Seven Weeks with the Fitbit Surge

As my wearables odyssey continues, it’s time to document my time with the Fitbit Surge.

I ended up wearing the Surge a lot longer than I’d worn the Nike+ Fuelband, the Basis Peak and the Jawbone UP24 because June was a busy month, and I didn’t have time to switch.

For comparison’s sake, I suggest you read Ultan’s (@ultan) review of the Surge. He’s a hardcore fitness dude, and I’m much more a have-to-don’t-like-to exercise guy, which makes for a nice companion read.

As usual, this isn’t a review, more loosely-coupled observations. You can find lots of credible reviews of the Surge, billed as a “Super Watch” by the recently IPO’ed Fitbit, e.g. this one from Engadget.

Here we go.

The watch

As with most of the other wearables I’ve used, the Surge must be setup from software installed on a computer. It also requires the use of a weird USB doohickey for pairing, after which the watch firmware updates.

IMG_20150512_070824

I get why they provide ways for people to sync to software installed on computers, but I wonder how many users really eschew the smartphone app or don’t have a smartphone.

Anyway, despite Fitbit Connect, the software you have to install, saying the firmware update process will take five to ten minutes, my update took much longer, like 30 minutes.

Physically, the Surge is chunky. Its shape reminds me of a door-stop, like a wedge. While this looks weird, it’s really a nice design idea, essentially tilting the display toward the user, making it easier to read at a glance.

IMG_20150513_063914

I found wearing the device to be comfortable, although the rubber of the band did make my skin clammy after a while, see the Epilogue for more on that.

The display is easy to read in any light, and the backlight comes on automatically in low light conditions.

Surge carries water resistant rating of 5 ATM, which amounts to 50 meters deep, but for some reason, Fitbit advises against submerging it. Weird, right?

Not one to follow directions, I took the Surge in a pool with no ill effects. However, once or twice during my post-workout steam, the display did show some condensation under the glass. So, who knows?

The device interface is a combination of touches and three physical buttons, all easy to learn through quick experimentation.

The watch screens show the day’s activity in steps, calories burned, miles, and floors climbed. It also tracks heart rate via an optical heart rate sensor.

In addition, you can start specific activity tracking from the device including outdoor running with GPS tracking, which Ultan used quite a lot, and from what I’ve read, is the Surge’s money feature. I only run indoors on a treadmill (lame), so I didn’t test this feature.

The Surge does have a treadmill activity, but I found its mileage calculation varied from the treadmill’s, e.g. 3.30 miles on the treadmill equated to 2.54 on the Surge. Not a big deal to me, especially given how difficult tracking mileage would be for a device to get right through sensors.

Speaking of, the Surge packs a nice array of sensors. In addition to the aforementioned GPS and optical heart rate sensor, it also sports a 3-axis accelerometer and a 3-axis gyroscope.

The Surge tracks sleep automatically, although I’m not sure how. Seemed to be magically accurate though.

Fitbit advertises the Surge’s battery life as seven days, but in practice, I only got about four or five days per charge. Luckily, Fitbit will inform you when the battery gets low via app notifications and email, both of which are nice.

Happily, the battery charges very quickly, albeit via a proprietary charging cord. Lose that cord, and you’re toast. I misplaced mine, which effectively ended this experiment.

The app and data

As Ultan mentioned in his post, the Fitbit Aria wifi scale makes using any Fitbit device better. I’ve had an Aria for a few years, but never really used it. So, this was a great chance to try it with the Surge.

Fitbit provides both mobile and web apps to track data.

I mostly used the mobile app which shows a daily view of activity, weight and food consumption, if you choose to track that manually. Tapping any item shows you details, and you can swipe between days.

It’s all very well-done, easy to use, and they do a nice job of packing a lot information into a small screen.

From within the app, you can set up phone notifications for texts and calls, a feature I really liked from wearing the Basis Peak.

Noel, send me a text message.

Noel, send me a text message.

Unfortunately, I only got notified about half the time, not ideal, and I’m not the only one with this issue. Danny Bryant (@dbcapoeira) and I chatted about our Surge experiences at Kscope, and he mentioned this as an issue for him as well.

Fitibit offers Challenges to encourage social fitness competition, which seems nice, but not for me. There are badges for milestones too, like walking 500 miles, climbing 500 floors, etc. Nice.

