The Fitbit Charge 3 arrives at an interesting time for the wearables industry. When I sat down with Fitbit co-founder Eric Friedman and asked him whether the fitness tracker has much of a future left, he was adamant that this category still has gas in the tank.
But analysts disagree: smartwatches are starting to encroach on fitness trackers' ground, offering all the same features and more, for not much more money. Whatâs more, the swashbuckling new Apple Watch is delivering health features previously unseen on consumer devices. The Charge 2 was top of its league (so much that it earned a prestigious 4.5 stars) but as a certain Minnesotan once said, the times they are a changinâ.
The Charge 3 takes everything that made the Charge 2 great and adds more: a swimproof design, more battery life, a better UI and smarter notifications.
It also packs Fitbitâs new SpO2 sensor in, and while we wonât immediately see the benefits of that, the company will soon launch its new Sleep Score Beta program, which delves deeper into the relationship between our sleep patterns and overall health.
It's competitively priced at $149.95, but Fitbit is also launching a Special Edition version that includes Fitbit Pay for $40 more. That bifurcation is unfortunate, but it allows Fitbit to keep the basic version down in price.
Thereâs a lot to unpack in the Charge 3, so let's get to it. Weâve been spending a lot of time with the Charge 3. Hereâs our in-depth review.
Fitbit Charge 3: Design
If youâve been paying attention, youâll have noticed that Fitbit has formalised its design language over the past couple of years. That means hexagons, octagons and a lot more angles. The Charge 3 follows this trend, but to its favour. Fitbitâs new tracker looks great, with just enough screen to not feel compromised and a band that rarely feels too large.
Which is just as well, because Fitbit only offers the tracker in one size. Different sized bands, yes, but the core part of the tracker remains the same.
The display is 30% larger than that of the Charge 2 (Fitbit does a good job hiding the bezels, but theyâre there) and Iâve found this has made it easier to read notifications and skim across the UI. Before slapping the Charge 3 on my arm I was testing the Garmin Vivosmart 4, and the number of accidental presses has decreased dramatically. You can argue that the Alta HR is a nicer looking tracker, but the Charge 3 strikes a better balance between style and practicality.
Read this: The ultimate guide to the Fitbit app
In fact, the Charge 3 walks a fine line between fitness tracker and smartwatch. With more screen space, notifications are much easier to read, while all your fitness data can be viewed on the Fitbit display in a cinch. Thereâs no broad app ecosystem, but the distinctions between fitness tracker and smartwatch seem to be diminishing.
It also fits great. Iâve been tracking my sleep for almost two weeks now, and not once have I had a problem wearing the Charge 3 in bed. Thatâs a matter of preference, and for people who do find trackers annoying to wear to bed, the Charge 3 isnât exactly tiny. But it is light and comfortable, Iâll say that much.
One thing you might have noticed is gone is the side button. Instead thereâs a small dimple on the left side of the tracker that functions as a haptic button â and it works a charm. Iâve found the touchscreen is still a challenge for sweaty fingers, but have had no problem with the haptic button. The swap has allowed Fitbit to make the Charge 3 waterproof, so youâll now be able to take it swimming. Having spent a couple of weeks with it now, I can assure you that you won't miss the physical button.
Fitbit Charge 3: Health and fitness features
SoâŚ how does it perform? Take a step back for a moment. The last two devices launched by Fitbit have been smartwatches â the Ionic and Versa â so youâd be forgiven for wondering why itâs doing a fitness tracker at all. And truth be told, the Charge 3 does a lot of the things youâll get on those watches.
But (to call back to my chat with Eric), Fitbit still sees a market for people who donât wear watches. Or people who wear (proper) watches and donât want to replace them, or wear two. But they will wear a fitness tracker on the other wrist.
Because at its heart, the Charge 3 is still fitness, fitness, fitness. Fitbit promises weâll see the app ecosystem expand in the future, but its Charge devices have always had a laser focus on activity. The Charge 3 stays on target, supporting a range of fitness modes including running, swimming, cycling, treadmill and strength training. Sure, you canât play tic-tac-toe on it, but honestly, thereâs not a lot that you can do on the Versa that you canât do here.
One thing that is missing is GPS â and this surprised us. The Charge 3 once again foregoes this feature, but can use your phone connection to get that movement data. This isnât a dealbreaker when you consider the Charge 3âs other limitations compared to a smartwatch; it doesnât support offline music or LTE. Chances are, youâre not going to take the Charge 3 out for a run without your smartphone, so the lack of GPS â while, again, a tad surprising â isnât world-ending, even for the serious athletes amongst you.
But in terms of activity it's a well rounded wearable. Not only does it track a broad range of activities (although not what youâd get with a decent Garmin watch) as well as steps, calories and sleep, Fitbitâs got better at doing so with minimal input.
The Charge 3 once again offers automatic workout detection, and in testing this has been pretty accurate. For swimming and running, the Charge 3 had no problem detecting what I was doing.
As for sleep tracking, the results have been typically good. Iâve been wearing my Charge 3 to bed most nights, and it continues to be the gold standard for me.
