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Fitbit Surge technology

Fitbit's deluxe fitness watch isn't worth the extra cash

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The Good The Fitbit Surge has an always-on display, vibration for a silent alarm, automatic sleep-tracking, all-day heart rate and GPS to track runs.

The Bad The watch is big and bulky. It can't be worn while swimming or when in the shower. The accuracy of the heart rate is questionable when working out and there's no feedback or coaching features. Battery life could be better and notifications are limited to text messages and calls.

The Bottom Line All-day heart-rate tracking is a step in the right direction, but the smart features aren't nearly smart enough and the fitness side of the Surge is too basic to justify the higher price.

Fitbit pitches its newest wearable as a superwatch. The Fitbit Surge is part smartwatch, part GPS running watch and part activity tracker. It can display text messages and calls from your smartphone, can track your runs and daily activities, and includes all-day heart-rate tracking, which, theoretically, should help improve sleep tracking at night and estimated calorie burn throughout the day.

As a lifelong runner, I was excited when I first got my hands on the device, but I have since discovered that it's far from perfect. I found the fitness features to be rather basic and the notifications were too limited compared to the other smartwatches on the market. The Surge is also more expensive than the comparable Microsoft Band and Basis Peak. It will run you $250 in the US, £200 in the UK and AU$350 in Australia.


The Surge is big and not particularly attractive. This has been the case with most wearables that include GPS, such as the Garmin Forerunner 15 and Polar M400. (The Sony Smartwatch 3 and Microsoft Band are an exception to this trend.) I place the Surge in the middle of the pack. I don't think it's nearly as bulky as the Forerunner 15, but it's not as nice (in terms of design) as the Smartwatch 3. To make matters worse, the band isn't replaceable.

Fitbit Surge

(Sarah Tew/ CNET)

The Surge is available in three different band sizes: small, large and extra large. The small is for wrists that are between 5.5 and 6.7 inches (14-17cm), the large for 6.3 to 7.9 inches (16-20cm) and the extra large for wrists that measure between 7.8 and 9.1 inches (about 20-23cm). Fitbit has a handy online guide that can help you find the perfect size. I wore a large and it fit without any issues. The different band sizes don't have an impact on the overall size of the watch.

All three models include the same 1.26-inch (3.2cm) grayscale touchscreen, Unlike on the Fitbit Charge and Charge HR, which require you press a button or double tap the screen to wake the device, the display on the Surge is always-on. It's incredibly convenient to be walking, running or working out and be able to tell the time or check your activity level with a simple glance of the wrist. There were some visibility issues when in direct sunlight, but for the most part the display was easy to read.

Most importantly, it could still function when I tapped and swiped on it with my sweaty post-run fingers, an issue that plagued the Microsoft Band. For you night owls out there, there's a backlight, which by default is set to auto mode to conserve battery, so you can continue to use the watch even after the sun sets. 

Fitbit Surge
(Sarah Tew/ CNET)

When you flip the Surge over you will notice two rapidly flashing green lights: this is the optical heart-rate sensor. These green lights illuminate your capillaries and allow the sensor in the middle to measure the frequency at which your blood pumps past. The sensor is on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, although it can be disabled if you please in the settings menu.

Fitbit has said that the Surge is "sweat, rain and splash proof," meaning you can wear it in the rain, when working out or while doing the dishes. But, Fitbit's website confirms that the Surge has been "tested up to 5 ATM," or pressures equivalent to about 50 meters (it's important to remember that water resistant ratings for watches are measured based on static pressure and not depth). Those 5 ATM should be more than enough for showering, as we have seen in the past from products by both Garmin and Polar. Now I'm not suggesting you wear it in the shower, as Fitbit clearly recommends against it...but the Surge may be more water-resistant than it lets on.

Living with the Surge 

The Surge can be worn on either your left or right wrist. From there it will track the steps you take, distance you travel, your heart rate (beats per minute), calories burned and floors climbed. Everything seemed relatively accurate on the watch. Step counts were generally around 2,100 per mile for me, which is comparable to other fitness trackers, and I saw nothing out of the ordinary with calories burned.

I did notice that distance tracking (without the GPS enabled) was a little off. As long as you're consistent and attempt to walk more steps each day, this really shouldn't be a major issue. To test the accuracy, I walked on a treadmill for a mile and compared the mileage from the treadmill to the mileage recorded on the watch. This test was performed three times to ensure accuracy. I also made sure to use the same exact treadmill each time and walked at the same exact speed (3.5 mph to be exact, about a 17-minute pace). You can view the results below: 

Fitbit Surge Tracking Data

 Test                Steps      Distance(miles)      Difference (miles) 
 1  2,105  0.94  -0.06
 2  2,110  0.91  -0.09
 3  2,107  0.94  -0.06
 Average  2,107  0.93  -0.07

My colleague Scott Stein experienced irregularities with the "floors climbed" metric in his Charge HR review, but I found the data to be relatively accurate with the Surge. Every now and then it would add an extra floor or two, but for the most part it was spot on. I decided to take the stairs a couple of days last week to test this. The Surge counted every single floor I breathlessly climbed to my apartment, all 17 of them.

