Activity trackers are not miracle workers. Wearing a Fitbit isn’t going to make you healthier, just like buying a piano for the living room won’t make you a pianist. They’re not going to force you to take a run instead of eating bags of Doritos while binge watching House of Cards for an entire weekend, and they’re not magic pills that will do the hard work for you.
Activity trackers, however, are invaluable tools and immense help if you really want to get healthier and/or stay healthy. If you have already made the decision to be more active and it isn’t just a spur of the moment, short-lived resolution, then activity trackers can be one more weapon in your arsenal.
You can use them to track your improvement in a more tangible manner, to stay motivated on days when you don’t feel like moving much, and to push yourself a little harder on the days when you are already active. Thus, they can be a way to keep hitting your goals, as much as possible, and get through the lazy periods without too much damage.
I’ve had a Fitbit One for over 3 years now. Before I got it, I had spent a couple of years in a very sedentary lifestyle after hurting my foot while running and gaining many, many pounds. Right before I got the Fitbit, I had decided that I wanted to turn things around so I started swimming as a low impact sport, lost a few pounds, and then introduced the Fitbit into my life as further motivation to get moving. My dual career as a pharmacist and managing editor of Android Police involves a lot of sitting and standing still. Steps aren’t required, unless I have to to grab a medicine off one of the shelves, which are merely a few feet away. So there’s very little reason for me to walk throughout the day.
The Fitbit One changed one important thing in my life: it gave me an idea of how active (or not) I am each day, which in turn motivated me to do a bit more. The first couple of weeks after I got it, I just wore it without changing anything in my habits. I then looked at the numbers and figured I was doing about 3000 steps on average each day. Lolwut. Keeping the default daily goal at 10000 steps would have only served to make me feel like a failure each day, so I lowered it to 5000 steps and started making the effort to reach it. By parking my car a little further away, or walking around while editing Android Police’s posts on my tablet, or just going for a few walks every now and then. When I started (almost) consistently hitting 5000 steps each day, I raised my daily goal to 7000 steps then 8500, which is where it stands now. I average more than 10000 steps/day in a month, but the ballpark goal I strive toward hitting every day is 8500.
Yes, I’ve lost weight, lots of it, but I’m more happy about how different my lifestyle is. I walk, I run, I swim, I hike, I play basketball. I don’t directly owe all of that to my Fitbit, but I know it has been instrumental in keeping me on track.
This (very) long introduction is meant to explain to you a bit where I stand when it comes to activity trackers. I am not obsessed with the exact number of steps I take each day, I just look at the ballpark number as an indicator of how much I moved — or didn’t — throughout the day. I don’t track every expended calorie and every meal I eat, because ain’t nobody got time for that. Still, I don’t consider activity trackers as fun toys (though for a stats nerd, they can be hellafun) and I don’t expect them to turn somebody’s life upside down. I just look at them as fantastic tools, ones you can choose to incorporate in your healthy lifestyle quest, especially if you like to challenge yourself and you’re motivated by the gamification aspect of it all.
So this is where I’m coming from in this Fitbit Blaze review. It’s been a few years since my Fitbit One was released, so there are lots of new features to discover in the hardware and software side. But are they enough to sway me from the Fitbit One + Garmin vivoactiv combination that I use for my activity tracking?
Hardware: Big, bold, sturdy (don’t call it a smart)watch
The Blaze falls on the high end of Fitbit’s portfolio. It’s somewhere between the Charge HR and the Surge, offering a bigger screen, more controls and notifications than the former but without the built-in GPS of the latter. And unlike both of them, it has removable bands, which is a must for something you’re going to wear all day every day. As a side note, my fiancé’s Charge HR suffered from air bubbles that completely disconnected the tracker from its band and the only way to fix it was to get another tracker because the band is non-removable. This is another reason to prefer trackers with replaceable bands like the Blaze.
The only thing the Blaze doesn’t have that the Surge does is an integrated GPS.
