How do you compete in a growing smartwatch market without making a smartwatch?
You make a dedicated fitness watch, one with smart notifications, but without all of the third-party app complications that come with a full-featured smartwatch. At least, that’s what Fitbit’s strategy seems to be; last year, it added the giant Surge watch to its stable of popular, lightweight activity trackers.
This year Fitbit is going a bit further in that direction, showing off a new $200 fitness watch at CES called Blaze. If Fitbit likes to segment its products into three categories — performance, active, and everyday wear — the new Blaze falls somewhere between the Charge HR and a performance watch. It tracks more than a dozen different activities and records heart rate, but lacks the GPS of the full-featured Surge watch.
Aesthetically, the Blaze is harder to categorize. It has an octogonal face, with stainless steel casing and an elastomer band. Its LCD display makes it the first Fitbit with a color touchscreen display. But it’s not a unibody watch design. The device is actually a pop-out tracker that can snap into a variety of different bands and frames.
The blaze looks much less sophisticated than some of its connected-watch competitors
The pop-out tracker isn’t dissimilar from earlier Fitbit designs, which included a tiny pod that could pop in and out of different bands. But overall the Blaze looks less sophisticated than some of its connected watch competitors. There are gaps on the top and bottom between the tracker and its frame. It looks more like something we would have seen a couple years ago instead of a next-gen fitness watch.
The Blaze's capabilities are clearly its strong point. It will track daily steps, sleep, calories burned, and 15 different types of exercises. There’s a native FitStar app running on the watch, a company that Fitbit acquired last year, that offers guided workouts. As with other Fitbits, your activity data can be shared wirelessly to iOS, Android, and Windows Phone smartphones, as well as desktops.
The Blaze also auto-tracks various aerobic activities like running, walking, tennis, basketball, soccer, and elliptical machine workouts, which means you never have to officially "start" an activity on the watch and it will record it anyway. Fitbit says it’s able to do this because of the trove of anonymized data it has amassed over the years from users manually logging these activities; the company’s software is able to match certain activities with what a wearer is likely doing at that time.
The Blaze doesn’t have built-in GPS, but will pull GPS data from smartphones if you run or cycle with your phone in tow. It does have optical heart rate sensors, and Fitbit says the watch will take a heart rate reading every five seconds during the day and every second during workout sessions, which in theory should give wearers more accurate heart rate readings. (One common complaint not just with Fitbits, but many other wrist-based heart rate sensors, is that the readings can be slow or inaccurate.)
And it offers the standard notification options we’re seeing in almost every connected wrist-device these days — calls, texts, and calendar notifications, and a new call rejection option. You can use the Blaze to control music playing on your smartphone. Fitbit promises five days of battery life with the Blaze, with the lack of GPS sensors almost certainly helping out in this area. This is better than most smartwatches, but on par with other activity trackers.
Fitbit promises five-day battery life
I had some brief hands-on time with the Blaze ahead of CES. It's definitely thinner and lighter than the Surge. A stainless steel link band and a leather band will be sold in March for $129.95 and $99.95 respectively, which might help its looks a little bit, and rose gold and black versions of the watch will ship later this year.
But, while I haven’t been able to test it in full yet, I can’t see this being embraced as a super stylish watch, and without GPS (or being waterproof), it's not something that’s going to appeal to the hardcore fitness crowd, like the Fitbit Surge. This is Fitbit’s attempt to take the Charge HR wristband, which simply iterated on Fitbit’s earlier Flex and Force designs, to the next level.
Last year was, by almost all measures, a stellar year for Fitbit. The company went public in June, after revealing in its filing paperwork that it is actually profitable, and continued to outsell nearly all of its competitors last year — despite the launch of Apple Watch, which a lot of people anticipated would cramp Fitbit’s style. As of the third quarter of 2015, Fitbit had sold more than 30 million wearable devices. And in late December, Fitbit was the top downloaded app in Apple’s App Store.
Last year Fitbit introduced three new wrist wearables — the Charge, the Charge HR and the Surge — so it's possible that Fitbit may still have more up (under) its sleeve for 2016. One thing is certain: The company will will need to come out with even more universally appealing products if it wants to keep up its momentum.
CES 2016: A legitimately good-looking fitness tracker
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