Sure, some mornings I notice it taking a few minutes more than it should to register me being awake, but on the whole it seem to be pretty accurate.
Charge 3: Heart rate accuracy
Where it's instilled less confidence is in the heart rate sensor. Now, to caveat, two members of the Wareable team were provided with Charge 3 devices, and one of us (me) had a far less impressive experience than the other, Wareableâs co-founder James Stables. Iâm putting mine down to a faulty device (which Fitbit is in the process of replacing) but having trawled through the Fitbit forums and the subreddit, I know Iâm not the only one whoâs encountered glitches with the tracker.
Read this: Fitbit Charge 3 tips and tricks
So hereâs Jamesâ readout from a track session, designed to push the sensor beyond its comfort zone, compared with the Garmin Fenix 5 Plus (on top). The Charge 3 had an average heart rate for the session of 146bpm compared to 145bpm on the chest strap/Fenix, and a max of 184bpm across both. You can't fault that for accuracy, especially across such a wide-ranging session.
Top: Garmin with chest strap. Bottom: Fitbit Charge 3
But looking back on data is different to the experience of using it out on the track, on the roads, or in the gym. And actually, the Charge 3 is better at analysing data in the app than it is during a workout.
We still noticed that the sensor lagged behind the chest strap (and the Polar Vantage M optical sensor) during climbing heart rates. The recorded data is a lot more accurate than it appeared on the wrist, which indicates some lag in processing data on-device, or an issue with the display, that actually caused issues in our testing of the Charge 3.
What we also both realised was that Fitbitâs secret algorithms do their work during the sync, and the final results in the app were a little more in tune with the chest strap than what we saw on the Charge 3 screen during our workouts.
So if accurate live readouts are what youâre after (and for many runners, these will be important) the Charge 3 doesnât deliver as well as weâd hoped. However, for an overall snapshot of your session, showing how hard you worked, and how many calories you burned, it fares much better.
But here's my data. Also a 5K run, but one that produced significantly different results: an average difference of 10bpm and much less accurate changes during interval bursts. In fact, I experienced the same problem with treadmill running too. Fitbit is currently looking into the issue to see what caused it, but as you can see, the results are suboptimal to say the least. Given the results from a new device, this is simply here for transparency.
Fitbit Charge 3: Smart features and UI
The Fitbit Charge 3 is blurring the line between fitness tracker and smartwatch by doing its best to impersonate the latter. Notifications is a big one thatâs been improved this time, taking advantage of the larger screen to display more information.
The Charge 3 can display notifications from all third-party apps, and the Fitbit app itself will let you toggle the ones you want. This is something that was also a bit broken when I first started testing the Charge 3, but through subsequent updates (one reason we held this review) matters seems to have smoothed out.
The screen is big enough that Iâm able to easily read text messages (one of the few things I allow notifications from) and a swipe down on the main clock face will drag down the notification tray. Itâs an advantage over the Garmin Vivosmart 4, for example, where notifications disappear once theyâve displayed. Here, you can scroll through your history of missed calls, calendar updates and missed messages.
Speaking of, a new feature of the Charge 3 is the swipe-up menu which gives you a look at your fitness progress for the day including steps, distance travelled and (if youâve synced with your phone since waking up) how many hours you slept the night before. Again, this is something Fitbit has migrated over from the Ionic and Versa smartwatches. Youâll also see menstrual tracking on the new health dashboard, if thatâs something youâre tracking.
For Android users, Fitbit will be rolling out quick notifications down the line. This is something weâve tried on the Fitbit Versa and Ionic andâŚ itâs fine. Iâd be interested to see if it works any differently on the Charge 3, but as a (currently) iOS user, itâs not something I feel like Iâm sorely missing out on.
Fitbit Charge 3: Battery life
Fitbit promised us seven days of battery life on the Charge 3, and itâs delivered. Thatâs a couple of days more than the Charge 2, and if youâre not maxing out the exercise modes youâre going to reach that no problem.
Itâs still one of Fitbitâs biggest edges over Apple, and the upside of not incorporating GPS is that the connected GPS option drains much less battery. Itâs also a reason Fitbit can proudly boast being an effective sleep tracker.
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Fitbit Charge 3: In the landscape of wearables â and the future
I started this review by talking about how the landscape of wearables has changed so much in the last year, and that has a real bearing on how we see the Charge 3. Yes (some bugs aside) itâs Fitbitâs most finessed and capable fitness tracker. But the game has changed. When you compare it against what Apple is doing with health right now, itâs hard not to point out that the Charge 3 feels likeâŚ more of the same.
That said, Fitbit tells us itâs put its SpO2 sensors (also featured in the Versa and Ionic) in the Charge 3, meaning that â when the day finally comes â this will be able to scan for serious health problems like atrial fibrillation and sleep apnea.
Fitbit tells me itâs using those sensors to collect data right now, but itâs unclear when these will be âswitched onâ for consumers. But considering some people bought even the Ionic for this feature â and that Apple has got out the door first â Fitbit needs to get a move on.
- Decent range of tracked workouts
- Long battery life
- Sleep tracking is great
- No GPS
- HR sensor laggy
- Fitbit Pay only in Special Edition