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Fitbit Blaze review: a 'smarter' fitness tracker is still kind of dumb

It's a Fitbit through and through, but doesn't offer much new

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The new Fitbit Blaze is a good Fitbit. Like earlier Fitbit models, the $200 Blaze will track your daily activity, count your steps, monitor your heart rate, gauge how well you're sleeping, and put all of that data into an excellent, easy-to-use app on your phone. It will show you notifications for calls, texts, and calendar appointments. And it does some new things that you can't get with Fitbit's popular Charge HR — or even the last year’s performance-focused Surge. It can lead you through workouts by showing animated exercises on its watch-sized display.

But aesthetically, it strives for much, much more, with a watch-like design and a color display. Unfortunately, the result is arguably an uglier Fitbit — and definitely a more expensive one. For a “smart” fitness watch, the new Blaze does some things very well (like battery life), while other elements of it make it seem like Fitbit hasn’t innovated much from its 2015 products. Also, while the battery life blows away the Apple Watch or any Android wearable, it's not accurate to call this a smartwatch in the way you’re probably thinking. It's a Fitbit through and through.

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For most people, fitness trackers are motivation that we wear on our wrists: motivation to get moving more throughout the day, to hit step goals and stick to a healthier sleep schedule, and maybe even brag a little bit on social media once we achieve those things. And Fitbit's mobile app is capable of far more than that; it can track your meals, calorie / water intake, and plot out your weight from week to week. But those things require dedication — long-term dedication — that a fair percentage of people sometimes lack. So we stick to the fundamentals. But with the Blaze, Fitbit's trying to move beyond that. It's tossing everything it's learned about fitness trackers into this new model for something a little more sophisticated — and a little bit smarter, too.

The Blaze's looks won't be for everyone

It's also intended to be a stylish fitness watch; you can remove the Blaze, which is really just a little black square, from its wrist strap in seconds. Fitbit sells a variety of other band options in leather ($100) and steel ($130). The Blaze, like the recently announced Alta, is meant to usher in a new era where fitness frackers resemble fashion items and call less attention to your wrist.

But truth be told, the Blaze could still be sleeker. The octagon-shaped steel frame that houses the Blaze is rather large on my wrist — and I'm a 6’1" male. Women are too often ignored by smartwatch makers, and Fitbit is guilty of that here. Maybe the company’s executives just assume that the Alta will appeal more to people looking for something more delicate. Either way, the Blaze is a big, hulking thing that never went unnoticed by people around me. I will say that it's very comfortable despite that size, and I've had no issues or discomfort wearing the Blaze to sleep at night. (The optional leather band is even lighter than the silicone strap you get in the box.) But style-wise it’s not something I’d normally want to wear on my wrist every day.

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At the center is a 1.25-inch touchscreen LCD (covered by Gorilla Glass 3) with a resolution of 240x180. It's a vast improvement over the mono-color, very tiny displays on earlier Fitbits.

The screen is sharp enough to where I never noticed unsightly pixels — and I get obsessive about that sort of thing. Blaze has three hardware bottoms; one on the left side that most often serves as a back button, and two on the right. The fitness watch automatically lights up when you raise your wrist, and this works just as it should 99 percent of the time. I've got no complaints there.

It's also water-resistant enough to handle getting caught in the rain — though Fitbit discourages customers from showering with it. And you can rule out swimming completely. That’s pretty bad for a $200 fitness device; the Blaze needs to be fully waterproofed if it’s something you’re going to wear for days at a time.

The process of setting up the Blaze with your smartphone is simple, and it regularly syncs over Bluetooth to keep your app updated with your progress throughout the day. (One of Fitbit’s claims to fame is that, unlike Apple Watch, its trackers work with iOS, Android, and Windows smartphones.) You can pick between four watch faces on the Blaze, but they're all fairly underwhelming. Most let you tap between your key metrics — steps, floors climbed, overall distance, heart rate, etc. — and some will alter the display’s color based on your pulse and level of exertion. It’s a nice, glanceable way to determine just how active you really are.

Swipe over one spot to the right and you'll find the "Today" section. Here's where you can quickly glance at all those numbers in one place, and check both your current and resting heart rate. But infuriatingly, there's no way to tap into any of the sections for more detail. You can't see an hourly breakdown of your activity on the Blaze itself, for example; that requires pulling out your phone.

