The Fitbit Alta HR launched nearly one year after the debut of the original Alta. Has the addition of an optical heart rate monitor managed to catapult the Alta from being an “Also ran” device to one of the categories best devices? Let’s take a long hard look
Fitbit Alta HR Review – The Missing Link in Activity Trackers
Without a doubt, Fitbit defined that fitness activity market in the same way that Apple’s iPod defined the MP3 market. However, 2016 wasn’t a great year for FitBit, with the launch of products that didn’t wow investors. I remain surprised that when the Fitbit Alta launched in 2016, the unit shipped sans optical heart rate monitor. This was perhaps so surprising the addition of optical HRM to just about everything seemed to be a defining trend for 2016 – well except for the Fitbit Alta.
It would be daft to think that missing off the optical HR on the Alta when it launched was merely a marketing decision. The fact is Fitbit wasn’t ABLE to put an optical HRM on the Alta in 2016 due to the small surface area on the Alta. There needed to be a 25% reduction in sensor size from the FitBit Charge 2, in order to create the Fitbit Alta HR, a process that took nearly a year to complete
If we look at the optical HR on the Charge to Charge 2, there does not appear to be a major change to the sensors
Whereas the change from the original Charge to the Alta HR clearly demonstrates that 25% reduction in sensor packaging
That isn’t to say there is not the market for a bare bones fitness tracker, but Fitbit has that covered with the Flex. So with optical HRM now nestled happily on the rear of the Fitbit Alta HR, the Alta stands more independently in the Fitbit lineup. Right, preamble done, on to the review –
The Fitbit Alta HR is an activity tracker, so it made sense to do the testing for this review during a walking holiday in Scotland!
But before we see how the Fitbit Alta HR does out on the hills, we need to look at the hardware
The Fitbit Alta HR is a sleek looking device. I’m quite a fan of the small space that the unit takes up on the wrist. If you opt for the black band, the screen disappears into the design even further.
What do we get in the box?As many manufacturers are doing now, there is very little in the Fitbit Alta HR box. Charger, band, quick start booklet and little else
It is probably worthwhile checking out the main difference between the Alta and the Alta HR at this point – that shrunken optical sensor
Unsurprisingly, as the unit has been slimmed down, it has also lost the clear bulge which previously covered the sensor. The unit actually sits a little closer to the wrist now, and personally, I found it a bit more comfortable than the Fitbit Charge 2 as a result
In term of charging the Alta HR, the included USB cable has a proprietory charge clip on one end with two pins used to juice up the band
The two pins then engage with two charge plates on the back of the FitBit Alta HR, above the optical HRM module.
On the USB plug is a small button that can be used to reset the Fitbit Alta HR
With the FitBit Alta HR connected to the charger, and connected to a USB port, press the button three times within eight seconds, briefly pausing between presses. And voila – you’ll initiate the restart
Compared to the original FitBit Alta, the Alta HR has moved from a push-button approach for holding the band on your wrist, to a more secure buckle closure. While this may be better for the use of the optical HRM, personally, I feel it detracts from the previously very sleek design.
The strap on the Fitbit Alta HR, like those on the Fitbit Charge 2, and Fitbit Blaze is easily removable
There is a large selection of straps available from Fitbit directly, but also a considerable after sales market to allow you to customise
deface your Fitbit Alta HR to your heart’s content
Wrapping up the walk around of the device is the screen. An OLED unit as seems to be Fitbit’s, high contrast, preference. To keep in with the slim design, the screen is mounted horizontally. Although you can choose the orientation you want information displayed on the screen from the Fitbit app
There is a small amount of compromise with the screen due to the OLED choice. Indoors the screen is beautiful, but outdoors, does leave something to be desired, even when viewed in shadow
The Fitbit Alta HR is certainly very slim, and I think that is a good deal of the charm of the device. Whilst the function of the Alta HR is limited compared to the Charge 2 for example, this can be viewed as the Alta having a pure focus, rather than a limitation.
One thing that is worthwhile highlighting is that the band sizes seem a little odd, small, large and XL. The point being, I would usually opt for a large band, but as you can see, I’m in the very first position on the strap in order to get the unit to sit snugly on my wrist, and I wouldn’t say that I have particularly slight wrists.
