Fitbit Surge review (and how does it stack up with Garmin?)

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Fitbit Surge

I'm a Fitbit fan. I've had the One, Flex, and I pre-ordered the Surge. It arrived this week and I've spent time with it in normal daily use, and exercise.

The Surge moves Fitbit beyond a step counter and into the realm of sports watches. It includes heart rate monitoring, and GPS tracking. So, how does it compare with a Garmin?

I've also got a Garmin 910XT GPS sports watch. I will declare my bias from the outset. The Garmin is the benchmark the Surge must compare to. When I look at how accurate the Surge's heart rate monitor is, I'll be judging accuracy by using the Garmin as the benchmark, not the other way around. 

Unboxing

Fitbit have always had nice packaging but they stepped it up here, maybe too much. I love the packaging but it took me a minute to figure out how to get it out without ripping the thing apart. You get the watch, a USB charge cable, and a Bluetooth dongle. I feel bad about throwing a box like this out.

Using the Surge

It's important to note before you order, that you cannot use the size of a Flex band as the guide to which size Surge band you get. I am a small band in the Flex, but with the different sizing for the Surge, I had to get large. I'm glad I checked.

The Surge doesn't come with a useful manual. That has never been a problem before, but I think it is now because this is not just a step counter. Of course, I didn't Google "fitbit surge instructions" until I realised I'd have to. It is not hard to use, but there are enough functions, this is really an oversight.

The device is touch screen, which took me about 5 mins to figure out. No, I didn't realise before I bought it. I just bought it. It had buttons so I started pressing those, and when I couldn't find steps, I thought, wait a minute... Swiping left and right takes you through Time, Steps, Distance, Calories, Floors. Tapping the screen will activate the backlight.

The screen is readable, but I would like better. It's not bright enough, or there's not enough contrast for my taste. You may find yourself tapping for backlight in circumstances you'd never think you'd need it. It's okay, but worthy of note.

The USB charging cable is a proprietary connector, as with all Fitbit models. I would have liked mini USB and it should have been achievable in a  device this size, so this is disappointing. It means the charge cable needs to take up yet another valuable USB port on your charger wall. Proprietary cables bother me now in a way they never used to. It's almost hubris on the part of OEM's. They're so important you'll have to unplug something else to plug them in and charge! I can understand it for One and Flex, but not for Surge.

The buttons on the Surge reveal a Home/Menu button that gives access to additional screens. Run, Exercise, Alarms and Settings. Run is the Run mode, Exercise allows you to choose from several (configurable) activities. Strangely Cycling isn't one of them. Okay, it's a pedometer but why is Spinning in there?!?

The Surge is a watch and the clock screen is configurable. I like the default one called "Flare". It took me a while to figure it out, but lines radiate out around the minute marks depending how active you were in that minute. It's quite neat and my favourite.

The battery appears to last for a week BUT if you use the GPS function, you can dramatically reduce that, to basically charging right after you exercise. So, let's talk about that, how did it stack up for run tracking?

Comparing Surge to Garmin

I went for a 4.5km run, on a regular route, wearing both the Fitbit Surge and Garmin 910XT. I'll lead with the obvious. The Garmin is a better dedicated device for serious athletes. I consider it a professional level sports measurement tool. That said, if you don't already own a Garmin, the Fitbit Surge may be all you need.

There are some things I think the Surge does better. For example, you are wearing the Surge all day, and it is constantly measuring heart rate. It'll last the best part of a week on a single charge. The Garmin can only go for about 20 hours if kept on constantly (with GPS active which is default). You have to wear a special heart rate device and chest strap with the Garmin, which I would expect to give better accuracy, but you only need the Surge itself for heart rate monitoring. The Surge is always with you, so you can easily monitor ad hoc exercise, like long walks, when the Garmin is in a drawer at home.

Heart Rate accuracy

The short answer here is the Surge did surprisingly well. It's not perfect. I need to do more samples but it appears to "average" itself a little more so it's slower to detect rapid changes, which matters to athletes, but is not really important to weekend warriors like me. Here is the comparison of the charts from my run.

Garmin Heart Rate

Garmin Heart Rate

Surge Heart rate

Surge Heart rate

The average HR is off by 5bpm, which does actually matter, particularly toward the top of the range, especially if you're serious about these things. But looking at the spot measures, and peak HR, it does appear to have been fairly accurate, within 1bpm of peak HR.  The Surge takes a one size fits all approach, where the Garmin can be configured with custom HR zones, and even have alarms set, which I like to do, so I don't run for too long at maximum HR. But the Surge would suit most normal people and give them a fairly accurate reading.

Pace measurement

Garmin pace measurement

Garmin pace measurement

Fitbit Surge pace measurement

Fitbit Surge pace measurement

This result surprised me a little. I delayed a few seconds starting the Garmin from the Surge at the start of the run, but it wasn't over 10 seconds. So the only way there can be 3 seconds difference in pace over 4.5km is GPS inaccuracy. I'm not sure who is worse here, but I'll place my trust in Garmin, a known maker of GPS devices. I don't think we can be too harsh on this, GPS accuracy is always touch and go and I have seen what I know to be variability with my Garmin from run to run. Allowing for a 5 second delay in my hitting the buttons, it's still a comparative difference which if you're pushing for a 1 second personal best, might be an issue for an athlete but probably not for most people. As long as it's consistent, most people will not care.

Athletes will stick with Garmin

Not exactly a surprise finding. Garmin has spent years refining a product for athletes and Fitbit is fitness for the masses, it's a different audience. The Surge is not easy to read when running and doesn't have the configurable screens of a Garmin. For those of us with fading eyesight, the Garmin can be configured with screens that have less data and larger fonts. Only the stopwatch data was legible during my run on the Surge, I could only tell there were three figures in the heart rate number, not what they were.

The Surge is good enough for everyone else

If my first experience was the Surge, I may never have spent the money on a Garmin. The Surge fills a nice hole the Garmin cannot. It's my watch. It's my Fitbit. I'll be wearing it anyway and I would purchase it first. Once I have it, do I need the Garmin? Probably not. It tracks similar data with pretty good accuracy. It shows my run on a map like Garmin, it shows heart rate like Garmin, it shows pace and elevation like Garmin. It doesn't have the fine grain of the Garmin, but I can't see most people wanting to lash out another $500 plus accessory costs for the extra percentage benefit you get from Garmin.

The Fitbit website is still catching up with the release of the Surge. Activities within the Log section are buried deep. You have to click on Log, then Activities (but wait.. there's more) go to the activity history, and click on view details. They'll need to improve that, since it's a key screen most people will want to look at.

Would I buy it again?

Yes. That's not justification. I'm perfectly happy to admit if I wasted my money, I'd say so to stop you wasting yours. The Surge is a significant step up from the One and Flex. With constant heart rate and exercise modes with GPS tracking, this will suit most people. It's not knocking Garmin off the throne for best sports tracker but it doesn't need to, it's a device I'd buy if I already had a Garmin, but unless I'm a fairly serious athlete or obsessed with data collection, the Garmin may not be a device I'd buy if I already had a Surge.