(Pocket-lint) - Fitbit is well known in the activity tracking field. In fact, with claims of almost 80 per cent of this market, it is probably the company most people will have at least heard of when it comes to devices for monitoring how much you move. Despite this, however, one of its newest devices - the Fitbit Blaze - arrived to a very mixed reaction.
The Blaze moves in a different direction compared to previous Fitbit devices, bringing a coloured display and smart notifications to the activity tracking party in a much larger, more prominent format. When we first briefly saw the device at the beginning of 2016, we weren't sold.
Did Fitbit get it wrong, or is the Blaze and its apparent aesthetic simply misunderstood? Having lived with the Blaze "smart fitness watch" for the last few weeks, it's come some way to changing our minds. Here's why.
Fitbit Blaze review: Design
The Fitbit Blaze is a tricky one to place. It sets out to be a stylish and smart fitness watch and, for the most part, it achieves this.
A slim silver frame houses the small, square black tracker and its colour LCD display, making the Blaze much more watch than a rubber band typical of this area of the market. The frame appears and feels plasticky despite being stainless steel, but there are various straps available for extra cash to help the Blaze smarten up, including three leather options at £60 each or a metal link option at £90.
The tracker is 36.7mm wide on its own, and 42.3mm with the frame. It clips in and out very easily, making it simple to switch between bands, and there is a reassuring click when the tracker is secure. The left and right-hand sides of the tracker sit flush to the frame to ensure the buttons work, while a small gap is present between the frame and the top and bottom of the tracker. These gaps are super at collecting dust, but they also make the design a little more interesting than what could have been a boring square.
The Blaze is very light, weighing just 44g, resulting in a comfortable device to wear - here with the blue classic band finish. This particular model sports the same elastomer material as the Fitbit Charge and Charge HR and is also secured with the same standard buckle as those devices, made from the same stainless steel used for the Blaze's frame. A plastic Fitbit-branded loop secures the strap in place and as per the Charge HR, so the Blaze feels very secure during any kind of activity.
It does take some getting used to, even if it offers a slim design that is significantly less bulky than the Fitbit Surge. The Blaze sits nice and low to the wrist so despite being bigger than many of the other Fitbit devices, it doesn't feel chunky. The only bulk comes from the bump at the bottom of the tracker where the built-in optical heart-rate monitor lives.
It is a device that will replace a watch rather than accompany it. However, like other Fitbit devices it still isn't waterproof - the Blaze is water resistant up to 1ATM, though, so while rain and sweat are fine, it's not recommended to shower while wearing it, with swimming or a bath both absolute no-nos.
Fitbit Blaze review: Display
The Fitbit Blaze's colour LCD touchscreen display is stunning. The colours are rich, vibrant and they really pop, making it a pleasure to view. Which is fairly unusual for a fitness tracker. Images are also lovely and crisp and bright conditions don't pose a problem to viewing at all.
It isn't an always-on display so it remains black until one of the buttons is pushed or the wrist is raised. The lifting of the wrist activation is a little temperamental but it works fine most of the time and it can be turned off in the settings menu on the watch if you wish.
Brightness control can also be found in these settings too, with options comprising auto, dim and max. Unlike some smartwatches, however, the Blaze's display can't be turned off by covering it with a hand, for example. Instead it's a waiting game until it turns off on its own. This isn't a huge problem but the display is bright so if worn at night, it will glow with no means to turn it off and even dim mode is too bright in such a situation.
The touchscreen control means the Blaze is easy to navigate. Swiping right or left goes through the various menu options including exercise, settings and alarms - each of which is selected with a tap. A swipe down from the top of the home screen presents music and notification controls, while a swipe up from the bottom shows received notifications.
The buttons to either side of the display are also used for certain selections so it's not all about touch, which is good news as the Blaze's display isn't the most responsive touchscreen we've come across. Swiping is fine, but there is some delay when selecting.
The singular button on the left returns the Blaze to the home clock face screen or takes you back one step when in a section, while the two right buttons are for selecting activities, pausing and completing them. These two buttons also pull up notifications and music controls when in exercise mode.
Holding down the top button for three seconds presents music and notification controls, where notifications can be turned on or off and music can be skipped, paused and played from playlists including Spotify, Pandora and Apple Music. Once in the music control, both right-hand buttons will adjust volume. Holding down the bottom button will pull up recent text messages, missed call notifications and calendar alerts.
One last thing to mention on the display: it doesn't return to the home screen by default so it presents the last viewed screen, whether that's settings or a summary of a workout. A small thing, but a notable thing nonetheless.
