(We first tested the Fitbit Alta HR at the end of March 2017 when it launched. Since then, we've spent more time with the device and added our thoughts on long term use - accuracy, battery life, how we use the app - after six weeks as an update to this review.)
Fitbit has been straddling the fitness-wellbeing divide for quite some time, but the Fitbit Alta HR, its latest tracker, falls slap-bang in the middle. It's a fitness tracker for those who want to keep half an eye on their fashion choices, half on their activity, and still be poised for more high-intensity workouts.
The addition of the new heart rate monitor means the HR is better equipped for workouts than the first Fitbit Alta, but it's still pitched at people with modest fitness goals, along with those who may just want to see their heart rate in context of day-to-day activities - leaving the Charge 2 the choice for the athletes.
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At $150, the Alta HR is the same price as the latest Charge, but it's also something you'd more comfortably wear with a smart dinner outfit, or even a watch. So, how does the Alta HR fare, and who is it actually for? Read on and find out.
Fitbit Alta HR: Design
The Alta HR doesn't stray too far from the original's design, but that's a more impressive feat this time around; while the first Alta was little more than a step tracker, Fitbit has shrunk the chip inside to make room for the heart rate sensor and a battery capable of lasting a week, and deserves plaudits for doing so.
Sat on the wrist, the only noticeable difference is the strap where Fitbit has added a buckle for a more secure fit. The heart rate sensor means a nice tight wrap is all the more important, and we've found it to be perfectly comfortable in work, play and exercise.
The Alta HR is very lightweight - again, impressive considering everything crammed in - and just 15mm in width. That makes it slightly more spacious than the Flex 2, but then you've got the HR edge here. The comfortable, secure fit is also important for the new sleep features, which we'll dive into later. Speaking of diving, the Alta HR is water resistant but only to sweat and rain. Fitbit doesn't advise you taking it in the shower, let alone swim with it as you can with the Flex 2. Shame.
Like Fitbit's other trackers, you have a choice of two strap sizes: small and large. We'd advise trying out Fitbit's print-out sizing method if you're not sure which to go for, but the main unit only comes in one size, so if you buy one and find the strap isn't to your liking you can just swap the strap out. It also fits all bands that clipped into the original Alta, and vice versa.
The screen tech is the same at the Alta 1.0 and requires tapping to cycle through the menus; there's not a single button on the Alta HR. Our criticism here is that the display can sometimes be hard to read in bright conditions, with no way to push it up, while the tap-to-cycle screen also needs a fairly solid hit to work. Sometimes we've found ourselves tapping it more than necessary to find the information we want. It's a small niggle, but the twist-to-wake function has been consistently good in testing.
Fitbit Alta HR: Features, fitness and HR
Despite the heart rate tracker, the HR is more comparable to the original Alta than the Charge 2. Not only is it built almost identically, but it misses out on many of the Charge 2's features. VO2 Max, workout modes, ConnectedGPS are all absent, which is understandable, though the lack of guided breathing is an unexpected omission. It's possible this could come in an update but don't, err, hold your breath.
So, you have a heart rate tracker but not so much of the framework for intense exercise. Fitbit still wants you to use the Alta HR for workouts, and to that end it's solid, even if it lacks the additional insights you'll get with the Charge 2. While you can use this as a running device (we'll come onto that in a moment) Fitbit is also leveraging heart rate data as a means to get a more accurate reading on day-to-day wellbeing, calorie burn being the obvious one.
Tracking at five-second intervals, the Alta HR will give you a nice readout of your heart rate through the day, including your heart rate zones and average resting rate. Even if you're not taking this out for a jog or cycle, this added insight gives you a better window into your overall health, which is what the Alta HR is more about. Keeping an eye on that resting heart rate is always a good thing, and we've found the HR accurate enough to make this a worthwhile addition.
But as said, you can use this for tracking those running and cycling sessions, and for that it's not bad. You can't start a workout straight from the Alta HR app, but Fitbit's SmartTrack will automatically detects your bouts of activity through the day, and will pick up when you start a run. In the settings you can adjust the length of time you need to spend doing an exercise before tracking kicks in, so make sure you do so when setting up the Alta HR for the first time. We kept it set to the 15 minute default, and it's picked up our runs with no problems.
