Fitbit’s Surge was released in 2015.
Most reviews are based on the original unit. Things have moved on with improvements to the device’s software. How does it stack up to the competition in Spring/Summer 2016? We’ll address that in this review.
But first I’ll try to position the product for you so you understand where it really sits against other competitors.
What is The Surge?
Like many other products it is a smart “sports and activity tracking” device. it’s ‘smart’ in the sense that it is SIGNIFICANTLY more than a pedometer, for example, getting notifications from your smartphone; it tracks 24×7 activity & inactivity; and it is a handy support for your sporting endeavours.
If you are a sub-17 minute 5k runner then the Surge would probably not be your sports weapon of choice. So that excludes 0.1% of the population!! What about the rest of us?!?
I devote quite a lot of time to sport and wearable gadgets and I have to confess that understanding where a product sits in the market is not always straightforward. So, like me, I’m sure you share some degree of confusion.
Currently, in May 2016, the SURGE is Fitbit’s top-end device – put aside the Fitbit Blaze for a moment. Yet if the same device were made by a hardcore sports watch company like Polar then some may well class the SURGE as their mid-range device.
Let’s line it up with some other products to get a flavour of where it sits on the activity-to-sports spectrum.
From left to right, mostly going up in price to give you an idea of what the additional price gives you from a basic digital pedometer to a top-end Polar triathlon watch:
- OMRON Walking Style: A digital step counter. No ecosystem.
- MIO Link: An optical wrist hear-rate (HR) Strap. Just a strap.
- Epson Pulsense PS-500: Fully functional smart activity tracker with optical HR but poor information ecosystem.
- Polar A360 Smart Fitband and run-lite band: Fully functional smart activity tracker with optical HR, great information ecosystem but no GPS.
- Polar M400 Smart Running Watch: Fully featured running watch with GPS and a great information ecosystem but no optical HR.
- TomTom Runner 2/SPARK Smart Running Watch: Fully featured running watch with GPS and optical HR. ‘Improving’ ecosystem and great ‘extra bits’ like ability to store music.
- Fitbit Surge: top-end smart activity tracker, reasonably functioned running watch, with GPS and optical HR and a great information ecosystem
- Epson Runsense SF810: top-end running watch with optical HR. Lacks activity tracking, poor information ecosystem but data can be automatically sent to better ecosystems
- Garmin 920XT or Polar V800: Top-end triathlon watch with top-end running and activity tracking functionality. NO optical HR though.
So, as you can see, there really is NO ONE SINGLE ‘perfect’ product. Potential purchasers of the M400 and TomTom Runner 2/SPARK may well also be interested in the Fitbit Surge. It just depends on what precisely you are looking for such a device to be able to do.
I assume you want a WATCH rather than a BAND and so these are 3 products that are similar.
Consider: One reason why Fitbit sponsor parkrun UK is that MANY parkrunners would be a good fit for the Fitbit Surge. In itself that’s maybe all you need to know 🙂 Anyway you came here for a review so, get comfy, let’s do it!
It’s a nice box.
You wanted more?
There are 3 strap sizes and various colours. I have the large black option which fits my small wrists!
The cable is REQUIRED for charging. Do NOT lose it. The cable does NOT transfer data.
Data is transferred by Bluetooth to either your smartphone of a PC/MAC. The USB dongle fits in your computer for that purpose and is only required if you intend to use a computer to look at your Fitbit progress.
Comparison to Other Fitbits and Other Devices
I’ve already earlier alluded to similar offerings from Polar with their M400 and from TomTom with their Runner 2/SPARK models.
Here’s a quick glance at some of Fitbits other, higher-end offerings
The Blaze is similar to the Surge. It probably looks even more watch-like with a better display. Technically what the BLaze lacks though is GPS. This makes its battery last MUCH longer BUT it means that you will only get speed information FROM CONNECTED GPS TO YOUR SMARTPHONE. You almost might as well run with a smartphone app rather than get the Blaze if running is going to be important to you.
The Charge HR is much more rudimentary looking and does have HR. Again no GPS. This is a smart band format. It’s a great activity tracker but not really a running device. The further down the scale you go the less like a running device it will be. But if you only want to run and record your time then even a stopwatch would do…I used to you my old Tag watch in years gone by.
TIP: Charge your battery up first and then unplug it :TIP
Fitbit seem to offer comprehensive setup options. I felt brave and, for the first time, ventured down the Windows 10 app-on-my-PC route as that option was offered at www.fitbit.com/setup. iOS, Windowsphone and Android were all there too. Nice.
Here are some images to give you a flavour of the setup process. It was straightforward; with the single exception that an initial firmware update/sync did NOT work when the cable was attached to my PC, incorrectly causing a low battery warning that halted the sync – unplug it and you are good to go!
