As activity trackers start to become more popular and more and more people are getting into running, there is a bit of convergence happening. Full-blown GPS watches from major manufacturers are starting to add step tracking and at the same time, companies who are making activity trackers are coming out with more advanced products. This is a traditional path of disruption. You have cheaper single function items start to get more and more advanced and they eat up the marketshare from the bottom. By the time the larger established players see what is happening, they have become an also ran. This theory taught by Clayton Christenson is described in Wikipedia’s article Disruptive innovation.
The Fitbit Surge bills itself as a Super Watch. Does it deliver on its promise? Let’s break it down.
The packaging for the Surge is very attractive. It displays the watch and has a cover that opens to show a motivational paragraph with highlighted marketing terms.
In order to get to the actual watch, there is some strategically placed tape that made it a challenge for me – but not so much for someone who has more patience. Inside of the box there are few contents. The watch, the charging cable, the USB stick for a computer, and a quick start manual. I wound up using the USB stick to set it up and then just connected to my iPhone the rest of the time.
Wear and Fit
The Fitbit Surge is very comfortable to wear. It is odd looking from the side with the top of the face having more depth than the bottom, but it is fine when worn. It is one seamless unit, thus not having changeable bands but is not an unattractive sports watch. One nice feature is that with the watch face being a little wider, if the watch is fit snug, there is little to no light leakage. This is very helpful in the middle of the night if you don’t want to wake up a sleeping companion or accidentally blind yourself.
Using a mix of buttons and screen navigation, the device can be a little confusing at times, but you get used to it. Some of my confusion could be caused by a lot of experience with other devices. You tend to build muscle memory and pattern behaviors over time. However, I do wish it was more dependent on either buttons or the screen. The mix doesn’t flow as naturally for me.
Another issue I had was that the screen seemed to pick up oils from my finger tips very easily. When I would swipe though the screens to look at heart rate and steps, it would get a film on the face. I found myself often wiping it off to keep the face clear. I will say that it is very responsive to touch and the screens shifted easily.
You also have the ability to add different watch faces from within the app.
There is no surprise here. Fitbit is the Gold Standard when it comes to activity tracking. I wore the Surge for a week, it tracked my steps. I could find no real discrepancy between it and my Garmin Vivofit. I have previously compared the Vivofit to the Fitbit Flex and have been wearing either it or the Forerunner 920XT with a Fitbit Zip. The steps are always within a couple hundred steps either way. This is one time that boring is good. I don’t think too much about it because I feel pretty confident in the results. With of course the caveat being that no tracker is completely accurate anyway as I discussed in my post Are fitness trackers a waste of money?
The step information along with calories burned is tracked in Fitbit’s well designed Website and apps.
The Surge does a nice job here as well. One of the highlightable features of newer Fitbits is the ability to just track sleep. Polar does this as well. When you go to sleep, it will automatically determine when you went to sleep and when you woke up. You don’t have to press a button and notify the device – are you listening Garmin?
While Fitbit is not the most detailed sleep tracker available, both Polar and Microsoft are have a more detailed breakdown, it does a solid job of getting the important data points across. It tracks a breakdown between actual sleep, time awakened and time restless.
One thing that is interesting is that if you are awake for a few minutes, it might split your sleep into multiple sessions as you can see in the image below from the iPhone App.
So far, everything discussed is already available in Fitbit devices on the market with sleep and stairs being the differentiator between each. All-day heart rate tracking is a new feature introduced in the 2015 Fitbit Surge and Fitbit Charge HR.
This is where things get interesting. The new Fitbits track heart rate through an optical heart rate sensor on the back of the watch where it contacts the wearer’s wrist. Optical heart rate monitors work by firing LED lights into your skin and detecting the rate that your blood pumps with another sensor. The problem is, optical heart rate sensors are notoriously inaccurate when heart rates are at a high level of BPMs (beats per minute) as discussed in the C-Net post Do wristband heart trackers actually work? A checkup.
Sadly, the Fitbit Surge suffered the same issue. As a baseline, I ran every run with a Garmin 920XT with the latest Garmin HRM Run heart rate strap (Affiliate links). On every run, the heart rate was off when my heart rate was above 150 or so. The following image is an example run with the Surge results on the top and the Garmin results on the bottom. You can see that the Fitbit was off on the average by 18 beats or 11.32 percent off.
It was closer on another run 153 versus 160, but way off on a harder run with a 144 versus 170. The Fitbit Surge seems to do a really good job with anything from a resting heart rate to a moderate level of activity. The more strenuous the exercise, the farther it strays.
GPS is the biggest addition to the Surge and it does a decent job of tracking your runs. I didn’t find any crazy route issues and the distances and paces seemed to line up fine. I was unsuccessful in getting an exact comparison because I found myself incapable of starting all the devices I was testing at the same time (there were three). I seemed to always have forgotten to press the button twice, or had accidentally stopped recording because of one wrist device pressing against the button of an adjacent watch. But as far as tracking, the runs looked clean for pace and distance. The only issue I found as far as using the Fitbit Surge during a workout was that it was a bit slow in picking up the satellites. You can see an example of how a run was tracked in the Fitbit Website below.
It is a very clean and easy to read breakdown of a run. It can serve very well as long as the user is satisfied being within the world of Fitbit only and does not plan to place the data on any other site. Someone has attempted to rectify this as addressed in the post An Open Source Tool to Export Fitbit GPS Data, but that does not account for heart rate data. Also, if you want to track other information like cadence from a footpod, this is not possible.
The Elliptical Surprise
I have had a terrible time trying to track my workouts on the elliptical trainer. I even bought a Pafers Xspin in an attempt to track my workouts. Surprisingly, the Fitbit Surge did it really well for me. And what is more interesting, the heart rate seemed to be pretty spot on. I checked against it with both an app and the elliptical machine itself and it was within a beat or two. I am wondering if it maybe has more trouble when running because it is tracking more information with the GPS added?
The Surge also offers notifications. Sadly, they are only for text messages and caller id. This is really disappointing for those who want to hear from other apps like Facebook Messenger (where I do a good deal of texting). This is a serious limitation that I hope they will consider changing in a future update.
The Fitbit Surge is a well-designed, comfortable watch that offers a lot. Is it a Super watch? No. Not really. It is a tracker with a heart-beat monitor, GPS and watch form and interface. It is a good device, but at the $250 mark, there are other options out there.
It all depends on the user’s focus. If they are more interested in activity tracking and step counting with added heart-rate, this might be a good choice. The Fitbit software is top notch and the watch does a great job of tracking steps and heart rate with general activity throughout the day.
Where the Surge struggles is when it is being used by a serious workout enthusiast or runner. While the heart-rate works well throughout the day and while sleeping, it is inaccurate when performing strenuous workouts. The more intense, the further it drifts. It also does not offer the ability to capture any other inputs like a foot pod for cadence, or the ability to track cycling. This makes it hard to recommend when there are offerings like the Polar M400 available for $30 less at the time of this writing with the Heart Rate monitor, or $70 less without. I reviewed the Polar M400 here. You can also get your data from Polar Flow and place it in other services. This is a big deal for those who track their runs and/or have coaching.
Another issue with the Fitbit Surge is with the notifications. Without providing full notifications – only text and caller id – it really is disappointing. Again it is hard to justify the price when the Polar M400 will be adding them later this year and there are devices like the Microsoft Band that currently offer many types of notifications and have the built-in heart rate monitor for $200. I reviewed the Microsoft Band on Gearist.
The Fitbit Surge can be purchased at many locations including Amazon below (affiliate link):