[Health Tech] Fitbit Surge Review

Surge2As part of our ongoing reviews of the Fitbit tracker range it is finally time to provide our opinions and experiences with the Fitbit Surge fitness super watch, which is the highest performance wearable available from Fitbit.

Build & Appearance

The look and feel of the Fitbit Surge reflects the same level of quality we have come to expect from Fitbit wearables including the standard wedge profile, with the tracker body deeper at the upper edge of the screen than at the lower edge. The result of the wedge design is that the user’s wrist does not have to be turned quite as much to view the screen. This brings us to the first obvious difference with the Fitbit Surge, the large (20mm wide x 25mm high) monochrome high resolution LCD screen providing a balance between usability and power consumption. A nice touch is that the watch screen uses the reflectivity of the LCD display unilluminated background to aid readability in most circumstance and backlighting for low and no-light environments.

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The Fitbit Surge wrist strap is made of a flexible, durable elastomer material similar to that used in many other sports watches along with the Fitbit Charge and Fitbit Charge HR, although the Fitbit Surge has a medical stainless steel body surrounding the screen. As with the Fitbit Charge HR, the Fitbit Surge has a surgical-grade stainless steel buckle closure mechanism and a strap loop with a protrusion on the inside which locates into the holes in the strap to stop it sliding.

Sadly, although the Fitbit Surge build quality is high, Fitbit continue to develop fitness trackers that are not water resistant enough to support wearing them during swimming or showering. This is one area in which Fitbit is being left behind by the competition. When asked, the current position in the Fitbit Community forum is that they are unable to provide the pressure sensing used to measure altitude whilst making their trackers water resistant enough to swim in. This allegedly because they measure air pressure, Anther thing to note is that the heart rate measurement method will not work under water.

Functionality

The functionality provided by the Fitbit Surge builds on the vibration feedback (motor), step counting (3-axis accelerometer) and floor counting (altimeter) provided in the Fitbit Charge, as well as continuous optical heart rate monitoring (HRM) provided in the Fitbit Charge HR, adding internal GPS, a 3-axis gyroscope, a digital compass and a large capacitive LCD display.050116_0322_HealthTechF5.png

Heart Rate Monitoring

As with the Fitbit Charge HR we have been impressed by how similar the heart rate data recorded by the Fitbit Surge is to that recorded by HRM chest straps from Polar and Suunto as well as the resting heart rate calculation similarity to the output of VO2 max tests conducted using a Polar FT60 fitness watch and H7 chest mount HRM sensor. The obvious advantage of wrist based heart rate monitoring over chest strap mounted heart rate sensors is that you can wear the sensor all day whilst chest straps are intended for short periods whilst exercising. This means that you can use heart rate as well as movement to infer intensity of everyday activities like walking.

050116_0322_HealthTechF6.pngA major advantage of the Fitbit Surge constant HRM monitoring and resting heartrate calculation is that you can see you are becoming ill before you feel the symptoms and that you are not fully recovered when the symptoms appear gone. This is all thanks to the resting heart rate trending information provided both within the mobile apps and the online Fitbit dashboard shows if your heart rate is raised from your baseline resting heart rate. There are two different modes of heart rate data recording; constant, recording every 5 seconds and exercise mode, recording every seconds for more accurate real time on-screen information.

Step & Altitude Tracking

As with the rest of the Fitbit range the settings for step counting go the extra mile compared to most competing brands, enabling selection of ‘dominant’ or ‘non-dominant’ wrist where many of the competition offer selection between ‘left’ and ‘right’ wrist with no reference to dominance. For those not used to step trackers, the step counting is based on movement of the tracker measured by the 3-axis accelerometer and equated to steps based on a proprietary algorithm and Fitbit take account that users move their dominant wrist more than their non-dominant wrist.

Altitude is recorded in the form of floors climbed, but during some exercises it is recorded as altitude changes in meters for more accurate assessment. This also acknowledges that more energy is used climbing a stairs or hill than walking on the flat.