- Sensors: 3 Axis Accelerometer, vibration sensor and motor
- Display: OLED
- Battery: 7 days reported. I get 5-7 days
- Communications: BlueTooth LE 4.0
- Memory: 7 days detailed motion data, 30 days of totals
- Waterproofing: IPX 6 – so virtually splash proof
- Size: 15mm wide, circumference 14-17cm, (Small) 17-20.6cm (Large) 20.6cm-23.6cm (XL)
- Weight: 23g
The Fitbit Alta HR manual is available here
Using the device
Once the unit has been charged, you need to download the Fitbit app before you can actually start using the Fitbit Alta HR
During the setup, you input all of your personal details, including what times you are usually active
This is necessary for sleep tracking, smart notifications, and move alerts, as these will only come through during your set activity times.
The screen is off for the most part to maintain battery life, now at an easy 7 days, and is triggered either when the unit detects you have raised your wrist to view the screen (hopefully detected, I find the unit a bit slow when it comes to registering wrist movement), or directly:
I say directly, however the screen in the Alta Hr is not touch sensitive, instead movement sensors within the Alta detect the taps, be that to the screen, band, or along the metal edges, resulting in screen activation
Screen cycles through the following display orders:
- Heart rate
- Distance walked
- Active mins (note these only begin to be accused when you have been active for more than 10mims)
In terms of active time, the Alta HR includes move reminders, which can be very helpful. If you have been inactive, ten mins before the end of the hour, the unit will buzz and tell you how many more steps you need to “win the hour” and hit your desired daily goal – based on what your previously set active hours are.
It needs to be thoroughly flagged at this point, step tracking and encouraging movement are Fitbit’s biggest strengths.
Several people, I have spoken to have commented that this defined step ‘debit’, delivered to them across the day, is a very encouraging way of pushing them to be a touch more active. Especially so if they are engaging one one of the Fitbit challenges:
Fitbit has managed to achieve a significant victory in gamifying sport, and those challenges can become quite addictive, and certainly competitive, as I saw recently in Scotland!
But how accurate is the Alta? Honestly, difficult to say without physically counting my steps across the day. If we compare with another unit – the Fenix 5, on the RIGHT wrist, and the Fitbit Alta HR on the LEFT, what is the difference?
As you can see, both are reading within 1000-1500 of each other, save for the 28th/Friday where I briefly charged the Fenix 5.
But another thing this comparison highlights is how simple and clear the Fitbit App is. You can clearly see what is going on. Heck, although the Garmin app has more data, it certainly isn’t as readily accessible to the user. Fitbit knows how to make data accessible. Speaking of which, there have been changes under the bonnet for sleep tracking.
Fitbit has beefed up the sleep tracking data which the Fitbit Alta HR can record. Now giving you two metrics Sleep Stages and Sleep Insights.
Rather than merely the duration of sleep, the Alta will now attempt to give you an idea about your REM sleep stages, HR variability while you are sleeping and how restful you sleep appeared using the motion tracker.
You can opt for the simple numbers on how you slept that night, but then you can also have the overlays on what would be expected for a usual person of your age and gender.
As you can see I’m just a little low on the deep sleep side of things. Now Fitbit will also give you can provide excellent overview as to what these points mean.
But doesn’t provide advice on how to improve things. Never the less it is nice to see the addition of data which previously had been the sole purvue of dedicated sleep trackers like the Withings Aura or the Beddit become more mainstream.
Smartphone notifications are functional, but not in depth… or massively useful.
When you get a text message or phone call, your wrist vibrates. But the Alta will not tell you WHY it is vibrating. You have to interact with the band to find out what is going on. Even then that interaction isn’t always useful – for example with a text message – when you tap the notification is displayed and then disappears… for good it seems!
When the Fitbit Blaze launched, it didn’t come with proper smart notifications. By that I mean you were limited to old school notifications, text messages, call notifications, and calendar alerts. Whatsapp etc. – You were out of luck. BUT this was addressed on the Blaze with a firmware update, bringing to unit up to the level of its competitors. But on the Alta HR… they seem to have forgotten AGAIN! Limiting the device once more just the text, calls and calendar alerts, which is a little pathetic in 2017!
