I don’t know about you, but I’m about ready for Fitbit to drop something genuinely new on the world. Over the past couple years, the company has put out a few new activity trackers that seem to package the same stuff — an accelerometer here, a heart rate sensor there — into slightly different wristbands sold at slightly different price points. With the exception of the Blaze smart fitness watch, Fitbit’s designs haven’t evolved much. And now Fitbit’s newest tracker, the Alta HR, looks just like last year’s Fitbit Alta, with the addition of heart rate sensors.
But because it’s Fitbit, and Fitbit is the leader in the US market for lightweight activity trackers, people are very interested in it. They want to know if they should buy the “new Fitbit.” They can’t be blamed for this: Fitbits, in all their elastomer glory, still hold the promise of self-betterment without putting too much pressure on their wearers.
So I put on the new Fitbit Alta HR and got to step counting and sleep tracking; to my surprise, I liked this new Fitbit. So much so that when its battery died while I was traveling, I was disappointed I couldn’t use it that day. If you were a fan of the Fitbit Alta before but have said to yourself half a dozen times over the past year, “I wish it read my heart rate,” then you are in luck. Or if you wanted a heart rate-tracking Fitbit but didn’t like the looks of the Charge 2, then you are also in luck. The Alta HR may have been yet another unexciting move on the part of Fitbit, but it also seems to me like it was a good move.
There are some basics to cover before we get into the new features. The first is price: the Fitbit Alta HR is selling for $149.95, which is $20 more than last year’s Fitbit Alta (you can still buy that one) and is the same price as Fitbit’s Charge 2, a thicker tracker with more specific sport-tracking features.
The Alta HR looks almost exactly like last year’s Alta, which means it’s more of a bracelet than an activity tracker. It’s modular, so the bands on either side of the plastic module in the middle can be easily swapped out. It has the same display as the Alta. It’s not touch sensitive, but requires a tap on either the face or side of the module if you want to cycle through your data. This can get annoying.
There is one noteworthy design change: the strap. Last year’s Fitbit Alta had a snap-in clasp (one I didn’t like very much), but this year’s has a more traditional railroad-style strap.
Some people have asked me whether the Fitbit Alta HR is now a replacement for the Charge 2. My answer is: not really. They’re the same price and both have heart rate sensors. But you can stop and start exercises with the Charge 2, and you can’t do that at all with Fitbit Alta HR. The Fitbit Alta HR will automatically recognize if you go for a run, but it’s not something you can control, and it doesn’t display a timer during your activities.
So what can this Fitbit do? It does what a Fitbit does. It tracks your steps, your distance traveled (without GPS), your calories burned, and your sleep. What’s new about the Alta HR is that it has optical heart rate sensors built into the underside, so it records your heart rate throughout the day, and Fitbit will now show you more advanced sleep data in its app. This latter feature isn’t limited to just the Alta HR; it will work with any newer Fitbit that has heart rate sensors.
The heart rate sensors in the Alta HR aren’t supposed to replace a chest strap during intense exercise sessions — something that Fitbit has had to defend itself around after it was hit with a class action suit last year for what some consumers alleged was inaccurate heart rate tracking. Instead, the idea is that you can get a continuous reading throughout the day. But more beneficial is the addition of resting heart rate, provided you wear the Alta HR to bed. This is something that’s considered a baseline metric for your overall heart health.
It’s difficult to test the accuracy of all-day heart rate tracking on this kind of device without also using a more advanced system throughout the day. I also wasn’t doing the kind of exercise session comparisons like I would do with a product like the Garmin Fenix 5, because again, this Fitbit is not even remotely meant for that. I look at the Fitbit Alta HR’s heart rate data as something that is nice to have, data that I wouldn’t trust entirely but could still help to inform other activity decisions.
The same goes for distance tracking: since the Alta HR doesn’t have GPS, or even connected GPS through the phone, my expectations were low. After a five-plus-mile hike last Friday, the Fitbit app told me I had taken more than 19,000 steps total that day and had been active for 158 minutes, but I also noticed within the app that the activity was automatically recorded as just 4.97 miles.
This is also the same with sleep tracking: unless you venture into a lab and have sleep sensors taped to your body and have that sort of data to compare it to, it’s hard to gauge the accuracy and efficiency of consumer trackers like Fitbit. But Fitbit is at least trying to give you more insights into what’s going on when you’re sleeping. More importantly, it’s trying to tell you what that means for your overall health.
Sleep sessions are now broken down into time asleep, restless time, and time awake, with a breakdown of your overall sleep quality. There are sleep insights now, too; the app will say “You were 31% in REM sleep last night” or “Light sleep doesn’t mean weak sleep! Your body actually performs a number of important functions during this sleep stage.” It’s all a little reminiscent of the insights that — dare I say it — Jawbone used to offer with its UP activity-tracking system. It’s good to see Fitbit catch up.
All of this may seem like I’m feeling fairly non-committal toward the new Fitbit, when in truth I like what Fitbit has done holistically with this product. It’s still the same bracelet-like Fitbit from last year, but with one hardware addition and one new software feature that really improve the overall experience. Its battery life lasted me nearly a week, from a Wednesday night to the following Wednesday, on a single charge. This is more impressive when you consider the added heart rate sensors.
Over a week, I became a little addicted to Fitbit again, wanting to get my steps up, trying to pay attention to the move reminders, actually checking the app every now and then to see how I slept or what my resting heart rate was that morning. I did miss real exercise-tracking features while I was wearing it, and am still a lot more inclined to buy a wearable that has GPS and other advanced sport tracking.
But the new Fitbit Alta HR told me just a tiny bit more about my activity than what I knew before, and was just so easy to wear. And if we aren’t getting mind-blowing technology advances in wearables right now, then that’s probably the next best thing.
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