Fitbit Blaze review: A solid tracker, but should you buy the Versa?

Fitbit’s first watch is a solid start, but there’s room for improvement yet

4
Price when reviewed 
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So should you?

When I first reviewed the Fitbit Blaze back in 2016, it was billed as the company's first smartwatch. The truth, as you can see from the original review below, is that it was more smartish than truly smart. 

But since it was released, two more Fitbit smartwatches have emerged: the Fitbit Ionic and the Fitbit Versa. So is the Blaze still worth buying? Fitbit clearly doesn't think so: it's gone from the company's own shop, though it's still available on Amazon and the like

And the answer is broadly yes. It's considerably cheaper than both of Fitbit's other watches, and it doesn't miss out on that much from the Versa. Crucially, neither the Blaze nor the Versa has GPS which would be a big selling point, instead piggybacking off the smartphone's abilities. The Ionic does offer GPS, but also costs more than twice the price - and there are cheaper ways of getting a watch with GPS if that's your main interest.

If you're not put off by its looks, the Fitbit Blaze remains a charming little wearable that you shouldn't discount just yet.

My original Fitbit Blaze review continues below

My first experience of using the Fitbit Blaze was not a happy one. One hungover Saturday morning, I pulled myself out of bed, put on the Fitbit Blaze and headed out on a 5K park run. Not having used it before, I gave it a test run to the Tube. All good. It recorded the short run so I assumed it wouldn’t have any problems when I got to the race.

Buy the FitBit Blaze now from Amazon

Of course, when I found myself on the start line – still hungover but with an hour to acclimatise to my self-inflicted condition – the Fitbit couldn’t find my phone. After a few tries it succeeded, but it then decided it was essential that I downloaded a firmware update there and then. Three kilometres in, when it was finally done – you guessed it – it couldn’t see my phone again.

Now, this could very easily be the fault of my HTC One M8, which often treats maintaining a stable Bluetooth connection as an afterthought. But it immediately raises a problem that the Fitbit Blaze has for the serious runner: it needs a working phone to operate with much more utility than the entry-level models at half the price.

Fitbit Blaze: Design

I have owned both the Fitbit Flex and the Fitbit One, both of which subscribed to the view that fitness trackers are best left unseen. With the Fitbit Blaze, the company has eschewed this policy and made a product that it hopes you’d be happy to wear as jewellery: it’s a smartwatch in all but name.

The Fitbit Blaze is an attractive device, like a good-looking smartwatch, in part because it’s so damned easy to change the strap. In fact, you have to take out the band to charge the thing, as the watch part pops out of the shell, and sits in a functional square charger: there are no ports here, presumably so as not to harm its water-resistant credentials.

In that respect, it follows past Fitbit design cues. Previous models had a central “brain” that did all the step counting and held a battery, and a colourful strap to keep it in place. As mentioned earlier, the brain is bigger here, which is no surprise as it has to encompass a 1.66in, 240 x 180 colour screen, although there’s a reasonably thick bezel on display here too. It doesn’t look as slick as the Apple Watch, or some of the pricier Android Wear models, but it’s a nice enough timepiece – certainly more stylish than the first generations of Pebbles, despite its boxiness. The screen itself is bright and sharp, and offers a handful of different watch faces to customise the information you feel most valuable.

Buy the FitBit Blaze now from Amazon

Flipping it over reveals a smooth concave design, with a very prominent heart-rate sensor and the four connectors for the proprietary charging dock. The heart-rate sensor is an always flashing green light, which goes some way to explaining why the larger battery doesn’t offer any real gains on my two-year-old Flex.

Our review unit came with two straps: a somewhat utilitarian black rubbery one designed for running, sports and all-round rugged behaviour, and a grey leather one that makes the Fitbit Blaze more dressy. It’s a testament to the understated design that the Fitbit doesn’t look out of place in either configuration, but the retail product only comes with the first, and extra straps go for upwards of £20 each. The good news is that you can fix your strap to the section in which the Fitbit brain sits – a special cage that lines up neatly with the device’s three buttons.

Both straps are comfortable enough, which is just as well, given the company includes sleep tracking as part of the overall package. Certainly I was able to wear it at night with no discomfort whatsoever, and it’s very easy to forget you’re wearing it. Far easier than my Moto 360, which can only be a good thing.

Fitbit Blaze: Features

The main improvement for the Blaze over previous Fitbits feels quite quaint: it tells the time. I’m being extremely facetious here, of course, given the Surge also had a clock face, and there’s plenty more that the Blaze offers under the surface. At a glance, though, that’s the key difference: this is a watch that’s just as much a fashion statement as a fitness tracker.

