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Wearable fitness trackers can enhance fitness. But only if you work out. Don’t expect a health tracker to act like a personal trainer; they only log biometric data that users can apply to their exercises. There is therefore a single benchmark for the efficacy of a fitness wearable: does it help optimize your workout?
The $250 FitBit Surge claims it can do just this.
FitBit released two new fitness trackers at the beginning of 2015: the $150 Charge HR, and the $250 FitBit Surge. Unlike its companions, the Surge throws in all the bells and whistles. Like its competitor, the Basis Peak, the FitBit offers smartphone notifications, biometric sensors, and sleep tracking; but it also throws in GPS capabilities, which can track the path of a run. Aside from GPS, it’s more similar to Basis’s Peak than any other wearable fitness device on the market.
Design and Physical Appearances
The Surge’s external design appears similar to its cousins. There’s a silicone rubber wrist-strap, with a traditional latching mechanism. However, the Surge’s display is several times larger, which allows it to show a larger range of data. The larger screen seems superfluous, since users can get all of their data from the mobile app – apparently, it’s for those who can’t wait to read their workout statistics.
Additionally, the Surge includes a monochromatic LCD screen, with an LED backlight and capacitive touch. Moisture on a capacitive screen usually triggers all manner of heinous misadventures – I can safely say that the Surge doesn’t suffer from this problem. Even with some drops of water on the screen, the user can still safely navigate menus without issue. I’m not sure how FitBit managed to pull this off because capacitive screens operate on the principle of electrical conduction. Since your fingers are slightly conductive, you can trigger the screen just by touching it. Faucet and rain water conduct electricity even better than human skin so how the Surge knows the difference between a finger and moisture is beyond me.
The Surge also includes a water-proofed proprietary charging port, which is something of a hassle – I would prefer wireless charging. However, the Surge’s system only requires a special cable, rather than a cradle-charger. If you’re constantly on the go, a cable is easier to carry around than a cradle.
While the Surge includes a capacitive screen, it also includes three metal buttons. The first button controls menus, while the two on the right-side start or end exercises.
Sensors and More
The Surge comes equipped with a – now standard among fitness wearables – green LED heart-rate sensor. A light-emitting diode fires of a beam of light at your skin, which reflects back to the sensor. The LED heart-rate sensor detects expansion in blood capillaries. The light can penetrate just below the skin level and measures the expansion and contraction of capillaries.
Almost all green LED sensors experience difficulty isolating the green light from light pollution, which leaks in from gaps between the sensor and your wrist – specifically, the white light of our sun. Some wearables companies claim to have conquered the light pollution effect, but in my experience, no green LED sensor has yet managed to accomplish this feat. The Surge is no different.
I noticed that during extremely intense periods of activity my heart rate would register in the 70’s – roughly the same as my resting heart-rate. This didn’t show up on FitBit’s website, either, which leads me to believe that there is a disconnect between the data displayed on the Surge’s screen and the information available through the web interface.
In short, the heart-rate tracking looks accurate on the website, but in real-time isn’t very accurate, unless you’re near your resting heart-rate.
Making Use of the Fitbit Surge
Like most wearables, setting up and using the FitBit Surge doesn’t take any effort at all. Just strap the device on, install some software, pair the device, and get started exercising. This was a big departure from the Basis Peak’s half-baked Android app – which failed enough that I was unable to give the Peak a positive review. Another bonus is that FitBit uses a unified application for all FitBit products.
FitBit also includes a remarkable number of software options. Users can choose between Android or iOS for pairing via Bluetooth with a mobile device. If they want a desktop experience, they need only install the desktop pairing software, which is available on both Windows and Macintosh. FitBit provides a USB Bluetooth dongle for Mac and Windows.
To pair their wearable, users just install the software and then initiate a Bluetooth pair. Once paired, the Surge will sync your exercise data with the wearable. This process compares favorably with the Basis Peak, which experienced a ridiculous number of pairing failures. FitBit’s approach allows users a fallback option, in the event that pairing fails on a mobile device.