Here I go again. These devices are supposed to be wearable. Garmin have produced many ugly devices including my 920XT (I wear/hide it most days) and the insufficiently bemoaned Vivosmart HR. Polar’s A360 is one of the few nicer bands to wear and the new Garmin vivoactive (not yet released looks superficially good).
But wait a minute. I actually like the Fitbit Surge’s aesthetics…tada!
Yep. I’d actually wear it. The screen is a little dated but perfectly fine. It looks nice, to me, in black and it’s super-comfy. It feels well made whilst also feeling up to getting sweaty. I’d wear it with a suit sometimes. It’s very light and you are not really aware you are wearing it.
So. I’ll stop this section now. As I usually have a good old moan here. Not this time.
ie Steps (distance), Floors Climbed and Calories
My 7000 Garmin steps were 7700 Fitbit steps. My 5000 Fitbit steps were 5400 Polar steps.
It doesn’t really matter. These devices all work in a certain manufacturer-unique way. Your 10,000 Fitbit steps TODAY will be the same as your 10,000 Fitbit steps tomorrow (near enough). ALL these devices are sufficiently consistent but maybe not accurate.
I once did 6,000 Garmin steps when driving from London to Bristol. That’s all you need to know about accuracy. Don’t let anyone tell you Garmin is the de facto ‘steps’ standard. It isn’t. For sure.
Having said that, the Surge did accurately record my 12, 10 and 12 floors climbed over 3 days. Yes I was sad enough to record them all manually! But even if it had instead recorded 11, 12 and 9. Would it really matter?
Today I’ve done 1471 Polar Calories PLUS 1986 Garmin colories (I changed watches) ie totalling 3457 whereas Fitbit has me totalling 2374.
For a run Fitbit estimated 328 and Garmin 302 calories.
Yet Polar supposedly have THE most accurate calorie estimation method. So how do you tie up all that calorie mis-counting? Personally I wouldn’t bother.
A single run is often disappointingly low in its calorie consumption. Don’t worry, the effects of that run will then mean you burn more calories throughout the day…so you REALLY aren’t counting all your calories burned when you record the calories in your last exercise. If you want to burn more calories then get bigger muscles; they’ll just burn calories while you sit there watching TV. Honest. Weights plus slow endurance running (for as far as you comfortably can) is a GREAT injury-free regime to lose weight. Add in some HIIT if/when you are able to deal with such rigours. Sorted.
One of the great things with Fitbit’s sleep tracking is that it is automatic. Garmin, Microsoft and others require the device to be told you are going to bed. Inevitably we often forget. The Fitbit dashboard also nicely lets you retrospectively change your asleep/awake time if you have more accurate numbers.
It just so happens that I am a bit of a nerdy sleep tracking person. I have this apparently super-accurate device that I use – QS EMFIT, (here’s) the review link if you are interested.
Here are some clickable images showing Fitbit’s summary data compared to summary+detailed QS EMFIT data. I’m asserting that the EMFIT device is broadly correct but have no evidence to back up that assertion other than my use of it over several months. The EMFIT device uses HR and movement as well as other complex analyses of those two basic bits of data (eg HRV) but, then again, the Fitbit also uses movement and HR.
Have a look:
EMFIT recorded 6 hours of sleep vs Fitbit 3 hours. It was probably nearer 5 or 6. Fitbit did broadly get the sleep pattern right but I think it’s 46% efficiency score doesn’t do justice to my comfy mattress. This particular chart was probably one of the Fitbit’s less good performances at looking at my sleep. Generally it was MUCH closer to what EMFIT said.
Generally it was GOOD.
Heart Rate (HR) Tracking – General
The Surge is relatively unusual as it tracks HR 24×7 (off/auto/on settings). So I’m sitting here now looking at 52bpm. That’s probably ‘about right’. You can see your HR trending all day IF you add the ACTIVITIES AND STATS tile to your dashboard, like this:
It’s quite interesting, there’s not so many other products that can do that. You can see a 9AM swim followed by an 11AM jog.
We’ll come back to accuracy later.
Total Distance Tracking – General
Distance Tracking is very good. I’ve run with the SURGE and the TomTom Runner 2, Garmin’s 920XT and Polar’s V800. Things vary according to buildings, tree cover and the like but they are all pretty similar and beep within 2 seconds of each other at the end of a 1km autolap. At the end of the next km the order of the beeps from the devices change…it’s a nice tune and just says that they are all pretty much of a muchness.
A 15.46km journey recorded by the Surge was recorded by a Garmin as 15.38.
That’s MORE than good enough for me. EXCELLENT.
General running use was surprisingly good. OK you’ve not got a face-full of on-screen running metrics with the Surge but what’s on there is fine. You can have 3 metrics displayed at any one time namely distance and elapsed time plus one of the following: HR, pace/speed, calories, calories, time of day and it also beeps/laps every 1Km (changeable).
