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Fitbit Sense review: A healthier alternative?

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
300
inc VAT

Plenty of new health related features and good battery life go together to make a solid alternative to fitness tracking rivals

Pros 
Looks great
Comfortable to wear
Innovative health features
Cons 
Not all new features ready at launch
SpO2 watch face is fiddly to use
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The launch of the new Fitbit Sense has been a long time coming, but the wait is officially over. The newly named successor to the Fitbit Ionic is here with a redesign, a handful of new features and a very different approach.

Instead of going big on the fitness front, the Fitbit Sense focuses on health-specific and smart features, and it’s a strategy, I think, that will pay off in the long run.

READ NEXT: Fitbit Ionic review

Fitbit Sense review: What you need to know

Aside from a new look, most of the Fitbit Sense’s new features focus on wellbeing. First up is stress tracking, which the Sense keeps tabs on via its new EDA (electrodermal activity) sensor, built into the stainless steel bezel of the watch.

The Sense can also perform an on-the-spot ECG spot check so you can check if you have a problem with atrial fibrillation (a heart rhythm disorder that causes an irregular, often fast, heart rhythm).

The introduction of a new SpO2 watch face will help those concerned about Coronavirus symptoms keep track of their blood oxygen levels. Plus, the sensor on the rear of the Fitbit Sense is more accurate, with the added ability to detect skin temperature variations while you sleep.

Fitbit will also be adding a whole selection of extra features by the end of the year. Google Assistant support is coming, with the ability to reply to requests using the on-watch microphone instead of text on the screen. Plus, you’ll also be able to answer calls on the watch, as long as your phone is nearby.

As with the Ionic, the Sense is also equipped with all the things you need for tracking your workouts independently of your smartphone, with GPS, accelerometer, compass and a barometric altimeter all built in. It has a claimed six-plus days of battery life, is waterproof to 50m and it comes with a six-month free trial of Fitbit Premium.

Fitbit Sense review: Price and competition

All these new features come at a cost, however, and at £300 the Fitbit Sense is the firm’s most expensive wearable. At this price, it goes head-to-head with the new Apple Watch SE and a whole host of more serious fitness watches from Garmin and Polar, not to mention a selection of Android Wear devices such as the Mobvoi Ticwatch Pro 4G.

The Fitbit Sense has better battery life than an Apple Watch (and most Android watches) and more health-related tech, too.

However, it can’t match watches such as the Garmin Vivoactive 4, Garmin Forerunner 245 and Coros Pace 2 when it comes to fitness and training features.

Buy the Garmin Vivoactive 4 from John Lewis


Fitbit Sense review: Design and features

In design terms, the Fitbit Sense has the Garmin watches beaten, if not the Apple Watch. Its slim body, softly rounded corners and polished stainless steel bezel look lovely on the wrist and the new Infinity Band strap is both smart and comfortable.

There’s a new quick-release mechanism that makes swapping bands incredibly easy, too, but this does mean you can’t use bands from an older Versa or Ionic, since the latch is new.

The 1.58in AMOLED screen is superb. It’s bright and colourful, very sharp at 336 x 336 pixels, and it’s topped with Gorilla Glass 3, which means it’s easy to clean, protected against scrapes and feels smooth under the finger. It adjusts brightness to your surroundings and as with most rival smartwatches, you can set it to “always-on”, or to activate only when you raise your wrist, which extends battery life.

The big change with the display, though, is that it no longer occupies a rather ugly square in the centre of the watch face surrounded by asymmetrical borders. Instead, it has a far more modern look, complete with rounded corners and edges, and fills most of the front of the body of the watch.

The minimalist aesthetic is reinforced by the Sense’s complete lack of buttons, which is a development I’m less keen on. They’re replaced by pressure-sensitive zones on the left and right edges: give the watch a squeeze and the “button” is activated. This works reasonably effectively, with single, double and long-presses all performing various different actions.

However, it doesn’t feel particularly immediate. The haptic buzz you get to confirm a successful click lags a fraction of a second behind when you press it. Although the touchscreen doesn’t suffer from this lag, I still end up using this button a lot, simply to keep the screen in view while navigating around the UI.

Where the Fitbit Sense has made a meaningful step forward is in its new charger attachment. This snaps onto the rear of the watch and has a far stronger magnet than previous Fitbit smartwatches. It should mean fewer instances where the watch and charger disconnect while charging.

READ NEXT: Fitbit Ionic review

Fitbit Sense review: EDA, stress, skin temperature and ECG features

The most interesting aspects of the new Fitbit Sense, certainly in comparison to its predecessor and rivals, are its new health-related features.

Top of the list is the new EDA (electrodermal activity) sensor. Built into the stainless steel bezel that surrounds the watch face, this measures how conductive the skin on your palm is and gives you a “Stress management” score. In effect, it’s a high-tech sweaty palm sensor: simply start the relevant app on the watch, place your palm on the watch face so it contacts the steel frame of the watch and, after a minute or two, you receive a score that you can track over time.

The EDA scanner’s main purpose is that you use it in tandem with Fitbit’s mindfulness sessions. There are five core sessions available to begin with: “Relax with Guided Breathing”, “Unwind with a Body Scan”, “The Practice of Noting”, “Learn Self-Compassion'' and “Spread Loving Kindness”. Each session features the deep, calming voice of Andrew who guides you soporifically through a short meditation session between six and 11 minutes long while you hold your palm over the face of the Fitbit Sense.

Time will tell how useful this is or how accurate, but having logged my stress levels at the weekend and on a Monday morning, the Sense showed that, as expected, they were slightly higher while I was working.

New feature number two is the oxygen saturation (SpO2) watch face. Previously, Fitbit restricted SpO2 measurements to a graph displayed within the sleep section of the app and this only displayed blood oxygen saturation variation. The watch face still measures your SpO2 levels while you sleep but now shows saturation as an average percentage.

