A Successful Failure, The Fitbit Charge HR

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Simple Design

The Fitbit Charge HR had to be one of the biggest disappointments for me in 2016.  The construction of the device failed at an incredible rate.  Just search “Fitbit Charge HR Strap Bubble”.  I had bought my FitBit Charge HR in July of 2015.  It was an incredible device that motivated me to track more numbers.  I love to track numbers.  The strongest element of the Fitbit charge was the hype around it and the training App it utilized.  Fitbit has one of, if  not the, best Apps out there.  The interface is attractive, easy to navigate, and keeps you coming back for more.  However, the overall build of the Fitbit itself was severely lacking.  

Fitbit Charge HR History

I bought the Fitbit Charge HR for near $200 dollars in June of 2015.  It was all the rage at the time and I wanted to check it out.  Fitbit’s stocks were soaring right around that time.  You can see the hype in their stock price.  The watch worked okay.  However, in the coming months I found many faults and I wasn’t surprised at the outcome in the coming year.  For someone who is an amateur athlete, it was easy to spot the first discrepancy right away.

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I bought my Fitbit Charge HR right on the upswing!

Heart Rate Inaccuracies

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My First, The Polar Beat.

I am still skeptical on wrist based heart rate measurements.  The Fitbit Charge has built that into me now; I don’t trust it.  I’ve been using heart rate chest straps since Polar introduced their first one around 2000/2001.  At that time, heart rate training was just starting to move main stream for the everyday athlete.  This allowed anyone to tap into hear rate metrics by wearing the heart rate strap and pairing it to your watch.  I’ve been tracking my heart rate for nearly 16 years and have a really good idea on what is and is not normal for me.  I realized quickly that the resting heart rate calculation was not correct.  My normal resting Heart Rate is in the mid 50’s to low 60’s depending on how fit I am.  My max heart rate was 201bpm in my 20’s but has dropped to about 198bpm now that I’m 43 years young.

I found the Fitbit Charge HR was giving me resting heart rates 15 to 20 beats per minute higher than normal.  I would even sit on my couch and record a resting heart rate of 61bpm yet my Charge HR would give me a resting value of 72 for the day.  Not accurate.

The other issues was the device didn’t do a good job tracking my heart rate in the higher Vo2 max region.  The optical sensors had a very hard time catching my heart rate above 172bpm.  It did a very poor job in the high heart rate region. Fitbit has had it’s run in with Class Action Lawsuits also.  Some users were so pissed off about the heart rate inaccuracies, they decided to sue the company.  The Heart Rate inaccuracies were soon to be the least of my concerns.

Step Inaccuracies

Screenshot 2017-01-07 22.17.33For general use, the Fitbit Charge HR did a great job tracking steps.  I will concede that.  If you were running or walking, the device did a pretty good job tracking that information.  You might have had to make some adjustments to stride length, but it was on the money for me.  The places where it didn’t do well is on stationary bikes and riding bicycles outside.

The Charge HR never picked up anything on the indoor spin bike.  I teach spin class once a week, and many of my students wore their trackers attached to their shoes.  This provided a better assessment of activity level, or at least they believed that.  I found major inconsistencies on the bike outside.  The Charge HR gave me astronomical numbers when riding my bike and that included adding stairs that didn’t exist.  It picked up every road vibration as a step.  My Garmin 230 that I wear now does a much better job in this department.

Screenshot 2017-01-07 22.21.01Stair/Climbing Inaccuracies

Stairs on the other had, were grossly underestimated.  I would purposely climb stairs to see if the numbers changed.  I would estimate the Charge HR only picked up about 1 out of 4 flights of stairs.  I would consider this capability of the Fitbit Charge HR to be grossly inaccurate to the point of non functional.  Fitbit should have left the stair climbing report completely off the watch.

Poor Engineering

The final nail in the coffin for me was the poor engineering.  At 8 months in, my Charge HR started to show a bubble on the watch band.  I’m a very active person, so I won’t say I didn’t sweat all over this watch.  However, I did take the time not to shower with this watch.  I believed what the instructions said about not submerging this device in water.  I wondered about that statement, but every time I gave my kids a bath or had a shower myself; I took the watch off. That didn’t stop the band from failing on me.

Screenshot 2017-01-06 21.12.28It first started with the band separating from the watch face.  I super glued that back together.  The next thing that happened was a giant bubble that formed on the band.  That was enough for me to contact customer service and start a discussion on Fitbit’s forum.  I would regret ever starting that Discussion in their Community Forum. What happened next was an onslaught of email reminders of other pissed off customers.

