Los Angeles, FOX11 - I've reviewed several smartwatches, fitness trackers and pedometers, but up until now I hadn't had the chance to check out any of the family of devices which have probably become the most well known outside of techie circles, Fitbit. They've become a household name with a line of trackers which cover the spectrum of wearables, from your basic pedometer on up to a smartwatch. It's the latter of the two that we're going to be looking at for this review, the Fitbit Blaze. But in a field which is becoming increasingly crowded, is the Blaze enough to light your fit life on fire? Or is Fitbit just blowing smoke with this one? Let's take a look.
It should be noted, right off the top that there has been some controversy lately about the accuracy of Fitbit's heart rate monitoring. We'll get to that later in the article, but I will say that checking the Blaze against some tried and true methods has shown me that it is pretty spot on.
Now, what do you get when you pick up Fitbit's Blaze and add it to your healthy lifestyle? I think "lifestyle" is the key word here. Unlike the Charge HR, Alta and Surge, this is not a fixed watch design. The Fitbit Blaze sports a modular design that consists of the actual Blaze unit which is a small, square device you can pop in and out of different frames. You get metal links and frame, a leather band and frame, and classic (read: sport) bands. The last two have bands which are available in three different color options. Our review unit came with the Classic band in blue. It's a rubbery feeling, thin, elastomer affair with stainless steel frame, buckle and a notched loop which keeps excess strap from flopping around.
Once you remove the Blaze from the box and charge it, you simply pop it into the aluminum frame, strap it to your wrist and you're good to go. The frame has three buttons on it, two on the right and one on the left side. The single button on the left acts as a "back" button and will also wake up the display. On the right you'll find the Action button and the Select button which are context sensitive and redundant. Pretty much everything you can do with either of those two, can be accomplished on the Blaze's touchscreen as well. Seeing as how this is a fitness watch though, having hard buttons when your hands are wet, or maybe while out on a crisp morning wearing gloves can come in handy.
Getting back to that charging though. My biggest complaint with the Blaze, in light of the refined charging of some of its competitors, is that you have to remove the Blaze from its frame every time you need to charge it. Fitbit made a proprietary frame-type charging cradle which you'll have to use to recharge your Blaze and though it may make for a somewhat decent bedside alarm clock/display stand, I'd prefer wireless charging or a dock which doesn't require me to remove the Blaze from the band. On the upside, Fitbit gave the Blaze great battery life so you won't have to use the dock as often as some of its competitors either. I regularly got at least four days out of the watch before having to use that thing, er I mean, charging dock. And that was with me wearing it pretty much 24 hours a day. The only time I took the watch off was when I showered. Though no IP rating is given, Fitbit says that the watch is sweat, rain and splash proof, so you'll be ok working out and getting some splashes on it if you're running in inclement weather but don't get too splash happy or try to hit the lap lanes in your gym's pool. Though not official, I'm going to guess that the IP rating is somewhere in the IPx7 range.
THE USER EXPERIENCE
On my arm, the Blaze is low profile and quite comfortable to wear. Comfortable enough to wear to bed many nights! Though I've worn more comfortable silicone sport bands, this elastomer band still wears very well. The swipe around the interface navigation is fairly intuitive and should feel familiar to anyone who's used a smartphone, or smartwatch. With the addition of a physical "back" button, getting around the interface is even more peppy! Out of the box, you get four watch faces to choose from, though the Original is the most functional choice, allowing you to see the time,how close you are to your step goal for the day and your heart rate at-a-glance. You can even tap on the screen to change that last parameter so that you see either your heart rate, date, mileage, current calories burned for the day, floors climbed and step count.
From this initial watch face/home screen, swiping down brings up a quick menu which allows you to access the ability to turn notifications on and off, as well as use the music controls. Swiping up from the bottom allows you to cycle through messages. The Fitbit Blaze delivers messages to the watch just fine but is very limited in which kinds of messages it can push to the watch. You'll either be ok with that, or be left wanting more. Currently you're only going to get text messages, calendar notifications and call alerts. Even within those you're going to be limited. Let's say you use Google Voice, WhatsApp or Hangouts for your notifications. The Fitbit app makes you choose only one of those options to send to the watch. Included in the options from within the app are also the stock messaging app and Skype. All my own text messaging is done through the stock texting app, so that's what I use. Now the same also holds true for calendar notifications and caller alerts. You'll get a few options to choose from, but you can select only one to get notifications from.