The Blaze is not a sports watch in the traditional sense, and that is because of the lack of GPS and any water-resistant capability. It isn’t a smartwatch either. You get a few notifications, a way to tell the time, a stopwatch, and an alarm. No apps, no voice control, no detailed notifications, no microphone or speaker, no access to the storage, none of that. It’s a “smart” watch in the same sense that a microwave with an integrated clock is, meaning it tells time and does other stuff too, that may or may not be related to time. But you wear it on your wrist, which could lead to confusion and a false labeling of “smartwatch.” But it isn’t, and you’re better off setting your expectations right before you get disappointed by the lack of certain features.
Band, frame, and screen
The Blaze by itself is a small square plastic unit that houses the screen, all the sensors, and three tiny buttons. It seems to be very well built: I can’t see any scratch on the screen despite having hit my wrist several times since I started wearing it. Yes, I’m clumsy.
It slots into a silver stainless steel metallic frame that makes it much larger, unnecessarily in my opinion, and adds more clickable buttons and lug holes to attach the rubber or metallic band. My review unit came with a large purple band, though I have tiny wrists that would have done much better with the small size.
The frame’s little black squares serve to secure the unit inside it. The rounded pins trigger the buttons.
The band is interchangeable with quick release pins, but the size and design aren’t conventional at all. You will need to buy bands specifically tailored for the Blaze — generic watch straps with their rounded pin ends won’t work.
On the upside though, there’s a full buckle there instead of the push pins that Fitbit uses on some of its trackers (Flex, Charge) and it helps completely secure the watch on your wrist instead of being prone to dislodging from the merest catch against your clothes or other objects. Even better, the free loop has a little nub that goes into the holes on the other strap when you’re wearing it, thus forcing it to stay in place.
Band with a stainless steel buckle and free loop with little nub to secure to the other strap.
The heart rate monitor protrudes a little bit from the back of the unit and lights green while it’s reading your pulse. I quickly got used to having the Blaze on my wrist, but since it’s supposed to be worn all day and night, I found that I needed a break for a few minutes each day and took it off. Not because it’s uncomfortable, but because it’s summer here and the humidity and sweat mean the Blaze gets stuck to my skin sometimes. I also remove it when I’m taking a shower or swimming, because it’s not water-resistant. That part is a big inconvenience in my opinion.
Most of your Blaze interaction is going to be with the touchscreen and buttons. There’s one on the left that acts as a back button, and two on the right side that let you select different options when they’re available (starting a countdown, pausing a run, etc). The screen is responsive to the touch even when your finger is sweaty, and there’s a light sensor next to it that can automatically adjust the brightness. I love not having to worry about changing the brightness manually each time I’m outdoors.
The visibility in bright conditions is good, but in direct sunlight it’s relatively average. It’s going to depend on what’s on your screen. Big fonts, like the one in the second screenshot above, are easily seen no matter how bright your surroundings are.
Concerns: Size and charger
I have two qualms about the Blaze. The first is how big it is. It’s approximately the same size as the Garmin vivoactiv and the Huawei Watch, but it’s just an activity tracker. It doesn’t have the water resistance and GPS of the Garmin, nor does it have all the features of an Android Wear watch. It isn’t that sexy looking either, meaning that I can’t wear it to more formal occasions. Activity trackers are supposed to be a bit more inconspicuous and leave room for another accessory, or at least that’s the way I see them.
Garmin vivoactiv, Fitbit Blaze, Huawei Watch.
Over the past week, I’ve had to choose between the Blaze and my Huawei Watch: the former for all day wear, the latter to lunches, dinners, and events. That meant sacrificing all of Wear’s notifications and voice controls during the day just so I can keep a tab on my heart rate and automatically track exercises. It also meant sacrificing that same data when I switched to the Huawei for a few formal occasions. I don’t have that problem with my Fitbit One: it’s clipped to my bra all the time and I can wear whatever watch I want on my wrist. But then again, the One doesn’t do automatic sleep or exercise tracking, nor does it measure the heart rate. Decisions, decisions…
Fitbit One and Fitbit Blaze.
The other thing that annoys me about the Blaze is its stupid charger design. It’s not just proprietary, it’s different from every other Fitbit tracker (none of them have the same charger, which is annoying as hell), and it’s ridiculous. You don’t attach a charger to the pogo pins at the bottom of the Blaze, no. You have to take the main Blaze unit out of its frame, put it inside the charger which is a black box, and then close the box to trigger the charging. It’s unnecessarily complicated. But at least there’s a USB port on the other end.
