Wearables have yet to define themselves as essential gadgets the way smartphones and laptops have, leaving them in a tricky spot. Smartwatches can handle a lot of basic tasks — quick replies, timers and alarms, navigation — but they get expensive quickly, and unless you're willing to pay for a separate data plan, you'll need to keep your phone around. On the other hand, even the best fitness trackers are typically cheaper, undercutting prices on smartwatches while handling many of the same jobs.
Even as Wear OS development begins to rebound with a renewed focus from Google, fitness trackers remain a much more affordable option for handling a lot of the same tasks. But as products from companies like Fitbit — including its newest Charge 5 — begin to swap in premium hardware and additional sensors, price hikes make for a much more dubious bargain.
Fitbit's latest tracker finally adds a color OLED display, but the price increase over last year's model pushes it too close to full-fledged smartwatches with more features.
- Battery Life: Up to 7 days
- Display: 1.04" color OLED (326ppi)
- Sensors: Heart rate, built-in GPS + GLONASS, SpO2, device temperature sensor
- Water resistance: Up to 50 meters
- Dimensions (body): 36.7 x 22.7 x 11.2mm
- Small bands: Fits wrist 5.1" - 6.7" in circumference
- Large bands: Fits wrist 6.7" - 8.3" in circumference
- Color: Black, white, and blue
- Price: $150
- Mobile payments: Yes
- Workout detection: Yes
- Exercise modes: 20
- The Charge 5 is light and comfortable on the wrist.
- Battery life is exceptional, lasting at least a week with the always-on display off.
- The OLED screen is bright and colorful.
- Exercise tracking is excellent, no matter what you're doing or where you are.
- It's $30 more expensive than last generation, priced just below some smartwatches.
- Fitbit continues to move some of its advanced tracking behind a monthly subscription.
- Offline music and mobile payments are lacking compared to other wearables.
- Daily Readiness is the big new feature for the Charge 5, but it's not enough to justify paying for Premium.
Design, hardware, what’s in the box
The Charge series is Fitbit's longest-running line of trackers, with the first-gen model released way back in 2014. It's been a slow evolution for the series; the Charge 5 is the first time the company's mid-range tracker has gotten a makeover in three years. Gone are the grayscale panel and pressure-sensitive surface for navigating through menus, both replaced with a full-color OLED touchscreen.
This display looks nice, even on an outdoor walk or run. I never encountered a moment where I had to struggle to see what was on the screen, though there were a few moments — sleeping, seeing a movie in a theater — where I wished it would automatically dim itself. There's also a new option for an always-on display, though you'll need to dig through the settings menu to find it. Without a single physical button, that proves to be a much more difficult task than one might expect. Unfortunately, it's hard to justify getting rid of physical buttons on a display this small. Fully-fledged smartwatches like Samsung's Galaxy Watch4 series have some controls outside of the touchscreen if only to make navigating through the interface a little easier. Swiping and sliding between cards on Fitbit's custom OS presents itself as a challenge.
The Charge 5 replaces its physical buttons along the side of the device with curved metallic bars, dedicated to a new electrodermal activity sensor. EDA scans are designed to measure stress, which could be helpful when trying to remain calm or level-headed throughout the day. Unfortunately, detailed stats for these readings are locked behind a Fitbit Premium subscription — something of a pattern for the company's latest trackers.
Overall, I quite like the refreshed design of the Charge 5. Those curved rails feel comfortable on my wrist, and it's lightweight enough to never feel bothersome, even at night. I'm using one of the three stock silicone bands you can choose between, and I didn't find it irritating — although you may find any of the various optional replacement bands more appealing.
Unfortunately, Fitbit has opted to continue using a slimmed-down version of its proprietary two-pin charger. It was frustrating in 2020, and as we barrel towards 2022, it's even more infuriating. Switching to a wireless charging standard like Qi would make powering up the Charge 5 a whole lot easier — especially when traveling. It would also allow you to find cables longer than the 20-inch cord included in the box, or to switch from USB-A to USB-C.
