Of all the fitness tracking bands we saw at CES, Fitbit‘s Surge was the one we were most excited to try out. Fitbit is a pioneer in the wireless fitness band industry, so they’ve had the chance to witness the evolution of fitness trackers and release new products to remain a contender. They’ve also gone through some rough patches with product recalls and privacy concerns, so we were eager to see if these issues have made Fitbit a stronger company in the end. We were also hoping to finally find a device that could supplant our Pebble smartwatch that has been faithfully keeping time and delivering smartphone notifications for years.
After a month of use, we think it’s become quite clear if the Surge will be a viable alternative to the Pebble, or even the upcoming Apple Watch. So what’s the verdict? Read on to find out!
Design and Hardware
With a rectangular face and a monochrome LCD screen surrounded by a wide, matte bezel, let’s face it: the Surge looks a lot like a Pebble at first glance. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however, it’s not a remarkable design either. Along its left and right sides are navigation buttons which are also used in conjunction with the Surge’s touch-responsive screen. The band is made from a soft, textured, silicone-like material that is secured, thankfully, with your standard watch-style clasp. Flip the Surge over and you get a view of the band’s cool, high-tech side. In the middle of its underbelly are two green lights and an optical sensor used to measure your pulse rate. The backside is also where the Surge’s charging port is. Sadly, the connector is a proprietary connection that isn’t even interchangeable with the Fitbit Charge/Charge HR.
Within, the Surge is chock full of sensors. In addition to your fairly run-of-the-mill motion/position sensors (accelerometer, gyroscope, altimeter) and heart rate sensor, the Surge also has a built-in GPS used to track your running routes, when you’re not tethered to your phone’s GPS, and a digital compass to help orient you in the correct direction. An ambient light sensor helps determine when the Surge’s backlight should turn on. Finally, the Surge has a vibration motor to alert you if you’ve reached your goal, started/stopped a workout, or need to be woken up. This suite of sensors is fairly impressive for a fitness smartwatch, and even more impressive is it managed to truly last us close to seven days between charges (with GPS off).
As the Surge replaced both the fitness band we had previously been wearing on our right wrist as well as the Pebble on our left wrist, we were interested to see how it held up as an everyday smartwatch. Unfortunately, the Surge still has a ways to go.
The display itself, while fairly easy to read, is not always easily accessible. In dark environments when the backlight is needed, we had to use our other hand to press one of the Surge’s buttons to activate the backlight. We think it’s practically a given that the backlight should be activated by simply shaking your wrist. Second, as the entire face of the watch is also touch-sensitive, there would be numerous times where an inadvertent touch of the screen would change it away from displaying the clock. The only way to see the current time is to use your other hand to swipe back or press the left button twice (but not too fast as this would activate the music controller). It would be nice if the screen would automatically switch back to the clock view after a few seconds.
On the subject of navigating within the Surge’s menus, it’s an experience that was both frustrating and confusing. We could never quite figure out when to press a button or when to swipe the screen. The two multi-function buttons are essentially useless when you’re viewing the time or your current statistics. And we felt that navigating, whether it be to tag a workout or change a setting, took a few too many swipes/button presses than we think is necessary. We personally think that the Surge would have been just as functional had it featured just a touchscreen or just button navigation. We finally must mention that while the Surge can receive notifications, these are sadly limited to calls and text messages.
Once we learned to navigate to where we wanted, our experience was a little more positive. Heart tracking was fairly reliable compared to our highly scientific fingers-on-carotid artery method. We always felt step tracking was more accurate on Fitbit devices, and while the accuracy of fitness bands versus smartphone apps have been recently scrutinized, we’ve always stated that your step counts should be used as a baseline for establishing your goals and comparing your athletic performance day to day.
Aside from counting your steps, the Surge also lets you tag custom runs and exercises. Depending on the activity you choose, it will automatically activate the GPS antenna and allow you to track your location without your phone. This editor was disappointed to see that cycling was absent from the list of exercises. While Fitbit states that its devices aren’t optimized for cycling, we think that simply utilizing the GPS, heart rate sensor, and altimeter would still make it a very useful tool for bicyclists.
The Surge can also automatically track your sleep using both the accelerometer and heart rate sensor, although we don’t think it’s particularly comfortable to wear to bed. The sleep statistics aren’t as detailed as some of the other devices and apps we’ve tried, but it gives you the important facts such as sleep duration and periods of restlessness or wakefulness. You can also use the Surge as an alarm clock to wake you up by vibrating your wrist, but strangely, the alarms need to be programmed through your phone first.
Using Bluetooth Low Energy, the Surge can automatically (or manually) sync to your smartphone or your computer via wireless dongle. The Fitbit app and web dashboard that it’s based on has always impressed us with a robust set of tools. It displays a ton of information and easily allows you to input other things like food logs, weight, and ounces of water.
One significant drawback that developed since our last Fitbit review is that your data is not compatible with Apple’s Health app. Thankfully, a $1.99 app called Sync Solver fixes this by transferring your data between Fitbit’s servers and your Apple account. We personally think it’s well worth the the $2 if you’re an iPhone user.
- Comfortable band with a traditional, easy-to-use clasp
- Impressive 7-day battery life is the best we’ve seen in any rechargeable band
- Lots of sensors
- User interface is quirky, confusing and severely lacking
- Not (directly) Apple Health compatible
- Charging cable is proprietary and not compatible with other Fitbit bands
- Pricey at $250
The Surge has a lot of neat features and a comprehensive set of tracking tools, but our frustrations in using it prevents us from giving it a hearty recommendation. If you can hold off, wait until Fitbit updates the Surge’s software. Or wait until the summer when companies will inevitably begin to respond to a living, breathing Apple Watch.
More info and link to Fitbit Store: Fitbit Surge