Software: Just the essentials
The software installed on the Blaze is pretty rudimentary. You get to choose between 1 of 4 watch faces, some of which are interactive. Pop, the one with the thick font lets me cycle between the time, daily steps, current heart rate, and calories with a single tap. Zone, which is pictured at the top of the review, shows my heart rate below the time. You can only change the watch face from the app, so it’ll be a minute or two, depending on how fast sync takes, to switch to another design.
Swipe to the left of the clock and you can access different sections:
Today, Run, FitStar, and Settings.
- Today: a list of your stats for the day.
- Exercise: manually start a walk, run, treadmill exercise, or any of several kinds of exercises which shortcuts you can pick in the app.
- FitStar: pick between 3 preset workout routines — warm it up, 7 minute workout, and 10 minute abs. Each movement has a description, a countdown, and a button to skip it.
- Timer: stopwatch and countdown timers.
- Alarms: a list of your currently active alarms. You can’t add one from the watch, it has to be done in the app.
- Settings: quick view (wake the screen when you raise your wrist), automatic brightness, heart rate monitoring toggle, turn Bluetooth Classic on/off (for music controls), and shutdown.
App settings for clock face, exercise shortcuts, music controls, and alarms.
You can also click and hold the top right button to turn notifications on/off and get music controls, or the bottom right button to see the notifications. These can also be accessed by swiping down or up from the main clock.
The notifications though are next to useless: you only get calls, messages, and calendar events. And even for messages, you’ll have to pick between one of your apps. You can’t have texts and WhatsApp, or Hangouts and WhatsApp. Just one of them.
But then again, why bother? Most of the time, you’re staring at something cryptic and pointless like this.
Easy setup and connection
Fitbit’s app supports multiple trackers, a feature I was eager to test. Out of the box, the Blaze looks for a phone to connect to and since I had the app already installed on my S7 Edge and signed in, all I had to do was go to the list of devices and tap to add a new one. I didn’t replace my One — I’m still planning on wearing it when I don’t want the bulky Blaze on my wrist — so I just added the Blaze to my devices. And now the app combines data from both trackers intelligently, regardless of which one I’m wearing or even whether I’m wearing both simultaneously.
Then I headed into the Blaze’s settings and picked the different options I wanted, like the clock design, exercise shortcuts, notification apps, alarms, and settings that I showed earlier.
Different Fitbit Blaze settings.
A day in the life of a Blaze
Once setup, there’s really not much I needed to do with the Blaze. This is one of the smartest trackers I’ve used and I’ve had my fair share between the Fitbit One, Amiigo, Garmin vivoactiv, Misfit, Pebble, and different Android Wear watches and versions. The closest to it in terms of simplicity is the Misfit, which trumps it on more easily manageable battery life and less worrisome all-day wear because of its water-resistance, but doesn’t even come close to providing the same data and isn’t capable of automatically recognizing activity types.
I can spend an entire day, or several, without even opening the Fitbit app or touching anything on the Blaze itself beside checking the time and notifications. That’s the kind of simplicity that activity trackers should strive to achieve.
In the morning, the Blaze wakes me up with its silent vibrating alarm. It follows a set time — there’s no smart adapting to my sleep cycle to wake me when I’m in a light sleep phase. It recognizes I’ve woken up and logs my sleep for the night, in up-to-the-minute accuracy.
I go for a morning walk/run combo about 3 times a week, switching up the exercise style. Sometimes I walk for a few minutes to warm up, then alternate between 10 min runs and 15 minute walks for a couple of rounds. Sometimes I alternate between 1 minute running and 2 minute walking for about an hour (HIIT style). Sometimes I just walk, and sometimes there’s no method to the madness. The Fitbit app has been recognizing my “long” walks and runs when they’ve surpassed 15 minutes — I just realized I need to lower the running minimum to 10 minutes to let it tag my runs more consistently — and has also decided to tag my HIIT walk/run activities as “aerobic workout,” which I think is close to accurate. It even notifies me sometimes that it has recorded them.
Automatic exercise recognition thresholds, and auto recorded exercise notification.
