Do you need a fitness wearable? Obviously, yes. Even if you’re not interested in counting every step, every day, you can now use a fitness wearable to check your texts, listen to music, or effortlessly pay for a macchiato.
The increasingly porous boundary between fitness trackers, sport watches, and smartwatches has resulted in a tough year or two for Fitbit. The company has slowly repositioned its products from simple fitness trackers to health devices that might be able to monitor serious medical conditions like sleep apnea or diabetes.
Arriving on this wave is the new Charge 3, Fitbit’s update to its most popular wearable, the Charge 2. Earlier this year, Fitbit announced that the Charge 3 would come with a host of software and hardware upgrades. And while the Charge 3 does appear equipped to perform some new voodoo, unfortunately, not all of these features were ready in time for me to test them. For example, the Charge 3 comes with an SpO2 sensor to measure peripheral capillary oxygen saturation, but the Fitbit app doesn’t currently display any information on blood oxygen levels. Other upgrades, like a “Sleep Score” which will advise you on your sleep quality, are arriving with a software update later this year.
For now however, you can think of the Charge 3 as a nicer version of the Charge 2, with smartwatch features like a swipeable touchscreen. I wore it for one week while swimming, running, and walking my dogs. It’s comfortable and looks great. But if you’re spending $150 on a Charge 3, I do have to ask: Why just get an advanced fitness tracker when you can go full smartwatch and get a Versa for only $50 more?
Like all Fitbit products, the Charge 3 is comfortable and easy to set up. Almost immediately, I switched out the default band for the breathable silicone sport mesh band, which fits more comfortably on a sweaty wrist. It’s easy to click the bands in and out of the Charge 3’s aluminum body.
I coupled the Charge 3 with the proprietary clip-on charger and followed the instructions on the Fitbit app to connect it to my phone. Two hours out of the box and it had a full charge. As I used it for the week, recording one or two activities per day, I ended up having to charge it once every four or five days.
Fitbit favors large bezels, and the company has a habit of inscribing “fitbit” on everything. These touches can be a little annoying. But with my black test unit, I found the bezel to be barely noticeable. The hi-res OLED touchscreen is crisp, clear, and attractive. You awaken it by tapping the screen, twisting your wrist toward your face, or by pressing your finger to the indented button on the side, which responds with a haptic click.
You can select one of Fitbit’s proprietary clock faces through the Fitbit app. Because the Charge 3 doesn’t run Fitbit OS (after all, it’s not a smartwatch), you can’t select third-party faces or apps, like the ones from Strava.
To see your smartphone notifications, swipe down; to see your stats and battery power, swipe up. A swipe to the left accesses Fitbit apps, like recording exercise or using the Breathe tool. A swipe to the right accesses settings. The swiping system and menu layout is not exactly intuitive. There are multiple tutorials on how to find what you’re looking for, and then further tutorials on how to pause or stop exercises. I did like seeing notifications for texts and calls on the tracker. Unfortunately, the Charge 3 didn’t always reliably respond to my up or down swipes, which was a little frustrating.
For the most part, the Charge 3’s features function as they have in Fitbit’s other trackers. For example, in the Sleep app, you can check the easy-to-read charts of your sleep schedules and the time you spend in each sleep stage (awake, REM, light, and deep sleep).
Fitbit has also updated its Sleep features, so you can set sleep goals, as well as a suggested bedtime and wake-up time. I’m currently trying to get in bed by 10:30 pm every night anyway, so I found this feature helpful—much more so than the app’s daily sleep insight. I don’t need a fitness tracker to lecture me that most women my age are getting much more sleep.
Obviously, you can track your workouts—the main reason to buy a Fitbit. You can set a weekly exercise goal of exercising up to five days a week. Then you can select which activities will show up on the Charge 3 by opening the Exercise tile in the Fitbit app.
The Charge 3 will also auto-recognize your selected activities once you’ve done them long enough to reach a set time threshold. The lowest threshold is ten minutes, which made me sad since it takes less time than that to bike my children to school or to bike to my neighborhood lunch joint. The Charge 3 didn’t pick up a single outdoor cycling session. It did, however, hilariously record karaoke night as 45 minutes of “sport.”
I liked scrolling through the exercises. The tiny running, swimming, or squatting figures are fun to look at. The Charge 3 is able to track your location through GPS when you carry your phone along on a hike or a run, and the tracker picks up a lot of useful data, like how long you spent in different heart rate zones. I found the Charge 3’s heart rate monitor while running to be more accurate than the Versa’s, with no alarming 190 HR measurements.
More and more fitness trackers are incorporating swim tracking into their list of capabilities, and the Charge 3 records swims accurately. It even takes into account the pauses at the end of the lap when calculating your times, as long as those pauses are under 60 seconds (mine were).
However, this watch has a ways to go before it would be useful to even a non-serious swimmer like myself. The Charge 3 doesn’t have a gyroscope to track strokes and laps in real time, so the display doesn’t show you anything besides the time elapsed—not very useful if you’re trying to get a mile in on your lunch break. Finally, the Charge 3 doesn’t record your HR while swimming, since water refractions can impede the measurement.
Stay the Course
While testing the Charge 3, I had lunch with someone who owns and uses a Charge 2, and who likes it very much. If you like the Charge 2, you probably think the upgrades in the 3 are stellar. Aside from overlooking my short bike trips, the Charge 3 both recorded lots of easy-to-use fitness data and auto-recognized many other activities, in addition to allowing me to check texts and calls.
However, the more smartwatch features that Fitbit includes on the Charge 3, the more I wonder: Why not just get a smartwatch? True, the Charge 3 is slightly more affordable. But for a mere $50 extra, you get so much more with the Versa.
For example: Why does the Charge 3 have a weather app if the app is just going to direct me to sync with my phone? Why wouldn’t I just check the weather on my phone in the first place? And if you wish the Charge 3 would let you swap in more watch faces or install popular fitness apps, then you should know those things are already available on the Ionic and the Versa.
It’s possible my opinion on the Charge 3 might be different were I able to test the missing health-related features in addition to all the stuff it already does. Fitness trackers can help you improve your health, not just by collecting data, but by crunching it in new and actionable ways, and something like a Sleep Score could possibly help encourage a change of habit more effectively than a chart. But for now, the Charge 3 just seems like more of the same in the world of fitness trackers.