Eventually I got used to getting less information on the watch compared to other products I tried. I still prefer to get more, but the trade-off is actually more upside than down… very solid battery life. Charge time is an infrequently considered need when wearing the Blaze, in light of the rest of the field of smart and fitness watches. I was easily getting four days of use out of the watch and was more hampered by the inelegant charging method than the actual need to charge.
Getting beyond the watch faces, when you swipe left, you get access to a few different screens/menu options. The first is Today. This is where you can scan over all of your various metrics for the day, which includes those things you can see at-a-glance on the Original watch face. Next up is Exercise, the menu option which allows you to choose which activity you're about to track. Everything here is fairly straightforward and what you'd expect. You get a list of exercises to choose from, 7 which you can use on the watch with another 12 to choose from in the app. Simply swipe over to Exercises, swipe up or down and tap to choose the exercise you want to track. Controls to stop and start tracking are equally straightforward and intuitive. Next up is the FitStar app. Think of this as a personal trainer in your watch. You choose the exercise routine you want to engage in and the watch will walk you through it! This is a great way to get a quick workout and burn some fat, get that heart rate up, whether at home or at the gym. The rest of the apps that you come across as you swipe through the options are: Timer, Alarms, and Settings. My only complaint here is that, much like many other watches which track sleep, there's no smart alarms available. That is an alarm which tracks your sleep pattern throughout the night to wake you when you're in a light sleep phase. Whether it's placebo, or it really works, when I've used a fitness tracking device which wakes me during non-REM sleep, I've felt a noticeable difference in my waking. I'm more alert and feel more refreshed right out of the bed, instead of feeling like I need to shake the cobwebs. The watch does give you the ability to use silent alarms so that you can wake up to a vibration on your wrist instead of some glaring sound. I'm sure that's to the delight of a spouse if you're an early riser!
One of the features of Fitbit's Blaze that you may enjoy is automatic tracking of certain activities. The Blaze can track walking, running and cycling without you having to swipe into the exercise menu. I only had it miss a walk I took, once. I don't quite know why it didn't, but I suspect it may have had something to do with the fact that my heart rate was already elevate prior to the walk so there was no obvious change in my biorhythm for the algorithm to notice. It caught the last part of my walk that day though.
Now, about that accuracy. There have been recent reports which have called into question the accuracy of wrist worn heart rate monitors and Fitbit devices specifically. Let's get the bad news out of the way first! Wrist worn heart rate monitors are generally not as accurate as chest strap HRMs. That's pretty much the case across the board for wrist worn monitors. They are not meant to be medical grade methods for obtaining your heart rate, but a solid approximation. That said, when using the old tried and true method of placing two fingers over the vein in my wrist and counting beats for thirty seconds, then multiplying that by two. Every time I did that, the Blaze was within one to two beats of my manual heart rate monitoring. Your mileage may vary based on the size of your wrist versus the size of the watch and another couple factors but I found the Blaze to be close enough, on average, that I'm happy with the results and wouldn't have any buyer's remorse if I decided to purchase one.
Overall, I was very pleased with the Fitbit Blaze and it's performance. Autotracking is generally reliable. FitStar is a really solid "personal trainer." And you get alerts on the device, negating the need for a separate smartwatch; if the available options for notifications works for you. The device looks great with the included options for more formal bands should you need to go from weight bench to boardroom.
At the end of the day, I think the biggest question you'll have to ask yourself is, "Do I want a smartwatch with all of its app and notification options, or do I want a fitness tracker?" I'm still of the mind that having both is the best option because neither fully covers the functions of the other, expertly. Fitness trackers do, OK, with smartwatch functions and smartwatches typically do OK with fitness tracking but if you really want solid use out of either, I've found that the dedicated devices can't be beat. In my ideal world, I'd have a fitness band on one wrist and a smartwatch on the other. I say, "ideal" because that option is expensive. If your budget only allows for one, you may seek a compromise of the best of both worlds and I think Fitbit's Blaze is one of the best options on the market today if that's the position you find yourself in. Also, not everyone actually wants to have both and may be fine with one device that handles both functions. If that's you, this one should be atop your short list!
Disclosure: Fitbit provided me with a unit for the purpose of this review.