Compared to the competition, the Surge’s software looks great but reveals little. Its data analysis combines visually appealing design and sober, straight-forward presentation. On the downside, the data itself suffers from the FitBit’s shallow sensor suite and inability to automatically detect exercise types. I found myself with glorious presentation and very little understanding of my exercise patterns.
Compounding this issue, there doesn’t appear to be any third party apps or integration with some of the better health tracking software, such as Google Fit or Apple’s HealthKit. Even if FitBit were to open the data to these services, users would still gain very little because of the inherent limitations imposed by its weak sensors. As it stands, the Surge doesn’t offer much relative to its predecessor, the FitBit Force.
The FitBit Surge includes support for several forms of exercise in addition to sleep tracking. Its sleep tracking statistics cover a number of really limited categories – sleep and movement. If a user moves while sleeping, it’s recorded by the Surge. Unfortunately, this approach falls short of other fitness trackers which can determine the quality of sleep of the user. For example, the Basis Peak can determine — with some degree of accuracy — different kinds of sleep, such as REM, light, or deep sleep. The Surge only reports on movement during sleep, which is fairly useless, since tossing-and-turning during the night is normal. What I need to know is how much time I spent in REM.
The mobile interface provides a bit more data:
The Surge possesses a number of presets for workouts. Preset workouts include jogging, hiking, stationary exercises, yoga, and more. I spent a lot of time picking pouring through the various exercise presets, but it seems that the only useful distinction between these is GPS functionality. For outdoor activities, it automatically engages GPS functionality. Indoor activities do not activate GPS. That’s really the only thing you need to know.
Global Positioning System (GPS) functionality allows joggers, hikers, and more to track their exact movements throughout a map. I run the same distance and route every day and according to Google Maps, the GPS tracking system was very precise. It takes around 15-20 seconds to acquire a lock, if you’re away from nearby trees and tall buildings. In the city, it may take up to a minute to connect. By smartphone standards, this is terrible, but by wearables standards, it compares on equal footing (if not better) relative to the Microsoft Band.
As mentioned before, outdoor exercise presets engage GPS tracking. The location data is sent to FitBit’s servers, and on the client-side users can check a map with their jogging or hiking route.
Like most GPS devices, switching GPS on basically destroys battery life. I found myself using the device for a single, hour-long bicycling session (using Hiking mode) and burning through 20% of the battery in one go. If you forget to end the session, you might find yourself wearing little more than heavy, uncomfortable, and ugly jewelry. The advertised 7-day battery life is more like a few hours with GPS turned on. Speaking of which, with GPS off, the battery life is generously around 4-days.
Skin Irritation and Numbness
After wearing the Surge for a week and a half, the skin on my wrist in touching the silicone rubber strap began itching. Reports online indicate that I’m not the only one. This is the exact same issue which affected the FitBit Force — which eventually was recalled.
Skin irritation wasn’t the least of my troubles. Despite the device hanging loose on my arm, I experienced numbness and discomfort. I’m not sure why this happened as I wore the Basis Peak for weeks and didn’t experience either symptom. It may have to do with the rigid shape of the Surge, which – when loose – will hang snug about the wrist.
As it stands, the Surge remains the most uncomfortable of all the wearables I’ve tried. It’s a hassle to pull a sleeve over and while it’s dimensions aren’t large — it feels oversized and ponderous. Regarding its skin-irritating qualities, some have speculated that FitBit isn’t to blame. Water proofed devices don’t breathe, which can smother one’s skin. Even so, the Surge remains the only smartwatch that actually caused a rash.
The Surge didn’t do a great job of helping me optimize my workouts. And its GPS functionality is wasted. In theory, the Surge could have correlated heart-rate and caloric burn along with location. This would let users know the most effective points of their workout — and where they need to pick up the pace. As it stands, the GPS capabilities might be useful to hikers, but for urban dwelling joggers (and particularly cyclists), the Surge is overpriced and doesn’t deliver.
But don’t get me wrong: the Surge is a decent enough device. It offers many of the elements that would make a fitness wearable useful. However, its manual activation, skin irritation, inaccuracy, and uncomfortable design don’t predispose me toward a positive review. If FitBit revised the Surge to include automatic detection of various exercise routines, and increased the accuracy of its heart-rate sensor, it might compete with the Basis Peak.
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