It picks up the GPS satellite very quickly when outdoors (2-3 seconds), less so indoors. The GPS track is good. The watch beeps at virtually the same autolap time as a top-end Garmin.
The instant pace is broadly OK. To be fair I’m not exactly sure what to compare it to because the top-end Garmin triathlon watch (920XT – my main watch) was woefully inaccurate in that respect until late 2015 – over a year after being introduced. My footpod calibration with my 920XT also seems to be currently on-the-blink. Beware new-model Garmins.
Compared to the 920Xt there was up to 30secs/km difference at times. The variance continually changed. Usually the Surge seemed to be slower than the Garmin but sometimes it was faster. If you run only occasionally looking at your watch (like most people) then being alerted every 1km WILL BE QUITE ACCURATE.
Here is the GPS tracks of a 920XT compared to the Fitbit. I can’t spot any difference in the route. can you? (Yes I really did have no idea where I was going!).
The altimeter IS inaccurate. On a pancake flat run it showed an overall 33m ascent and a 52m descent in the space of 30 minutes. So if you are fellrunner then don’t buy one of these, if you are a park runner…it’s fine. Buy one.
Fitbit describe the Surge as a Fitness Super Watch. So it REALLY IS intended by them for more than just running.
When you change sports then the data on the screen changes too, to become more relevant. So, for example, you will get SPEED rather than PACE when you choose Bike.
These fitness activities are supported: Bike, Hike, Weights, Workout, Spinning and Elliptical. Workout means ‘Gym Class’, Hike should be used for any outdoor sport eg Kayaking.
I have swum with it twice and it is still working (!) but officially: “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.”
Optical HR Accuracy
To be clear: There is NO current wrist based optical HR that is anywhere near medical-grade accuracy. Polar, Epson, Garmin, TomTom, Samsung, Microsoft, MIO ….NONE of them; I’ve tested them all.
Most of the optical HR devices, however, are perfectly fine for indicative fitness tracking purposes. And that’s why you are buying the Surge, right? Remember it’s branded by them as a “Fitness Super Watch” NOT a “RUNNING Super Watch”.
Here are some example of Fitbit’s optical accuracy compared to Polar H7 – assume the Polar H7 is near-medically accurate (because it is).
- 10 miles: Polar averaged 148bpm (highest 167bpm) and Fitbit averaged 152bpm (highest 170bpm)
- 6k: Polar averaged 94bpm (highest 127bpm) and Fitbit averaged 94bpm (highest 127bpm)
- 14k: Polar averaged 82bpm (highest 115bpm) and Fitbit averaged 83bpm (highest 108bpm)
The first of those, the 10 miles, was a fairly hard effort for me once I get above 160bpm. Let’s look at the detail
So it’s pretty poor at the start but after 20 minutes it’s pretty good. In fact better than many! I’ve frequently seen optical HR devices taking a while to ‘bed down’…I’m not sure why.
Here’s the lower intensity 14k which is not so bad at all. in fact quite good really !!
Optical HR Accuracy – Fitness Accuracy
You have to treat ALL optical HR from ALL manufacturers as being only ‘indicative’ and ‘sometimes wrong’.
Second, HR straps can also be wrong and display SPIKES or DROPOUTS of data.
In the above examples where Fitbit showed my HR to be in the high 160s, when it wasn’t, that HAD NO BEARING ON MY EXERCISE as I simply can tell that it is not so high from my perceived level of exertion. If you listen to your body you should be able to tell the difference.
So if it shows 170 and you’ve just started your HIIT class but have not really got going then you should KNOW that it is wrong – just as you would know if your HR strap was showing the wrong reading because it wasn’t properly in place and/or showing a HR spike or dropout. From what I’ve seen, once the Fitbit ‘zones’ in then it’s OK to use.
Let’s try from another tack.
When you exercise, let’s say running, do you REALLY run with your wrist in front of you staring at the HR display for 40 straight minutes? Hopefully not! We use these things as a GUIDE.
We also use HR to track how effective our exercise might have been after we have finished. Many of the vendors do this in different ways and I do it using TRIMPs. After my exercise I get a TRIMP score. The method is not so relevant in the context of this review, they are all variations on the same theme. Let’s just see how those sessions pan out in their ‘sporting effectiveness score’ (TRIMP).
- 10 miles: Polar TRIMP=130, Fitbit TRIMP=145
- 6k: Polar/Fitbit TRIMP=28
- 14k: Polar TRIMP=18, Fitbit TRIMP=14
These differences wouldn’t really affect how I approach my next training session. The 130 vs. 145 represents a very similar high-level physiological effect ie I would be equally fatigued from either.
