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Fitbit Charge 3 review: A month with Fitbit's best and least ambitious tracker

I have a rule about Fitbits: I don't review them — really review them, not just "review" them — until I've used the new product for at least a month. Why? Because every time I've done so in the past I've been burned by some underappreciated feature (good!) or errant bug (bad!) that only crops up with experience — and time.

The Charge 3 is the culmination of the category Fitbit all but started nearly a decade ago: the tracker. It's simple and does a few things really well, but it's limited by design. It's the reason Fitbit has sold millions of these things — people just want to count their steps and track their sleep and maybe get their notifications, but not a whole lot more.

But is the Charge 3 the perfect Christmas present or the pinnacle of a dying category of wearables?

Fitbit Charge 3 The review

Fashioned from a textured piece of aluminum brushed in something resembling graphite (at least on the model I reviewed), the Charge 3 really is the best-looking and most comfortable of the "bigger" Fitbits — something like the Flex 2 just disappears on your wrist — with a curvature that perfectly contours the wrist. You'll find a diamond-patterned rubber sports band in the box, but I opted for the $35 Charcoal Woven Band, which snaps nicely into place using Fitbit's proprietary quick release mechanism.

The addition of a touchscreen is great, but there's so little you can do with the software it's almost wasted.

That Fitbit has built a tidy side business on accessories isn't surprising — they're merely playing Apple's game — but what is surprising is just how well-made and comfortable these bands are. Even the $50 Horween leather band is worth a look. That said, the bands are ridiculously expensive — the leather band is a third the cost of the tracker itself — and certainly hard to justify when you're presumably trying to save money by going with a fitness tracker in the first place. Thankfully, Amazon is full of decent-quality nylon, leather, and metal bands for the Charge 3.

The major difference between the Charge 3 and its predecessor, at least from a hardware perspective, is the shift from a boxy design to one of subtle curve, and from a physical button to an inductive one that makes the tracker waterproof up to 5 ATM, or 50 meters, which means that unless you're a scuba diver you can safely wear this thing 24-7-365. Well, at least when you're not charging it.

There's also a full greyscale touchscreen, which responds not just to taps just swipes. To call the UI simplistic would be an understatement, but I'm not really sure what else I need — most of the included watch faces are dense enough to provide step and heart rate data every time I lift my wrist or touch the screen, and a swipe up from the bottom reveals a summary of any metric I could possibly care about, from calories burned to minutes active to water consumed.

Pressing the side button always brings you back to the previous screen; holding it presents a quick settings box to disable notifications or automatic screen waking. To the right of the homescreen are the Charge 3's apps, or what passes for apps by the company's tracker standards. While Fitbit doesn't claim that the Charge series is a smartwatch in the traditional sense, it does like to tout its intelligence. But when you take a look at the smattering of apps — a timer, an alarm, and a weather app to go along with the standard exercise and meditation routines — you'll quickly realize this isn't trying to be anything but a fitness tracker.

Notifications on the Charge 3 are fine, but with Quick Replies on Android they're actually pretty useful.

That said, a few weeks after the Charge 3 was released, it received an update to give it quick replies on incoming notifications when paired to an Android app. The feature was ported directly from the company's Versa and Ionic smartwatches, and it works just as well — or poorly, depending on your needs — here.

They're all configured in the excellent Fitbit app, but by default you can respond, "Yes" or "No" or "What's up?" or "Can't talk now, will respond later," along with a few other quotidian phrases. Those, along with various emojis, provide the basic fuel for a decent bi-directional interaction model, but only in the most simplistic of terms. Anything more complex than a thumbs-up emoji and you'll be taking your phone out of your pocket.

Still, I've used almost every smartwatch on the market, including Fitbit's own options, and I find myself needing to triage notifications and offer short replies more than I ever need to hail an Uber or use my screen as a remote camera shutter. As a result, I find myself enjoying the Charge 3's planned simplicity because it's only tangentially a smartphone companion. Its primary purpose is to track your health, and like all Fitbits it does this very, very well.

I say this acknowledging that the company hasn't always had a solid reputation for accuracy, but those issues have been largely resolved with improvements to the sensors inside its trackers along with updates to its algorithms to better detect what actually constitutes a step, or a sprint, or a swim lap. I wore the Fitbit Charge 3 along with a Motiv Ring for two weeks straight, and the step counts were within a couple hundred each day, with the Fitbit usually on the higher end. While I wouldn't recommend the Charge 3 to any serious athlete — its lack of GPS alone probably disqualifies it from that category — but to the average person hiking, running, biking, yoga-ing, or swimming a few times a week, it'll be perfect.

Much of that prowess is owed to just how lean-back the Fitbit experience has become. Not only does the Charge 3 last a week per charge — that equates to around four and a bit top-ups per month — but once it's added to your Fitbit account, the whole thing just works. It uploads data to the app in the background, automatically detects steps, sleep, and workouts, and offers meaningful insights about how you're living.

