Smartwatch

$150 New Fitbit Charge 2: Heart Rate, Can Switch Band And “Relaxed” Mode (Practice)

Fitbit’s best-selling tracker is the Fitbit Charge HR. Since its January 2015 debut, it’s been one of our favorite fitness trackers at CNET. It’s affordable, can track heart rate decently and isn’t too big.

Now, just in time for the all-important holiday shopping season, Fitbit is unveiling its inevitable sequel. The Charge 2 costs the same as its predecessor ($150 in the US, or £130 in the UK/AU$250 in Australia), does a bit more. Really, the biggest difference is design: the new steel body and swappable bands mean you can add accessories — leather, rubber or even a slightly pricier special edition ($180, or £150/AU$290) with a different band finish.

Design is also the big attraction for the Fitbit Flex 2, the other new Fitbit the company announced today. The Flex 2 lacks a display and heart rate measurement and is more squarely focused on fashion, with optional bangles and pendant accessories.

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Exercise modes can be picked on-band, or tracked automatically.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Solid sequel

Most of the Charge 2’s features are largely the same as on the Charge HR: 5-day battery life, continuous heart rate, automatic step and sleep tracking. But the new model is better designed, I think, with replaceable bands and a larger OLED black-and-white display that shows a lot more data than the Charge HR. It felt better on my wrist, but the band also comes across as slightly thicker than the Charge HR.

In fact, now the Charge 2 looks like a larger, thicker version of Fitbit Alta, which launched earlier this year. Like Charge HR, the strap has a standard watch buckle (which I prefer), and a physical button on the side of the tracker to go with a tap-sensitive display that sometimes takes several hard taps to register.

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Feels comfy.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I’ve been wearing the Charge 2 for about a week, but this isn’t a full review. That’s because the final software update still isn’t here yet. But so far, the Charge 2’s bigger display is a big help. I can see the time and up to two stats at once: steps and heart rate, for instance. That’s pretty much all I need.

The bad news? The Charge 2 still lacks some stuff that other fitness bands have: this isn’t water resistant for showering or swimming, and it doesn’t have GPS (but it will use your phone’s GPS to record map data for runs, like the watch-like Fitbit Blaze released earlier this year).

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Breathing, plus respiration feedback.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Chill out

Fitbit’s finally gotten into meditation, sort of. A new “Relax” mode estimates respiration on the band based on heart rate intervals and triggers either a 2 or 5-minute breathing session. Inhale, exhale. If you time your breaths just right, the background sparkles.

The session doesn’t get recorded on the Fitbit app at all: according to Fitbit, it’s just exploring the idea of mindfulness without statistics. It’s a bit like Apple’s Breathe app for Apple WatchOS 3. I tried it, and it helped me focus a bit. Was it like true meditation? Sorta. I got a feeling I was learning to pace my breathing. But I didn’t really understand if this was helping me in any measurable way. I’d prefer if Fitbit’s app encouraged using Relax at certain times, like after a workout or a long day.

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My Cardio Fitness Score.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A new measure for heart health

There’s also a new focus on understanding heart rate. “Cardio Fitness” is Fitbit’s way of trying to boil down heart rate data to make sense as an everyday measure of health. In Fitbit’s newly updated app, a score now gets generated based on everyday activity, which is meant to represent your fitness relative to age and gender.

According to Fitbit, it’s calculated based on “resting heart rate and user profile.” Mine said I was “average to good.” The Cardio Fitness score is based on VO2 Max, a recognized test used to determine how much oxygen is used during exercise. Fitbit’s app offers a more accurate way of sensing Cardio Fitness by running with GPS enabled. I haven’t tried that yet, but stay tuned.

If Fitbit can crack gamifying cardio better, that could be the most important feature update of all. But it’s hard to tell if it works. The Cardio Fitness displays show what level I could be with more exercise or weight loss, but in a generalized way. And there’s a reminder that super-fit athletes can have Cardio Fitness scores well beyond mine. (Thanks, Fitbit.)

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Swappable bands.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A few more features

Fitbit’s get-up-and-move way of encouraging standing — which requires 250 steps every hour — is onboard too, just like it is on the Fitbit Alta and will be on the Blaze. It’s less forgiving about being sedentary, which is good because the Apple Watch seems to mark me down as standing for every hour I’m awake.

There are a few notifications that come in on this band: incoming calls, texts and calendar notifications. It’s enough to know if someone’s trying to reach you, but not much more.

A lot of Fitbits

Fitbit makes a lot of trackers right now. This year, there have already been four: the Alta, Blaze, Charge 2 and Flex 2. Thankfully, Charge 2 replaces both the Fitbit Charge and Charge HR. But picking which Fitbit to buy isn’t exactly easy. The Blaze is bigger and has a few more features. The new Flex 2 is waterproof, but doesn’t have heart rate. Only the Surge has GPS, but that older watch now lacks newer features the others have. Charge 2 might end up being the best middle ground.

Full review coming soon

As a replacement for the Fitbit Charge HR, the Charge 2 looks promising. But also, a somewhat safe bet. The real question is whether Fitbit can truly conquer deciphering heart rate and making everyday fitness coaching easier to understand…and whether the Fitbit platform remains a strong sell for people looking to upgrade. I’d say this looks like a modestly improved Charge HR…and for the new display alone, I’d consider an upgrade.