A couple of other days per week, I go for a 45-60 minute swim. That’s where I have to take off my Blaze and switch to the Garmin vivoactiv, which logs each stroke and lap like a champion. The Garmin’s stats are then synced to MyFitnessPal, which in turn sends them over to my Fitbit dashboard so that they show up inside the app and they count toward my daily and weekly exercise goals.
After the morning workout, I spend my entire day at the pharmacy, alternating between sitting at my desk and managing Android Police or standing up and moving when I get patients in. The Blaze keeps track of my active hours and longest stationary periods. (It’s supposed to buzz me to move, but I don’t think it ever has in the 3 weeks I’ve worn it.) Sometimes I sneak an afternoon nap when I’m feeling drained and my assistant is there to handle the workload. The Blaze also knows this is a time I spent asleep.
After work, I sometimes go play basketball and sometimes go for a walk in the mountain or I pace around the house while editing Android Police posts or listening to podcasts. I’m always surprised to see the Blaze automatically and accurately categorize my time playing basketball as a “Sport” exercise.
“Sport” for my basketball workout, and “Aerobic Workout” for my HIIT run/walk.
My day ends when I’m back in bed and the Blaze starts logging the next night’s sleep. All of this happens without me even pressing a single button on the tracker or in the app. That’s fantastic and it shows the degree to which Fitbit has evolved since its first trackers where you had to manually log everything.
Fitbit app: Data, data everywhere
The Fitbit app is a treasure trove of data that a stats lover would just drool over. How many times have I exercised this week, how many steps do I take on average every day, week, or month, which days are my most active, what’s the longest I’ve sat without moving, how does my resting heart rate vary with my degree of exercise the day before? And so on. There’s a lot of data to check and a lot of trends to observe and either change or work on improving.
The app, though, isn’t without its faults. The interface is inconsistent in different ways and often repetitive. There are settings inside certain sections that you can’t get to from the main app’s settings. There are sub-graphs inside sub-graphs inside main graphs. Almost all graphs are shown in portrait, but the daily breakdown of steps, distance, calories, floors, and active minutes is displayed in landscape. Not the heart rate or sleep though… for some reason. You can get the same graph on different screens and the same data in different sections. You can swipe certain parts for more graphs, tap to reveal more stats, and sometimes the same button location does different things.
These landscape screens are relics from old versions and inconsistent with the current app.
For three years now, the Fitbit app has felt like a perpetual work in progress. One section is using a new design paradigm (like the heart rate and sleep sections now), but another is still on an old design language (like the steps, distance, calories, floors, and active minutes), and one part is sometimes stuck on an even older design (like the landscape daily breakdowns shown above). It’s all very daunting and I’m sure the only way I know how to get around it is because I’ve been using it for the past 3 years. If I was new to the app, I’d be having trouble trying to understand the logic behind any of it.
Basics: Steps, floors, calories, active minutes
With 3 years of Fitbit data stored on my account, it’s fun to look back and see how my activity level varies over the seasons and sometimes weeks, and yet still manages to average out at about 10000 steps a day. As I said, when I started, I was barely averaging 3000 steps per day, so this is a huge improvement over that.
Daily (1 month), weekly (3 months), and monthly (1 year) steps.
Fitbit also tracks the floors I take, although there are lots of false positives introduced by my Fitbit One when driving up and down the mountain every day to get to work. It calculates my calories too and figures out my active minutes throughout the day. I often skip the first two and try to check the last one the most. I know that getting my steps is a nice first step, pardon the pun, but they need to be actively achieved, not with super slow walking. A moderate to brisk pace is the best way to have the blood pumping more, and thus get those active minutes.
Continuous heart rate measurement
I’m not used to having my heart rate continuously monitored so I’m enjoying this novelty introduced by the Blaze. What I’ve noticed over the past 2-3 weeks that I’ve been wearing it is that my resting heart rate clearly got lower when I started being more consistent about my workouts. I also noticed that I haven’t been pushing myself that hard in the run stints of my exercises, barely reaching peak level performance for a few minutes throughout the entire week and only really getting to it during my 10 min runs and not my HIIT workouts (which thus haven’t been real HIITs).
