Do you love cookie-cutter fitness wearables? Fitbit’s latest device, the Blaze, satisfies your need for the mundane – but watch out! The $200 Blaze also throws in a digital personal trainer called FitStar, which might completely change the way you work out. But is it worth it? Read on to find out.
What You Get
The Blaze comes with the standard peripherals: A USB charging cradle, an instruction manual, and the watch itself. As one might expect, there’s nothing out of the ordinary or worth mentioning.
- A compatible smartphone or tablet with Android, iOS, or Windows 10. Windows 10 requires signing into the Windows App Store.
- Windows 8.1 works, although it requires a Fitbit Wireless Sync Dongle, which costs $20 and isn’t currently available.
- Sensors: altimeter, pedometer, accelerometer, gyroscopic, heart rate, and possibly a magnetometer.
- “Connected” GPS: The Blaze doesn’t come with an integrated GPS sensor — it instead relies on your smartphone’s GPS.
- Screen: 16-bit 240 x 180 pixels LCD with capacitive touch.
- Proprietary USB cradle charger.
- Replaceable wrist strap: The wrist strap can accommodate most 22mm bands (there’s no mention on FitBit’s German language page of the size, but their community forum mentions 22mm as the correct size).
- Four days of battery life (five days reported by FitBit).
- Automatic brightness detection.
The Blaze itself consists of two parts: a detachable watch face and a replaceable wrist strap. The wrist strap can fit 22mm non-proprietary replaceable bands (thanks to Robert Williams for the correction.) Fitbit sells several varieties, each with a different texture and color. Compared to the unexciting default strap, the optional bands are eye-catching and potentially worth buying. They’re well-priced, too, costing around $8-15.
The default wristband is a simple silicone rubber strap, attached using a classic watch-style locking mechanism.
The Blaze is a lot smaller than the uncomfortable, rash-inducing Surge (my review of the Surge was less than stellar). It’s hardly noticeable on the wrist – although it’s slightly bulkier than my other favorite smartwatch, the Basis Peak. Its bulk owes to the unnecessary metal frame, which adds a few millimeters to the length of the watch.
On the back, there’s a continuous optical heart-rate monitor. Inside the Blaze is (most likely) a “9-axis” sensor, which should include the three standard sensors: An accelerometer, gyroscopic sensor, and magnetometer. The Blaze also includes an altimeter of some kind — but FitBit hasn’t supplied the public with the particular chip. Most altimeters rely on changes in pressure to record changes in altitude, which can be wildly inaccurate during sudden changes in weather. In Berlin, Germany, I can say the accuracy proved poor. But there were jarring air pressure fluctuations, so this is understandable.
The four sensors allow the smartwatch to measure a user’s speed, wrist movement, altitude change, and the direction that the user moves in. We don’t know for certain about its internal components as Fitbit hasn’t shed much light, but it appears not to differ from any other fitness tracker. Noticeably absent is a GPS sensor, which many of its competitors (and even its predecessor, the Fitbit Surge) include. Fitbit contends that piggybacking on a smartphone’s GPS is adequate. But if you don’t feel like lugging a smartphone along with you on a jog, you may want to pass on by the Blaze.
The $150 Sony Smartwatch 3 (my Sony Smartwatch 3 review) offers GPS and a wide range of applications for the Android Wear platform. While it lacks a heart rate sensor, it can sync with a far more accurate Polar H7 Bluetooth heart rate sensor. Together, the Sony Smartwatch 3 combined with a Polar H7 sensor can outperform the Blaze in accuracy — but it makes a sacrifice in battery life.
I could go on for days about how derivative and boring the hardware is. Fortunately, the software does offer wearable users something of worth.
Setting up the Fitbit Blaze
The Blaze offers extremely easy configuration. Users just install the Fitbit application on their Android or iOS device and initiate a pairing process. Once paired, the Blaze automatically updates its firmware over a Bluetooth 4.0 connection. It’s smart, simple, and reliable.
Unlike the Basis Peak, the pairing and firmware update process did not suffer from deal-breaking bugs – although I should mention that Basis initially shipped the Peak without firmware, which required a messy installation process. If you buy a Peak today, it shouldn’t suffer from any issues. That said, the Blaze in my possession suffers from numerous graphical glitches. The various bugs are purely cosmetic and don’t interfere with the user experience.
Making Use of the Fitbit Blaze
The Blaze retreads a lot of the ground covered by the Fitbit Surge: It counts footsteps, flights of stairs climbed or descended, heart rate, workout intensity, smartphone notifications – and a lot more. But almost all modern fitness wearables do the same. The Blaze distinguishes itself from its competitors through software. There are two basic categories of exercise: Exercise, which includes activities such as running, and the newest Fitbit feature: FitStar. It also sprinkles in a dash of extra features, such as automatic exercise and sleep detection. FitStar comes by default with three core activities, but accessing the wider range of FitStar content requires a yearly payment of $39.95.
Exercise recognition: Another interesting feature is its ability to recognize frequently performed exercises. If you forget to start a workout manually, it starts itself. After 10 minutes of activity, the Blaze automatically determines what kind of activity you’re doing and switches into that mode. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get it working properly, but many others have reported that it works.