In one test I put the HR up against the Wahoo Tickr heart rate chest strap and the Withings Steel HR, to see how it would fare against the 'gold standard' of bpm and another wearable that puts itself in the same category as the Alta HR.
During running, I found that the HR did well to keep up with the highs on the live readout once it hit them, but took longer than both the chest strap and the Steel HR to climb down. So, good at peaks, less so at troughs, but in the final data - as we found with the Charge 2 - Fitbit seems to do some of its own adjustments.
As you can see below - Fitbit Alta HR left, Wahoo Tickr chest strap middle, Withings Steel HR right - the final result was quite close in this run. Our average heart rate was 4bpm higher than the chest strap, which isn't surprising given that the readout was often a little higher, but not terrible. Despite the lack of GPS (and sadly that's not an option at all with the Alta HR) we've also found the accuracy of the distance in workouts to be good. Sadly though, you can't see the distance in your workout breakdown, and instead you'll have to add up the blocks of intense workouts in the distance part of the app.
We had a couple of instance of it losing a reading during a run, most likely due to sweat, but this wasn't shown in the final data. Either this was just a fault with the readout or, again, Fitbit applied some guesswork after the fact. In these moments we had to take the band off and wipe the sensor to get it locked on again, which was a little irritating.
As for step tracking, we've found it to be a similar step to the Charge 2 in that the Alta HR does have a tendency to overcount - not by a massive margin, but still noticeably. We tried some basic pace counting and there were definitely a few extra steps thrown in, even with the stride length tweaked.
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We'd advise manually adjusting the stride length in the advanced settings to offset as much of this as possible. On a day where we wore the Alta HR and Withings Steel HR, Fitbit came out at around 400 steps higher. The Steel HR, we've found, to be a tad more accurate, but the reality of the matter is that companies use different algorithms and nobody gets the step tracking perfect. Generally we've found the Steel HR to be good in the step accuracy department, so the Alta HR coming out with 400 steps off isn't too bad.
Fitbit Alta HR: Sleep tracking and insights
Sleep is the big one, and where Fitbit is rightfully making a big noise about. Sleep has long been an area where Fitbit has fallen into the "good enough" column, but until now has failed to move past. Now, it's adding two new features to more closely track those lost hours and help give you a better understanding of what the data actually means.
You can read our interview with Fitbit in which it goes into some of the background of why sleep is its new focus, but how does it work in practice? Well, there are two new tricks here: tracking and insights. Fitbit has been tracking our sleep for a long time, but the data has always been fairly simplistic. Now it's bringing heart rate data into the equation, allowing it to get a better of idea of what levels of sleep you're in. This is inferred from combining accelerometer and heart rate data. For example, in REM sleep our heart rate becomes more variable, but our body tends to be still.
In the app now (make you you're updated to the latest version) you'll now see the familiar bar chart of hours slept, but you can also open a window that shows you how you moved between wake, REM, light and deep sleep. You'll also get a breakdown of how much time was spent in each stage, and by tapping the 'Benchmark' button can see how your stats compare to other people in your age and gender bracket. Fitbit also annotates the graphs to tell you how each stage of sleep affects the body which, like the benchmarking, puts everything in context.
What has the most potential, though, are the Sleep Insights, which are little tips Fitbit will occasionally throw up in the morning. Now, the value of these varies, and the idea is that these will get better in the long term. In our time with the Alta HR, perhaps only two we felt were truly insightful; the rest were a bit generic, but Fitbit promises these will improve the more your Alta HR gets to know you. Fitbit also suggested that it will improve insights as more people use the sleep tracking.
On one day it congratulated us for getting a consistent bedtime, but it was clear from our bars that we were were still getting less sleep than our target, so while consistency is a good thing, we're not sure it was the tip we should have been getting in that instance.
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It feels like we'll need more time to get the most out of insights. One thing we really like some of the dedicated sleep trackers like the Withings Aura and Beddit 3 is that feedback is often personalised, but fitness trackers have a tendency to throw little more than some numbers at you. So hats off to Fitbit for doing more here, and we hope it can do the same, if not a better job, of the the dedicated devices. After all, it has the advantage of being on our wrist all day and having more insight into our body rhythms day and night. For example, the Alta HR will look at patterns between your activity and sleep, and if you happen to get more Zzzs on days where you went for a run, it will recommend you keep that exercise consistent.