Bluetooth: It has a legacy Bluetooth mode (not tested). Nice. Many device developers including all the others that you’ve heard about have REAL problems working with older flavours of Android (on smartphones) and with older versions of Bluetooth. A nod in the direction of legacy Bluetooth shows that Fitbit want to get as many users as possible, realising that they have to therefore support as many bits of software as possible.
Smartphone Notifications: These are quite basic notifications and would not, for example, provide notifications from apps such as Facebook. Just calls and SMS. That’s good enough for me but I’m a FB-dinosaur.
Alarms/Timers: It has these, it’s not very interesting.
Saying GO: There were quite a few times when an extra button push was seemed to be required to start recording the exercise. This was a bit annoying as I had to redo some tests. You probably won’t make such mistakes once you get used to the device.
Battery Life: I charge my devices regularly. But 5-7 hours with GPS turned on seems to be a fair estimation of battery life. If you don’t exercise with it then the battery will last for days and days, even longer if you turn the optical HR off.
Your exercise data CAN be exported manually in TCX format but you will most probably use the Fitbit app/dashboard or one of those shown below. An alternative is to use the Android app SYNCMYTRACKS to take data automatically out of Fitbit to platforms other than those shown below; you can then also further use TAPIRIIK/fitnesssyncer/syncmytracks to reach yet more platforms. A bit complicated I know, people like me do such weird things.
Currently (May 2016) you are able to link to Fitbit with these apps (here):
Here it is: https://help.fitbit.com/articles/en_US/Help_article/1372 (April 23, 2016)
It’s automatically updated when you sync.
Some Product Comparisons
If you want to run and you want to buy a Fitbit then you buy the Surge rather than the Blaze.
But comparing the Surge to the Polar M400 and TomTom Runner 2 /Spark it’s a harder choice. If you have aspirations to be some sort of runner then you’d go for the M400 but you would probably wish you hadn’t if you do lots of classes and want the optical HR (The M400 hasn’t got optical HR). Maybe the red lines and Polar branding are too much for you?
If you want all the running extras like inbuilt music and optical HR then the top-end TomTom is your gadget of choice. But then you might bemoan their relatively weak online dashboard and app. Maybe also the style of the TomTom is not what you’d wear all day.
So you go for the Fitbit Surge. But then if you want more advanced running features you’d wish you’d bought a running watch…after all the Surge is Fitbit’s ‘Fitness Super Watch’ not a running watch.
Decisions. Decisions. I hope I haven’t confused you too much more than you already were 🙂
Summary And Thoughts
Considering the device is a year old now and I’m grumpy then this is a very nice little fitness watch – and that includes ‘parkrun’ watch.
Having put it off for months, I approached this review wanting to find all the things wrong with the Surge that I could.
Sure it’s not perfect. But neither are ANY of the competition.
After a day-or-so I grudgingly came to like it and after a week it’s still on my wrist.
I like it (gulp).
It’s one of those rare watches that photoshops up WORSE than the reality. It actually looks and feels nice, it’s comfy and unobtrusive. I like the aesthetics. The display-whilst-exercising is rudimentary, in terms of the screen resolution and graphics, yet the screen certainly does the Fitness job for which it is intended.
You can EASILY wear it in bed – it’s COMFORTABLE, which is pretty fundamental for a 24×7 tracker. You can’t say that for a LOT of competing devices especially if you are a skinny armed person. The sleep tracking is generally good but it can throw a wobbly from time-to-time.
Sure, the optical HR (oHR) is not 100% accurate but then again none of the wrist-optical devices can claim that either. It’s acceptable on the oHR front for general fitness usage and nowhere near as bad as I have read elsewhere. Maybe there have been firmware improvements? If it was that bad I would have said so. I am not beholden to any supplier in my views.
FOR ME?: I’m a runner. I COULD use it for running but I have more specialised devices for that purpose. I’m also a triathlete and it is not really suited for that although you could quite easily use the Surge for an odd triathlon. I have quite specific needs for high levels of HR accuracy and as such I can only ever rely on a HR strap at present. You almost certainly will not have the same HR/HRV ‘needs’ that I have in that regard.
WHY I WOULD BUY ONE AS A PRESENT: It looks nice and the Fitbit ‘data ecosystem’ is excellent. It really is a great ‘fitness’ gift for someone.
FOR A PARKRUNNER?: doh! That’s why Fitbit sponsor parkrun. YES it is suitable for parkrunners.
Go on…you know you want to 😉
I hope you enjoyed the review.
|Garmin Forerunner 235||£223.00||Link||£329.99||Link|
|TomTom Runner 2||£99.00||Link||$130.00||Link|
|TomTom Runner 2 Cardio + Music||£208.00||Link||$230.00||Link|
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