In the box, you'll find the Charge 5 itself, along with your selected band, a larger bottom band for bigger wrists, and the aforementioned too-short cable.
Software, performance, battery
Google has owned Fitbit for nearly a year now, but we have yet to see the company switch over to Wear OS for any of its products. We know that move is coming — at least for smartwatches, if not for some of its trackers — but for now, it's still running custom software. Its UI is relatively basic, with swipe-based navigation for accessing quick settings, daily statistics, and all of the various sensors built into the Charge 5.
Even if Wear OS eventually comes to wearables this small, it might not make for a better experience. Fitbit uses a simple six-page layout for the Charge 5. The home screen has a watch face of your choosing with shortcuts to your fitness stats, followed by Notifications, Exercise, Alarms, Timers, and EDA Scan. You can swipe back and forth between each page, and although it's not obvious at first, a double-tap on the screen brings you right home.
I found the watch face library pretty disappointing. There's plenty to pick from, but most of the designs leave something to be desired. They're also far less customizable than I was hoping for — even though the Charge 5 is the first in the series to feature a full-color display, you can't change the colors in any of these layouts. If you like a watch face but hate its default colors, you can either learn to live with it or find a different design.
Software quirks aside, when it comes time to hit the gym — or track, trails, pool, etc. — the Charge 5 holds up to the standard Fitbit has set for itself. Like last year's model, this device uses "Active Zone Minutes" to track fitness rather than relying on steps alone. Although I don't think the device itself does a great job of explaining what these are, Fitbit's website has a super helpful FAQ that dives into exactly what you're looking to achieve. Overall, I think it's a big improvement over the old steps method.
As far as fitness tracking is concerned, the Charge 5 is great. Although it does include auto-tracking, I always found myself manually starting a workout to ensure everything was recorded. Outdoor and indoor runs seemed accurate (with the latter matching up well with what was displayed on a treadmill), while weightlifting monitored how well I was burning fat based on my heart rate.
Battery life is either excellent or merely passable, depending on whether you enable always-on display. With it disabled, the Charge 5 just kept going and going — it took me nearly nine full days of use to drop its battery to 14%, after which I received a helpful email reminder to throw it on the charger. If you enable the always-on display, you'll have to settle for just three days of battery life — more than most smartwatches offer, but not nearly as impressive.
App and Features
Fitbit's app feels like it would really benefit from some sort of streamlining. I found it challenging to navigate, especially with how much information it throws at you. The selection of tabs along the bottom isn't nearly as handy as the settings hidden under the Account tile in the top-left, which makes adjusting watch faces or tweaking notifications a lot more complicated than it needs to be.
Fitbit's newest addition for the Charge 5 is a "Daily Readiness" score, designed to keep you focused on mixing workouts with rest days. It sounds pretty cool, combining your activities from the previous day with sleep data to predict the results of your next workout. It wasn't ready for primetime at launch, but you can check out all of my thoughts on it in the update at the bottom of this review.
Outside of the tracking, I found the Charge 5 notably lacking in features compared to smartwatches. Despite sharing a parent company, YouTube Music isn't supported for offline playback here, and neither is Spotify or Apple Music. If you're looking to listen to tracks without a phone while working out, you'll need to sign up for Deezer or Pandora Radio — neither of which are particularly tempting in 2021. Fitbit Pay seemed promising, but the lineup of supported banks is much smaller than Google Pay's, and neither of my accounts were supported. If I needed to stop and buy something on a run, I'd either need my wallet or my smartphone in hand.
Viewing and responding to notifications is possible, but the display is so tiny, you'll either be waiting for specific information to scroll across the screen or reaching for your phone as soon as you feel your wrist buzz.
Should you buy it?
Probably not. The Charge 5 might be a fitness tracker first and foremost, but at $180, it's hard not to compare it to devices like Samsung's Galaxy Watch4. Not only can that watch double as a pretty solid fitness device, but it's more capable in nearly every other way. Navigating through menus, listening to music, cashing out at the store — it's all easy on a device that has dropped as low as $200 just a couple of months post-launch.
