The Fitbit Alta HR isn't much of an upgrade over the original, but at $150, it's a pretty great fitness tracker.
At this point, Fitbit isn't new — even if you've never owned one, you kind of know what it does: It tracks steps, helps you log workouts, and lets you know how little sleep you're getting, because life.
The Alta HR is the natural evolution of the company's more fashion-forward product, the Alta, which was unveiled in early 2016 as "the stylish one". Interchangeable bands and a sleek, vertical OLED display made it one of the most popular fitness trackers of the year, and it was the basis for the larger Charge 2, which came out towards the end of 2016.
The Alta HR takes what made the Alta great and adds a bigger battery and a heart rate monitor, which tracks all day for up to seven days. It's not a massive change, but it's one that has turned me from an Alta skeptic into a believer.
The Alta HR isn't any bigger than its predecessor; aside from the Flex 2, which is still the company's smallest (and only truly waterproof) tracker, the Alta HR is among Fitbit's most hideable trackers, blending into practically any situation and outfit.
The main thing I learned from the new Sleep Stages feature is that I don't sleep enough. Thanks, Fitbit.
My review unit shipped with the black band, but there are four regular models to choose from, including black, blue/gray, coral, and fuchsia, along with two special editions that cost slightly more and fancy up the tracker itself. Because of the heart rate monitor, the unit needs to be snug-yet-comfy against the wrist, which is why Fitbit replaced the loose-fitting snap strap of the original with a traditional clasp that wears much more like a watch.
I've been wearing the Fitbit Alta HR for the past two weeks and have barely remembered it's on my wrist. It doesn't get in the way when I'm typing, nor does it irritate the skin under the heart rate sensor (though I never had that issue with old Fitbits either). Battery life has been amazing, too: I've only needed to charge it twice since taking it out of the box, and as of this writing, this is my 14th day wearing it, and I'm still only at 30% battery, according to the app. That seven-day uptime is actually conservative.
Fitbit's also done a good job implementing its automatic heart rate sensing into the Alta HR; I just go about my day, attend my workouts, and let the software take care of the rest. It's not a particularly complicated proposition, since I don't really vary my workouts all that much, but I can see the product working out well for someone who varies his or her cardio routine on a weekly basis, since the app has become quite good at detecting various forms of activity. Manual logging is still possible, too, as is food journaling, though that isn't a feature I've ever used.
Sleep Stages, an updated form of the company's well-regarded sleep tracking system, has also been interesting, though, like the fitness data, it's unclear how much I will learn and change from wearing the Alta HR over the long term. Sleep Stages uses a combination of movement and heart rate monitoring to determine whether you're awake, in REM sleep, light sleep, or deep sleep.
While it's interesting that I'm learning I only get 90 minutes of REM sleep a night, I' more concerned with the fact that I'm only sleeping an average of five hours 30 minutes a night — and I don't need a Fitbit to tell me that. As good a gadget as this is, it has yet to— over the course of five years or so — change my poor habits for the better. That's something I need to undertake myself.
Fitbit's Android app has improved a lot over the past couple of years, and it's now not only really easy to sync — and keep synced — but I can pick up where I left off on a new phone. Bluetooth connectivity is no longer finicky (Google thankfully fixed this a few Android versions ago) and I don't have to remember to explicitly open the app to sync it — it just works.
The new dashboard, which shows steps taken, miles or kilometers walked, calories burned, and total active minutes, is both intuitive and data-heavy, which I like, and Fitbit's social features are still second to none. I've spoken to many Fitbit fans who, despite the lackluster hardware, have bought new trackers instead of leaving for Android Wear or an Apple Watch strictly because of the expansive community of friends and fellow cardioheads pushing one another to hit that 10,000 daily step goal and beyond.
What needs work
The Alta HR is still very much a fitness tracker; you can add heart rate monitoring to it and call it smarter, but at the end of the day this thing doesn't come close to being "smart". That's OK — Fitbit isn't exactly advertising smartwatch-like features, but it's still something to keep in mind when you're shelling out $150 for something. To that end, the Alta HR supports phone and text notifications — but only for one app — as well as basic calendar appointments, so this isn't going to be close to what you get with a smartwatch.
I don't really use the Alta HR to check anything but the time. I prefer to use the app.
Another thing that isn't like a smartwatch is the OLED screen, which is hidden behind a scratch-prone piece of plastic. You physically tap — hard — against the panel to change what you see, and though there is raise-to-wake, it's barely readable in sunlight. The screen, too, isn't touch-responsive, so it sometimes takes a few good pecks at it to get it moving.
The order and specificity of the screens can be adjusted in the app, but, beyond checking the time, I find myself barely using the Alta HR itself to dig into my stats; I tend to open the app, which is far more useful in 99% of situations.
While the bands are replaceable, they're not cheap — a standard rubber replacement is $30, while the leather options go for $60 and the metal for $100. After a couple of weeks with the black rubberized band, it's grown quite dirty, and even with soap and water I've found it difficult to get it back to pristine. The leather bands are a bit more hardy, but they're also not appropriate for every situation.
Should you buy one? Probably, but the Charge 2 is better
I love the Charge 2. I think it's Fitbit's best product ever. The Alta HR has most of that product's DNA but lacks the larger display and side button that makes navigating the UI a bit easier. Both the Charge 2 and Alta HR are the same upfront price, $149.95, but the latter has a metal clasp option, which may appeal to some who want to dress it up a bit more.
The Alta HR isn't leaving my wrist any time soon, but I'm not convinced it's enough of a change to justify an upgrade from the original Alta — not unless you absolutely need heart rate monitoring — and despite the excellent battery life, it's just not as good a product as the Charge 2, even for those looking to combine sport and fashion.
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