As we entered a new decade, Fitbit’s fortunes looked uncertain. Last year, the company was acquired by Google for a neat $2.1 billion—a move that left some longtime Fitbit users wary about their data privacy. The acquisition followed reports about disappointing Versa Lite sales, which was a blow to Fitbit considering the popularity of its Versa smartwatch. Now with its first new device since the Google deal, Fitbit is going all-out with the Charge 4. Its most popular fitness tracker has been refreshed with built-in GPS, NFC payments, Spotify compatibility, and a new focus on active minutes in addition to steps.
The wearables industry has been moving toward smartwatches, but it’s not surprising that Fitbit is doubling down on its Charge series of fitness trackers. There are still people out there who prefer a cheaper fitness band that can also deliver smartphone notifications to a pricier smartwatch that can also track workouts. Trackers are also where Fitbit has historically had a leg up on its rivals. But the Charge 3, while solid, was boring—the upgrades boiled down to a nicer touchscreen and water resistance.
The Charge 4, however, seems like it has more substance. For starters, it’s a $150 fitness tracker with built-in GPS. For smartwatches, that feature is old hat, but it’s notable for a more basic tracker, as most bands opt for connected GPS via your phone. The difference in results can range from decently accurate to completely wrong, depending on the maker. Adding built-in GPS to the Charge 4 makes it a much cheaper alternative to more expensive running watches, on a well-known platform with an active community.
On top of the 20-something exercise modes that are already available, Fitbit is also adding seven GPS-specific modes for activities like outdoor hiking, running, and walking. The part I’m most interested in, however, is the addition of GPS-powered heat maps, so you can see exactly what part of your workout had you huffin’ and puffin’ the most. That’s not a feature unique only to Fitbit—it was something that was available on the Timex Ironman GPS R300 I recently tested, for instance. However, it is a more advanced feature that could perhaps allow Fitbit to compete with some more niche (and more expensive) running or outdoor activity watches.
Fitbit is also using the Charge 4's launch to introduce a new tracking metric, Active Zone Minutes, which tracks time spent in specific heart rate zones to determine whether you’ve made progress toward the 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week recommended by the American Heart Association and the World Health Organization. You earn credit for each minute of moderate activity in the fat-burning zone and double the credit for each minute in more vigorous cardio or peak zones. In the past, I’ve been critical of Fitbit’s focus on steps—that famous 10,000-step goal is more about clever marketing than research, and health benefits associated with that goal are dubious. It’s a small shift, but an important one for actually helping folks who want to meaningfully improve their health.
Those are the big updates, but they’re far from the only ones. The Charge 4 will also get Fitbit’s Smart Wake alarm feature—an alarm that wakes you up at the optimal time in your sleep cycle—whenever that comes out. Also, Fitbit recently rolled out an Estimated Oxygen Variation Graph in its app, which finally makes use of the Sp02 sensor it’s included in its devices since the Ionic. According to Fitbit’s press release, all Charge 4 devices will also come standard with NFC payments via Fitbit Pay. And, as with the Charge 3, battery life remains an estimated seven days on a single charge, which is impressive given that built-in GPS is a notorious power drain.
Lastly, Fitbit is also going HAM with its paid services. While a Fitbit Premium subscription normally costs $10 a month or $80 a year, in light of social distancing caused by the novel coronavirus, Fitbit is now offering “40 new pieces of Premium content free in the app.” It’s also extending a 90-day free trial to new users, which includes workouts from fitness studios like barre3, Daily Burn, obé fitness, Physique 57, Popsugar, and Yoga Studio: Mind & Body. It’s also offering a 90-day free trial of its Fitbit Coach feature, which includes streaming workouts. The fact that these free trials are also coinciding with the Charge 4 launch is obviously a smart business move.
One thing to note: Though the Charge 4 adds built-in GPS, it’s not truly a phone-free device unless you’re the unicorn who doesn’t like working out to music or podcasts. As with the Versa 2, the Charge 4 will support Spotify, but offline playlists still aren’t an option.
The Charge 4 is available to preorder online today at Fitbit’s website and select retailers. The base model is $150 and comes in black, rosewood, and storm blue/black. There will also be a slightly more expensive Special Edition for $170, which includes an extra granite reflective or black woven band. Prior to the Charge 4, NFC payments were exclusive to Special Editions, but that’s no longer the case.
We’ll have to actually test out the Charge 4 to see if it delivers, but on paper, it looks promising. That Fitbit is pulling out all the stops but simultaneously doubling down on one of its most popular devices—especially after the Google acquisition—is probably an indicator that it needs the Charge 4 to do well. Granted, this device and its associated software updates were likely in the works before Google stepped in, so it’s probably not the best indicator of what the Fitbit-Google era will look like. But if the Charge 4 is any good, Fitbit fans can rest a little easier that Google hasn’t completely up-ended their worlds, even if the company now owns their data.
Correction, 3/31/2020, 11:17 am ET: Headline changed as it may have previously suggested that the Google-Fitbit acquisition was finalized, and that was not our intention. It is currently pending regulatory approval.