Fitbit Sense review: Advanced health and wellness tracking, GPS, and coaching

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It’s been three years since I first tested the Fibit Ionic and while it was a solid fitness watch, it didn’t do well with consistently functioning as a GPS sports watch. For the past week I’ve been testing Fitbit’s latest watch with GPS, the Fitbit Sense.

The Fitbit Sense is one of the most capable health-focused wearables available today with the ability to measure, track, and report on SpO2, stress through EDA, heart rate, skin temperature, breathing rate, ECG (FDA approved, coming in October), and more. The integrated GPS receiver means you can also track the details of your outside activity without a smartphone.

There are some exciting features coming in future updates, including ECG and Google Assistant support. In addition to its Fitbit Premium offering, I’ve been testing the Fitbit Health Coaching service for the past week.

Also: Fitbit Ionic review: Tops the Apple Watch with fitness focus, long battery life, detailed sleep tracking

Activity tracking and health monitoring are vital for wearables today and Fitbit excels in this area by making the data easy to understand and accessible. With the Fitbit Sense on your wrist, the Fitbit smartphone application provides you with a Sleep Score, Stress Management Score, and Cardio Score (aka VO2 Max). In addition, Active Zone Minutes (AZM) is key to motivating you to stay active and healthy.

Fitbit jumped in early with The Scripps Research Institute and Stanford Medicine to study the role of wearables to detect and track diseases like COVID-19. Regularly tracking your health data with the Fitbit Sense may provide indications of oncoming illness while also helping you manage your stress and mental health, which can cause serious health issues if not managed well.

Specifications

  • Display: 1.58-inch 336×336 pixel resolution touchscreen AMOLED with Corning Gorilla Glass 3
  • Materials: Polished stainless steel ring, aluminum casing, and flexible silicone band
  • Wireless: Bluetooth 5.0, 802.11 b/g/n WiFi, NFC
  • Water resistance: Up to 50 meters and sweat, rain, and splash-proof
  • Sensors: 3-axis accelerometer, gyroscope, multi-path optical heart rate sensor, multipurpose electrical sensors for EDA and ECG, altimeter, skin temperature sensor, ambient light sensor, vibration motor, microphone, and speaker
  • Battery life: 6+ days of standard smartwatch usage, but some settings will consume battery faster. Up to 12 hours for GPS tracking. One day of battery life in 12 minutes with fast charging.

Hardware

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The overall squircle design, shape, and size make the new Fitbit Sense appear to be a Versa 2 copy, but turn it on and start looking around the hardware to find several differences.

The AMOLED screen resolution has been bumped up from 300×300 pixels to 336×336 pixels. The vibrant colors and dark blacks look great with crystal clear fonts. It is very visible inside and outside, even in direct sunlight. The front is completely black with no logos or anything. Raise your wrist to look at the watch face, press the button to toggle on the display, or enable the always-on mode if you don’t care as much about battery life.

The Always-On display option is off by default, but I did try it for a few days. Battery life takes a significant hit with this feature enabled and I found that the watch face turns on very quickly when I lift my wrist so I have moved to have the always-on display turned off by default.

As you move down the side of the display a polished steel ring is found around the top of the sides. This ring is part of the multipurpose electrical sensor that is used for EDA and ECG measurements. Electrodermal activity (EDA) responses are measured with the EDA app that tracks your stress. Wellness sessions work with the EDA sensor as you place your hand over the watch for designated periods of time. The ECG capability was recently approved by the FDA and will be enabled in October. With ECG measurements, the Fitbit Sense will help indicate possible atrial fibrillation (AFib) so then you can share the information with your doctor for a professional determination and treatment.

Below the stainless steel ring is the rest of the matte finish aluminum body of the Fitbit Sense. It is interesting to see the heart rate sensor on the back that is surrounded by polished mirror finish material with several lights for sensing your heart rate and skin temperature with four pins that connect to the new magnetic charging puck. The magnetic puck ensures proper orientation of the Fitbit Sense and holds it securely in place for charging.