There's no need to enter a special sleep mode or manually input specific times when you are preparing to crawl into bed. The Surge will automatically track your sleep. The actual results, however, cannot be viewed on the device. You must instead fire up the company's mobile app or head to the website to see your sleep data. 

Fitbit Surge
(Sarah Tew/ CNET)

Even then, I found the information lacking. You can see how long you slept, the amount of times you woke up and how restless you were. What bugged me was that there is no information on the quality of your sleep or even the amount of REM sleep you got. All of these should be possible with the continuous heart-rate tracking, something the Microsoft Band did particularly well. 

Fitbit Surge
(Sarah Tew/ CNET)

One of my favorite features is the silent alarm, which can be set to gently vibrate to wake you up in the morning without disturbing your partner. I find it much more enjoyable to wake up this way than to the alarm on my smartphone.

Running with the Surge 

There's more to the Surge than your average activity tracker: its built-in GPS and all-day heart-rate sensor are bound to appeal to athletes. But it's not all it's cracked up to be. There are presets for a wide range of exercises including weight lifting, hiking, spinning, yoga, elliptical and kickboxing, but these are just timers that show your calorie burn and beats per minutes on a single screen. Activities like running and hiking add data recorded from the GPS.

Fitbit Surge  

(Sarah Tew/ CNET)

I found the GPS performed well: it took between 30 seconds and a few minutes to acquire the signal in New York City, which is normal compared to most GPS watches I have tested. Once the signal was acquired, it remained strong and accurate. I compared the Surge to the Garmin Forerunner 15 and Polar M400, and all three watches had similar results for pace and distance.

While running, the GPS will measure distance and total time of your workout. These two metrics remain static on the screen. With a swipe of your finger either left or right you can rotate between your current pace, average pace, beats per minutes, calories burned, steps and a clock. These options aren't customizable, though, so you're out of luck if you want to view data like pace and heart rate at the same time. 

Fitbit Surge
(Sarah Tew/ CNET)

Pressing the bottom right button will pause your workout, and the top button will end it. At the end of your workout, the Surge will show distance, how long your workout took, average heart rate, average pace, calories burned, steps, and estimated elevation climbed.

While the Surge can automatically record a lap when you reach a mile, there aren't many of the advanced features you will find in watches from Garmin, Polar or one of the other running companies. There's no auto pause, personal records, race predictor, recovery advisor or VO2 max estimator. It's even more basic than the basic dedicated running watches, which tend to be much cheaper than the Surge.

Smart features: Few and far between 

Fitbit is calling the Surge a so-called "superwatch." This is because in addition to GPS tracking and all-day heart-rate and activity tracking, the watch has features that are more commonly found in smartwatches. The Surge is capable of displaying text messages from smartphone and will notify you when someone is calling. You can also control your music (after the watch is paired to your phone over Bluetooth Classic), but that's it. You can't get alerts from email or apps such as Twitter and Facebook. I would hardly classify this as a smartwatch.

Fitbit Surge

(Sarah Tew/ CNET)

These smart features work on both Android and iOS devices. Despite there being a Fitbit app on Windows Phone, notifications and music controls are currently not supported.

Heart rate: All-day, everyday 

The optical heart-rate sensor on the back of the Surge will continuously track your beats per minute. It will track your heart rate when you are sitting, when you are working out and even when you are sleeping.

I woke up in the morning and saw my resting heart rate was around 45 BPM. This is normal for me and I had no reason to worry. After I took a few steps around my apartment it began to increase. Slowly my heart rate was in the mid-70s, which makes sense given that I'm no longer in a resting state. It wasn't until I went down to my gym that I noticed something was wrong and it wasn't my heart, but rather the sensor. I noticed that my heart rate read 65 BPM immediately after I finished a difficult rep of lifting and I knew this couldn't be correct. This trend continued for the remainder of my workouts.

Fitbit Surge

(Sarah Tew/ CNET)

The following day I strapped a Bluetooth heart-rate monitor from Polar around my chest to see just how accurate the Surge really is. Resting heart rate was once again in the high 40s, which the chest strapped agreed with. As I made my way to the gym the Surge remained consistent with the strap, but that's when things began to differ.

Just as I suspected, the Polar strap measured me around 110 BPM. As for the Surge? It measured my heart rate at 86 BPM. The Surge remained consistently inaccurate during my workout. Around 30 seconds into my resting period, the Surge began to accurately measure my heart rate. As I began lifting, however, the results were once again off by about 20 to 30 BPM. 