Running & Exercising

Along with step counting the Fitbit Surge also tracks ‘Run’ and ‘Exercise’ activities based on a number of pre-programmed modes. Run tracking is split into ‘Free Run’ which tracks position and speed based on steps, altitude changes and GPS position alongside heart rate, and ‘Treadmill Run’ which tracks distance based on steps alongside heart rate.

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‘Exercise’ mode is split into up to six user selected activities from a list of 16 activities (listed below) within the settings screen of the mobile app or via the Fitbit website:

  • Bike (Altitude Change, GPS & Heart Rate)
  • Bootcamp (Movement & Heart Rate)
  • Circuit Training (Movement & Heart Rate)
  • Elliptical (Movement & Heart Rate)
  • Golf (Steps, GPS & Heart Rate)
  • Hike (Steps, Altitude Change, GPS & Heart Rate)
  • Kickboxing (Movement & Heart Rate)
  • Martial Arts (Movement & Heart Rate)
  • Pilates (Movement & Heart Rate)
  • Spinning (Movement & Heart Rate)
  • Stairclimber (Movement & Heart Rate)
  • Tennis (Movement & Heart Rate)
  • Walk (Movement, Altitude Change, GPS & Heart Rate)
  • Weights (Movement & Heart Rate)
  • Workout (Movement & Heart Rate)
  • Yoga (Movement & Heart Rate)

Although we haven’t tested them all we have been impressed with many of them including ‘Bike’, ‘Bootcamp’, ‘Circuit Training’ and ‘Yoga’ as each uses a different bespoke algorithm to assess the workout and calculate the calorie burn.050116_0322_HealthTechF8.png

GPS

A major advantage of the Fitbit Surge over the rest of the Fitbit tracker range and many competing products is the inclusion of internal GPS with a 1Hz sample rate meaning that you can track your route and speed without the need for a phone running an accompanying mobile app. During testing we have found GPS performance to be reliable, with fast initial fix and tracked data similar to that recorded on mobile apps and Polar FT60 fitness watch and Polar G3 GPS Sensor. Following the last firmware update, the Fitbit Surge can record up to 10 hours of GPS data post full charge before running out of power.050116_0322_HealthTechF9.png

Battery Life

Although Fitbit claim a battery life of up to 7-days for the Fitbit Surge lithium-polymer battery, we have not managed to achieve more than 6-days since installing the latest firmware update, although we had proven this claim beforehand. This means that it is achievable with the hardware, but may require another firmware update to enable it again. This said, 6-days greatly exceeds the capability of competing trackers like the Microsoft Band 2 or smart watches like the Apple Watch.

050116_0324_HealthTechF10.pngIn order to achieve 6-day battery life following a 1 to 2-hour full charge, you need to turn off ‘Quick View’ (introduced via the last firmware update), ‘Bluetooth Classic’ and not track any workouts or runs, only using the standard step, floor and activity sensing along with keeping heart rate monitoring in ‘auto’ mode. Our testing has been using the Fitbit Surge with the Windows 10 and Windows 10 mobile universal apps which does appear to suffer from possible Bluetooth issues in the latest Windows operating systems (OS) causing the tracker to remain connected, not taking advantage of Bluetooth LTE low power capability. As a result, we have found that turning Bluetooth off in the latest Windows OS, when not needing to sync data, appears to extend both phone and tracker life substantially.

Data Synchronisation

Although battery life does not achieve the 7-claim, the Fitbit Surge does retain detailed motion data (minute-by-minute) for 7 days along with daily totals for an impressive 30-days. In order to transfer tracked data to the apps and cloud based Fitbit service you can either use a mobile or PC app on a Bluetooth 4.0 enabled device within 6 m of the Fitbit Surge. Data Synchronisation is possible with computers running Windows Vista and later, Mac OS X 10.6 and up, iPhone 4S and later, iPad 3 gen.. and later, and leading Android and Windows devices. If using a PC without Bluetooth 4.0 support Fitbit also provide a proprietary USB dongle enabling wireless sync when used in conjunction with a Fitbit app or the Fitbit Connector wireless synchronisation app.

The only negative we found is that the Surge does not support turning Bluetooth off when not needed. This is not so much due to health worries and instead related to some day jobs not permitting Bluetooth devices to be worn if they cannot be switched into ‘airplane mode’ with no data communication.

