Fitbit Surge review

Introduction

About 2 years ago my wife (back then a fiance) has started his journey with running. Additionally she often visited the gym and have attended a spinning class, indoor cycling and other gym activities. It wasn’t long after she started to look for a running watch that could measure the distance while running and measure all the indoor activities. An activity tracker would also be nice.

After some research I’ve suggested the Fitbit Surge. Back then it was relatively new watch that theoretically should meet all the above expectations. Let’s find out if that was indeed the case.

About the watch

I have to be honest. I didn’t liked the watch design. It reminded me some cheap crappy watches from the 80s. On the other side my wife love it. After I while I got used to it also but I cannot say I like it. I accept it, that’s the word. For the size perspective it’s neither big or small. I think it will be ok for most wrist sizes.

 

The watch can be bought in several color options and 3 sizes. It’s important to take the correct size since the bands are non replaceable. Yes, non replaceable. That’s sad in my opinion since the bands are the first thing that are falling apart in a watch. To select the proper size just print this document and do the fitting.

The watch band, although non replaceable, looks very solid and is really soft. It just feels great on the wrist.

Firbit Surge has got a 3 physical buttons and a touch screen. The interface is very easy and straightforward. The touch screen works really well and I didn’t have any problems with it during my runs (even in the winter while wearing gloves).

It has the optical heart rate sensor that works during the exercise but also tracks the heart rate 24/7. Later in the article I will test how accurate it is.

To start the activity on the watch we need to select the wished sport or general Excercise option and then select one of the pre configured activity type by swiping left right and then taping on it or pressing the right upper button. The possible activity types are:

  • Running
    • Free run
    • Treadmill run
    • Lap run
  • Exercise
    • Workout
    • Bike
    • Hike
    • Weights
    • Elliptical
    • Spinning
    • Yoga
    • Stairclimber
    • Circuit training
    • Bootcamp
    • Pilates
    • Kickboxing
    • Tennis
    • Martial arts
    • Golf
    • Walk

 

They can be added/removed on the mobile app but we can have only 7 of them at the time on the watch (+the running mode which cannot be removed). One thing is important, the training screens cannot be changed. That means we are stucked with the defaults which e.g. for running is distance/time and pace (where the lower metric can be changed during training by swiping the screen).

The configuration of the sport types and e.g. alarms has to be done in the mobile app or website and then synced back to the watch.

The watch cannot be used as a standalone device. It has to be paired with the phone or pc through bluetooth. In contrary to e.g. Garmin watches where if you connect them directly to PC the watch is mounting as a standard USB drive and the activities can be manually transferred. It’s not a negative per se since many watches work like that now days but if by any change Fitbit (or Polar, Suunto) goes down you are stucked with worthless junk:).

The backlight can be configured on Off/On/Auto. The off option is clear. The On means that every time a button is pressed the backlight will start. The auto option means that it will turn on if the button is pressed but also if it detect the wrist movement indicating we want to check the time. During the training it works really well. Keeping in mind we always do a strong wrist movement towards eyes. The only shame is that there is no option to keep the backlight on like on other running watches. It’s really useful for night running and I really got used to it.

The watch can be also used to control the music during the workout. To enable this option we need to connect the watch through Bluetooth Classic. The control works like the standard control from e.g. Bluetooth Headphones. If we are paired then during workout we just quickly double press the left button and the menu appear. We can pause and skip to next track. No volume change option. We can see the the song time with the progress bar. It works with the current running music app or the default music app if none if running actively on the phone. After changing the song to next the song name and band will not update, only after leaving this view and entering it again.

The watch also supports the notifications. However the only notifications possible are messages and phone calls. Nice thought that WhatsApp notifications are also working.

It’s not water resistant. Some people done some tests with pool swimming (with mixed results) so I wouldn’t risk it.

Activity tracker

Fitbit Surge is mainly an activity tracker. And a damn good one. But what else could we get from the industry leader in that area. It measures:

  • Steps
  • Calories burned
  • Floors climbed
  • Distance covered
  • Sleep

Additionally it has got a nice feature that automatically detects an activity and store it. It’s called SmartTrack. It detect the activity by wrist movement which means e.g. for running we will not have the GPS track but only distance, steps and heart rate. It works for:

  • Walking
  • Running
  • Outdoor biking
  • Elliptical

All the activity tracker data is then synced with the Fitbit platform through mobile app and can be viewed and analyzed there. It all just works really well. Additionally based on the activities the system give give us additional motivation with the badges achievement system. Also after every week we got an email with the summary of our activities, our weight trends and how it was compared to previous week.