Modes of operation: The standard workouts include running, bicycling, weight-lifting, treadmill, elliptical machines, and a generic activity category. It doesn’t contain a pedometer mode as the Blaze includes automatic walking detection. It also includes automatic detection of sleep. Here’s an example of the sleep statistics generated by the Blaze:
It’s not that much different from the sleep statistics produced by the Basis Peak. It detects the number of times that the user was awake and the “quality” of sleep, based on the amount of movement detected by the device. It does not interpret the results as the Peak does — such as light sleep, REM sleep, and deep sleep.
Milestones: The instantaneous notification of Badges is another interesting feature. While most fitness smartwatches display milestones well after you’ve completed a workout, the Blaze notifies users immediately. My impression is that instantaneous feedback offers a powerful morale boost at the tail-end of a grueling jog or cycling trip. I’ve only gotten the 10,000 step achievement, but there are quite a few other awards.
FitStar: The Blaze’s standout feature is FitStar, which leverages Fitbit’s use of an LCD screen. After selecting the FitStar exercise option, users can go through three kinds of guided exercise regimens: Warm It Up, 7 Minute Workout, and 10 Minute Abs. For each of these exercises, the Blaze displays animated tutorials, with weak demonstrations of proper form.
As each activity begins and ends, the Blaze’s linear motors fire up, providing a subtle wrist-buzz. The overall package is slick, functional, and simple to use. And the guided workouts feel intense. Even the simple warm up exercises got my heart rate up to a steady 110 beats-per-minute – for a full eight minutes.
Here’s Fitbit’s attempt to explain FitStar:
It’s advertised as a series of adaptive exercises using a combination of biofeedback and motivational techniques. To illustrate, the Blaze reads heart rate data generated by the PPG sensor. If your heart rate is low, the smartwatch encourages the user to increase the intensity of their exercise. The concept is novel and long overdue.
Here’s a video clip of FitStar’s guided exercises:
FitStar isn’t perfect – it relies on an inaccurate heart rate sensor technology and a limited number of exercises in the free version. But heart rate sensors are accurate enough. Unless you need medical-grade precision, the Blaze’s sensor won’t inflict sudden weight gain or a heart attack.
And while the guided workout is intense, an observer might feel different. The entire experience felt silly. Here’s what it felt like:
On the surface, FitStar is an excellent tool for guided activities. But its paid content doesn’t offer enough variety, such as suspension straps, to justify committing to a yearly subscription. It desperately needs a trial subscription plan and more kinds of workouts to shine really.
The Blaze Has Some Serious Shortcomings
The Blaze retreads a lot of ground already covered by other fitness wearables. And on top of that, its lack of automatic exercise detection takes away from its luster. The worst feature is its reliance on an inaccurate heart rate detection technology.
It’s derivative. The Blaze’s hardware is without question one of the most derivative health trackers on today’s market. It omits GPS, uses a standard 9-axis sensor, and forgoes transflective screen technology (e-paper displays are better for outdoor devices). Most users may not know that all modern smartphones include 9-axis sensors. With Samsung’s new dedicated system-on-a-chip (what’s a SoC?) in production, the next generation of Android Wear (wearable operating system) smartwatches might start throwing in continuous heart rate sensors, which will completely obviate the need for dedicated fitness trackers.
Optical heart rate sensors aren’t enough. A little-known issue with optical heart rate (photoplethysmography, or PPG) sensors is that they aren’t 100% accurate. They offer varying degrees of accuracy, but the fundamental flaw originates with the underlying technology. As such, any device reliant on optical sensors sucks compared to its superior competitor: electrocardiography (ECG.) To illustrate, many outdoor activities, such as jogging, introduce light pollution and vibration, destroying PPG accuracy. Manufacturers try to compensate using a variety of tricks, but this results in further distortion: Many PPG fitness trackers record heart rate – even when you’re not wearing it. The Blaze is among the worst examples I’ve seen.
FitStar’s free version is mediocre. It has a limited number of exercises. If you install the application (FitStar is a separate installation, aside from the Fitbit app), you get a taste of what’s in store for paid users, but it would be preferable if Fitbit provided the first month of exercise free. After all, owners just threw down $200 on a fitness tracker with average hardware.
Music control configuration isn’t intuitive. Users need to pair the Fitbit twice to get music controls working. The first connection syncs to the Fitbit app. The second directly matches the watch to the smart device. The process seems needlessly complicated and unintuitive to users. Pairing for music control requires an AVRCP-protocol compatible music app (such as Google Play Music). Fitbit’s instructions are a lot of help.
Should You Buy a Fitbit Blaze?
Maybe, but I recommend waiting. While the Blaze’s hardware is dull, its software makes it one of the better fitness wearables on today’s market. But you might want to wait. The future looks brilliant for wearables. The wearables market suffered from a lack of purpose-designed hardware for biometric readings. That changes this year when Samsung releases the first ever processor for wearables — it’s appropriately called the Samsung Bio-processor. The Bio-processor vastly improves over the current generation of sensors. It includes PPG, EEG, Bioelectric Impedance Analysis, and other measures of data. It’s worth waiting for, although it will likely first show up in only Samsung products.
For those skeptical of wearables — continue to doubt. There are serious privacy and security issues for Fitbit devices.
It’s a good enough fitness tracker with bland hardware, but you should probably hold off on buying the Fitbit Blaze for now.