The left side of the watch is where the microphone opening is positioned to the right and below the solid-state sensor button. Unlike a physical button seen on many wearables, this pressure sensitive area works with single and double presses and press/hold actions for different functions. A single press will wake the display or return you to the watch face. A double press provides you quick access to your four favorite apps. These apps are selected in the settings. A press and hold give you the option to open up your favorite app, access music controls, launch Amazon Alexa, or launch Fitbit Pay.

See also: Fitbit Versa 2 review: Buy it for its outstanding sleep and health tracking, not for its limited smartwatch functionality

The microphone and speaker are used for Amazon Alexa and in the future will also have the option to support Google Assistant. Unfortunately, it does not work for phone calls, which is a great function seen on the Apple Watch and Galaxy Watch wearables, but stay tuned for a future update. You can use the microphone for voice-to-text responses in messaging when connected to an Android phone.

Fitbit developed a new band solution on the Fitbit Sense, which isn’t a bad thing since it took some effort to swap out bands on the Versa 2. There is a small button that you simply press in and the band slides out of the watch body. With this new design the bands are well integrated into the watch body. This helps keep the watch against your wrist for accurate data collection.

Fitbit states a 6+ day battery life for the Sense and so far I’ve charged it up three times. I’ve gone on three 30 minute to one hour runs and spent a couple of days with the always-on display enabled so I need more time with it to judge battery life in typical use. I’ve been wearing it 24/7 and sleeping with it too so am definitely pushing the capability of the Sense.

Fitbit Sense watch software

The first screen that appears when you lift your wrist is the watch face. There are hundreds of watch faces available in the Fitbit app store and currently you can load up five clock faces onto the watch to switch on the fly through the Clocks app without your phone connected. Last week Fitbit launched its SpO2 watch face and that is clearly my favorite so far.

The SpO2 watch face shows your SpO2 reading from the previous night’s sleep with the date in the upper left corner and the time below your SpO2 reading. Tap the face to switch the center of the watch face to show your current heart rate, steps taken and step goal, active zone minutes and goal, and floors climbed and goal. It’s a colorful and easy to read clock face that provides you with the essentials at a glance.

Swipe from left to right to show you the remaining battery percentage and six quick control icons for do not disturb mode, sleep mode, always-on display, screen wake, brightness, and music controls. These cannot be customized, but are quite useful and I access these daily.

A swipe down from the top launches the notifications. Tap on a notification to see more detail. Scroll all the way to the top to clear all notifications.

See also: Fitbit releases OS 3.0 for Ionic and Versa: Enhanced smartwatch features and new apps

Swipe up from the bottom to view various widgets that you select. These widgets include weather, core stats, EDA scan, advanced stats, relax, Fitbit logging (weight and water). Core stats include steps, floors, active zone minutes, calories burned, and distance. Advanced stats include heart rate, exercise, food, sleep, and hourly activity. Tapping on any widget will then open up more details about that specific stat in the Today app on the watch. Simply press, hold, and then drag a widget in the settings to organize the order of the widgets to your preferences.

Swipes from right to left move to the app launcher with four app shortcuts appearing on each screen. Press and hold your app icons to then drag them around and organize to your liking. There are many apps developed by Fitbit and third parties in the app store that help you turn this fitness-focused wearable into a smartwatch.

Amazon Alexa functionality requires you to install the Amazon Alexa app on your phone and connect it to your Amazon account. There are limits to what Alexa does on the Fitbit Sense, but it has proven handy to show the weather, set alarms, see my upcoming events, and answer search questions. You can use it to control smart home devices, start a Fitbit exercise, and more. It cannot be used for calls, flash briefings, and some other advanced Alexa functionality, but I found it to be much more capable than I had anticipated.

There is support for offline music from Deezer and Pandora. Given the Alexa functionality, I was hoping for Amazon Music support. I am personally a Spotify subscriber and would love to see this service come to the Fitbit Sense. The Spotify app just lets you control Spotify playback from your phone with the Sense.

To use the Fitbit for exercise tracking, tap the exercise app to launch it. Exercises you can choose from include walking, running, biking, bootcamp, circuit training, elliptical, golf, hike, interval workout, kickboxing, martial arts, pilates, spinning, stair climber, swimming, tennis, treadmill, weights, workout, and yoga.