It's hard to test the accuracy of Fitbit's sleep stages outside of lab conditions, and Fitbit itself calls it an "estimate", but when it came to drifting off we found the Alta HR to be a good detective, and the addition of heart rate data here no doubt helps with that. It's been a tad off in nailing our wake-up time, probably struggling to work out if those slight movements were from restless sleep or us waking from our slumber, but we're talking around five minutes here.
We need to spend a few weeks, probably months, to see the full potential of Fitbit's sleep insights - where we feel the true potential lies - but the good news is that you don't necessarily need an Alta HR to use this. Fitbit is rolling out Sleep Stages to the Blaze right away with the Charge 2 to get the update in April. Sleep Insights should pop up for everyone bar Fitbit Zip users very soon too.
Fitbit Alta HR: Notifications
The Alta HR, like its predecessor, also displays notifications for calls, texts and calendar notifications. Problem is, we're not convinced the Alta HR is particularly useful for reading right from the wrist. For messages, Fitbit now supports a wider range of third-party apps including WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, but reading these on a slant isn't the best experience, and when as you're waiting for them to scroll across the screen, chances are - like us - you'll be pulling out your phone in a matter of seconds. For calls we've found this more useful, alerting us at times we couldn't feel or hear our phone ringing in the pocket.
The fitness notifications have more value however, nudging you to get moving when you haven't hit 250 steps in an hour. These have been a mainstay of Fitbit's devices for a long time, and you can choose how frequently the Alta HR bugs you, and on which days of the week. After all, Sunday is a day of rest, so maybe you'd prefer it stayed that way.
Fitbit Alta HR: Battery life
One of the biggest achievements, according to Fitbit, is the battery life of the Alta HR. The company claims a week of battery life from a single charge, which is two days more than its predecessor. In our testing we eked about six days of charge from the Fitbit Alta HR.
The improvement in battery life is admirable – making a smaller band with more features and a longer battery life is no mean feat. But there are brands out there doing it better. The Withings Steel HR still takes the cake with its 25 days of battery life, although heart rate readings are taken less frequently.
Fitbit Alta HR: Six weeks in
After Hugh took care of our main review, I've been wearing the Alta HR for about a month to really get used to the device's pros and cons. It's worth noting that for this period my main exercise hasn't been running, like most of the gang, but long-ish walks as part of prepping for our Race to the Stones challenge.
A couple of niggles to get out of the way, first. The Alta HR is amongst the lightest, most comfortable and least bothersome wearables I've worn, but at times I've still found that the module digs in a little. I like the peach coloured band I've been using though it has got pretty grubby over the past four weeks. I'm pretty clumsy and I've also managed to slightly chip one edge of the tracker body/display too.
Resting heart rate, steps and distance have all been accurate enough, which is to say if your main goal is to gradually get fitter, this affordable tracker could be a good fit. The worst behaviour I've encountered is that it did slightly overestimate a 12k walk and also incorrectly auto-tag one section of it as an 'outdoor bike' session to boot. That has been a one-off though with the rest of the data from the exercise tab - HR, calories, impact being genuinely useful.
Sleep tracking has been pretty accurate but I don't have any problems with my sleep, especially not compared to Hugh, and the new Insights weren't enough to get me as motivated as with the walking. As the weeks rolled by, I also ended up just not really using this Fitbit for smartphone notifications, mainly in agreement with Hugh as I just don't like how they're presented. So I began to switch between staying connected all day and syncing at night. Bluetooth syncing on Android has been hit and miss - sometimes it works a treat, sometimes you have to and fro in the app settings to get rid of 'tracker not found' messages. It's clearly more seamless on iPhone. Battery life has been great - I've easily been getting six days or a week if I forget to wear it to work one day.
The Fitbit app and the motivation built into the device has been the star of the show for me. The reminders to move, the badge with the number of hours you hit 250 steps, the minutes in heart rate zone data - it all just works for someone like me. I'm just not in need of the missing, more advanced metrics on other Fitbits like VO2 Max. This is the kind of all-rounder that will get results - it's one of the only trackers that has had a lasting impact on my behaviour (so far) and that's saying something.
Sophie Charara, features editor
- Slim design
- Custom straps galore
- Good sleep insights
- Heart rate monitor
- Heart rate sensor not up to intense workouts
- No breathing training
- Screen a tad unresponsive
- Poor notifications