This year's $30 price bump makes the Charge 5 hard to recommend, and not just because of the competition. More than ever, Fitbit has placed its newest and most advanced tracking features behind a paywall, requiring a monthly subscription to get the most out of your purchase. Fitness trackers are decent buys when they're priced affordably, but once you're pushing up against $200, it makes more sense to jump to a real smartwatch — especially considering Google is finally paying attention to Wear OS once more.
Buy it if...
- You want a basic fitness tracker without any of the added bloat of a smartwatch.
- You want a long-lasting wearable that only requires a charge once a week.
Don't buy it if...
- You want it to work with the mobile payment or music streaming apps you already use.
- You plan on using it for notifications or other services that require a large screen.
- You aren't willing to pay for a subscription to access its best features.
UPDATE: 2021/12/15 09:58 EST BY WILL SATTELBERG
Daily Readiness just isn't enough
Since my initial review of the Charge 5 went live, Fitbit finally launched the marquee feature of its newest wearable: Daily Readiness. It's designed to maximize your ability to balance working out and resting, combining your previous workout data with sleep ratings and heart rate data to deliver a new prediction every single day. It was easily the thing I was most excited to try out when I got my hands on the Charge 5, although I'm left feeling pretty mixed about how useful it actually is.
To start using Daily Readiness, you'll need to make sure you keep your tracker on for at least four full days — including while you're sleeping. Some people will find that to be perfectly acceptable, but even as someone who regularly wears a watch, I prefer taking a break from having anything on my wrist from time to time. The excellent battery life comes in handy here since you won't have to take it off to throw it on a charger constantly. If you usually only wear fitness trackers while at the gym, this feature won't work for you.
Once Fitbit has gathered enough data, your Daily Readiness score will show up in the app every day. Along with a brief description, it'll show a combination of your recent activity, sleeping habits, and heart rate variability to suggest whether you should hit the gym or take a breather. These stats also include recommended workouts and meditation videos, which are included in the Fitbit Premium subscription required to use Daily Readiness.
Unfortunately, I don't think Daily Readiness lives up to the hype. Most people already wearing fitness trackers for 14-plus hours a day usually know how to balance workouts with rest days, especially if they're following a pre-built workout routine. I'm also not sure how much it's taking into account poor sleeping habits. There was one night where I slept terribly, waking up hours before my usual alarm. Despite only getting a couple of hours of actual rest, my "recent sleep" stat stayed at "moderate."
Losing access to Daily Readiness can also be pretty frustrating. Not long after the feature launched, I came down with a cold, putting my usual fitness routine on hiatus while I rested up. I skipped wearing the Charge 5 while I was stuck in bed — who wants to keep a tracker on while they're sick? — but when I was ready to start working out again, I had to restart the four-day sync period to get back on track.
Daily Readiness demonstrates a rethinking of how fitness trackers should work, pushing a more thoughtful approach to health and wellness rather than doubling down on constant training. Keeping it locked behind Fitbit Premium, however, does it no favors. I suspect that any customer willing to sign up for this subscription model is likely more in-tune with their body than someone just getting started on the road to fitness. As an additional metric available to all users, I could see the value in it for beginners. As it stands, I'm just not sure it's enough to sway anyone to switch to a paid membership.
As for the Charge 5 itself, most of my initial impressions have held up. It's comfortable enough on the wrist to wear throughout the day, battery life is fantastic when the always-on display is disabled, and fitness tracking is as excellent as ever. That said, I've had the wearable disconnect from my phone a couple of times, forcing me to reboot it to sync my sleep tracking and to avoid losing my Daily Readiness score. I've also found the gesture required to activate the display pretty finicky. I can't tell you how many times I've raised my wrist to check the clock, only to find myself staring at a black screen.
Fitbit dropped the Charge 5's price down to just $130 for Black Friday, and although those sales have since ended, similar discounts are sure to follow in the months ahead. Although the Charge 5 is a tough recommendation at MSRP, if you don't want the bloat of a fully-fledged smartwatch, $130 is a pretty good price for what's offered here. Just remember to save some of that cash for a Fitbit Premium subscription — these days, it's all but required for the newest features.