Fitbit Surge Fitness Watch Early Hands-On Review

Fitbit Surge Fitness Watch Early Hands-On Review apps reviewer James A. Martin got his hands on an early release version of Fitbit's upcoming Surge 'fitness super watch.'

On Dec. 4, I received an "exclusive limited release" email offer from Fitbit to become "one of the first" people to buy its new, $250 Surge fitness watch. Surge isn't supposed to be released until early 2015, so I jumped at the chance to try Fitbit's top-of-the-line activity/sleep tracker.

My Surge arrived on Dec. 8. I'm already benefiting from it and recommend it. However, I wonder how I'll feel about it when the Apple Watch finally arrives. (Apple says its Watch will ship "in early 2015," though rumors suggest it may not arrive until spring.)

Back to Surge. The upcoming "fitness super watch" offers features that other Fitbits lack. Here's a quick list.

GPS tracking. You can map your runs and get real-time information on distance and pace via the Surge screen. It is a nice feature to have, though not exactly unique; many apps, including RunKeeper, use your smartphone's GPS to map runs.

Text notifications. Fitbit's Charge ($130, available now) and Charge HR ($150, coming early next year) wearables give you caller ID notifications from your smartphone. Surge provides caller ID and text notifications. Other devices, such as Garmin's vivosmart, provide caller ID and text alerts, as well as additional notifications, including calendar alerts. However, I find all those vivosmart notifications to be annoying, and I'm fine with just the text and caller ID alerts.

Control music on your smartphone using Surge. Again, this feature is not unique to Surge, and it took several efforts before I got it to work. (This online help page saved the day.)

Monochrome, backlit LCD touchscreen for navigation. Surge's screen won't win any beauty pageants, but it does feed you real-time activity data with little effort on your part. For instance, you can swipe across the touchscreen at any time to see your steps, current heart rate, miles, calories burned and floors climbed. The Surge screen always displays something, whether it's the current time or your heart rate. Surge can serve as a traditional watch, always showing the date and time, if you prefer. Unfortunately, you only get four watch faces to choose from. I'd appreciate a watch face that also displays my current step-goal progress or heart rate.

Speaking of heart rates: Like Fitbit's upcoming Charge HR, Surge also offers continuous heart-rate monitoring without using a chest strap. In my admittedly unscientific tests, the heart rates Surge recorded were in line with those collected by my $200 Mio Alpha watch. (I confirmed the Mio Alpha's accuracy during the past year by comparing it to multiple treadmill heart-rate readers at my gym.)

The true heart of any Fitbit device is the software. Even though Surge has a touchscreen display, you'll still want to sync it with Fitbit's Android or iOS apps, or the Fitbit website, to view more information. You may also be surprised by what you learn. In just a couple of days, I learned that I can more quickly elevate my heart rate into the "Cardio" zone (and for longer) by taking a brisk, mostly uphill hike instead of an intense aerobics class at my gym.

Surge is the biggest (and bulkiest) Fitbit wearable, and I initially found its size off-putting. I'm also skeptical of Fitbit's claim that the battery lasts "up to seven days." After a single day of heavy use, my battery was already half drained.

So, is Surge for you? I say go for it if you fit all of these four conditions: 1) you are firmly ensconced in the Fitbit ecosystem; 2) you're an athlete in training or trying to up his or her game; 3) you're not particularly anxious for a smartwatch from Apple or its competitors; and 4) you want to see as much real-time activity data on your wrist as possible. Otherwise, consider the Charge, which is available now, Charge HR, or another fitness tracker/smartwatch. (You can see 21 of the latest and greatest models here.)

Overall, I'm glad I jumped on the opportunity to be a Surge, but as mentioned earlier, I wonder if I'll still feel that way when the Apple Watch comes out. Time will tell.

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