Fitbit Alta HR review: Waking up the wearables

Nick Broughall 3 May 2017 NEWS

Quick Verdict
Fitbit has improved on almost every aspect of the original Fitbit Alta, and created an impressive wearable for everyday wear.

Strengths

  • Excellent 7-day plus battery life
  • Stylish design with interchangeable bands
  • Detailed sleep tracking

Could be better

    • OLED display hard to see in full sunlight
    • Not enough personalised insights in the app
    • Not water resistant


The latest Fitbit fitness wearable introduces detailed sleep tracking and seven day battery life.

It was only last year that Fitbit announced its fashion-friendly Alta wearable, a slimline device that offered basic step and sleep tracking with a narrow monochrome OLED display.

Just over 12 months later, the second generation of the device has hit shelves. Not only does it address many of the shortcomings of the original, but some redesigned internals sees the integration of Fitbit's 24/7 heart rate sensor.

By combining the additional sensor with some clever new software, Fitbit has introduced the ability to detect REM sleep, with updates to the Fitbit app including new sleep insights to provide a more holistic approach to tracking your health.

While a software update means the same sleep tracking is now available for both Fitbit Blaze and Fitbit Charge 2 users, the Alta also promises a superior 7-day battery life in a sleek, comfortable design.

Like last year's model, the Alta HR also offers interchangeable bands to account for both personal style as well as different situations, so you can comfortably accessorise your Alta HR to wear at both the gym or in a cocktail dress.
Fitbit Alta HR review

Fitbit Alta HR design

If you hold the Alta HR side by side with last year's Fitbit Alta, there are two notable differences. The first is the twin flashing green lights of the Alta HR's heart rate sensor, and the other is the new wrist strap which does away from the troublesome twin clip attachment in lieu of a more traditional watch clasp, which makes it significantly easier to remove and attach.

But the front of the Alta HR is the same – a shiny black screen with silver sides. The replaceable bands mean you can opt for a variety of bands to suit any fashion. While I only tested the default offering in black, the option to throw the actual tracker into a leather strap or even full metal bangle was definitely noteworthy.

The Alta HR ships with the option of two strap sizes, catering to wearers of all wrist diameters, and the tracker itself somehow manages to look appropriate on both large and small wrists.

The small OLED screen is clear, and conveys almost all the information you need through a series of faces, which you tap the device to cycle through. The catch is that the screen can be almost impossible to read during the day in sunlight.

Charging is done through an included proprietary USB clasp attachment, similar to the one used by the Charge 2. It's easy to attach, though it's not reversible so does require some checking to correctly line up the metal prongs.

Unlike the Flex 2, the Alta HR isn't waterproof, so no taking it swimming. It can handle heavy sweat sessions, but best not to submerge it in water if you actually like your wearables to work.

Fitbit Alta HR review

Fitness tracking

For all intents and purposes, the Alta HR is a narrower version of the Charge 2, offering the same 24/7 heart rate monitoring and detailed sleep insights (more on that below). The big difference is the lack of a physical button to manually track workouts on the Alta HR. Instead, you have to either rely on the automatic activity tracking of your device, or manually start the activity monitoring via your smartphone app.

This functionality is probably going to be the biggest discerning factor for someone deciding between the two devices. For casual users looking to just add a level of accountability to their fitness activity, the automatic tracking works well. Every walk, run, outdoor bike, elliptical session, aerobic workout or sport you do greater than 10 minutes in duration will be picked up by the app.

It's not perfect. Mowing the lawns on a weekend will generally get picked up as an outdoor bike, for example, but it's still surprisingly accurate. It also doesn't track your location by default. If you want your workout mapped, you'll need to manually start the activity on your phone.

The heart rate component on the new Alta device tracks your pulse every five seconds, which gives a solid indication of both active heart rate and resting heart rate. Through the Fitbit app, this also allows deeper analysis of your overall fitness level, plotting you against other people of your gender and age bracket. This information is tied into weight loss goals, so you can visualise your potential fitness improvements with increased exercise. Which is, let's face it, the whole point of getting a fitness tracker in the first place.