I've always been a fairly active person and felt Fitbit's metrics — all trackers' metrics, in fact — were interesting but not particularly meaningful. That changed when I realized the correlation between exercise and sleep, or lack thereof, when becoming a parent. I don't sleep nearly as much these days, so to offset the inevitable energy loss I have to be much more mindful about what I eat and how much I move. I notice that even the days I sleep relatively well — six hours compared to three or four — I can still keep my eyes open well into the evening if I spend some time on the bike, or go for a nice, long hike with my dog.

At the same time, Fitbit's sleep data, and the way it's presented, is unparalleled in the industry. Every fitness wearable tracks steps and exercise, and most now do so automatically, but few meaningfully plot sleep information into categories — what Fitbit calls Sleep Stages — like the Charge 3 and its peers.

And thanks to the ubiquity of Fitbits in the regular population, it has the most robust social features of any fitness ecosystem, rivalled only by standalone apps like Strava and MapMyRun and Apple's growing network of Apple Watch users. Indeed, with older Apple Watch models available under $200, Fitbit likely needs to appeal to Android customers more than ever. (The less we talk about improvements to Google Fit, the better.)

That brings me to some of the Charge 3's issues. While I haven't experienced any major software bugs with the Charge 3, Fitbit's community forums (opens in new tab) are littered with posts about how the Charge 3 is not only buggy but broken. The update released in early November that purported to fix a number of bugs while introducing new features like Quick Replies and Fitbit Pay has reportedly introduced a whole bunch of new concerns. While these people certainly don't represent a large percentage of Charge 3 owners in the real world, the company's seeming inability to quash bugs or ensure the seamlessness of its experience is disconcerting.

Part of the problem is likely Bluetooth itself: Fitbit has to create a device that works on iOS, Android, and Windows, and almost identically across all three platforms. Bluetooth is a notoriously finicky protocol and I have no doubt that many of the people having issues with the Charge 3 are using older Android devices with aging software.

Bluetooth issues are still present, but they're less pervasive now than they used to be.

But that's no excuse; Fitbit is the name on the box, and Samsung or LG can't and won't be held responsible for a bad experience on the wrist. I even had a minor issue getting my Charge 3 to pair to my Pixel 3 for the first time, and had to add it to another phone first to get my Pixel 3 to recognize it. Once added, it's been perfectly solid, but I can only imagine someone getting blocked from pairing the tracker to their phone entirely, without access to another device. Not a great first impression.

Then there's the notifications themselves. While technically the Charge 3's notifications are a bonus feature added to a standard-fare fitness tracker, they're subject to the same whims as notifications on the more expensive Versa and Ionic. Fitbit uses Android's standard notification hooks to, with permission, pull the relevant content to the wearable. You have to tell the Charge 3, through the Android app, which notifications to pull from. The issue is that they only come to the wrist when they hit the phone, and thanks to Android's intense battery-saving techniques, they often come in waves, resulting in a 10-second maelstrom of haptic earthquakes whenever my phone wakes up decides to download 15 emails. It's not exactly Fitbit's fault, per se, but it's a problem that, thanks to Wear OS's tighter integration with Android itself, handily avoids.

The Charge 3 also only offers its nascent Fitbit Pay feature with a Special Edition (read: NFC-capable) version that costs $20 more. While I appreciate the fact that this non-essential feature is omitted for price-sensitive customers, but I feel like it should be standard, if only to avoid customer confusion.

There are some other minor problems with the Charge 3 that I'm willing to forgive because of its limited ambition: the tracker comes with a weather module (I refuse to call it an app) along with an alarm, both of which need to be set up through the app before they do anything. Once they're added, they're there forever, but any maintenance needs to be done on the phone itself.

All this leads me to ask the high-level question — why get a Charge 3 when the industry, including Fitbit itself, seems to be moving towards smartwatches? The answer, at least to me, is about scope. The Charge 3 does exactly what it sets out to do — accrue copious amounts of health data, and send me notifications from my phone — and pretty darn well at that. The Versa, on the other hand, is flawed because of its ambition: its app ecosystem is barren, and it introduces far more compromise than it addresses with a more complex interaction method. Plus, its battery lasts half as long.

3.5 out of 5

I think Fitbit will likely address a lot of the flaws in its smartwatch ecosystem in 2019 with its second-gen Versa and Ionic products, but until then I'd much rather have a Charge 3 and a phone than the Versa on its own.

See at Fitbit (opens in new tab)

Daniel Bader was a former Android Central Editor-in-Chief and Executive Editor for iMore and Windows Central. 

