Fitbit Charge 3 review: A versatile fitness tracker you’ll actually want to wear

If it’s not on Instagram, it didn’t happen.

Now I don’t really believe that, but these days you have to wonder if there’s any line left between the public and the private. Take exercise. Some people seem to think that every time they finish lift a dumbell or go for a jog, it’s worthy to share with the whole world.

If that’s your thing, that’s cool. For me, I like my exercise to be a more personal endeavour. So I used to think that wearing a Fitbit wasn’t for me. But in the past couple of years, I’ve discovered that Fitbit offers more than a reinforcement feedback loop designed to keep you motivated. It’s a useful tool for learning more about your body, tracking your personal fitness goals, and yes, even engaging in some friendly competition with your friends.

Fitbit’s trackers have come a long way from the days when it was a simple pedometer. Fitbit has really created a whole community of fitness and wellness around its devices, giving more people a reason to wear them. At the office, there’s even benefits rewards programs that incorporate devices like this. For example, Manulife Vitality is a program that many employers in the U.S. are providing to their employees. The employees get extra perks for doing healthy things, such discounts from partner brands. And the employers get to pay lower premiums because now their employees are motivated to be healthy and therefore less risky to insure.

With the Fitbit Charge 3, Fitbit says its made its most advanced fitness tracking device ever. After using it for several weeks and comparing it to my usual Fitbit device, the Alta HR, I appreciated the extra advantages this wearable had to offer. Compared to its predecessor in the Fitbit Charge 2, this device looks more elegant, offers a bigger display, is completely waterproof, and perhaps most importantly, its battery lasts for days on end.

Fitbit has quite the slew of devices now. The Charge 3 offers a price point that is less than the Fitbit Ionic and Versa devices. It also offers some of the smart watch functionality seen on those offerings, yet the focus remains on being a fitness tracker.

Design and user interface

The screen is a 40 per cent size increase over the Charge 2, making it more comfortable to view when you’re on a jog and just want to take a quick glance. The black OLED screen combined with the aluminum metal case has an almost elegant look to it. Available in either rose gold or charcoal grey, the Charge 3 is quite close to being a nice piece of jewelry that you’d just wear even if it wasn’t a fitness tracker. This is an important hurdle for Fitbit to get over, as many people who might not prioritize tracking steps over personal style have taken a pass on its devices so far. Fitbit knows that, and that’s why it’s offering an array of different wristbands to let you personalize your look.

As for the display itself, the OLED screen has good contrast to display the menus and health information in white text and icons. As with other Fitbit devices you swipe left or right to scan through the options available and tap to activate. Instead of a physical “home” or back button on the side, it’s an inductive button. Just apply pressure to the left side of the device to get back to the home screen. You can also swipe up and down to access notifications.

By putting two options on each screen, the Charge 3 saves you from too much swiping. On Fitbit’s smart watch products, you can view more exercise information from your week, but on this device you’ll only be able to see the day’s results. Of course, everything is available for review in the smartphone app, a key part of the Fitbit experience.

Working out with the Charge 3

As my profession is that of an online news editor, it may come as no surprise to you I don’t lead an overly active lifestyle. But like may keyboard jockeys, I try my best to hit the gym and get in some walking whenever possible. I tried several forms of exercise while wearing the Charge 3 including running on a treadmill, running on the street, swimming laps in a pool, yoga, weightlifting, and walking. I also did some exercises while wearing both the Charge 3 and Alta HR, which I’ll compare a bit later.

Fitbit says the Charge 3 will automatically detect any exercises that you’re doing, or you can manually start an exercise by selecting the option from its menu. Options include running, treadmill, weights, swimming, and interval timer. Manually starting an exercise also gives you some useful feedback in the form of data on the device screen and with vibrations that can help you stay on track to reach your workout goals.

I set a goal to jog for 30 minutes before jumping on the treadmill. The screen displayed my total time being on the treadmill and my heart rate. When I was jogging on the street with my smartphone, the heart rate information is replaced by my time per mile (pace). Note that you’ll need your smartphone with you when jogging if you want to track location details. The Charge 3 doesn’t have a built-in GPS sensor.