Fitbit Blaze review: Smartwatch features
The Fitbit Blaze is a smart fitness watch, not a smartwatch, which is important differentiation to make. It's not competing with Android Wear or Apple Watch so notifications are much more limited than such devices. The Blaze vibrates with incoming calls, text messages and calendar alerts, but there is no support for third-party applications like email, WhatsApp or Facebook.
Incoming calls can be accepted or rejected from the Blaze using the buttons on the right, but this will just answer or reject the call on the smartphone it is connected to - meaning there will be no wrist-speaking with this device. Probably for the best.
When it comes to text messages, most of the message is visible on the Blaze's display unless it is particularly long, in which case you'll get an ellipsis tapering off the message. Even clicking on the message won't allow you to see the full message so, again, it requires the smartphone to be pulled out.
We found the notifications useful at times, but we didn't miss them when we turned them off. Incoming call alerts are good - well, when they worked, which wasn't always - but text messages are pretty pointless for us as we rarely receive SMS anyway. The crisp display makes reading them easy though, even if they most are just from Vodafone telling us how much we had supposedly saved on our bill when travelling that month.
Fitbit Blaze review: Activity tracking & heart-rate monitoring
The Fitbit Blaze's main function is not notifications though - it's monitoring activity, which is clear based on how much better it is at this. Like the Charge HR, the Blaze will measure steps, distance travelled, calories burned, floors climbed and continuous heart-rate using the PurePulse optical heart-rate sensor (the same as found on the Surge and Charge HR). All of this data can be found in a dashboard summary, which is similar to the Fitbit app but called Today on the Blaze. It is accessed with one swipe left from the home screen and a tap to dive into the section.
Another swipe left will present the exercise screen, which when tapped allows you to select one of seven activities - from walking to yoga - showing off the Blaze's ability to track multiple sports. There are a total of 18 that can be chosen through the Fitbit app to appear within this exercise section. There is also a feature called SmartTrack which recognises activities automatically after 15-minutes so it's not the end of the world if an exercise isn't selected.
Different exercises measure different metrics but many of them, including elliptical and stair stepper, will record duration, calories burned and heart rate at the very least. Walking, running and cycling also pull in the connected GPS feature to present a map of the route taken in the Fitbit app after completion. Sadly the Blaze doesn't have full GPS capabilities like the Fitbit Surge so it requires you to bring their smartphone on any runs or bike rides if you want a mapped route.
It's also worth mentioning that allowing the SmartTrack feature to kick in for these three activities rather than starting them manually on the Blaze will mean the connected GPS won't work. The Blaze will still record duration, distance, calories burned and heart rate, but a map of the route won't be available.
During any of the exercise modes, it's possible to see different metrics such as heart rate, distance or the actual time by swiping down from the top of the display. As the Blaze stays on the screen last viewed, each time you lift your arm in exercise mode, you will see the measurement last viewed. It's a handy feature as it allows you to access whichever metric is most important without any unnecessary tapping or swiping.
Swiping left past the Exercise screen will present the FitStar option, which comprises three workouts: Warm It Up, 7 Minute Workout, and 10 Minute Abs. The display shows an image of the exercise you should be doing, after which a countdown appears. The Blaze buzzes when it is time to stop and move onto the next exercise, monitoring heart rate throughout the duration of the workout.
A further three swipes left past the FitStar option will present Timer, Alarms and Settings, in that order. From Settings you will need to start swiping right to get back to the home screen or hit the singular button on the left, as mentioned previously.
Automatic sleep tracking is also on board the Blaze but there is no information regarding sleep on the Blaze itself. Instead, sleep data can be found within the Fitbit app and as with other Fitbit devices, which includes time asleep, time awake and time in restless sleep.
Fitbit Blaze review: Performance and accuracy
Overall, the accuracy of the metrics measured by the Blaze is largely on par, as we've come to expect from Fitbit.
Steps counted were within a few steps of actual steps taken when counted in our tests, but distance was a lot better when the connected GPS feature was activated. Without the connected GPS, the Blaze measured 5.21km, while MapMyWalk measured 7.98km using our smartphone's GPS. We know the route is about 8km, so the Blaze's distance tracking without connected GPS is definitely not as accurate as it should be.
In terms of heart rate, we wouldn't recommend relying on the Blaze for training using heart rate zones, even if it offers a good ballpark figure. The resting heart rate measurement seemed accurate enough and the same applies for higher intensity but it is no match for a chest strap. During one elliptical workout, the Blaze dropped our heart rate randomly at one point, but it was consistent on other occasions.
Compared to the heart-rate monitor on the elliptical machine at the gym, the Blaze was within 3bpm throughout the duration of our workouts, although the machine's accuracy can't necessarily be relied upon either. We found the reading from the Blaze better when it was worn a little higher up the arm. In a nutshell - and although the Blaze seems to perform well enough when it comes to heart rate - if training using this metric, use a chest strap instead. It is also worth mentioning that the Fitbit platform doesn't support any third-party chest straps, nor does it offer one, so if heart-rate tracking is your thing then Fitbit isn't the platform for you.
