No one needs an activity tracker. Sure, you feel a whiff of superiority wagging your wrist and boasting about how much ground you’ve covered today. But let’s not pretend that wearing a wrist computer makes you a better person.
Prettier than its predecessors with a litany of interchangeable bands. Automatically recognizes and logs activity when you’re walking, running, or biking. Battery lasts a full week between charges.
The silent alarm is too timid to reliably wake you up. Sleep insights are a bore. No GPS tracking or waterproofing; runners and swimmers are out of luck.
How We Rate
- 1/10A complete failure in every way
- 2/10Sad, really
- 3/10Serious flaws; proceed with caution
- 4/10Downsides outweigh upsides
- 5/10Recommended with reservations
- 6/10Solid with some issues
- 7/10Very good, but not quite great
- 8/10Excellent, with room to kvetch
- 9/10Nearly flawless
- 10/10Metaphysical perfection
If you want to boost your athletic training, get a good sports watch and a heart rate monitor. If you want to count your steps, use your phone. If you need a reminder to make healthy choices, hell, tying a piece of string around your finger will get you there. But if, for whatever reason, you think wearing a tiny computer on your wrist is the key to living your best life, fine. Be my guest. Let me introduce you to the Fitbit Alta HR.
Like all activity trackers, the Alta HR doesn’t offer life-changing feedback about your health. But it lets you log your fitness fundamentals without much fuss, and it includes a heart-rate monitor. So that’s cool. And it looks nice enough that you’ll actually wear it.
Fitbit’s seventh activity tracker is the smallest yet, in keeping with the company’s push to make its products feel less like computers and more like jewelry. The OLED display isn’t much wider than your finger, and works with a variety of bands available in materials like leather, stainless steel and, of course, rose gold. I hesitate to call it fashionable—it’s an activity tracker, people—but the sleek design all but disappears on your wrist.
Tapping the screen twice wakes it, then you tap once to toggle through the time, the step counter, heart rate, daily distance traveled, calories burned, and number of active minutes. Pairing it with your smartphone reveals more detailed information through the Fitbit app, and brings message and call notifications to the tiny screen. You can’t reply to those messages, but I found the gentle buzz of an incoming text weirdly satisfying.
In Fitbit, as in life, it’s important to set #goals. The Alta HR prompts you to create three: boosting your daily step count, drinking more water, whatever strikes your fancy. I made three, but I only ever remembered to take 10,000 steps each day because my Fitbit never reminded me about the others.
Still, the Alta HR does a nice job reminding you to get up and move. Once every hour between 9 am and 6 pm, (when you’re most likely to be sedentary), the band buzzes to coax 250 steps out of you. That’s harder than it sounds! You can customize the frequency of your reminders, or change the benchmarks. As you get closer to achieving your goal, the band chimes in with an encouraging message like, “Just 94 more steps!” Hit your daily step goal and the it lights up and buzzes with an intensity that I found far more validating that I care to admit.
The Fitbit app lets you manually log things like water consumption, caloric intake, and weight. But it really shines with the stuff it does on its own. The first day I wore the Alta HR, the SmartTrack feature recognized my morning bike commute. By the time I arrived at work, it had logged my 20-minute ride, recorded the distance, even tracked my heart rate throughout the ride, estimating how many calories I’d burned and how long I’d spent in the “fat burn” zone. Later in the week, I discovered it could parse the difference between a brisk walk and a run, both of which it logged without me even opening the app.
The HR lacks an altimeter, so don’t expect a gold star for taking the stairs. It doesn’t have a GPS tracker, either, so you’ll need another app to map your run. (Yes, the Fitbit offers distance estimates, but they’re imprecise.) Serious runners might balk at that. It isn’t waterproof, so swimmers are out of luck. And although the Alta HR recognizes aerobic workouts, it has no idea what you’re doing. You’ll have to log that Zumba class manually, you overachiever.
Sleeping at the Switch
Fitbit introduced its latest sleep-tracking technology in Alta HR. Wear it to bed and wake up to a report detailing how long you slept, and how much of that time you spent in light, deep, and REM sleep. Over time, Fitbit synthesizes of this data with all of your other data to deliver “sleep insights.” It might, for example, tell you that you sleep better on the days you take a long run, or that you don’t fall asleep at the same time each night. As Fitbit collects more data about you—your eating habits, your daily exercise, your water consumption—it can offer practical suggestions to help you snooze better.
That’s amazing … when it works. Sometimes my Alta HR recorded my total hours of sleep, but not my sleep stages. One night, I woke at 4 am to a ruckus outside my window, but the sleep log indicated I’d slept through the night. Tightening the band seemed to help (and make the heart rate monitor more accurate), but I found it uncomfortable.
The silent alarm needs work, too. I love the idea behind it: wake up to a gentle buzz on the wrist rather than blaring beeps. Just the thing for getting up at 5 am without waking your significant other, right? Except half the time the Alta HR’s alarm wasn’t powerful enough to wake me, so I used my iPhone as a back-up. You can’t crank up the intensity of the vibrations, and the Alta buzzes three times before snoozing, which makes it entirely too easy to ignore. Worst of all, it doesn’t optimize wake-up time based on when you’re in light sleep—which is silly, since it’s already tracking your sleep cycles.
For the most part, though, the Alta HR does exactly what it promises. It logs your daily activity, reliably and consistently monitors your heart rate, and synthesizes the data to suggest healthier choices. Plus, the thing has incredible stamina: I wore it around the clock for a week before it prompted me to recharge it.
Does that mean you should buy the Alta HR? Only if you think strapping a device on your wrist will actively improve your life. For $150, though, you get something that works better and costs less than other activity trackers with similar specs, and a hell of a lot better looking.
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