On the treadmill, the heart rate information was very useful for me as my goal when running is to stay in a fat-burning zone. Often I tend to run at a pace that goes above that, so tracking it closely helps me adjust accordingly.

Wearing the Charge 3 in the pool was a treat, since I am used to removing my Alta HR when I dive in for a few laps. This device is made to be waterproof up to 50 meters depth, enough that you can wear it while swimming. Being immersed in water does disrupt the heart rate sensors, so you won’t get that data. But you can track the time you’ve been swimming to see if you’re keeping up to the pace you want. I set a goal to swim for 25 minutes and the Charge 3 vibrated to signal me when I was at the halfway point, and again when I reached my goal. Afterward, I was able to view the details about the workout in the Fitbit app and it accurately reported how many laps I’d completed.

Comparing with the Alta HR

To see how consistent the Charge 3 data would be with my Alta HR device, I wore both of them on the same wrist for a weekend. The steps data was fairly close, with the Charge 3 reporting 6,081 steps on the same day that the Alta HR reported 5,887. That’s a variance of about three per cent.

The sleep data was further apart. On the night I wore both devices, the Charge 3 reported six hours and 41 minutes of sleep, while my Alta HR reported just five hours and 54 minutes. There is a good reason that the Charge 3 might have a different report, as it now includes a blood oxygen saturation sensor that is used to detect sleep disturbances. So the chances are good that it’s showing me that my sleep might not be as sound as the Alta HR indicates.

Best features of the Charge 3

Overall the Charge 3 offers a nice big screen for reading helpful fitness data on a device that isn’t too heavy on your wrist and is definitely passable by most fashion standards. Its larger battery and Fitbit’s excellent battery life management tactics result in a device that only needs to be recharged once a week, which is impressive considering everything that it does. It delivers information about a wide range of physical activity and can be worn when you’re doing any of them without concern. Fitbit is introducing a new mechanism for swapping the wristbands, which is much easier than the previous method. This means you’ll actually keep a couple of different wristbands around and swap them out to suit the occasion.  It’s the best fitness tracker that Fitbit has made to date and if your main goal is to work towards health and fitness goals with the help of a device, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better solution.

It looks like Fitbit plans to provide some third-party applications on the Charge 3. It will be a subsection of what’s available to its full smart watches, such as the Ionic. But so far it’s not clear what those apps will be or when they’ll be available.

Some quibbles with the Charge 3

Like other Fitbits, the Charge 3 is supposed to show you some notifications from your smartphone, such as calendar reminders and text messages. I just never got this working. I’m not sure why because all of the notifications were turned on. But I don’t really like to be bothered that much anyway, so I didn’t try hard to fix this problem. But this did mean I wasn’t able to test out features like accepting or rejecting calls from my Fitbit, or try the Quick Replies feature to respond to text messages.

In general, I had trouble keeping the Fitbit Charge 3 connected and in sync with an Android smartphone. When using both the Huawei Mate 20 Pro and the BlackBerry Motion as the connected smartphone, I really had to coax the Charge 3 to sync its data at times. Sometimes the smartphone just didn’t connect with the Charge 3 at all. Other times, it would sync just a portion of the data, such as steps but not sleep data. It was more of a headache than I would have liked, though I did find that the Charge 3 would find a way to sync multiple times a day on its own. (Just not always exactly when I wanted it to.) I found connecting the Charge 3 to its charging cable and rebooting it and the smartphone was the most surefire way to force a sync, but that’s cumbersome.

The Fitbit Charge 3 is priced at $199.99 in Canada. But I bet you can find it even cheaper than that as we approach end of the year deals. For the special edition, which has Fitbit Pay and comes with an extra band, the price is $219.95.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Editorial director of IT World Canada. Covering technology as it applies to business users. Multiple COPA award winner and now judge. Paddles a canoe as much as possible.

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