There are two ways of assessing the Fitbit Blaze, the new fitness-tracking smartwatch from the manufacturer with a name that has become synonymous with fitness trackers.
The first option is the hermetically sealed review, measuring it only against the competition, weighing its merits and flaws relative to the massive category of wearables. The other is to place the device within the larger context of Fitbit’s recent corporate drama, which includes the stock hit the company suffered after the Blaze’s announcement in January, and the current class-action lawsuit alleging that its heart rate tracking technology is wildly inaccurate.
Our goal in testing the Blaze was to approach it as the average consumer would. The Fitbit brand is a behemoth, and what seems like bad press to a relatively small number of gadget enthusiasts is lost on the company’s larger pool of past and prospective customers. For now, the Blaze will thrive or die based on its position in the wearable category. How does it compare to the Apple Watch, for example, or Fitbit’s own trackers? With one notable exception, we were able to tune out the news surrounding this high-profile device, and give it three full days to make its case as the next big thing in wearables.
The Blaze itself isn’t pretty. With the exception of a strobe-like pair of flashing green LEDs on its underside — more on those later — the hardware is unassuming and forgettable. It’s a tiny, black, feather-light touchscreen with one physical button on its left side and two more on the right, and no flashes of aluminum or chrome. Its software isn’t winning any beauty pageants either, offering a limited choice of watch faces, none of them as classy or as quirky as what’s available for the Apple Watch. As a device, the Blaze seems designed to fade into the background.
The same can’t be said for the watch’s bands, or, specifically, the camel leather band that we tried. It’s constructed with care, and is legitimately handsome. We mean that in the most unisex way, since this band seems like the clear, everyday-wear choice for most Blaze owners (provided they’re willing to spend the extra $100 for it). Switching between the included rubber band and the optional leather one was quick and only slightly disconcerting — the Blaze sits securely in each band’s integrated frame, with no magnets or release latches. That simplicity is refreshing, but popping it in and out requires real force. It took a few transfers to shake the fear that we might break the Blaze.
We weren’t able to put the watch’s fitness-tracking features through their full paces on the first day, but syncing it with a phone (and the free Fitbit app) offered the company’s usual useful array of info, such as counting the number of steps you’ve taken and floors you climbed. It was also better at identifying a short run, without any user input before or after, than most trackers we’ve tested. And the ability to glance at your daily stats with a quick swipe and a tap was as addictive — in a good way — as you’d expect. Fitbit didn’t overstuff the watch’s interface with tons of info, limiting the numbers in the “Today” section (one of seven such panes, if you include the default clock face) to steps, current and resting heart rate, distance traveled, and floors climbed. The Fitbit app has tons more data to sift through, as well as options to input your own data, such as food and water intake. The Blaze is not an input device, but a way to quickly consume, in bite-size portions, the tracking info that you’ll no doubt feast on later in the day or week. Having used Apple and Android smartwatches, that Fitbit doesn’t entice you to pinch and scribble on the Blaze’s tiny screen is refreshing.
The Blaze has a killer app, which might just feel like it’s going to kill you. One of the watch’s features we were most excited to try out, after getting a glimpse of it at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, was its on-screen workout routines. These are found in the FitStar pane, and currently include three sequences of exercises: Warm It Up, 7 Minute Workout, and 10 Minute Abs. And there’s a strange elegance to how these workouts are presented. The watch previews a specific exercise, such as bicycle kicks or a side plank, with a simple animation, and a timer counting down to when you should be ready to actually do it. The Blaze vibrates to tell you to start, and then stop (after a preset amount of time, not number of reps). Then its on to the next exercise, with animated preview. You can skip exercises or end the entire routine, and the watch provides a relatively detailed rundown of your performance.
FitStar seemed fun, in a casual fitness sort of way. So, naturally, we picked 10 Minute Abs, the longest of the three routines (Warm It Up clocks in at eight minutes). By the time we got to the Superman Planks, we realized just how far from casual the Blaze can get. The animations stopped being cute, and became essential, since not everyone knows how to drop into a proper Russian Twist based solely on the exercise’s name. And that particular routine’s focus on core muscles was punishing, to the extent that cutting one or more exercises short shouldn’t be considered a defeat. Getting through all 10 minutes should be a triumph. FitStar won’t kick everyone’s ass, but it certainly took a toll on our back and core.
