Final Results: Fitbit Charge 5 Is a Fitness Tracker That Thinks It's a Smartwatch

    The new device features a larger color screen and can track stress, recovery, and heart arrhythmias

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    Fitbit Charge 5 Photo: Fitbit

    “Fitness is about more than just sweat, I guess.” That was the thought that popped into my head as I carefully pressed my fingers against a pair of sensors on the Fitbit Charge 5 fitness tracker—and then realized that I would have to wait 2 minutes and 38 seconds longer before the device gave me an update on my stress level.

    More on Fitness Trackers

    The Charge 5 is Fitbit’s top-of-the-line fitness tracker and its most expensive, with a $180 price tag. Unlike many other fitness trackers, Fitbit wants you to wear the Charge 5 all day, gaining health data long after you leave the gym.

    The model retains all the fitness tracking information of the Charge 4, which ranked toward the top of our ratings and earned a CR Best Buy designation. But the Charge 5 is enhanced with features previously introduced on Fitbit smartwatches that are meant to track not just your workouts but also your overall wellness, even while you’re sitting at your desk.

    According to our testers, the new model also exceeds the Charge 4 in ease of use, ease of interaction, versatility, and readability in bright light. The heart rate and step-count accuracy are about the same as those on the Charge 4, but sit somewhat below other highly rated fitness trackers like the Garmin Forerunner 235.

    Here’s a closer look at what we learned in our complete evaluation of the Charge 5.

    What's New

    The Fitbit Charge 5 looks similar to the Charge 4, which was introduced in 2020, but the new model has a few significant upgrades. The case is sleeker and made of stainless steel instead of plastic. It comes in three colors: black/graphite, lunar white/soft gold, and steel blue/platinum. There are also some new band options, from a sporty perforated model to a Horween leather strap that’s dressy enough for the office. 

    And in the biggest outward change, a full-color screen replaces the monochrome display of the old model. In addition to the Charge 5’s more refined look, the new display adds an always-on mode that reinforces the device’s smartwatch vibe.

    The two new tracking features are EKG heart monitoring and stress management using an electrodermal activity (EDA) sensor, which you’ll also find on Fitbit’s Sense smartwatch. The EDA sensor is activated by pinching the sides of the device. According to Fitbit, the Charge 5 measures your body’s physiological response to stress by sensing changes in the electrical conductance in the skin caused by the tiny sweat glands on your fingers. That information is rolled into a Stress Management score on the Fitbit app.

    If you want to lower your stress, Fitbit’s Premium app, which is free for the first six months, then $10 per month or $80 per year, offers more than 300 meditation and mindfulness sessions and will add access to content from the Calm app later this year, according to Fitbit.

    The Charge 5’s EKG heart rhythm monitoring is designed to detect atrial fibrillation, a common but difficult-to-detect arrhythmia that can increase the risk of heart attack, stroke, and blood clots. While the Charge 5 can’t diagnose AFib directly, the data can be evaluated by a doctor. Up to now, EKG has largely been a smartwatch feature, found on the Fitbit Sense as well as the latest Apple Watches and Samsung’s Galaxy 3 and 4.

    Of course, the Charge 5 retains the basic fitness tracking functions from the popular Charge 4: step counting, heart rate monitoring, and sleep tracking, as well as algorithms for metrics such as calorie counts and zone ratings, which quantify the intensity of your sweat sessions. New with the Charge 5 is a Daily Readiness metric that helps you decide on the intensity of your upcoming workouts to achieve maximum efficiency and avoid burnout.

    In the end, though, the $180 could buy you an inexpensive smartwatch.

    How the Fitbit Charge 5 Works

    Having used the Charge 4 for a while, I found the Charge 5 to feel pretty similar on my wrist. It’s just about the same size, and the more refined case made me a little less inclined to take it off with my sweaty workout clothes. I found both the standard band and the optional sport band to be a little softer and more comfortable than the previous generation’s, and they were very easy to change, so it would be practical to swap a sport for a dressier model for an important meeting or a night out.

    The new screen was bright, and the color display made it easier to read indoors and out. The relatively small size of the screen limited the amount of information that can be displayed at one time, and some of the type was, of necessity, pretty small and a little hard to read while on the run . . . or the bike. The GPS sensor, a holdover from the Charge 4, is useful for real-time displays of distance and speed.

    The always-on display, which can be turned off, reduces battery life but saves you from having to shake your wrist or touch the screen just to see what time it is, a function that I found useful while wearing the device all day. I got two-and-a-half days of full-time wear out of the Charge 5 before having to recharge it, which is less than the seven-day battery life that the company claims for the Charge 4.

    Two of the Charge 5’s new features weren’t available on the model I used in my evaluation. The Daily Readiness metric will tell you, based on data such as sleep patterns and heart rate variability (literally the changes in the interval between your heartbeats), whether, depending on your recent rest and recovery, you’ll get more performance gains from an assault on your 10K personal best or a light jog and a lot of stretching. The EKG function, which detects irregular heartbeats, also wasn’t available during my evaluation period, and isn’t a feature that we test in our labs.

    As for the EDA stress monitoring function, I found it to be a little, well, clunky. In the default setting, it takes a full 3 minutes to get a reading, and you need both hands—one wearing the device and the other pinching it between thumb and forefinger. This means you can’t look at your phone, type on a keyboard, or pet a ferret while you’re waiting. I found the time spent waiting for the EDA reading to be a source of stress in itself—my heart rate tended to increase, perhaps because I was thinking about all the things I could be doing with those 3 minutes. Of course you might find these interludes to provide a welcome respite. Me? I discovered that 3 minutes can feel like a surprisingly loooooong time.

    Should You Buy the Fitbit Charge 5?

    Before you decide whether or not to buy a Charge 5, it makes sense to answer a more basic question: What is it?

    Is it a fitness tracker on steroids that has boosted its capabilities with some innovative features? Or is it really a sporty, downsized smartwatch, the tech equivalent of the athleisure wear that so many have embraced during the pandemic? The answer to that question largely depends on how you use it.

    For example, the Charge 5 provides notification features, but unlike a smartwatch, if you get a phone call or receive a text, you’ll need your phone nearby to respond. If you’re used to wearing a fitness tracker, you’re likely to appreciate the heads-up. If you’re used to wearing a smartwatch like the Apple Watch, you’ll probably be frustrated that you have to get out your iPhone before you can acknowledge the news that your next meeting has been postponed a half-hour.

    The other issue is the Charge 5’s $180 price, which puts it quite close to the cost of actual smartwatches. While Fitbit’s Sense smartwatch lists for $300, the older but still capable Apple Series 3 costs $200, while the Apple Watch SE is $280. All these devices are larger and more capable than the Charge 5.

    On the other hand, if you just want something that will primarily live in your gym bag, there are fitness trackers that are cheaper than the Charge 5 that’ll help you keep track of your workouts, albeit with fewer bells and whistles.

    But if you find a fitness tracker’s small size to be an advantage—and you can work around the limitations of its compact screen—the Charge 5 might just be the device that helps you see fitness as a 24-hour-a-day journey.

    Allen St. John

    I believe that technology has the power to change our lives—for better or for worse. That's why I’ve spent my life reporting and writing about it for outlets of all sorts, from newspapers (such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times) to magazines (Popular Mechanics and Rolling Stone) and even my own books ("Newton’s Football" and "Clapton’s Guitar"). For me, there's no better way to spend a day than talking to a bunch of experts about an important subject and then writing a story that'll help others be smarter and better informed.