Tag Archives: GPS

Review: Fitbit Surge

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.

Unboxing

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.

surge-box

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.

fitbit-surge-tapefitbit-surge-box-contents

 

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.

Interface

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.

Activity Tracking

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.

fitbit-surge-steps

Sleep Tracking

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.

fitbit-surge-sleep

Tracking Heartrate

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.

compare-garmin-fitbit-surge

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.

Running

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.

fibit-surge-run

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?

Notifications

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.

Conclusion

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):

Review: Polar M400 – a GPS Watch and Activity Tracker

There is an old trope, “jack of all trades, master of none.” Polar may just have proven this untrue.

I purchased the M400 with few expectations. I have used Garmin watches for a while, and wanted to see what another manufacturer was doing with GPS watches. I was especially interested in Polar since they invented the first wireless heart rate monitor and I am a believer in heart rate training.

The M400 is Polar’s latest running watch that doubles as an activity and sleep tracker. And honestly, it does a good job with both. This is quite an acheivement for a device that costs less than $180 ($230 with a heart rate monitor).

boxed

The box is a pretty straightforward design. You can see the watch, read about the features and scan a QR code on the top for a video.

The contents include the watch, a micro-usb cable and the paperwork. The fact that it uses a micro-usb cable is really very convenient since most people are likely to have some lying around and the watch can be charged on most powered usb ports. This saves the expense of getting a second charging cable for another location or replacing a lost proprietary cable.

contents

Setting up the watch is very easy. I just had to go to flow.polar.com/start and download the latest version of Polar FlowSync. Once the watch was recognized and updated, I disconnected to the computer and synced it with the Polar Flow app on my iPhone. I never connected it to the computer after that point. I imagine that I will only need to if it has to be updated.

Running with the M400

The M400 is an excellent running watch. I found it to be spot on with accuracy and the workouts were very much in line with the Garmin Forerunner 620.

With FR 620

As can be seen by the above, the M400 is not much larger than the Garmin Forerunner 620 and has about the same thickness.

After running, it is very easy to upload. Just press and hold the menu button to sync with the app. The results can be seen on the Web or in the app. A basic overview of the run is found in the Diary section of flow.polar.com.

browser capture 01 browser capture 02

The top of the Web page has a basic breakdown of time, distance, heart rate and calories above a map of the route run. It also tells you what kind of workout you have done based on effort levels determined by heart rate zones.

Underneath the map, there are more detailed breakdowns showing the time spent in each heart rate zone along with laps and a combination chart showing elevation, pace, and heart rate.

One really handy feature is the ability to “Zoom In” on an area of a run. By clicking the two slider controls, you can select a smaller portion of the run and see metrics from just that period like the following:

metrics

In this shot, I selected only the first five minutes of the run. My heart rate was within Zones 1 & 2 and averaged 148. This ability can be really handy to dial in to performance metrics with-in certain parts of a workout like how a set of hills affect a run, what kind of kick you have at the end of a race, or to filter out warm-up and cool down parts of a run to get the meat of a workout.

Polar does a nice job of replicating the views in it’s iOS app as well. As you scroll down the screen, you can see the workout summed up at the top with the duration, HR average, Calories, Distance, Pace and Ascent (elevation). It also breaks down what kind of workout it was for you.

workout 01

If you click the Training Benefit, it will give you a definition/explanation as shown below. This is to help you understand the physiological effect of the run based on your heart rate zones and the effort expended.

 

training benefit

 

Following the basic summary of the run is a heart rate chart with a breakdown of zones underneath. Between these, you can see the amount of time you spent in each zone and what kind of heart rate drift you had in the workout.

workout 02

Last, you have the map and lap breakdown for the workout.

workout 03

 

One nice feature of the app is that you can expand on different areas like you can on the Web site. For example, you can expand the map and use the scrubber to move along it to see your progress as shown below. You can do the same for heart rate as shown in the following image.

 

map expanded 02

 

heartrate

 

But wait, there’s more

The watch has some other really cool features as well. These are the Finish Time Estimator, Interval timer and Heart rate zones.

The Finish Time Estimator is used to determine approximately how long before you finish a workout or race at a specified distance. You set the race distance before you start and it will show you how long you have left. You also can set intervals by either distance or time and start them after warming up. Last, you have the ability to see what heart rate zone you are in and can lock your zone with audio alerts if stray outside of the parameters.

These features are shown the Polar M400 video below.

Another really interesting feature that is typically only found in high-end watches is the ability to find your way back to start. This feature uses a compass to direct you to the shortest path possible to return to your starting point.