Swipe again and you'll be at the exercise menu, which is where you go to track certain activities. There are options for running, biking, weights, treadmill, elliptical, and a general "workout" choice for anything else. And the Blaze is designed to automatically recognize when you're exercising, something that other activity trackers (like Jawbone UP, and Garmin’s newest trackers) also do. But this won’t kick in until you’ve exercised for at least 15 minutes with the Blaze, which is awfully long. Even the shorter 10-minute setting seems like too much time to wait for the auto mode to kick in. It’s just better to manually start a workout yourself if you want the most accurate data.

In general, the Blaze did a good job logging my movements each day. Step totals seemed accurate, as did sleep data, though the "floors climbed" stat was a little more iffy. As for heart rate, which is measured through optical sensors on the back of the watch, the Blaze performs very well for most of the day, but loses some accuracy when you’re working out, especially during high-intensity workouts. My heart rate reading was sometimes off target (compared to a Polar chest strap) by up to 30 beats per minute, no matter where or how I wore the Blaze.

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Unfortunately, the Blaze can’t be paired with chest strap monitors, which is something that even the Apple Watch can do. I sorely missed it here. Fitbit’s heart rate technology is good most of the time, but there’s nothing wrong with letting people use better tools if their situation calls for it.

The Blaze also lacks built-in GPS, unlike Fitbit’s pricier Surge watch. In its place is "Connected GPS," meaning the Blaze will use your smartphone’s location data to map out your running routes. This works well enough, but it means you’ll always need your phone with you if you want the most accurate results. It’s another disappointing omission from a $200 health gadget.

The Blaze is good at fitbit things, but don't expect much else

The Blaze does have one exclusive feature that no other Fitbit can do: FitStar exercise tutorials. Pick between warm-ups or workouts suited for 7 or 10 minute intervals, tap start, and GIF-like animations will lead you through the motions. But the Fitbit doesn’t actually know whether you’re doing it right; there’s zero feedback, so the FitStar integration isn’t as useful as the guided workouts you’d get with the Microsoft Band. They’re better than nothing, though, and Fitbit plans to add more exercises in the coming months.

Speaking of feedback, the Fitbit Blaze bizarrely lacks any kind of stand-up-and-get-moving reminders, something that’s now standard in devices like this. The company is exploring bringing "get up" alerts to the Blaze after the Fitbit Alta — which does have them — ships. I don’t quite understand how it’s absent from a shipping fitness product in 2016, but at least the feature is coming.

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And then you get to the "smart" side of the Blaze. Honestly, that word oversells it a bit. For one, notifications are super limited. You’ll see incoming texts pop up in little chat bubbles, and you can either accept or deny phone calls using the Blaze’s hardware buttons. Calendar alerts are there, and as for music controls, the Blaze will let you skip tracks, pause, and control volume. But that’s it. There are no notifications for email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other hugely popular apps. Even if we accept that the Blaze isn’t a smartwatch (and Fitbit isn’t marketing it as such), it should still offer way more flexibility and proper smartphone notifications, like Garmin’s VivoSmart HR already does. I can understand why you'd want to tune those things out, but the option should be there.

The Blaze’s best strength is undeniably its battery life. Fitbit estimates it to last around 5 days on a charge, and more often than not, it hits that mark or comes awfully close. That’s impressive for a device with a color display and active tracking! I think it’d be a little more impressive if the Blaze had a GPS chip inside or served up a wider variety of smartphone notifications — or supported third-party apps of any sort. Still, its battery life is a very good thing. Not having to worry about plugging something in for a stretch of several days feels like high luxury.

So where does that leave us? What is the Fitbit Blaze and who’s it for? The best way to look at it is… it’s like a nicer Charge HR with a big screen. The FitStar stuff is nice, but it wouldn’t convince me to buy this over Fitbit’s less expensive hardware. And without that, you’re left with a Fitbit that fundamentally still does Fitbit things. It just looks different while doing them.

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Innovation in fitness trackers is starting to feel a little stagnant, and maybe there’s no better evidence of that than this $200 product. Seriously, how can it ship without move reminders, and why can’t it pair with an external heart strap? Fitbit’s definitely trying to push style with both this and the Alta, and that’s fine; I’ll leave that to your own taste and fashion sense. It’s hard to argue against buying a fitness tracker if for whatever reason this is just the thing you were holding out for. Personally, I’m fine with the Charge HR until something better — and really, truly smarter — comes along.

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