The main watch screens while swiping it left/right for activity tracking:

Battery life

The claimed battery life is following:

  • 10 hours of GPS activities
  • 7 days in watch mode

My wife Fitbit lasted for about 4-5 days with 1 or 2 30min GPS runs. That’s for the watch mode. The GPS balcony test gave me about 7 hours. But keep in mind that the watch is already about 2 years old so the battery life could degraded.

In my opinion not bad especially that it’s targeted not for ultra marathoners:). And you could easily run a marathon with it.

Running

Outdoor

The device is very straightforward and limited when it comes to running outdoors. We have basically 2 types of run: free and lap run). The first mode don’t have the manual lap button and will trigger the auto lap (configurable laps by time or distance).

After selection we need to wait some time for the satellites (from my experience about 1-2 minutes since the satellites are not cached). If we don’t need to wait we can use quick start (the distance and pace will be calculated from the build in accelerometer until the GPS fix will be found, not track).

During free run we see 3 metrics. The lower one we can change during the training by swiping. The metrics are:

  • Up: distance.
  • Middle: time.
  • Bottom (swipe left/right): pace, average pace, heartrate, calories, steps, clock.

The second mode allows to trigger manual lap with the upper right button. The metrics available:

  • Up: lap number.
  • Middle: lap time.
  • Bottom (swipe left/right): lap pace, lap distance, pace, heartrate, distance, total time, clock.

To pause the run we need to press the lower left button. Afterwards we can resume or finish. After finish we see the summary. Afterwards we cannot see the training anywhere on the watch, there is no diary. We can only analyze the workout on the mobile app/web platform after sync. For me it’s not a big drawback. Especially since the sync works really good.

Post workout analysis on the mobile app:

Indoor

We have only 1 official mode for treadmill running. It uses the step counter and manually entered stride length for running and walking. I’ve entered my average stride length for running that was calculated by my 920XT with HRM-RUN. In this mode the watch measures the distance and time. The pace is not shown. Metrics available:

  • Up: distance.
  • Middle: time.
  • Bottom (swipe left/right): heartrate, calories, steps, clock.

On few of my runs the watch was always less accurate than of course the combination of Garmin 920XT with calibrated foot pod (Garmin measured 5km, Fitbit was always about 300m-400m off). But once compared with my 920XT without foot pod the measurement was quite similar. Which shouldn’t surprise because I’ve took the stride length from my Garmin itself. So the watch is quite ok for treadmill but keep in mind that you will have to manually enter the stride length which needs to be calculated correctly (and the accuracy doesn’t need to be on the level of a footpod). And how to measure the running stride length properly without 920XT and HRM-RUN? Fitbit provided some instructions here.

One thing is important thought. Where many of the watches now measures the distance and pace on treadmill from the wrist movement, some of them allows to connect foot pod for better accuracy (like Garmin or Suunto watches). Sadly Firbit surge is not one of them and here we are limited to the steps counter and stride length.

GPS Accuracy

The most important thing that we want from a GPS based watch is relatively correct distance measurement. And here I got a problem with the Firbit Surge. In easy conditions it was working relatively good once compared to e.g. Garmin 920XT or Polar V800. The distance was a little bit short (50-100m on 5km) but perfectly acceptable. If we however run under heavy tree cover or tall buildings then it’s a completely different story. In those tests the Polar V800 and 920XT were nailing the distance and were almost always showing the same distance. And the Surge was always showing shorter values. Sometimes much shorter. Once it was short about 600m on a 10km run. In my opinion that’s huge. Normally it was about 400m on the 10km distance.

On the brighter side it was underestimating the distance, not overestimating which from the both cases is much better. And at least it was repeatable so we could assume there will be an error in the distance and we can easily add it after training manually (or not if we don’t care about it:)).

Here are some runs I’ve made with the watch:

Fitbit Surge Polar V800 Track compairson

9.53km

 

10.01km

 

11.03km

 

11.36km

 

9.69km

 

10.04km

 

And there were many others but the pattern was always the same. The more difficult the track was, the less distance were measured by Fitbit Surge. You can clearly see this on the first run where the corners were cut. There the distance was shortens the most. When the sky was bright and there was no tall buildings then everything was fine and the distance difference between the V800 or 920XT was much lower but still noticeable (about 100m-200m on 10km). Otherwise expect a 500m difference on 10km in worst cases. So definitely it’s not a watch for trial running. Clear sky and no tall trees or buildings. That’s the perfect conditions for this watch.

What’s also important the watch has a barometric altimeter. What’s about it’s accuracy? Here comparison from 3 runs against Polar V800.

