There’s a smartwatch buyer who is a little intimidated, or turned off, by the notion of getting an all-singing, all-dancing Apple Watch or Samsung equivalent.
This person may want fitness metrics and a few extra smart things, like messaging, weather and music on the go, on a decent screen that they can easily see. But they don’t really want to feel like they have to learn how to use the equivalent of a new smartphone on their wrist.
Fitbit’s Sense is an interesting option in this space. I’ve been using it for a while and, while its main calling card is its extra health and fitness sensors, for me it feels like an interesting ‘lite’ version of the top-end, full fat smartwatch.
For example, it has a 1.6-inch, bright, colour touchscreen that lets you quickly get to the seven or eight main functions you’re going to want. But it doesn’t scare you with the sight of a Milky Way-scale galaxy of apps and controls.
It also has better battery life than some of the colour-screen alternatives out there — I get around four to five days’ use out of it between charges, even with a bit of exercise thrown in.
And it’s a little smaller than some of the main smartwatch models, meaning it’s not as much of a loud reminder, either to yourself or to others, that you’re into smart watches as an aesthetic.
In other words, it’s not trying to tell you that you should now be paying way more attention to the computer on your wrist on principle. Instead, it feels to me like something that’s positioned as something of a useful tool for whenever you want to dip into it on your own time.
In this ‘tool’ context, the Sense is probably more packed with health and fitness monitoring features than any other smartwatch in its price category.
As you’d expect, it has all of the running, walking, swimming and cycling tracking metrics (including some ‘open goal’ activities like yoga) that any reputable fitness-oriented smartwatch should have. The inclusion of native GPS, as opposed to phone-assisted GPS you’ll find on some other fitness smartwatches, means you can leave your phone at home if you want to go for a run and map your progress.
But it also now matches — or exceeds — models like Apple’s new flagship Watch 6 in some of the more advanced health metrics it has.
For example, it can take an ECG reading (approved by the EU and the US FDA) to give you a sense of whether there are any heart abnormalities you should be aware of. It also includes a blood oxygen reader, which is the big new feature in Apple’s Watch 6.
But maybe its most interesting new health measurement tool is a new electro-dermal activity (EDA) scan that purports to detect stress. This is done by placing the palm of your other hand over the top of the watch, making sure to touch off the metal band that surrounds the perimeter of the watch. It then combines a few things to give you a score out of 100 (the higher the score, the lower the stress level).
It’s an interesting idea, especially in the times we’re in. However, using it a few times, I’m not sure how completely useful it is. For example, the Sense watch prompts you to say how you’re feeling after the test is taken. Why? Isn’t the point of a sensor to guide you through data rather than muddying it with mixed-in subjective self-diagnosis? There isn’t much by way of an explainer on what to do next either, or any concrete steps that might help you mitigate your stress reading.
In fairness, perhaps that’s not the role of the consumer sensor-tool. Maybe it’s enough to let you know that you’re acutely suffering from stress at any give time. And there may also be some value in having it there as a circuit-breaker in the first place — just taking a two minute breather to focus on calmness might actually help in itself.
But comparing this to Apple’s Watch, which is inevitable given its price and form factor, it’s a more threadbare approach. Apple’s philosophy is to explain, in language that is as idiot-proof as possible, what a reading means and what you might need to do after seeing it. This doesn’t *not* do that, but it isn’t quite as explanatory.
That said, it’s important to point out that it’s possible to overdo the importance of these more advanced sensors. They aren’t really medical diagnostics and shouldn’t be relied on as such. They’re meant to be indicative. Yes, the ECG scan does have EU and US FDA approval. But even here, no doctor would say that you rely on this, or any other consumer smart watch as a proper medical device.
And I’ll repeat: for what you’re paying, you’re actually getting more health sensor power here than for almost any other smartwatch.
The Sense only comes in one square size, with a 1.58-inch colour display and swappable strap bands.
It looks like Fitbit chose this watch size to cater for smaller wrists, maybe with a female demographic in mind. It’s about the same size as the smaller (40mm) Apple Watch and Garmin’s recently-launched Venu Square (a review of which I’ll be separately posting in a few days). It’s noticeably smaller than Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 3 or (even more) models from others such as Huawei or Polar.
Overall, this size was probably a good design choice. Whenever hear a negative aesthetic criticism about my larger smartwatches, it’s often related to them being a little too ostentatiously ‘techie’ in their large size.
The Sense is very comfortable to wear, partly because it’s quite light in comparison to smartwatches from the likes of Apple or Samsung. The strap I got with it is black rubber, which I find it be a sensible choice if you’re using it for any exercise. You can swap straps out quite easily, thanks to a quick-release button on each side of the watch face.
One of the more distinctive elements about the square face is the metal band of steel around the watch face’s perimeter. As I mentioned above in relation to the EDA stress scan, this is actually a functional part of the watch.
There’s no physical button but there is a pressure-activated one that is important for navigating menus. Placed at the side of the watch, it buzzes haptically when you squeeze it. It works fine but I found it to be slightly awkwardly placed in the lower bit of the side of the watch. I often had to pull the whole watch up a little off my wrist to get to it, meaning the odd pinch of hair as strands got caught in the action. Those with larger or fatter fingers will feel this a lot, I think.
You can assign a special function to a long press of this haptic button. I currently have it set to Spotify, even though it only works as a (partial) remote control for the Spotify app on your phone; you can’t download Spotify songs onto the Sense watch.
Alternatively, Fitbit thinks that lots of people might be interested in Alexa, which is the default long-press app response.
I find Alexa here to be a little underwhelming compared to the full-flavoured version on a speaker or my phone, although it useful for things like timers, alarms and the weather.
Alexa is accessed using the built-in microphone, although it doesn’t yet read out any responses to you over the built-in speaker. This, apparently, is to be included in an upcoming update.
Other features I haven’t really mentioned include Fitbit Pay, which is supported buy a number of Irish banks. I’m not signed up to it, though.
Battery life on this is, as stated above, pretty decent. You won’t get the 10 days of a high-end (and double-priced) specialist fitness watch like Garmin’s Fenix 6 Pro, but you should get four or five days between charges as I did. This will be less if you use GPS frequently.
I should mention that the engine on the Fitbit Sense isn’t really what you would call zippy. It’s fine but I noticed a bit of a lag swiping between screens or opening apps. You’ll frequently need to swipe or tap a second time. In this regard, it’s way behind general smartwatches like Apple’s Watch on this front.
Overall, though, the Sense is a really decent fitness smartwatch. It’s a solid alternative to many of the options currently out there and an excellent choice for someone who wants to measure as many elements of their fitness and health as possible on a reasonable budget.
Remember when wireless in-ear buds were a choice of AirPods and, er, AirPods? We’ve come a long way in the four years since Apple launched the little white ear accessories. There’s now a multitude of high quality options, especially in the sub-flagship €150 to €200 category — I’ve been particularly impressed in recent months with Google’s Pixel Buds and Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Live (see reviews for those elsewhere on Independent.ie).
As regular readers will know, I’ve strongly recommended some of Nokia’s budget smartphones of late. Its 5.3 model, in particular, was [and probably still is] the best phone you can get for under €200.
Question: I have recently moved to a house in Co Monaghan. Unfortunately, the area is under-resourced in terms of home broadband and I have been forced on to the Vodafone 4G mobile broadband. The 4G signal is good and, depending where I position the router in the house, I can get up to 15Mbs. This is fine but using multiple devices at the same time is proving to be a challenge.
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World news – US – Review: Fitbit’s Sense smartwatch can tell you when you’re too stressed