Yet another feature available for the Polar M400 is Smart Coaching and as a part of it, the Running Index. Running Index is very similar to Garmin’s VO2Max on the Forerunner 620, the Fenix 2, and the Forerunner 920XT. Keep in mind that these watches start out at $400.

The Running Index evaluates your performance in a run and predicts racing times. This is shown on the following chart online at the Polar Running Index page.

running index

 

Running Index is explained in the Polar produced video below:

In all, the Polar M400 does an outstanding job with many features that are often only found on very high-end watches. At it’s price point, it is an incredible deal. The only thing lacking is the addition of a vibrate alert instead of audio only, but this is minor compared to what it offers runners.

The M400 as an Activity and Sleep Tracker

The Polar M400 is not only a GPS watch, but also an activity tracker. And it does a find job with that. As you go through the day, it will track your activity including your steps and workouts. It goes even further than that with more detailed information about what your activity is like throughout the day as shown below:

daily activity

The app and Web site both will show what your activity has been throughout the day and how it is broken down. Another feature that is offered is an Inactivity alert. If you have been sitting for a while, you will get the message “It’s time to move!”

Time to Move

This is to prevent you from sitting too long at any point. You can also see how many of these alerts you have gotten through time, be it a day, week, or longer interval.

Another thing that the M400 tracks is sleep. And major kudos to Polar, you don’t have to do anything. It will automatically detect when you are sleeping. This is something that Garmin does not have, even on the newly released $500 Forerunner 920XT.

sleep

Polar not only tracks the hours of sleep, but also how it breaks down. It’s very important both for health and recovery to see more than just when you were in bed and for how long. This is another feature it has over Garmin’s fitness trackers and watches – they require that you manually set when you are going to sleep and wake up.

One unfortunate feature missing from Polar Flow is direct synchronization to MyFitnessPal, a dominant diet tracker. However, this may not be a complete show stopper. Polar is now working with both Apple HealthKit and Google Fit according to their post Google Fit and Apple Healthkit.  It’s not a perfect, but you should be able to get data into MyFitnessPal by using Apple Health currently or Google Fit in the future as an intermediary.

Polar is also rolling out support for 3rd party developers as posted in Connect with Polar. Their program is free, so it will likely speed up adaptation.

Another thing that the Polar M400 does not track is stairs. Sadly, it will only track steps and sleep at this point.

Overall, what Polar does track, it does very well and consistently. It does not compromise on the tasks.

Cycling with the M400

I have been injured lately and need to do a lot of cross training by cycling and aqua-jogging. Fortunately, the Polar M400 accommodates both activities.

The M400 has a cycling mode that will allow you to track a ride. The only problem is that it is limited to GPS for speed, pace and distance and won’t work with any extra sensors except a Heart Rate Monitor. But it works well in a pinch. I wore the watch on multiple rides and compared the results to a Garmin Edge 500. The results were very consistent.

I wore both the Polar H7 Heart Rate Monitor and the Garmin HRM Run at the same time and wound up with the same metrics. The speed was the same on both devices. The route tracked just fine. The elevation was different on the Polar but that may be because there are some serious elevation issues GPS devices as a whole. Here is a good article from DC Rainmaker – Understanding Sport Device GPS.

ride compare

One thing to note. Polar does a nice job of giving a workout breakdown in one quick view. If you tap on any data item with a red tab marker, it will change to another related piece of data. For example, the tab next to the heart rate toggles between the average and max for the session.

Another really cool feature is the ability to “relive” a workout. It can maybe seen as gimmicky, but it’s well done and I enjoy how they present it. Here are the results of the cycling workout shown above and below.

relive workout

One thing that I really was delighted with on the Polar was the fact that it even counted steps while I was riding. I’m not sure if it was factored in when tracking the workout, or the watch was sensitive enough to pick up vibrations when I was riding. Either way, it credited me with steps as shown below. Something that no other device I have tried does. I even have used a Nathan pouch on one shoe with a Garmin Vivofit taken out of the band and a Fitbit Zip on the other shoe to track steps. The fact that the Polar tracked this on all of my rides was a wonderful surprise.

steps with cycling

Both result sets for the workouts can be compared at http://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/630096797 for the Garmin Edge 500 and https://flow.polar.com/training/analysis/34699897 for the Polar M400.

Conclusion

Polar has really come out with a pretty special device here. It really checks off most of the boxes to be both be a good activity tracker, and a very good GPS/Fitness watch. The number of features it packs into the device at the price point it has prove that Polar wants this budget to mid level market. I can whole-heartedly recommend this watch to anyone who is looking to track their workouts and trying to get a cost-effective device. It really rivals much more expensive equipment. You can get the watch at Clevertraining or Amazon in my affiliate link below (I get a small commission if you buy through the links).