Reviews

Fitbit Charge 5 reviewed: a little bit fancy

Not everyone needs a fancy smartwatch, but if you wish a basic wearable had a bit more pizzazz, the Fitbit Charge 5 could just fancy the whole thing up.

Tracking your health is something many of us do, and the trusty smartwatch and smartband are often the reasons why. Much like our reliance on a phone, we turn to a wearable to keep tabs on our lives and tell us how many steps we’ve taken, what our sleeping patterns are like, and when to take a bit of a breather from the regular work day, standing up and stretching instead of the usual stint at the computer and screen.

But trackers are always evolving, and in the latest variety of Fitbit, the long-established wearable maker is showing what it has in store next, bringing in at least one new health feature while applying a new coat of paint to what the screen can deliver.

Is the Fitbit Charge 5 a wearable for anyone to keep tabs on their health, or could it still do more?

Design and features

Appearing a little like an older Fitbit Charge but with a colour screen, the Charge 5 isn’t your regular smartwatch, or even one at all. Rather, it’s a smartband, providing a way to track your fitness activities and offer the time, but without the customisation and stylisation options the more fashion-conscious smartwatch can do.

However it still some comes packing plenty of features like a smartwatch, some of which have evolved from previous Fitbit Charge models, while others are new.

As such, you’ll find activity and step tracking, sleep tracking, heart rate tracking, SpO2 oxygen saturation, stress management, the temperature of your skin, and sweat tracking (electrodermal activity), menstruation cycle tracking, breathing rate, and even an electrocardiograph (ECG) to monitor your heart’s rhythm, plus a GPS to track where you go. That ECG is an interesting addition, because so far, it’s been reserved for smartwatches almost entirely, and Australians needed to wait until the TGA confirmed whether they would be supported locally, though this year, beginning with the Apple Watch, they almost entirely have.

Back to the Charge 5, the band itself is water resistant, made from a combination of aluminium, glass, and plastic, with a haptic motor inside the unit for vibrations, NFC for Fitbit Pay and getting on public transport using your Fitbit, plus a 1.04 inch colour AMOLED screen up top, connecting to phones via Bluetooth.

In-use

Keeping with the smartband style, there are no buttons on the Charge 5 and no royal crown, so it is definitely not a smartwatch. Stop thinking it is.

No buttons means using the Charge 5 will have you rely solely on swipes, touches, prods, and gestures, though it’s mostly going to work from swipes.

Swipe down to get quick control options such as sleep mode and do not disturb, while swiping up will get your vitals and stats in the one place: heart rate, blood oxygen, exercise goals, and so on. Left and right gestures from the main clock will get you shortcuts to other functions, such as running the ECG and three minute electrodermal activity (EDA) system, which will check your skin to work out if you’re stressed.

For the most part, you probably don’t need to cover off these settings, and can get by with the Charge 5 just doing its thing. You’ll need to hold the sides of the Charge 5 at times, given that’s how both the EDA and ECG work, but it’s all just swipes and prods to make the wearable work the way it needs to.

Performance

It doesn’t need to worry too much about performance, though, because it mostly works as and when you need it.

Swipe to get to different parts of the band, touch the functions, and they’ll work. You may spot the odd bit of lag here and there for loading things up — it happens — but by and large, the Fitbit Charge 5 loads your health activities with ease, letting you keep on living your life without any real drama.

It’ll even handle notifications from your phone, with messages, Facebook, calls, and the like. Really, whatever you want to send its way. Everything can work more in the background.

The ECG and EDA tests are different, however, having you stop to specifically hold the Fitbit in order to use these features. You actually need to grip the sides of the Charge 5 with your other hand’s thumb and forefinger, almost like you’re creating a circuit for the health test.

On the ECG, it’s a 30 second pause, while the EDA test is basically like taking a three minute break where you hold the sides of the Charge 5 and try to do nothing. That makes the EDA test more of a forced mindfulness test, whereby you have to do nothing while it checks your skin. With those sorts of times, we found the 30 second ECG was fine, but we invariably didn’t have time to do the three minute EDA, as it just felt like such a long set of time to worry about a test that in the background (though we suspect Fitbit’s mindfulness experts would have a thing or two to say about that point, as well).

Battery

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Battery is one area where the Fitbit Charge 5 remains compelling option, thanks in part to a week-long battery life on offer on this colour wearable.