Sleep, or not so much of it
Getting automatic sleep tracking from the Blaze is several folds better than manually logging each sleep with my One. It’s more accurate and there is no risk of me forgetting to do it and thus messing my averages over the week or month. I haven’t set a target sleep schedule, because I know my sleep has been and will continue to be inconsistent for the next few months, but I’m trying to eek out 7 hours of daily sleep. That, as you notice from the graphs below, hasn’t been possible. It’s probably why I’m always exhausted these days.
Well, at least I got an afternoon nap after that measly 4h 32′ sleep on Thursday.
Exercise, different kinds and different modes
You can rely on the Blaze to automatically tag an exercise you’re doing or manually log the start and end of a specific activity from the watch or app.
Walks, runs, sport. Plus a swim logged by my Garmin and synced through MyFitnessPal.
Automatic logging works after the fact. The activity will show your heart rate throughout the duration, your calorie expenditure, and the impact it has had over your day.
When manually logging a distance-based activity like a run, walk, hike, or bike ride, the Blaze will enlist the phone’s GPS to track your location and speed, and then serve you a map of your workout, 1K splits and lap splits, and compare your performance to previous instances.
Overall, you get to see how many times you’ve exercised in the past week and month, how long each workout was, and how that was divided between the different heart rate zones — fat burn, cardio, and peak.
Let’s play fitness like a game
One of my favorite aspects of using a Fitbit over the past years has been the way it gamifies fitness. Month after month, as I’ve become more active, I’ve unlocked new badges. So far, I’ve hit 30000 steps/day a couple of times (the 35000 badge still eludes me), and 300 floors/day while hiking up a few mountains. I’ve also participated in hundreds of challenges and won many of them, but ever since Fitbit has started tracking trophies, I’ve only managed to snag a few.
I look forward to challenges and love joining them each time I get invited by my growing network of Fitbit friends. Some are crazy competitive, others are more lax. I won one workweek hustle this week and came 3rd and sixth on two others. I love it when we start encouraging friends, sharing tips, or even taunting each other. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten off my chair and walked frantically just to pull ahead of someone in a challenge. And that’s one way to make exercising more fun than it is a chore.
Conclusion: Evolution and confusion
I am impressed by the Fitbit Blaze, more and more as the days pass and I discover some new trick I didn’t know it had up its sleeve, or as I realize how hands-off I can be with it (if hands-off is the right word to use for something you’re wearing on your wrist all the time). I love so much everything that the Blaze can do and that makes me hate more what it can’t, because I want to be able to wear it all the time and not worry about any other watch or tracker in my life, but I can’t just yet.
It doesn’t track my swims like the Garmin vivoactiv can, it doesn’t hide inconspicuously like my Fitbit One does (think dinners, weddings, formal events), and it doesn’t offer the notification versatility and voice control of my Huawei Watch. It sits oddly in the middle of all of these, not here nor there, an evolution of fitness trackers in so many directions, but one that feels incomplete in all of them.
I’m sure there’s a target demography that will fall head over heels in love with the Blaze. I can imagine it being the active type, someone who runs, walks, and bikes, but doesn’t mind carrying their phone to use as a GPS and doesn’t swim or do any water-based activity. They also never had a smartwatch or had one and never got hooked by the notifications, apps, or voice search and commands. And on top of that, they like the way the Blaze looks and don’t mind wearing it all day, or they are buying it to alternate with a more discreet Fitbit like the Flex, One, Alta, or Charge.
Those are a lot of requisites to fall in the Blaze’s camp. Strike one of them and you’re better served by something else on the market. And that’s why I’m confused. My ideal fitness tracker would be the size and design of the Alta with its removable bands and possible switch to an inconspicuous clip mode, but with an HR sensor, water-resistance and swim tracking, floor tracking, and a 10-day battery life. I don’t need the big screen, the notifications, or any of that pizzazz — I don’t see the point of those in an activity tracker.
But that doesn’t exist yet, and in the meantime I love the Blaze so much that I want to wear it, but its watch form factor has left me wondering how much I’m willing to sacrifice to switch my main watch from the Huawei Watch to the Fitbit Blaze. And I still haven’t figured out the answer.