Once an exercise is selected, swipe up to set a goal for that exercise or customize other settings. These include heart rate zone notifications, laps, and the ability to customize the three rows of stats showing on the watch face when you take part in an exercise. Core stats are provided with the Fitbit Sense, but advanced metrics that you find on a dedicated GPS sports watch are not available.

After selecting your desired exercise settings then the next time you use that exercise app you can just tap on the arrow to start the exercise. Outside activities where you want to use GPS may require that you wait a few seconds for a GPS signal to be secured. You can also toggle on the ability in various exercises for auto detection of that exercise so you won’t miss an opportunity to track your focused activity.

Sleep tracking is performed automatically by the Sense so there is nothing you have to do to track your sleep, but wear the device to bed. Smart alarms are provided and these are awesome. After entering a time for the alarm you can toggle on smart alarm and the watch will wake you up in a period of time up to 30 minutes before your alarm when light sleep is detected. I would like to have a way to customize this period to something like 15 minutes because a 30 minute block is a bit too long for my taste.

Fitbit Pay is also supported on the Sense, but my bank still does not support the service so I have yet to test it out. There is a Starbucks app though so I do use that for my local latte.

Upcoming software improvements

While the Fitbit Sense is already an excellent health and fitness tracker, these updates take it to the next level and should be here before the end of 2020.

  • ECG: The FDA has cleared the Fitbit Sense so this functionality is coming to the watch in October. The ECG app and the stainless steel frame will be used to check for signs of AFib.
  • Google Assistant: While it’s great to see Amazon Alexa support on the Fitbit Sense, Google Assistant is my default voice assistant so I can’t wait for this update.
  • Audible replies: The speaker on the Fitbit Sense will soon respond back to you with Alexa or Google Assistant answers.
  • Calls and texts: The speaker and microphone will also soon be able to support calls directly from your wrist. Android phone owners will also be able to respond on the fly with voice-to-text messages. You can reply now with voice-to-text on an Android, but you have to tap through to create and send these replies.

Fitbit Premium service

Given the current coronavirus situation, Fitbit wants to encourage active participation in its health services to help you better understand the status of your health and help you stay healthy and well. Each Fitbit Sense purchase comes with six months of free Fitbit Premium service. This subscription is regularly priced at $9.99 per month or $79.99 per year so with six months free I highly encourage all Fitbit Sense buyers give it a try. I’m an annual subscriber and love diving into the specifics of my data.

Guided programs, personalized insights, and workouts are all included with Fitbit Premium. There is still a separate Fitbit Coach app to download for step-by-step workouts, but with a Premium subscription you get full access to all of those workouts.

There are various workouts that are categorized such as outdoor walks, stair workouts, outdoor runs, elliptical, bodyweight workouts (my favorite), and much more. I love the animations and timers that appear to guide me to successful completion.

Insights appear on the top of the Today screen in the smartphone app. While Fitbit will include some general insights for all users, the ones that appear with a premium subscription are more personalized to your specific situation.

Sleep is critical to long-term health and one of my major weaknesses that is ripe for improvement. With Fitbit Premium you will not only see your Sleep Score and oxygen variation (free for all Sense owners) but have access to a breakdown of the three components of your Sleep Score and the restoration graph.

In a last minute update, Fitbit stated that it will offer the new Health Metrics dashboard that shows your breathing rate, heart rate variability, skin temperature variation, oxygen saturation, and resting heart rate available to all users in the coming months. For now, Fitbit Premium members have access to the Health Metrics dashboard. I find all of this detailed data fascinating and it helps you understand, manage, and improve your health and fitness.

Fitbit Health Coaching

Another service that I am testing for the first time is called Health Coaching. This is a one-on-one service where you chat with a professional health coach that helps you create a custom action plan and keep you accountable as you attempt to stick to your plan. The service includes Fitbit Premium and is priced at $54.99 per month with a 7-day free trial.

I started working with a health coach last week and now have a current plan this week to log my food intake, participate in the wellness/mindfulness sessions every other day, and use the Fitbit EDA sensor every other day to track and manage my stress. My major goal is to lose 20 pounds before the end of the year.

Discussions with your health coach take place in chat sessions within the Fitbit app. As a part of this program, your coach has viewing access to your Fitbit data to help you develop a plan that is customized for your goals given your current health status. Accountability is a major factor in achieving success and I look forward to spending more time with my coach.