12 Comments
  • Can they fix the 3 second screen time issue? It would be great to have the option to keep the screen on un-touched for longer than it does. As a nurse, one would like to have this as a 'watch' itself and use the clock face to track heartrates of patients. Serious flaw!
  • That's a great idea. I wish they'd do that, too, for certain situations.
  • Overall, I’ve loved my Charge 3 (have been wearing a Fitbit for years - Ultra, One, Surge (5x, but I thru-hiked the AT!), Charge 2). My biggest complaint? 3rd party band vendors haven’t stepped up their game! For my Charge 2, I had an ultra cheap Bayite Milanese loop band that looked sharp, shedded sweat like a gutter-system, and essentially made me forget I was ever wearing a watch. I never bothered with the disposable looking stock band. Then comes the Charge 3, which I bought in the first month (only because I smashed my wrist whilst orienteering). My primary option for a Milanese loop band is from Poy. I try going with the stock band and my wrist smells like cheese after 2 days. So I order the Poy band, and proceed to destroy several work blouses and two fitted sheets. The Poy Milanese loop is thinner and chintzier than the one I had for my Charge 2...and there doesn’t appear to be a better alternative (at least on Amazon)!!! Not only have the cheap links caught on every fiber in my life but the offset face setting has caused me to scratch the heck out of my face. Not quite hell-raiser, but approaching it!
    Flash-forward another month or so. Me and my stinky-ass wrist take another gander at what bands are out there. And NOW I can tell you all, there’s a decent Milanese loop band out there - look for the Issamolog bands. Oh Flying Spaghetti Monster, I beseech you! I sound like a spokesperson, but seriously, when this band arrived - I felt like my biggest problems in life had been solved!!! No band links askew to rip and tear at my designated work-clothing. Plus the watch connections were flush with the Fitbit and lying in repose didn’t cause me to permanently disfigure my face! Huzzah!!
  • Glad the nightmare is over!
  • "why get a Charge 3 when the industry, including Fitbit itself, seems to be moving towards smartwatches?"
    Because my wife's wrist is too small for most every smartwatch. The Fitbit Charge 2 does what she needs. The Fitbit Charge 3 is in a box, in my closet, awaiting Christmas Eve. ;-)
  • Enjoy! It really is a great product.
  • Those commercials are annoying. The concept of giving one as a gift is absurd. It's like saying "Here you go you fat ass.....Now go exercise"
  • My 3rd Fitbit 3 should be arriving Saturday. The first 2 lasted a week before they crapped out with the blank screen, or when plugged in, the sad face. Support wasn't able to get it working again, so they sent me another. That one also lasted a week before the same thing happened. I have a newer Samsung Galaxy S8 so it's definitely not an issue with an older device as you eluded to in your article. I saw one comment in the forum mention it might have to do with changing watch faces. I'm seriously considering leaving the default watch face on this one for at least a week to see if I can pass the one week hurdle. One other thing I've noticed during setup on both units was that the firmware update that happens automatically always gives an error message at the end, even though it appears to update the firmware per the version number in the app and on the Fitbit itself. With this replacement coming Saturday, I'm also going to try completely removing my Charge 2 from my account first. While Support said it should be fine—and I've had to revert back to it after two Charge 3 failures—I wonder if having that Charge 2 paired is causing issues. (I even moved it to a completely different part of the house last time completely out of Bluetooth range. Anyway, you know what they say: Third time's a charm! I'm hoping that'll be the case for me because I really want to love this thing. I got the Special Edition Rose Gold with the woven Lavender band and it is a beautiful device, not too big and clunky like a full blown smart watch. Wish me luck! :)
  • I own Charge 3 since it was released (pre-order). My 2 biggest gripes are: 1) FitBit Pay doesn't support Citibank or Discover cards, which are almost all I use. This is inexcusable.
    2) The oxygen sensor isn't enabled. This was an advertised and differentiating feature of the Charge 3, and part of the reason I chose it over others. And I suppose 3). FitBit's constant silence and ignoring user complaints regarding these and other issues. They just don't care and have no clue what "customer service" is. If you complain about something, they just repeat a BS boilerplate statement and suggest you vote on the topic in the forums, even though hundreds already have to no avail and your request has been one of the top ones for over a year.
  • I really like my Charge 3, and I don't need it to a whole lot. That's what my smartphone is for.
  • DO NOT BUY THIS. I am an old Fitbit user since the Fitbit Force>Alta HR and yesterday I decided to give the Charge 3 a shot. It was stuck during setup phase and the mandatory firmware update failed. It shows an exclamation mark and it never get past that. I tried setting it up on my iPhone X, Samsung Note 9 and even Windows PC and MacBook Pro. None worked. I contacted support. Contacted support and now working out an exchange or something. This is very frustrating. I spent hours trying to figure this out. Gave myself more trouble than the device being any useful! *Check out the other discussion threads about the issues on the fitbit forum. I am not joking!
  • Thank you for the review. Where did you find the Charge 3 with the blue base and blue woven strap? It looks great but I only see Models with a tracker base of Black, Graphite or Rose color.