Whether you think it meets those goals is another matter, of course, but other than that it’s mostly business as usual. It tracks steps, like every Fitbit since the original; it counts floors climbed (a feature that’s been an on-and-off inclusion for the series since the Flex dropped it); it analyses sleep; and it measures heart rate, like the Fitbit Surge and Charge HR. Here's a useful chart comparing every member of the Fitbit family currently on sale:

So, it’s a prettier version of the Surge then? Well, kind of, except it doesn’t have built-in GPS tracking. In other words, serious runners and cyclists will need to travel with their phone, making it a lot less appealing from the offset – particularly since the app needs to be open when in use, so it’s not just something you can put in your bag and forget.

This reliance on your phone can have a knock-on effect on accuracy. A 3.51km (according to Mapometer) late-night run was reported by Fitbit as being just 3.13km – and that same run was far more accurately tracked by Runkeeper directly on my handset, which clocked it as 3.42km. That’s not much better than the discrepancy I found with the Flex when I was testing a bunch of fitness trackers last year, but the Flex had the excuse of not even pretending to talk to a GPS.

Other times, the Fitbit Blaze was accurate. Ignoring Runkeeper and letting the Blaze measure a repeat run on its own, it measured a 3.01km run (the source, again, being Mapometer) as 3.03km. That’s within a margin of error to please even the most obsessive of runners.

And when you’re out and about, the data that Fitbit presents is handy. The screen shows a timer, and swiping up and down gives you different information: pace, average pace, calories burned, how many steps were taken, the time, distance travelled and heart rate. If I were quibbling, you could probably fit more data on a single screen to give you a more useful at-a-glance running tally, given that sweaty hands and touchscreens don’t always make the best of friends. It’s not the greatest hardship in the world, though.

Buy the FitBit Blaze now from Amazon

FitStar was purchased by Fitbit a year ago, and its integration is front and centre, and it’s a nice inclusion. Scroll past the exercise button, and you find FitStar, which offers a handful of planned workouts to get you moving: “Warm it up”, “7-minute workout” and “10-minute apps”. Sure, this doesn’t offer anything that other phone apps or YouTube videos might offer, but the integration is absolutely spot on. Your watch shows how each exercise works with a simple animated diagram, and then you’re away for 30 seconds. The watch buzzes when you’re done with a set and you look again for the next instruction. At the end of a workout, Fitbit is there to estimate your calorie burn and measure your heart rate, which should offer some helpful guidance over time that you’re not just feeling fitter: the metrics are improving too.

There are other exercises you can track as well: weights, treadmill, elliptical and ‘workout’, but these are far more down to guesswork, as Fitbit just traces your steps, time and heart rate, and then guesses a calorie total at the end. Nice to have, for tracking, but nothing you couldn’t estimate yourself and no essential data can be gleaned from it.

There are some limited smartwatch capabilities here too. You can control your music player of choice remotely, and caller ID appears onscreen, telling you who’s calling. You can set it to receive SMS or WhatsApp messages too – although you have to pick your primary source, as it only lets you receive one type for some reason. Here, the integration is a little weaker, with the small screen struggling to deal with rapid-fire groups of messages, and a slight tendency for them to jam up your screen until you press the “Clear all” button located right at the end of the message pile.

There are calendar notifications too, but you can’t get emails, Twitter or Facebook messages. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it loses out to more dedicated smartwatches in that respect, which have also had more iterations to refine their respective UIs.

Fitbit Blaze: Battery life

Fitbit promises five days’ battery life, and this feels about right in my experience – it’s hard to be exact as it was hit with a firmware update on the second day of use.

Five days is about what I’ve come to expect with Fitbit products since the Flex, and it’s perfectly respectable, but their bespoke chargers mean it’s probably best to have a spare as a backup, even if the battery life does put dedicated smartwatches to shame.

Fitbit Blaze: Verdict

Past Fitbits have been about discrete functionality, but recently the company has been moving towards being eye-catching as well as useful, and the Fitbit Blaze is a solid step forward in that regard. It looks nice enough and offers plenty of functionality, decent battery life and an attractive price point.

On the other hand, in the rush to provide more functions, it has lost a little of what made the brand unique: its laser-sighted focus towards all things fitness. The fact that it has no GPS built in feels like an oversight when it was included in the Surge, and for many serious runners, carrying a phone for the journey feels wrong and cumbersome. You can run without the GPS, of course, but the stats become less reliable if you’re doing that, and cheaper models of Fitbit would do broadly the same job just without the aesthetic pleasure. On top of that, even with the GPS connected, its results were sometimes inconsistent. Yes, that could be the fault of the phone it’s connected to, but that only reiterates my point about relying on connected technology for its main feature.

Still, I like the Fitbit Blaze, and it’s a definite sign of where the company is going. It’s a good start, and if Fitbit can throw in GPS and fine-tune the accuracy next time around, it will be much harder for jack-of-all-trade smartwatches to compete for fitness fanatics’ attention.

Buy the FitBit Blaze now from Amazon

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