Sleep tracking on the mobile app is pretty basic, showing number of times awake and number of times restless.

Fitbit’s web app is a dashboard showing the same information in a larger format. They hide some key insights in the Log section, e.g. the sleep data in there is more detailed than what the dashboard shows.

Fitbit Dashboard

Fitbit Dashboard

Track My Sleep on Fitbit

Fitbit Log

Track My Activities on Fitbit

Fitbit Log

I have to say I prefer the Jawbone approach to viewing data; they only have a mobile app which dictates the entire experience and keeps it focused.

Fitbit sends weekly summary emails too, so yet another way to view your data. I like the emails, especially the fun data point about my average time to fall asleep for the week, usually zero minutes. I guess this particular week I was well-rested.

fitbitEmail

I did have some time zone issues when I went to Florida. The watch didn’t update automatically, and I did some digging and found a help article about traveling with your Fitbit with this tip:

Loss of data can occur if the “Set Automatically” timezone option in the app’s “Settings” is on. Toggle the “Set Automatically” timezone option to off.

So for the entire week in Hollywood, my watch was three hours slow, not a good look for a watch.

And finally, data export out of Fitbit’s ecosystem is available, at a cost. Export is a premium feature. “Your data belongs to you!” for for $50 a year. Some consolation though, they offer a free trial for a week, so I grabbed my data for free, at least this time.

Overall, the Surge compares favorably to the Basis Peak, but unlike the Jawbone UP24, I didn’t feel sad when the experiment ended.

Epilogue

Perhaps you’ll recall that Fitbit’s newer devices have been causing rashes for some users. I’m one of those users. I’m reporting this because it happened, not as an indictment of the device.

I wore the Surge for seven weeks, pretty much all the time. When I took it off to end the experiment, my wife noticed a nasty red spot on the outer side of my arm. I hadn’t seen it, and I probably would never have noticed.

It doesn’t itch or anything, just looks gnarly. After two days, it seems to be resolving, no harm, no foul.

The rash doesn’t really affect how I view the device, although if I wear the Surge again, I’ll remember to give my skin a break periodically.

One unexpected side effect of not wearing a device as the rash clears up is that unquantified days feel weird. I wonder why I do things if they’re not being quantified. Being healthy for its own sake isn’t enough. I need that extra dopamine from achieving something quantifiable.

Strange, right?

Find the comments.

AboutJake

a.k.a.:jkuramot

4 comments

  1. Good insights. What’s up with those #wearabletech allergies, huh? I don’t get any skin hit… whatever…

    I agree the Surge is a bit of a clunkmeister, like something out of Mad Max Fury Road. But I like the functionality and the Fitbit “ecosystem”. I do use the scales though I don’t track food (too much of an ordeal), and I love going over the dashboard though I do so on a large monitor. It ain’t a mobile UX really…

    On the Surge, I like the fact I can run without a phone tethered to it and still collect meaningful data. The GPS acquisition is very very good – from Helsinki to Beijing I have had no issues.

    On the downside, the monochrome display on a device at this level just doesn’t cut it. The Apple Watch proves that. And again, the only color the device itself came in when I bought mine is black. Completely lame.

    The world didn’t need another stylus according to Steve Jobs when he launched the iPad. True (it doesn’t need more USB chargers and cables either). But, the world of wearabletech does need more stylusts (see what I did there?). The #fashtech angle is still dismal.

  2. @Ultan: Lucky, my skin is just touchy I guess. You started the puns.

    I like the hardware and the ecosystem. The food thing seems like a placeholder for when they find a company to buy.

    I rarely found myself wanting to pour over the dashboard, which is why, looking back, I appreciate Jawbone’s mobile-only approach.

    Even though I’m not one for fashion (duh), I agree we have enough black devices. I have to disagree on the screen though.

    Functionally, Apple Watch can’t track your sleep and your entire day’s activity. The battery won’t allow it. The display uses too much juice. If anyone can fix that, it’s Apple, so that’s a plus.

  3. @jake – perhaps a nickel allergy from the skin contacts? Most people of course are just allergic to exercise, so you’re ahead…

  4. @Ultan: Unlikely since that gnarly spot was on the outside of my arm, well away from the contacts. Probably just accumulation of sweat trapped under the band irritating the skin. It’s fine now.

    I’m allergic to exercise too, just ignoring the allergy.

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