You can clearly see that it’s always off the real values. So I wouldn’t count on that data either. The barometric altimeter in that watch may be good for measuring the floors climbed, that’s all. For post run analysis it’s useless.

HR Accuracy

So what about the optical heart rate accuracy? I would say for running it was quite ok. There is a small delay between the Polar H7 chest heart rate monitor that I was comparing against but in general the average and max hr was always almost identical.

Here are some of comparisons:

I wouldn’t recommend doing training based on the heart rate with that watch but just for general knowledge how it was an post training analysis it should be ok for most peoples.

But that’s for running. For working out it’s a totally different story. I was doing some muscle trainings on the gym with the Polar V800 and Fitbit Surge. And one was for sure that the heart rate measured by the optical heart rate sensor on Fitbit was almost always wrong. I remember very good always when I was doing planks Fitbit showed me about 90bpm and Polar 140bpm on the end of a exercise. And that’s with all my gym activities like pushups, weightlifting, squats, crunches. The same was with my indoor biking sessions. I think that’s because with all of those there is some tension in the wrist that makes it very hard to measure the heart rate.f

The same was with the other watch with optical heart rate that I’ve tested (Garmin Forerunner 735XT) because I feel that’s it’s a general problem of the current optical heart rate sensors in general. But where in case of Garmin we can always connect the external heart chest heart rate monitor, then here it’s not an option. So if we really want to do some gym activities and we care about the heart rate then it’s not a good choice.

Mobile App and Fitbit Ecosystem

Without a doubt the Fitbit is one of the best (if not the best) activity tracking platform available. It’s simple, straightforward yet powerful. It integrates to beautifully with MyFitnessPal (and in fact it has a nice API that allows to integrate with many other services). Fitbit has thier own smart scale, the Fitbit Aria. So we can easily track our weight correlated with the date from MyFitnessPal and workouts/activities from the Surge.

Additionally Fitbit has a great way to engage the users by a great achievement system. Every big weight loss or activity could be rewarded with a badge which is a great motivation and a perfect example of real life gamification.

We can view the Fitbit data either by using the Fitbit website or mobile app. In my experience they both allow to view all the data and configure the devices. For me it was always more comfortable to configure my devices on the website but all you can do there could be also done on the mobile app (update profile, update device settings etc). After save the Surge will automatically sync the changes after a short while.

Some screenshots from the Mobile App:

Website dashboard:

Fitbit Surge website dashboard:

 

Bugs/Problems/Missing features

I think the biggest problem with Fitbit Surge is that it is a great activity tracker but poor GPS watch. There is no:

  • data screen customization support,
  • navigation (bread crumbs support),
  • interval training,
  • back to start option.

I don’t think the features would be so hard to develop but they would increase the value of the watch significantly. But that’s because maybe my expectations are too high for such device. But on the other hand after release it costs about 250€. In this price now days, and back days also a decent Garmin or TomTom device was available with the more or less the above features.

We also cannot forget with the problems with GPS and barometric altimeter accuracy. Where the first one is not that bad because it’s behavior is somewhat known (short distance in tough conditions). Then the barometric altimeter shows some random data which makes it completely useless.

And the water resistance of the watch. It simply isn’t. Now days almost every fitness watch is water resistant. The Surge water resistance is described as follows:

Your Surge is water resistant, meaning it is rain and splash proof and can stand up to even the sweatiest workout. It should be removed before swimming or showering.

So it’s not, period.

Summary

This watch is a though one for me. Personally I wouldn’t recommend it to any serious athlete (or advanced amateur or called it whatever you like:)). But I think if you need an all purpose fitness device with great activity tracker, great fitness online platform/ecosystem and you are occasionally running or attending fitness classes… Then it will be ok for you. Especially now when it can be found very cheap during sales. But for sure after a while once you get more serious e.g. into running you will start to realize it flaws.

And once that happens, when you will be more serious about your running. Want to have the most accurate data, interval training support and the possibility to customize your training screens then you will realize that there are much better devices than Fitbit Surge.

I kinda hoped that the next generation of Fitbit devices will fix all the issues with Surge but sadly that’s still the only one Fitbit device with GPS build in to date.

But just to wrap everything. My wife really like it’s Surge. During almost 2 years of using it there was actually only 1 complaint after she went more serious with her running. The lack of intervals. Otherwise she was and still is really happy with it. She love the Fitbit platform (especially the badges), the integration with the Fitbit Aria (the scale) and MyFitnessPal. That all works great. If only the running features were a little bit better in Surge itself.

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