Fitbit Surge
(Sarah Tew/ CNET)

This was also the case when I tested GPS on a run around Central Park. The Surge's heart rate readings were inaccurate for the entirety of my run, and it wasn't until I was stretching that the readings were close to those from the chest strap.

Fitbit recommends to leave a one finger gap between your wrist bone and the Surge for more accurate readings. When working out, a two finger gap is recommended. I found that no matter how tight you secure the watch strap, it will eventually fall out of place. This may have had something to do with the inaccurate readings I encountered. But, clearly, this isn't the super-accurate heart-rate band of your dreams.

Battery life 

To charge the Surge you connect a proprietary cable to four pins that sit under the optical heart-rate sensor on the back of the watch (another proprietary dongle that's different from other Fitbits). It takes about 2 hours to get the battery charged from zero to full. 

Fitbit Surge
(Sarah Tew/ CNET)

Fitbit has said that with activity tracking and continuous heart-rate the Surge is capable of lasting for 7 days. My results weren't nearly as good. The best I saw was around 5 and a half days before having to recharge it. When I started running with it (three 30-minute runs using the GPS), that battery life plummeted to 3 days. I decided to disable notifications after the first week to see if this would provide me with some extra juice, but things didn't seem to improve.

The company notes that if you were to use the GPS continuously it would last "a maximum of about 5 hours," which isn't even long enough for a lot of people to finish a marathon. The Polar M400 gets around 9 hours with an active GPS signal and the Garmin Forerunner 15 is rated at 8 hours. Both watches also last a couple of weeks with mixed usage of GPS and activity tracking.

Battery life results for the Surge are more similar to the Basis Peak and Microsoft Band. Both of these watches include optical heart-rate sensors, and the latter even has GPS.

Fitbit app: A mixed success 

The Fitbit Surge syncs with the popular Fitbit app, where you can designate which hand the watch is being worn, choose between four different watch faces, configure the silent alarm, set activity goals, and view all of your tracking data. It's available on both Android and iOS, and is one of the few fitness devices that also supports Windows Phone. A small USB connector for your computer comes in the box, too, so you can automatically sync your data wirelessly via a Mac or Windows PC. Setting it up initially took a little trial and error between the computer and phone, but it worked eventually.

Fitbit Surge

(Sarah Tew/ CNET)

Opening the app will bring you to a colorful menu of data metrics that shows your activity progress in relation to your daily goal: clicking on a specific data field will give you more detailed information from the past day, week, month and year.

The app could be better, though, and I wish it did more with all of my data. While everything is presented with bright and colorful graphs, there is no coaching or feedback. The only thing you can do besides view and input data is to challenge friends to various activity competitions, such as seeing who can get the most steps in a single day.

Fitbit also doesn't seem to know what to do with heart-rate information. The app will show you your different heart rate zones (peak, cardio and fat burn, which will also be displayed with three different heart icons on the watch itself) and average resting heart rate throughout the day, but that's it. 

Fitbit Surge
(Sarah Tew/ CNET)

With almost two weeks of my data stored, however, the Fitbit app should be capable of doing more. It knows that my resting rate is around 45 to 50 BPM. If it noticed any irregularities, why not ask if I am stressed and offer breathing techniques to help me? Why not offer motivational feedback when I am falling short of my goals or when I am gaining weight? There may be some hurdles that Fitbit must overcome with the FDA, but other companies (Withings and Basis) have figured out how to offer some level of activity feedback. Why can't Fitbit do the same?

Who is this for? 

That's a good question. The Surge is by no means cheap. If you are interested in activity tracking and GPS there's the more affordable Garmin Forerunner 15 and Polar M400. You can also get the Charge HR for $100 less and still get activity tracking and all-day heart rate.

There's also some really exciting products in the pipeline from other companies. Garmin's Vivoactive smartwatch is one to consider. For the same price as the Surge, the Vivoactive offers an impressive list of tracking features for multiple sports and it can display more than just text message and call notifications on your wrist. Then there's the Apple Watch looming in the distance. We don't have too much information on what Apple is planning, but we do know that the watch will be able to run apps and track various activities with GPS and other sensors.

The Surge is a tough sell. Its smartwatch features aren't as robust as other similarly-priced options like the Sony Smartwatch 3 (which also includes GPS but not heart rate) and the Microsoft Band (which has both heart rate and GPS). Yet, despite being priced more towards the higher end of the spectrum, the running features in the Surge are still very basic.

I wouldn't recommend the Surge to any serious athlete or fitness nut because of the inconsistent heart rate and unimpressive training features. Honestly, I'm not sure who I would recommend the Fitbit Surge to. The smart features aren't all that smart, the heart-rate information isn't very helpful and the price is rather high. While it's the most featured-packed Fitbit product yet, those extra features come with an added price. I wholeheartedly believe that most people will be better off saving some cash and picking up the Charge HR. That is, of course, unless you are really set on GPS and text notifications.

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