Fitbit replied to me quickly.  I was within the 1 year warranty period so they shipped me a replacement watch within the week.  I was satisfied at the time and thought I had a one-off manufacturing issue.  The discussion on the community forum would prove me wrong within a month.  People started piling on in that community forum.  I wasn’t the only one with this problem.  Many, many people had this issue.  Someone even created a youtube video on how to fix your Charge HR after the strap started bubbling and falling apart.  It wasn’t just one video either.  There are now loads of videos on how to fix your Charge HR band on youtube.

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Two Failed Devices in 13 Months

My second watch failed as quickly as my first watch.  It was a big disappointment.  The second watch extended me past my 1 year warranty and no third watch or refund was in my future.  A strategy that I am assuming worked for them legally since I haven’t received an email about a Fitbit Class Action lawsuit for the strap failing.

A Fortune magazine article talking about the stock dive that Fitbit has been taking recently and had some interesting numbers.  The Company has had strong sales overall.  The article states that 40% of new products activated in the third quarter (2016) come from existing customers.  I wonder how many customers they lost due to the Charge HR failure?  I bet sales would have been better if they just fixed the engineering issue instead of pushing replacement products to move the consumer past the warranty period.  I understand the strategy.  Get the customer past the warranty date, and call it a day.  However, you lose the customer long term.  Sometimes it is better to replace a leaking pipe, than throw a patch on it.

The Good

There are some good points with the Charge HR and the idea behind wrist based heart rate monitors.  The numbers may not be reliable, but the trends can be tracked.  I was amazed at how in touch I became with how my body was operating.  If my resting heart rate increased by 5 beats per minute over a few days, I knew I was about to get sick.  I was able to validate that on at least 3 occasions.  I have three small kids, getting sick in the winter is a normal occurrence.

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Heart Rate Correlation to Training

I could also see trends in training overload.  I participated in the Tour of Sufferlandria in February of 2016.  It is a 9 day challenge where you cycle to indoor videos that are HIIT based exercises in pushing your body to the limits.  It is a brutal assault on the mind and legs.  My resting heart rate had increased 12 beats per minute during that tour.  Towards the end, I struggled to get my max heart rate up.  I lost 20 beats per minute on my max heart rate due to fatigue.  The numbers were not accurate, but the trends were accurate.

The Fitbit App is THE strongest product of the company.  The App is attractive, easy to navigate, provides user incentives, and is easy to navigate.  Garmin could learn a thing or two about this from Fitbit.  I absolutely love their App.

Conclusion

Would I buy a Fitbit Charge HR right now?  Nope, you are wasting your money.  Will I buy a Fitbit charge HR 2?  Yes, but only to see what has changed.  I am only purchasing the Charge HR 2 so I can see if things have improved from the original Charge HR.  They lost me as a customer with the wrist strap bubble about 8 months ago.  I could deal with the inaccuracies because I was more concerned about trends.  Heart rate is extremely variable.  There are too many influencing factors to consider it reliable.  Those factors are sleep, diet, training load, or a multitude of things.  Furthermore, heart rate varies from each person.  Some people like to brag about having resting heart rate in the low 40’s or 30’s.  I find it doesn’t really matter.  I’m 43 and I could brag about my max heart rate of 198.  It is irrelevant.  You’re biological born with a certain ticker rate and that is what you get.

Stayed tuned for my future review of the Fitbit Charge HR 2.  I’m curious to see the improvements to the band and the way they track data.  I’m crossing my fingers that they have.  I am a bit skeptical though.

 

 

Aaron Johnson

Aaron Johnson

Aaron served in the military for 20 years. Multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He retired from the military after 20 years of service to take care of our three small children in 2013 as a Stay At Home Dad.

athletictechreview has 60 posts and counting.See all posts by athletictechreview

2 thoughts on “A Successful Failure, The Fitbit Charge HR

  • January 9, 2017 at 11:52 pm
    Permalink

    Good write-up. Check your Polar dates, though, I had one in the 80s, with a strap.

    Reply
    • January 10, 2017 at 4:56 pm
      Permalink

      Really! I thought those were medical devices? 🙂 I saw there were more, but I didn’t think they were going mainstream until about 1999 to 2000. I am probably wrong though.

      Reply

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