Don’t even think about trying to cancel the call, or interact with the notification, the communication for notifications is very much one way
Heart rate tracking
The Fitbit Alta now has 24×7 heart rate tracking, giving you an overview of the day, which can be very interesting depending on what you have been up to.
It is certainly entertaining to look back over the day, but realistically I don’t find there is a tremendous practical use for 24×7 HR monitoring, but it is something which is the activity tracker market is now trying to use as a major selling point.
Now looking at the optical HR sensor from the other side of things, I think having an always present heart rate sensor, combined with automatic activity detection makes a lot of sense. As this reduces the barrier to activity and fitness monitoring. No faffing around with apps and heart rate chest straps. Just go for a jog, let the unit detect you’ve gone for a run, and track your heart during it. Simples!
I’ve found that the Alta reliably detects when you are going for a walk, run or bike ride, but can actually detect six different activities automatically
Perhaps one limitation of the tracking is a lack of “other” , you are not going to be able to log time rowing for example – I tried.
Let’s just address “tracking” for a moment, as to say the Fitbit Alta HR is tracking and detecting your activities is a little false. The Fitbit Alta HR is always on monitoring you, but this is simply a constant recording of vibrations. You don’t get any feedback from the band as the analysis, i.e. activity detection, is done after the fact when the data the is transmitted to the Fitbit app
How effective is the optical HR sensor during an activity though? Here is a short 5km treadmill jog. The app gives you plenty of info about your jog regarding heart rate, calories and the impact on my day, but can’t actually tell me the distance I travelled.
HOWEVER, the Fitbit website only allows you to export your run data as a TCX file. For some reason NONE of the runs I have been on with the Fitbit Alta HR am I able to extract the data from. In all cases when I download the TCX file, it is empty, so we only have the data in the app, which is rather annoying.
To expand on the activity detection comment from above, while you are doing your work out, the Fitbit Alta HR is a black box, except for the heart rate display – if you can see it in the direct sun. You’ll get no additional feedback from the device. You don’t even get the HR zone. Again though, the reason for this is because the activity detection is done in the app, not on the band itself.
The Alta will “detect” activity when it notices you have been bouncing on your walk/run/ride for 15 mins or more. But this does cause one slight issue for the Alta, what happens when you stop after run outside, or finish your treadmill sessions and then walk it off? Well it carries on tracking
For example here is a “wee jog” done in the Highlands of Scotland:
I tracked the run on the Garmin Fenix 5, which stated I bounced up and down the Fort William forest road for nearly 27 minutes.
By comparison, Fitbit gave me an extra three mins of activity time, and a totally different average heart rate (but I’m blaming the Fenix 5 there, we know the Garmin Fenix 5 optical HRM problem currently)
The Fitbit Alta HR is the device which Fitbit should have released in 2016, except that it isn’t the one they should have released in 2017 either. Where are my Whatsapp notifications???!!!
BUT, BUT, and it is a big BUT, what if the Fitbit isn’t for me, or most of my regular readers for that matter. Perhaps the Fitbit Alta HR is more for the active person, but without a particular technological bent, and just wants a good activity tracker. As the Alta is literally a fire and forget device.
Whilst I have been using the Fitbit Alta HR, I’ve actually had a slight love/hate relationship with this device. It is so beautifully simple, and yet so frustrating simple. Perhaps that is the point; the Fitbit Alta HR can be used by just about anyone. As a tech geek, I can get by using it for a few weeks, and have a good idea of my activity levels, and survive with the notifications. Someone who isn’t really committed to serious activity gets all the similar benefits, but no faffing about before going for a walk or gentle cycle to work.
Perhaps the Fitbit Alta HR is a device for my parent’s generation. A group that want to keep fit, and monitor what they are doing, but similarly are not really interested in heart rate variability, and all that other “tech stuff”, but are more than happy to have an accurate count of activities and calories.
Without a doubt, the Fitbit Alta HR is a great LOOKING device, and if I’m honest, I think that will be a main selling point. The Alta is a good device, an accurate device, and merely on the looks alone, it will generate sales to a particular demographic.
Maybe Fitbit has targeted a certain group of people, and in doing so thought they wouldn’t need to build in some of the more advanced features, or true smart notifications. Which may very well be true… save for the fact my 84-year-old Gran… is on Whatsapp…
3/5 mainly for stylish looks and fire and forget usability.