The FitStar workouts are good (albeit basic) and we feel Fitbit could have done more here, such as increase the amount you do in seven minutes as you improve, for example. They are handy to have on board, but more workouts would be welcome and something to keep you motivated or encourage you to do them more often, such as incorporating them into the Challenges section of the Fitbit app.
Sleep tracking on the Blaze, or any Fitbit device, doesn't offer the same richness of data as Jawbone. The Blaze does a good enough job, even if we did feel it knocked off a couple of hours compared to what our Withings Aura Sleep System recorded, but it isn't the most advanced activity tracker when it comes to sleep tracking. It offers silent alarms, like many activity trackers do, but unfortunately Fitbit doesn't use the sleep data it collects to its advantage. Withings and Jawbone will both wake you based on when in a light sleep and the parameters set for when wake-up time. Fitbit doesn't do this - so while it collects the sleep data and offers the vibrating alarms, they don't complement each other.
The Blaze is said to have a five-day battery life and we found this to be pretty accurate. We got four days if we were exercising every day, but we were able to get six days on the weeks when we weren't at the gym everyday. Fitbit doesn't opt for recharging its devices via traditional Micro-USB though - so if you are travelling then the special Blaze charger will need to make its way into your suitcase.
The tracker pops out of the frame and inserts into the plastic square casing that closes around it. The Blaze doesn't take too long to recharge so you won't be without it for long but the extra-special cable is a pain.
Fitbit Blaze review: App
The Fitbit platform is one of the best out there. It's clear, simple and everything is easy to navigate. The Blaze syncs via Bluetooth and it is a much faster and slicker experience than it can be on competitors like Withings.
We tested the Blaze with the iOS app but it is available on Android and Windows Phone too. There are four tabs within the Fitbit app, with Dashboard being the main one and the one seen first. It presents all the data collected for each day from food intake (if entered), to the number of steps taken.
For those unfamiliar with the Fitbit platform, each metric has a bar below it that moves from red to orange to green as you gets close to a set goal, meaning it's easy to see if you need to move more. Tapping on each of these metrics will also present data in more detail.
The order of the Dashboard can be edited so if you want heart rate to be at the top, followed by steps taken and calories burned, then this isn't a problem. It's also possible to turn metrics off so they are not seen on the dashboard by unticking them when in the edit screen.
Above all the measurements in the Dashboard is the Fitbit activity tracker. Clicking on this will bring up your account, which is also accessible via the Account tab at the bottom of the app. Within the Account section, you can change goals, setup another Fitbit tracker (something that can't be done with Withings), as well as access other settings like adding a customary heart rate zone. There is also a link to see which compatible apps there are within Fitbit, such as MyFitnessPal, which is great for tracking diet.
Another range of settings are accessed by clicking on each specific tracker setup within the account section. For example, tapping on Blaze here will allow you to change the clock face to one of the four available, set silent alarms, choose a main goal, and toggle each of the three notifications on or off. This is also where the seven exercise shortcuts are selected.
The other two tabs are about keeping you motivated. The challenges tab has four challenges available that can be selected to keep you moving at the weekend or start a competition with a Fitbit friend to see who will take the most steps in 24-hours. This is where we would like to have see the FitStar workouts incorporated.
Last but not least, the friends tab allows you to add contacts who also use Fitbit and see where they are on the leaderboard in terms of steps taken. Clicking on a name within this section will allow users to "cheer", "taunt" or message them, as well as see what badges they have earned. It gamifies activity, which is fun, especially if you have some competitive Fitbit friends.
The Fitbit Blaze is has plenty going for it, but is more niche than the company's other trackers, filling in a crack that perhaps didn't need to be filled.
It is described as a smart fitness watch, which it is in both senses, but this goes both in its favour and against it. The smart features aren't smart enough to replace or even compete with smartwatches, yet those same features make the Blaze larger and altogether less subtle than the likes of the Charge HR - meaning you are required to replace your watch.
The Blaze's display is beautiful and the Fitbit platform is fantastic, though, it's not going to be a product for everyone. It has some great features, including the Multi-Sport tracking, automatic activity recognition and the FitStar workouts, even if the last of those could be further expanded to be better. The price is much higher than the Charge HR though - and you don't get a whole lot extra functionality for your money.
The Fitbit Blaze is an good device for those who are happy to put a more prominent activity tracker on their wrist. Don't confuse it as a wannabe Apple Watch and there's plenty to gain - but it doesn't quite make a compelling enough case for itself against the Charge HR.