Other Functionality

Default screens

The default screen for the Fitbit Surge is a watch face from which, swiping left or right presents live step, heart rate, distance, calories and floors climbed data. A nice touch is that there 4 screen designs available, although changing them requires use of the Fitbit app or web dashboard and synchronising with the tracker.050116_0322_HealthTechF11.png

Silent Alarm

As with the Fitbit One, Fitbit Charge and Fitbit Charge HR, the Fitbit Surge internal vibration motor can be set to provide what appears to be unlimited one-off or recurring silent vibration alarms set both on time of day and day/days of week, but not for a specific date.050116_0324_HealthTechF12.png

Notifications & Music Control

Along with the functionality described above, the Fitbit Surge also supports call and text notifications and music control via Bluetooth 4.0 at the detriment of battery life as both require Bluetooth Classic rather than Bluetooth LTE meaning that the Fitbit Surge has to be permanently connected rather than maintaining a power saving intermittent connection. Although both functionalities have been available on iOS and Android for quite a while, only music control is currently available on Windows Phone and Windows 10 Mobile. as the OS does not include GATT Server support.  This is something that the development team have been working with Microsoft on for over a year now and the good news is that we have been advised by Microsoft that Windows 10 Mobile Redstone build will incorporate GATT server support later this year.

050116_0324_HealthTechF13.pngThis said, on iOS and Android, Notifications provides caller display and limited scrolling text information for messages on the screen of the Fitbit Surge. When a text notification arrives you swipe down to view it. If it is longer than 160 characters (or 32 characters in the subject), a second downward swipe reveals the rest of the message. Missed notification can be accessed by pressing the Action button next to the notifications icon. The Fitbit Surge can store up to 20 notifications and the oldest ones are deleted as new ones arrive. One viewing a notification quick left or right swipe switches been stored notifications.

Quick View

The last firmware update also brought ‘quick view’, whereby the 3-axis accelerometer senses turning of the wrist to view the Fitbit Surge screen and uses the ambient light sensors to automatically illuminate the screen in low light circumstances.

Stopwatch & Countdown Timer

Along with ‘Quick View’ the last firmware update provided a stopwatch and a countdown timer, but sadly this new functionality did not enable a Tabata Training or Interval Training timer.050116_0324_HealthTechF14.png

Conclusions

In our opinion, the Fitbit Surge is a very impressive, full functional, fitness tracker at the dedicated fitness fanatics end of the market. With its step and altitude sensing along with internal GPS and always on HRM the Fitbit Surge has a powerful arsenal. When we add its silent alarms, 5+ day battery life (when not using GPS) and call and text notifications we are only left wishing for a handful of extras, namely:

Finally, in our opinion we would leave the notification and music control turned off to have a powerful fitness tracker which doesn’t need charging every other day. Our ideal is a weekly rather than daily charge.

Verdict

Pros

  • Largest Fitbit Screen
  • Internal GPS
  • Constant wrist-based Hart Rate Monitoring
  • Very comfortable to wear
  • Screen readable in all light scenarios

Cons

  • Monochrome screen
  • Bluetooth LTE permanently paired (GATT Server coming later this year)
  • Not recommended for showering or swimming
  • Not option to turn off Bluetooth
  • No inactivity alarm (Coming later this year)

Scores **** (4/5)

Build & Appearance **** (5/5)

In our experience the Fitbit Surge build quality lives up to the high expectations we have come to expect from Fitbit trackers and its styling is aligned to the of the rest of the Fitbit range. Although there are more elegant tracker designs on the market we like the functional, simple form of the Fitbit range.

Functionality **** (4/5)

The Fitbit Surge is packet with functionality with in-built HRM and GPS along with standard activity tracking. The only thing that stops the Fitbit Surge receiving a full five stars is that it is not water resistant enough to support showering or swimming.

Affordability **** (4/5)

At £199.99 the Fitbit Surge is aimed at people serious about fitness and activity tracking or, as stated on the Fitbit website, the Fitbit Surge is aimed at the performance market. Although the price tag makes the Fitbit Surge very affordable compared to the competition in this market you should remember to take it off before you hit the pool or showers.

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