Smartphone Software

There are iOS and Android apps for Fitbit. The Fitbit app continues to improve and is my primary method of viewing data and managing the Fitbit Sense. You can also view all of your data in detail on the Fitbit website, but I find the smartphone app easier and faster to navigate.

The app starts on the Today page with options to have your steps, distance, active zone minutes, floors, and calories burned shown at the top of the page. Below this you can have various widgets appear on the Today screen, including Health Coaching, stress management, skin temperature, health metrics, mindfulness tracker, water tracker, sleep tracker, exercise tracker, resting heart rate, weight tracker, calories in, hourly steps, and menstrual health.

Tapping on any of these widgets then takes you deep into the data where you can view the data over different time periods and explore to your heart’s desire.

The Fitbit app lets you set various goals, manage your subscriptions, manage notifications, and update your heart rate settings. The app also provides you with access to managing various aspects of your Sense. These include Amazon Alexa settings, clock faces, applications, music, wallet, reminders, WiFi settings, and more.

Pricing and availability

You can purchase the Fitbit Sense for $329.95 in either carbon/graphite stainless steel or lunar white/soft gold stainless steel. I tested out the carbon/graphite model. The retail package includes a silicone infinity band with one side of the band designed for small and large wrists. You can also pay $64.99 for a two-year accidental damage protection plan. Make sure to select the free six-month Premium trial too.

None of your other Fitbit bands will work with the new Fitbit Sense, but the new Versa 3 also incorporates this new design. Band options include knit bands, Horween leather bands, sport bands, and woven bands. I also tried out the charcoal woven band, a $34.95 option. Sport bands are also $34.95, the Horween leather bands are $49.95, and the stylish knit bands are $39.95. It’s nice to see the bands for the Fitbit Sense are reasonably priced so you can have an assortment for your various needs.

Conclusions

I’ve been waiting for three years for Fitbit to release a successor to the Ionic that provides a GPS receiver so I was very excited to test out the Fitbit Sense. I ran with a Garmin watch, Coros Vertix, and the Fitbit Sense with the new HRM-Pro heart rate chest strap connected to the Garmin watch. Total distance, average pace, and average heart rate were nearly all the same with very few minor differences. I was frankly blown away by the ability of the Fitbit Sense to closely match the chest strap. In my three runs so far, the Fitbit Sense has been reliable and consistent, which was not the case for the Fitbit Ionic. The VO2 Max estimate from Garmin exactly matches what Fitbit provides, which is also a welcome confirmation.

Essential data is captured during exercises and this may meet the needs of most people. For more serious athletes, the Fitbit Sense won’t replace a dedicated GPS sports watch as it lacks the ability to record and provide advanced metrics. For example, speed, cadence, and running power are not recorded. To be honest, I capture this data on advanced GPS sports watches, but am a recreational runner and haven’t changed any of my running form to optimize my performance using this data so the Fitbit Sense may be the perfect combination of a 24/7 activity tracker, GPS watch, and smartwatch.

The Fitbit Sense is focused on health tracking and fitness for the masses and in that capacity it is fantastic. There is a significant amount of health data tracked and it is extremely comfortable for 24/7 wear. I like to use a Garmin for golf club sensor tracking and for tracking my fly fishing adventures, but may move to using watches for those outings in addition to the Fitbit Sense.

The smartphone app is easy to use and is perfect for logging food and water during the day. It syncs reliably to the Sense and once you spend the time setting up the Sense to your preferences use the app to deep dive into the data captured by the Sense.

I am really looking forward to the upcoming software improvements that will enhance the functionality of the Fitbit Sense for my use cases, making it a very capable smartwatch that is also an excellent health and wellness device.

The Fitbit Premium information is valuable and I am enjoying the one-on-one personal Health Coaching service. It will require more time to see if the coach motivates me to achieve my goals and I cannot wait to see the results.

The Fitbit Sense has exceeded my expectations and is easy for me to recommend to those interested in tracking and improving their health and wellness. The watch may serve to alert me to health issues in the future, especially as winter approaches and our world continues to deal with coronavirus.

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