The only problem with these FitStar workouts is that there are so few of them. And the fact that you can’t currently load the Blaze with more of them speaks to Fitbit’s unique, and possibly risky, approach to smartwatches. While the Apple Watch functions much like a minuscule iPad, with a growing number of apps that you can load on it, the Blaze avoids apps entirely. Instead, it has features, and though Fitbit plans to add more of them (including, most likely, more FitStar workouts), there’s no software marketplace to browse. This is not a computer that sits on your wrist. It’s a watch that can do some computerized thing. And by intentionally locking down its operating system, FitBit seems to be committing to a specific kind of consumer. The Blaze isn’t for tech geeks. In theory, it’s for everyone else. That’s in keeping with Fitbit’s previous products, as well as the entire fitness tracker industry, which prizes simplicity and ease-of-use. But can a smartwatch really be smart, if it can’t run apps?
At some point, you have to compare the Fitbit Blaze to the Apple Watch. It’s inevitable. Apple’s device is the flagship for an entire category, in terms of its raw capability and app selection, as well as its luxury product price point. Other smartwatches have come before and since Apple’s, but through sheer brand awareness, Fitbit’s first foray into the category could also transform it, convince some portion of its millions of existing customers to upgrade from fitness trackers to tracking watches.
But as unavoidable as it is, there’s a problem with comparing the two watches. It’s not a fair fight. The Apple Watch is a hulking powerhouse of a device, and consumes so much power that it has to be charged every day. The Blaze is comparatively slim, and is so frugal with its power that, after three days, we weren’t even close to needing a recharge. Fitbit rates the watch for five days of standard use between charges. That seems like a major accomplishment, especially given the fact that, by default, the watch’s pulse-reading LEDs are firing around the clock.
Then again, Apple Watch loyalists would point out that the Blaze can afford to sip electricity, because it does so little. It uses GPS to help gauge your activity, but it doesn’t have a turn-by-turn mapping application. It can display calendar alerts, text messages, and other notifications when synced with a phone via Bluetooth, but it can’t send texts back out. It doesn’t respond to voice commands or enable hands-free payments. The list of things that the Blaze doesn’t do is exactly as long as the list of things that an Apple Watch does.
But to see these products in direct conflict is a mistake. The Apple Watch is a device that’s constantly trying to justify its existence. At a starting price of $350, and more for additional bands or a larger watch size, it’s a smartwatch that begs to be fiddled with, as often as possible. If it goes unnoticed and unused for long stretches, it’s a failure. The Blaze, on the other hand, can afford to disappear into your life. It’s $200 to start, plus $100 for that leather band. And its purpose is painfully clear: to track your fitness, and display notifications. It’s not a watch for lifehackers and power users. It’s for people who want to see texts from family and friends immediately, but don’t feel compelled to spam their acquaintances with a steady stream of Twitter wit. And this is not meant to be condescending, in any way, but one major advantage of the Blaze is that it isn’t ever befuddling. The effortlessly tech-savvy might zip and gab their way through the Apple Watch’s many offerings, but there are tons of people out there who are still learning how to navigate their smartphones, and aren’t interested in a compressed version of that model. There’s a place for simplicity, as evidenced by the exceedingly popular fitness trackers, that do nothing but.
Though we aren’t challenged by gadget complexity, we can see the appeal of a smartwatch that knows what it is. By our third day of testing, the Blaze had integrated into daily life. The leather band had been broken in, and it became second nature to glance at the watch for incoming texts, or for a status report on just how much, or how little, we were moving. The FitStar routines were fun, but not something you obsess over. And the watch’s ability to detect different kinds of activity is impressive, but it will take much longer to gauge just how accurate it is. Speaking of which, those nagging concerns over heart rate accuracy were front and center during our test, because the Blaze tends to showcase that data, displaying it on most of the clock faces. The watch can supposedly measure your current heart rate, as well as your resting heart rate, the latter of which is seen as an important indicator of overall health. Until the ongoing class action suit is fully addressed, its hard to view that data, again and again throughout the course of the day, and not wonder about its accuracy. If the Blaze was a more open-ended smartwatch, perhaps that wouldn’t matter. And it might be foolish to expect any wrist-worn device to track heart rates with real precision. But it’s this device’s impressive focus on fitness first, notifications second, and user confusion never, that makes it stand out. Whatever our lingering questions, they probably don’t apply to the Blaze’s target audience. For the Fitbit faithful who’ve already become hooked on the company’s tracking and gamification of activity, the Blaze offers a taste of smartwatch features, and, with FitStar, a new way to self-motivate. The Blaze is also, with the right band, a fitness tracker that’s never an eyesore. In this category, that counts as innovation.