Ever since Blaze launched its first watch with a color screen just months after Apple introduced its first watch, Fitbit has apparently been happy to be the “second” maker of the smartwatch. From the training-focused Blaze to the sleek ionic and smarter quiet Versa, Fitbit has carved out a portable niche by embracing its second-fiddle status, offering a simpler, streamlined and cheaper alternative to Apple’s trend-setting laptops.
Sense is Fitbit’s attempt to break that mold. The square frame and the interchangeable straps still look a lot like the Apple Watch, and the screen now has rounded corners to match. The new quick charger is magnetic like Apple̵
But apart from the somewhat distracted look, Sense has a lot on the inside of its 48 x 40.48 x 12.35 mm frame. Fitbit calls it its most advanced health smartwatch, and it’s not hyperbole to say that Sense is actually the most advanced consumer clothing on the market right now. Along with a new Sp02 face powered by its blood oxygen sensor and a second-generation Pure Pulse 2.0 heart rate sensor, it features electric sensors for measuring stress (EDA) and heart rate (ECG), a skin temperature sensor for tracking variations in body heat and world-class sleep tracking.
I will post a full review later this week, but spoiler warning: Fitbit Sense is trying too hard. It’s not so much that Sense’s various apps and sensors do not work – for the most part they do what they are supposed to, although I was not able to test the new ECG sensor yet. That said, nothing about the Sense experience feels as frictionless and effortless as Fitbit’s previous smartwatches.
Price is the biggest obstacle. To get the most out of Sense, you need a Fitbit Premium subscription of $ 80 per year, which keeps the entry price of $ 330 just low enough to entice Apple Watch Series 6 buyers who can hit the $ 399 price tag. six months free trial with every Sense purchase – and in a statement late last night, the company said it was “looking at ways” to at least open the Health Metrics Dashboard that breaks down breathing rate, SpO2 and HRV “in the coming months. ” But this only serves to show how necessary the Premium service and the app are for the watch’s core functions.
Even if you do not mind paying for Premium, it feels a lot about Sense that it was built to respond directly to the Apple Watch instead of forging its own way. And unfortunately, it is Sense, not Apple Watch, that will suffer the most.
It’s in the blood
The Apple Watch Series 6 offers only two major improvements over the Series 5: a blood oxygen sensor and a lighter always on screen. None of them are particularly innovative or unique, especially when you consider that Fitbit has been sending watches with Sp02 sensors since 2016. So Sense should have hit the ground running and neutralized the Series 6’s premier feature.
But despite a four-year lead, Sense’s Sp02 tracking still feels rushed. Fitbit has only recently started using the Sp02 sensor in a visible way. The company previously used the sensor as a way to increase its sleep monitoring by tracking the estimated oxygen variance as a way to find fluctuations instead of an actual reading. In other words, it can help identify problems with sleep apnea. This feature was relatively invisible to most users who did not dig into the sleep scores to find it, but now Fitbits with Sp02 sensor can deliver a daily score on the dial every morning.
In fact, just days before Apple launched its latest watches, Fitbit released the Sp02 Signature dial for its own smartwatches, which shows your nighttime blood oxygen saturation level on a small circular graph. It’s not as immediate or effortless with Apple’s implementation – you have to wait about an hour before your score is displayed, and you have to make sure you use the watch to sleep and have the new Signature face active. But it’s a big step towards bringing the Fitbit blood oxygen sensor to the forefront for people who may not even know it was there.
Still, from the time of the somewhat tie-head implementation, it’s hard not to see the Sp02 sensor’s new trick as a direct response to the Apple Watch Series 6. You did not have to be clairvoyant to see that a blood oxygen sensor was coming to be the premier feature of Apple’s latest watch, and the Signature face tastes of a me-for-move. Fitbit also promises to deliver more Sp02 clock surfaces and available calculations, as well as to integrate readings in the other heath and training statistics.
If Fitbit did not think that blood oxygen reading was important to deliver before, it is difficult not to conclude that the only reason we have it now is that Apple added its own Sp02 sensor. And besides, Apple’s 15-second on-demand readings on the Series 6 blow away Sense’s bulky readings anyway.
The Sense sensors that the Apple Watch does not have are a bit more successful, but like the Sp02, they are not as seamless as they could be – or probably would be on an Apple Watch. Fitbit’s skin temp sensor is most interesting at the age of COVID, but it’s not exactly an out-of-the-box experience. You must wear the watch for at least three nights to establish a personal baseline, and then Sense will only show your nocturnal variations during sleep, much like the Sp02 sensor. Most people will not know where to find or what to do with their numbers, and some deeper analyzes are again linked to the Premium component.
The most interesting sensor on Sense is the EDA sensor which measures the electrodermal activity response in the palm of your hand “to detect small electrical changes in the sweat level in your skin” and calculate a Stress Management score. It is definitely an achievement for Sense, but the implementation feels very much like an ongoing work.
First, it is not a quick process. Even the quick scan requires you to hold your palm over your face for 2 minutes, which is about a minute and a half longer than I usually use with a smartwatch at any given time. You can get a partial reading in 30 seconds, which is what most people will get since it is difficult to know if it actually works because your palm covers the screen. You get some haptic feedback when it’s done, but unless you’re looking at a watch, you’ll be wondering if Sense is actually doing something. And when done, you get just the most basic results on your wrist, with the detailed information available in the Stree Management Score in the Fitbit app. And Premium users will gain more useful Mindfulness-related insights into the path of further calculations and stress-relieving exercises.
These are the kind of features that feel gimmicky now, but it will be much more useful in a year or two. As it stands, the point of the EDA app is to raise awareness of how you can lower your stress scores (or rather, raise it, since 100 means you are stress-free), something Fitbit already did with the Relax app and other sensors. The EDA sensor doesn’t really add anything to the equation other than being something that the Apple Watch does not.
Add it all up and you have Fitbit’s most expensive laptops by a large margin. At $ 330, it already costs $ 100 more than the Versa 3 and only $ 70 less than the Apple Watch Series 6. And when you add the Premium, Sense costs more after the first year. It would be nice if it delivered an experience similar to the Apple Watch, but apart from the new sensors, Sense is not as smart, stylish or sophisticated as the Apple Watch. And at $ 330 before you add the Premium subscription, it’s not that much cheaper either.
Update 9/24: Clarified the way the EDA app integrates with Premium and added information about the Sp02 readings.