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Fitbit Charge 3 review: Not the fitness tracker we were hoping for

Our Rating 

Comfortable and looks great, but the Fitbit Charge 3 is marred by an unresponsive touchscreen and compatibility problems

Pros 
Comfortable and lightweight
Waterproof
Great battery life
Cons 
No GPS
Unresponsive screen
Not compatible with all Android devices
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Two years after the hugely popular Fitbit Charge 2 first launched, the manufacturer has released a follow-up, the Fitbit Charge 3, and it’s a worthy update. Not only does the fitness tracker have a more refined design and larger display that’s now touch-compatible, but it’s also waterproof to 50m and adds swim tracking.

It has some new features that have previously only been seen on Fitbit’s premium smartwatches, including female health tracking and contactless payments, although the latter is included with the “Special Edition”. However, despite these improvements, the Charge 3 doesn’t quite live up to our expectations.

Fitbit Charge 3 review: What you need to know

As well as the aforementioned new features, the Charge 3 does everything you’d expect from a good fitness tracker. It’ll count your steps, calories burned, active time and there’s an altimeter to keep tabs on how many staircases you’ve climbed. Leave it on at night and it’ll also log the quality of your sleep, measuring time spent in different “sleep stages”.

As with the Charge 2, the Charge 3 has an optical heart rate sensor for recording your pulse throughout the day and during exercise. There’s also an SPO2 sensor, but the Charge 3’s software doesn’t yet make use of it. Disappointingly, there’s still no GPS, which means you’ll need to take your phone with you and use “connected GPS” if you want to track your pace accurately.

You can use the Charge 3 with both iOS and Android phones and the device supports a number of smart features including app notifications, calendar alerts and quick replies (Android only). There’s no music storage, though, and you can’t follow on-screen workouts as you can with the Versa and Ionic.

Fitbit Charge 3 review: Price and competition

The standard edition Charge 3 costs £75, while the Special Edition Charge 3, which adds contactless payments, is priced at £150. That’s £10 cheaper than the Charge 2’s starting price, which can now be bought for closer to £85.

 

As far as trackers from other manufacturers are concerned, the new Garmin Vivosmart 4 (£120) is arguably the Charge 3’s closest rival. It has an almost identical feature set but offers all-day stress tracking along with a “Pulse Ox” sensor that estimates blood oxygen saturation levels.

Now it’s come down in price, £120 will also buy you the Garmin Vivosport, which unlike the above devices comes with built-in GPS.

Fitbit Charge 3 review: Design and display

At first glance, it’s obvious the Charge 3 is an evolution of the Charge 2. It’s more attractive, thanks to a larger greyscale OLED display, has narrower bezels and an altogether more refined look, which includes a new-look, textured strap.

Where the previous model had a small display that allowed you to cycle through widgets one tap at a time, the Charge 3’s display is a 40% larger, full touchscreen panel, meaning you can navigate menus via a combination of swipes and taps.

That might sound like an advantage on paper but, sadly, the reality is a little different. It could be that my stubby digits are to blame, but even with warm and dry hands, swipes and taps frequently went unrecognised. Indeed, it wasn’t unusual to have to swipe up several times to check my stats and I found the tap-to-wake feature equally flakey.

The main other design change is that the Charge 3 now has a pressure sensitive button on the side (with no moving parts), while its predecessor had a mechanical one. This decision was presumably made with waterproofing in mind and, as well as looking great, the button works well. You have to be quite firm but it vibrates when it’s been successfully pressed, mimicking the sensation of pressing a real button.

Another area in which the Charge 3 performs well is comfort. The housing for its sensors protrudes slightly from the back off the casing but not enough to leave marks on your skin and, despite being 11mm thick, the tracker’s lightweight, ergonomic design means it’s easy to forget you’re wearing it. If you’re looking for a fitness tracker you can wear 24/7, the Charge 3 should be high up your list on this basis alone.

As with the Charge 2 before it, the Charge 3’s straps can be swapped out by pressing the two quick-release buttons on the rear of the casing. And, with both small and large bands in the box, it’ll cater to all sizes of wrist.

Fitbit Charge 3 review: Features and performance

Aside from the aforementioned challenges with usability, the Charge 3 is straightforward to use. Swiping left from the main watch face lets you browse the tracker’s full range of “apps”, which include Exercise, Relax, Timers, Alarms, Weather and Settings, while swiping up from the home screen lets you view your stats for the day such as steps and distance covered, calories burned, staircases climbed and sleep duration.

