Fitbit Charge 3 review

The Charge 3 is top of its game – but rivals are playing a different one

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. What’s 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 changin’.

Read this: Exploring Fitbit's new female health tracking

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 Fitbit’s new SpO2 sensor in, and while we won’t 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.

There’s a lot to unpack in the Charge 3, so let's get to it. We’ve been spending a lot of time with the Charge 3. Here’s our in-depth review.

Fitbit Charge 3: Design

Fitbit Charge 3 review

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll 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. Fitbit’s 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 they’re there) and I’ve 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. There’s no broad app ecosystem, but the distinctions between fitness tracker and smartwatch seem to be diminishing.

It also fits great. I’ve been tracking my sleep for almost two weeks now, and not once have I had a problem wearing the Charge 3 in bed. That’s a matter of preference, and for people who do find trackers annoying to wear to bed, the Charge 3 isn’t exactly tiny. But it is light and comfortable, I’ll say that much.

One thing you might have noticed is gone is the side button. Instead there’s a small dimple on the left side of the tracker that functions as a haptic button – and it works a charm. I’ve 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 you’ll 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

Fitbit Charge 3 review

So… how does it perform? Take a step back for a moment. The last two devices launched by Fitbit have been smartwatches – the Ionic and Versa – so you’d be forgiven for wondering why it’s doing a fitness tracker at all. And truth be told, the Charge 3 does a lot of the things you’ll get on those watches.

But (to call back to my chat with Eric), Fitbit still sees a market for people who don’t wear watches. Or people who wear (proper) watches and don’t 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 we’ll 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 can’t play tic-tac-toe on it, but honestly, there’s not a lot that you can do on the Versa that you can’t do here.

Fitbit Charge 3 review

One thing that is missing is GPS – and this surprised us. The Charge 3 once again foregoes this feature, but can use your phone connection to get that movement data. This isn’t a dealbreaker when you consider the Charge 3’s other limitations compared to a smartwatch; it doesn’t support offline music or LTE. Chances are, you’re not going to take the Charge 3 out for a run without your smartphone, so the lack of GPS – while, again, a tad surprising – isn’t 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 you’d get with a decent Garmin watch) as well as steps, calories and sleep, Fitbit’s 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.

Sleep tracking

As for sleep tracking, the results have been typically good. I’ve 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.

Fitbit Charge 3 review

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, Wareable’s co-founder James Stables. I’m 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 I’m not the only one who’s encountered glitches with the tracker.

Read this: Fitbit Charge 3 tips and tricks

So here’s James’ 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.

Fitbit Charge 3 review

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 Fitbit’s 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 you’re after (and for many runners, these will be important) the Charge 3 doesn’t deliver as well as we’d hoped. However, for an overall snapshot of your session, showing how hard you worked, and how many calories you burned, it fares much better.

Fitbit Charge 3 review

Reliability issues?

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 review


Fitbit Charge 3: Smart features and UI

Fitbit Charge 3 review

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 that’s 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 I’m 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. It’s an advantage over the Garmin Vivosmart 4, for example, where notifications disappear once they’ve displayed. Here, you can scroll through your history of missed calls, calendar updates and missed messages.

Fitbit Charge 3
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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 you’ve 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. You’ll also see menstrual tracking on the new health dashboard, if that’s something you’re tracking.

For Android users, Fitbit will be rolling out quick notifications down the line. This is something we’ve tried on the Fitbit Versa and Ionic and… it’s fine. I’d be interested to see if it works any differently on the Charge 3, but as a (currently) iOS user, it’s not something I feel like I’m sorely missing out on.

Fitbit Charge 3: Battery life

Fitbit promised us seven days of battery life on the Charge 3, and it’s delivered. That’s a couple of days more than the Charge 2, and if you’re not maxing out the exercise modes you’re going to reach that no problem.

It’s still one of Fitbit’s biggest edges over Apple, and the upside of not incorporating GPS is that the connected GPS option drains much less battery. It’s also a reason Fitbit can proudly boast being an effective sleep tracker.


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Fitbit Charge 3 review

Fitbit Charge 3: In the landscape of wearables – 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) it’s Fitbit’s most finessed and capable fitness tracker. But the game has changed. When you compare it against what Apple is doing with health right now, it’s hard not to point out that the Charge 3 feels like… more of the same.

That said, Fitbit tells us it’s put its SpO2 sensors (also featured in the Versa and Ionic) in the Charge 3, meaning that – when the day finally comes – this will be able to scan for serious health problems like atrial fibrillation and sleep apnea.

Fitbit tells me it’s using those sensors to collect data right now, but it’s unclear when these will be “switched on” for consumers. But considering some people bought even the Ionic for this feature – and that Apple has got out the door first – Fitbit needs to get a move on.


Fitbit Charge 3
By Fitbit
The Charge 3 shows that Fitbit is top of its game – but rivals like Apple are starting to play a different one. What's more, there are bugs in the machine, which Fitbit needs to clean out. It's a well-rounded fitness tracker that looks the part, and like the Versa and Ionic, it will get better with time. Fitbit just need to pick up the pace.

Hit
  • Decent range of tracked workouts
  • Long battery life
  • Sleep tracking is great
Miss
  • No GPS
  • HR sensor laggy
  • Fitbit Pay only in Special Edition


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6 comments

  • Jeditrix·

    I like this a lot. I had a Charge HR and it was a decent tracker. It died earlier this year and I have been wanting something to replace it.

    I got the Moov (for swimming, mainly) and while that's an interesting tracker, it's nowhere near as accurate as the Fitbit for total activity. With the Charge 3 now able to go into the pool, I may not need the Moov anymore. We'll see; I might just put it on for the pool, since it's good at detecting laps and keeping detailed information. And maybe the battery will last longer once I stop wearing it daily. That six month battery life they claim is a bunch of crap. It only lasts about 2 months if you're moderately active.

  • deucet·

    Interesting and tempting. I've had charge 2 for 2 years, and i am very happy with it, but perhaps now it's time :)

    no GPS is the best option for me - saves on the battery and size. I run a lot, but i really don't need to know my precise coordinates in the park :)

    With some minor app-like features charge 3 might be getting close to MS Band 2 - and as the latter has been long dead, I am very happy that Fitbit is still pushing the trackers market. U

  • rtsanchez42·

    At this price point just get the ionic or versa. Me feels a flop coming unless they drop under $100.

  • ZaheerJ·

    I have the Charge3 for about a week now and am relatively happy with it. As you guys have mentioned here, the HR monitoring seems to be inaccurate... I play squash and twice this week the Charge 3 heart rate readings were way off compared to my wahoo chest strap monitor. The average and max HR readings were lower by between 40 and 50 bpm. Could this be due to the high intensity of the squash game? Would love to know what the issue could be. Any thoughts?

  • fireball·

    My fitbit worked just fine for the first two weeks on the third week it would not hold a charge and it would not sync with my phone. Best Buy would not exchange it because they have a 14 day return policy. they told me to contact fitbit and they would replace it. now fitbit is saying it's my phone that's the problem ever though it worked for the first two weeks with the same phone and that doesn't answer why it won't hold a charge. they have had me hold for 30 minutes so I can speak to a supervisor . I wonder how long they intend to keep me on hold. I just want you to stand by your product and for someone to answer the phone this music is getting on my nerves.

  • mjbojanski·

    I have a HR 2 and a friend of mine really liked what it does etc, so I bought my friend an HR3 for her birthday and it was NOT compatible with her cell phone. She was looking at getting a newer cell, but is on a budget and all the cell phones she was actually looking at was not compatible. Even if it was OS 5.0 and higher.