It’s an improvement and now that Fitbit has removed the requirement to have the watch face active to generate the number, it's much easier to keep track of. You still can't use the Sense to spot check your SpO2 levels like you can with the Apple Watch and some Garmin devices, however, which is frustrating.

Next up is skin temperature detection, which the Sense records while you’re sleeping. You’ll need to wear the watch in bed for three nights so it can establish a ‘baseline’ and after that, you’ll be able to see how your skin temperature varies from night to night.

Again, I’ve not worn the Sense for long enough yet to gauge how useful, or indeed accurate, this might be. Fitbit is careful to note the feature is “not intended to diagnose or treat any medical condition. It is intended to simply help you monitor and keep track of your information.” It does, however, say upwards trends in skin temperature could be signs of a fever or start of a new menstrual phase.

Fitbit is also following the Apple Watch in offering spot ECG readings, a feature that's now live following a few weeks' wait after the initial launch. This works a little like the ECG app on Apple's wearable: to make it work you simply scroll several screens over to the right from the main watch face, tap the app and follow the on-screen instructions.

Hold your forefinger and thumb on opposite corners of the watch face (it doesn't seem to matter which ones as long as they are opposite each other) and, after 30 seconds you'll get your results. You do need to sit still for this to work, however.

What’s it for? Just as with the Apple Watch, the aim here is to assess your heart rhythm for signs of atrial fibrillation, whether that be Bradycardia (too slow) or Tachycardia (too fast). If you're worried about your results, you can also download a PDF from the Discover section of the Fitbit app to send to your doctor.

The other big new features – Google Assistant support with voice feedback and the ability to take calls directly on the watch – won’t arrive until later on in the year, which is also a little frustrating. You’ll be able to use Alexa from release day, though, to get an idea of roughly how it works.

And that’s it for big new features. Alas, there’s still no music support beyond what we’ve had on Fitbit watches for some time now, which is another slight disappointment. You can download tracks to listen on your workouts only if you have a Deezer premium account, while the Spotify feature is restricted to the ability to control playback pause/play, skip tracks and navigate your recently played playlists and music library.

This is where rival wearables beat the Fitbit Sense hands down. Garmin’s “with Music” models – the Vivoactive 4 with Music, for instance – allow you to not only control Spotify playback but also to download playlists for listening while you’re out on a run or walk. The Apple Watch allows you to do a similar thing with Apple Music and its Podcasts app. It’s even possible to download audiobooks to the Apple Watch via the Audible app.

Fitbit Sense review: Sports tracking and accuracy

Flip the watch over and you’ll see that Fitbit has also upgraded the heart rate sensor in the Sense. This new “multipath” heart rate sensor is, according to Fitbit, much more accurate than before, “especially during running”.

Bearing in mind that I haven’t yet had the opportunity to run more than 20km with the Sense, you can take the following comments with a small pinch of salt. I’ll be updating with further impressions once I’ve done a bit more mileage.

However, I haven’t been blown away with its accuracy so far. As with most other wrist-bound heart rate monitors the Sense’s monitor has a tendency to jump around for the first few minutes of a workout, at least until you’re properly warmed up.

Compared with the MyZone MZ-3 heart rate chest belt I was running with at the same time, there’s also a noticeable lag in how it responds to heart rate changes and, in general, the Fitbit Sense tended to read around 5bpm to 10bpm higher throughout. Average heart rate readings reported after workouts reflect this, at around 4bpm to 5bpm above the chest belt’s numbers.

Is this important? If you were planning on using the Fitbit Sense to embark on a workout plan with lots of interval sessions and structured workouts, then yes. But then, if you want a watch for that, the Fitbit Sense isn’t the ideal companion anyway.

Although it does alert you while exercising that you’re transitioning from “Fat Burn” to “Cardio” to “Peak”, you can’t set up structured workouts with heart rate zones as targets. Interval training is available but only insofar as being able to set Rest, Move and Repeat cycles on the watch itself – you can’t set targets, heart rate or otherwise for each interval.

If you want that sort of feature you’ll need to buy a different sort of fitness watch: a Garmin, Polar or maybe the Coros Pace 2.

Having said that, Fitbit does provide a wealth of guided workout material via the Fitbit app, especially if you choose to take up the Fitbit Premium subscription after your six-month trial expires. This includes everything from brisk walking, HIIT, pilates and yoga sessions to running plans that span several weeks. Again, though, none of this is transferred directly to the watch.

Similarly, the GPS is fine but nothing out of the ordinary, although in the roughly 20km I’ve run with it so far I haven’t noticed any major problems. An examination of the GPS traces reveals a fairly wobbly line that doesn’t follow precisely where I ran but overall distance and pace weren’t massively off where I’d expect them to be.

Plus, battery life is pretty decent. With Fitbit claiming six or more days with the always-on screen switched off and up to 12 hours of continuous GPS usage, it’s a good deal better than most Wear OS devices and the Apple Watch.

Fitit Sense review: Verdict

Overall, then, it’s a tentative thumbs up for the Fitbit Sense. This isn’t a watch for stats nerds, serious 10km racers or triathletes; if you fall into one of these categories, you might want to get a Garmin, a Polar, Suunto or Coros.

However, the Sense is a great all-rounder. Its friendly approach is pitched perfectly for novices who want to get started with getting fitter and encourage them to keep going, while its softer sleep and stress features should help users keep tabs on how improvements in lifestyle are having a positive impact.

Wrap it all up in a package that looks great on the wrist, feels comfortable to wear and is generally easy to use and you have a smart fitness and health watch that’s as good as any at this price. It’s just a shame all the new features weren’t ready to go at launch.