch extra thrown in.
The ability to receive, read and give some somewhat limited responses is fantastic for a device that lands in this price range. At $249.95 the Charge 4 is in the upper range of the costs for the fitness and health trackers, but a far cry from the $400 – $900 or more for the top of the range Garmin wearable devices. It also offers a fairly comprehensive feature set where you can monitor most “daily” activities and the ability to be worn 24 / 7 means the data captured is comprehensive. The combination of these factors makes it a worthwhile investment.