Fitbit Alta HR review

You snooze, you win

While the detailed sleep tracking has made its way to both the Blaze and the Charge 2, the fact it launched with the Alta HR makes it a key selling point of the newer wearable.

Thanks to the inclusion of the heart rate sensor, the Alta HR is capable of tracking not just basic light and deep sleep like previous Fitbits, but also REM sleep. It's not the first wearable to offer the ability to track when you're dreaming, and there's a question mark over just how useful that information can be in terms of daily fitness tracking. While Fitbit has introduced a "sleep insights" function to try and convey the benefits of a good nights sleep to users, there's still plenty of room for improvement.

Every morning the app gives a graphed representation of your night's sleep, broken down into four stages: Awake, REM, Light and Deep. You can compare every night to your 30 day average, as well as the typical ranges for people of your age and gender.

Which is interesting information, to be sure, but what does it actually mean? That's where the Sleep Insights section comes in. Every day, Fitbit will offer some tidbit of information about sleep, along with a link for more information.

The problem is that the information isn't very personalised. After a month of using the function, the most personal tip I received was that I was going to bed too late to get my desired 7.5 hours sleep and getting up at 6am.

Most of the time, insights were more general, like the fact a chemical in your body called adenosine is what makes you sleepy. For two weeks, I also tracked my food and water intake, in the hopes for more detailed feedback. Despite having a few drinks one night, it was over a week later that I received a general insight that alcohol before bed could upset my sleep rhythm.

Interestingly, the science of sleep and its benefits to overall health is only just starting to be understood. Hopefully, Fitbit will be able to better leverage that research to offer focused, specific, individual tips to improve sleep patterns on devices like the Fitbit Alta HR in order to make the tracking much more useful.

Fitbit Alta HR review

The Fitbit app

While the Fitbit app is not a new experience for current Fitbit owners, newcomers to the Fitbit ecosystem will find it mostly comprehensive. The addition of deeper sleep tracking also sees a few tweaks in how information is displayed.

From the app's homepage, your activity is given prime position on the screen. Steps, distance, calories and active minutes are all represented as circular graphs, tracking towards your predetermined goals.

Below that, you are given the option to manually tack your exercise, as well as your sleep performance. With the Alta HR, the sleep graph is represented as a semi-circle, broken into four different colours highlighting the different stages of your previous night's sleep.

From there, you are given a semi-circular representation of occasions during the work day when you've taken more than 250 steps per hour, in an attempt to encourage you to be more active during your work day, alongside the heart rate module displaying your resting heart rate.

The final set of features track your food and calorie intake, your water intake, and your weight progress, although they require manual entry. This is probably the most disappointing element of the Fitbit app. The food library is comparatively weak, with the vast majority of items we scanned or tried to add not being present, and requiring a rough approximation to match it.

Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to be any real insights conveyed by tracking this information. I hoped that adding a few glasses of wine before bed or eating an excess of fatty foods would give me specific pointers that doing these things would impact my fitness and sleep goals, but no such custom, individualised guidance occurred.

Being able to deliver real personalised insights based on the information being tracked has to be the next big focus for Fitbit, otherwise the information lacks the cut through to help keep users motivated.
Fitbit Alta HR review

Fitbit Alta HR: The verdict

The passion for the wearables market may have cooled over the past couple of years, but Fitbit is still the manufacturer to beat. The Fitbit Alta HR is one of the best fitness trackers on the market, offering a comprehensive suite of features in what is, frankly, the best looking fitness tracker on the market right now.

The Alta HR isn't a tracker for super-active people looking to comprehensively track every aspect of their fitness regime, at least not exclusively. Instead, the Alta HR is designed to appeal to the general market, with a design that can suit almost everyone, and interchangeable bands to suit almost any occasion.

But regardless of its target audience, the Alta HR does a good job. Its seven-day plus battery life is pretty remarkable given the size of the tracker, and the Fitbit companion app is still among the best out there, despite its under-par food tracking component.

If you're looking for an everyday fitness tracker with some advanced sleep tracking, this is a great option. For those who want the ability to manually track activities easily from the device, the Charge 2 offers that function plus everything else the Alta HR brings to the table.


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