What the Charge 5 loses in complexity it makes up for in long-term life, achieving a week of battery life for regular day-to-day activities, though it can hit a little less if you opt to go for more drawn out walks where the GPS needs to be switched on.

Most people should see that week of battery life without any real dilemmas, making the Charge 5 a decent wearable to take with you on a trip, provided you charge it before.

It does rely on yet another distinctly different charging connector from Fitbit, making us wish the company would settle on a standard, maybe even a wireless charging standard that could work directly from a phone. Every Fitbit seems to have something slightly different to charge from, and the Charge 5 is no different, making it important to not lose this wearable if you can.

Value

Priced at $269.95, Fitbit’s Charge 5 isn’t a thoroughly inexpensive wearable, but it’s also one that feels a little more costly than it should.

Roughly double the cost of the Charge 4’s street price — which can be found for between $130 at the moment — and really only offering the ECG and colour screen as the main points of difference, the value of the Charge 5 doesn’t seem quite as strong, at least by comparison.

The inclusion of an electrocardiograph is handy, but whether it will genuinely help your fitness tracking remains to be seen, and the colour screen certainly won’t.

We suspect our problem with the price comes down to how much you gain from that colour screen, and the answer is not much at all. While there are a lot of things we like about the Fitbit Charge 5 colour screen, the lack of extras to help balance the wearable out isn’t one of them, especially when those extras are something as simple as choices for how you wear the band.

What needs work?

Simply put, we just yearn for more watch faces, because the amount you get just doesn’t feel that spectacular. Fitbit has never quite had the most amazing watch faces, and the clocks on offer here feel like they need to move forward, rather than stop short as they are.

There are also catches for the Fitbit Charge 5 that bother us, namely that it looks like a more full-featured smartband, but that it basically isn’t. Day in and day out, we were reminded that while the Charge 5 is a great little fitness band, its colour look and larger screen didn’t magically make it into a smartwatch competitor, but more just a fitness tracker.

For instance, you couldn’t control music on it. Even though it probably wouldn’t have been much of an ask, Fitbit has left music control for the smartwatch of the Versa and Sense, but not the Charge 5, despite it being easily big enough for a playback controller. Just add it in there already, Fitbit.

That lack of a music controller is one of the main question marks hanging over Charge 5’s feature set. Yes, you get fitness tracking and such, but you can’t really add extra features by downloading apps. More-so, there are no apps. Rather, the Charge 5 looks like a smartwatch, but clearly isn’t one.

It won’t always wake up when you ask it to, either, a bug that means you might be tapping the screen a couple of times to get the screen to switch on, and it comes with the rather frustrating bug that it buzzes you while you’re on a phone call… as if you didn’t know.

Final thoughts (TLDR)

Despite the niggles and lack of expandable functionality, the Charge 5 is a great fitness tracking band, though it hardly reads as the full-featured colour smartband you might think of it as.

The Charge 5 is a great tracker, even if it isn’t quite what you might expect. It’s great, but not a smartwatch. Clearly not a smartwatch. We need to stress that point: while the colour screen of the Charge 5 might help it to look more like a smartwatch, it is most definitely not one at all.

There are features to admire, such as the lovely OLED screen, GPS tracking system, week-long battery life, heart-rate notifications, and an ECG in a device that won’t cost an arm or a leg. That last one is a rarity in our world.

But it also feels like it’s just a colour upgrade on what Fitbit had before, and while there are notable reasons to love the Charge 5, it just mightn’t provide quite the experience you think it will.

However it’s still worth checking out, particularly if you’re after a health tracker that’s a little bit fancy and has the ability to help you learn a little more about your health specifically.

Fitbit Charge 5
Design
Features
Performance
Ease of use
Battery
Value
The good
Great screen
Supports an ECG
Includes a GPS
Features low and high heart rate notifications
Week-long battery life
The not-so-good
Screen isn't always responsive to wake up
EDA is a forced three-minute mindfulness test
Can't control music playback
Limited clock faces lacking customisation
Looks like a smartwatch, but lacks the app support of one
Yet another charging connector for yet another Fitbit
Buzzes your arm when you're on a phone call... to remind you that you're on a phone call?!
4
Leigh :) Stark

A technology journalist working out of Sydney, Australia, Leigh has written for publications including The Australian Financial Review, GadgetGuy, Popular Science, APC, PC & Tech Authority, as well as for radio and TV since 2007.

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Leigh :) Stark

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