Starting the running mode only takes one swipe and a few taps and, providing you have your phone nearby, the tracker shows the “connected” status when it’s ready to use your phone’s GPS as a crutch. During workouts, the Charge 3 then displays all the data you’d expect to see, including time, pace and distance on the main screen, with additional information such as heart rate or calories burned a left or right swipe away.

Connected GPS worked flawlessly with an iPhone X, but not my OnePlus 5T. Sadly, this didn’t come as much of a surprise because I’ve experienced compatibility issues with Fitbit devices in the past, but I must admit I was shocked to discover Fitbit hasn’t officially supported any OnePlus device since the OnePlus One, which was released back in 2014.

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So, if you want to use the Charge 3 with an Android phone, you might want to check it’s supported before parting with your hard-earned cash. If it isn’t listed on the devices page that doesn’t mean it won’t work at all, but there’s a good chance you won’t have the full intended user experience, so proceed at your own risk.

You can, of course, opt to turn the connected GPS feature off manually, and the Charge 3 will simply estimate your pace and distance covered during your run. And, for some exercise modes, connected GPS isn’t necessary at all, such as the new swim-tracking mode. I’ve not had a chance to take the Charge 3 to the local pool yet, but the swimming mode shows only a timer on screen with the rest of your workout data, including length count and lap speed, synced later to the Fitbit app. I’ll be updating this review over the coming weeks once I’ve had a chance to swim a few lengths with it.

As far as battery life is concerned, Fitbit claims the Charge 3 lasts up to seven days between charges, which is two days more than its predecessor. This seems a fair estimate because I comfortably achieved a full working week’s use after first removing the Charge 3 from its box, and following the most recent charge, it has only lost 54% battery over the course of four days.

Fitbit Charge 3 review: Fitbit app and smart features

Like all of Fitbit’s wearables, much of what is good about the Charge 3 happens via the Fitbit smartphone app. From the app’s home screen, you can see at a glance how close you are to reaching your various Activity Goals. These include your step count, floors climbed, distance covered, calories burned, and how long you’re active for each day, each of which can be set to a target of your choice.

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With no option to see previous workouts on the tracker itself, you’ll also need to use the app to review both your manually and “auto recognised” workouts. Automatic tracking is one of the things the Charge 3 does very well with any walk, run, bike ride or other sport you’ve done for fifteen minutes being logged in the app, where you can pore over details relating to your heart rate, calories burned and more.

And the Charge 3 isn’t just limited to tracking your exercise. If you keep it on your wrist at night, it offers insights into how you slept, along with details about how much time was spent in each stage of sleep. I was slightly dismayed to learn I spent over an hour awake most nights in total, but the app assured me that spending up to 20% of the night not sleeping is perfectly normal for men of my age.

With features such as smartphone notifications and a weather app, the Charge 3 might appear to have blurred the lines between fitness tracker and smartwatch but it actually lacks some of the smarts of similarly priced rivals. For example, the Garmin Vivosmart not only displays notifications and weather info but also has music remote, a “find my phone” tool and can also work as a remote for Garmin’s VIRB range of cameras.

That in itself isn’t a deal-breaker but what’s disappointing is that even when using it with an iPhone X, the Charge 3’s smart features weren’t at all reliable. To elaborate, although the tracker vibrated every time I received an incoming call, it was much more hit and miss as to whether I’d receive alerts for other notifications such as text messages. Again, this is something we’ve seen from Fitbit devices in the past and it’s disappointing that Fitbit hasn’t done better with the Charge 3.

Fitbit Charge 3 review: Verdict

Owing to its larger display and the addition of swim tracking, the Charge 3 ought to represent a definitive improvement over the extremely popular Charge 2. Sadly, though, that’s not the case. The touchscreen’s unresponsiveness, in particular, makes using it so frustrating at times that I’d rather reach for my phone rather than interact with the tracker.

When you consider the Charge 3 also has the same flakey notification delivery and compatibility issues we’ve seen with previous Fitbit devices, it becomes difficult to give it a glowing endorsement.

It’s not that it’s a bad fitness tracker. The automatic exercise and sleep tracking are as good as any you’ll find on a device at this price. Unless you need the swim tracking, though, you’ll find both of these features on the Charge 2, which is £30 cheaper.

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