Fitbit, what are you doing?
That’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot over the past year as Google has further integrated the company into the fold. In the past 11 months, Fitbit has had several major server outages, angered longtime users by sunsetting Challenges and social features, and then quietly stopped selling its products in over a dozen countries. Those are the highlights in what’s been a bumpy integration, so I was heartened when Google announced the $159.95 Fitbit Charge 6 earlier this fall.
The Charge 6 seemed like a return to form. It’s $20 cheaper than the Charge 5, with a better heart rate tracking algorithm, more Google services, and — for the first time — gym equipment integration. The Fitbit app was redesigned this fall. These are all good and fine, but the change I cared about most was the return of the side button. Fitbit did away with the side button on the Charge 3 in favor of an inductive groove, and let’s just say it wasn’t a popular choice.
I regret to say that while the button is back, it’s not quite what I was hoping for. But once my ire cooled, it became more apparent just how much more of Google is in this device — to the point where I’ve started calling this the Pixel Band in my head.
Side button side-eye
The Charge 6 looks nearly identical to the Charge 5. The only visual cue that this is a different tracker is the new side button.
When the Charge 6 was first announced, I thought it would have a physical side button. So did a lot of other folks. So I felt bamboozled and betrayed when I unboxed the tracker. Yes, it looks like a button, with its oblong shape and tactile bump, but when you press, nothing moves. There is no click. If you do it right, you’ll feel a buzz. Because this is a haptic button — not a mechanical one.
I get why. Fitbit’s physical buttons have never been as reliable as Garmin’s. They often got stuck as the years went by. Why invite the hardware headache if the haptic button works just as well? But that’s a big gamble in this space.
With wearables, physical buttons are beloved for a reason. They signal that you’ve got a wearable that works even when your fingers are sweaty or in gloves. Most of the time, they also double as shortcuts for frequently used apps. It’s freedom from the touchscreen, if that’s what you want (though most people like having both). Plus, some people just like pressing buttons.
This quasi-button has thus far been more reliable than the groove and less prone to accidental presses. Pressing once will either wake up the device or bring you back to the main watchface; pressing twice brings up Google Wallet. During activities, it brings you to the pause button at the bottom of your workout data. Functionally, it works, but as a card-carrying member of Team Physical Button, I’m a bit disappointed.
While the haptic button works, it’s not as easy to press with a single finger. It requires a good amount more pressure to activate than the physical buttons on my Garmins. I wore the Charge 6 on my left hand and tried to use my right pointer finger to press the button. I didn’t succeed in activating the button, but I did push the entire tracker up my wrist. It was easier on the right side, but this is the type of thing mechanical buttons do better. More often than not, I ended up needing to use my thumb and index finger to squeeze the sides of the case in order to get the button to press. My main concern here is folks with limited hand dexterity or mobility might have issues depending on where the button is placed. I’d feel better if you could swap watchface and button orientation, like you can on some smartwatches, but that’s not an option.
For most people, this is just something they can get used to. But if you ask me, instead of this haptic business, Fitbit and Google should just get good at making physical buttons.
A casual fitness tracker
Fitness and health tracking are what Fitbit does best, and that’s where the Charge 6 shines. It’s also where it feels most like a Fitbit device. Overall, it’s similar to the Charge 5 in that this is best for casual users who want to be more active.
GPS tracking still isn’t as good as a Garmin. In my testing, the Charge 6 tended to overreport runs by as much as a tenth of a mile compared to my Apple Watch Ultra 2 and iPhone 14 Pro Max, both of which include the more accurate dual-frequency GPS. That’s fairly typical for this category, but it’s a thing long-distance runners should keep in mind when tacking on more mileage. It also takes a bit to find a GPS signal. As for heart rate, everything was on par with my Ultra 2 and Polar H10. I find it lags a bit when I switch up paces, but nothing too egregious.
For health tracking, it’s all the usual staples — Active Zone Minutes, sleep tracking, nightly SpO2 readings, EKGs, and EDA scans. But there is a new ability to broadcast your heart rate to fitness equipment. It’s a long overdue addition, but your mileage may vary. Fitbit says it’s only guaranteed to work with the latest models of iFit, NordicTrack, Concept2, Peloton, and Tonal machines. That said, it’s possible it may work with machines that support Bluetooth accessories. So if you have an older machine at home, or at your local gym, this may not replace what you’ve got already. I tried this at my gym, which primarily uses Life Fitness machines, and it was a no-go. While the machines were able to connect with the Charge 6, they couldn’t maintain the connection and my heart rate never showed up on-screen. In any case, this is a nice to have, and Fitbit says it’s working on extending compatibility over time.
Battery life is also good with the always-on display off. I averaged about a week with multiple GPS walks and runs, sleep tracking, SpO2 tracking, and notifications on. With the always-on display enabled, you’re looking at more like two days. This has been the case for a while now with Fitbit trackers, but it is a little disappointing that we haven’t seen much progress in AODs.
Google’s fingerprints are all over the Charge 6’s software. For starters, legacy Fitbit users must migrate their data to a Google Account to use the device — same as the Pixel Watch 2. New users will have to log in with a personal Google Account. (Workspace accounts aren’t supported.) While the deadline to migrate isn’t until 2025, Google’s been prompting folks to make the switch since earlier this summer.
The Fitbit app redesign also borrows much of its streamlined look from Material You. It has some benefits over the old design, but so far it doesn’t seem to have stuck the landing with longtime Fitbit users. There’s also no dark mode and when the redesign first rolled out, it angered many Fitbit users by eliminating step streaks and rearranging the way data was presented. Some also have criticized the minimalist design for being less readable. Personally, I’ve gotten a bit more used to the new design after also testing the Pixel Watch 2. It’s easier to read than Garmin’s Connect app, but I agree it’s not as glanceable as before.
Google has since re-added step streaks and even brought the previously iOS-only feature over to Android. Just this week, it’s also added goal celebrations and the ability to customize your Focus with specific metrics instead of just selecting from presets. Last but not least, battery percentages have been added back in the Today tab and to the “Devices Connected to Fitbit” menu.
It’s a good thing that Google is willing to listen to user feedback. But as with many things related to the Google-Fitbit integration, this was yet another scenario that could’ve been easily avoided.
Outside of health tracking, the Charge 6 has a better app selection than the 5 in that it has any outside of basic notifications and health tracking. Still, this is Google’s party and the three apps you’re getting are Google Maps, YouTube Music, and Google Wallet. RIP Fitbit Pay.
This is good and bad. Good because we’re getting more apps again after third-party apps like Deezer, Spotify, and Starbucks vanished from last year’s Sense 2 and Versa 4. Bad because the Charge 6 only comes with a one-month trial of YouTube Music and no other way to play music if you don’t want to pony up for the $11 monthly subscription thereafter. If you tack on Fitbit Premium ($10 monthly, $80 annually), you’re looking at possibly spending $15 to $21 a month to get the full experience. We all get why Google locks you out of other music services on the Charge 6 — to push you toward its own. It’s irksome nevertheless.
Some might argue that’s not a ton, compared to the price of a Peloton All-Access membership or Whoop’s $30 monthly subscription. But anecdotally, I don’t know many athletes who only have one fitness subscription or who use YouTube Music as their primary streaming service. Adding another monthly fee to the mix for the privilege of music control — it doesn’t feel great. It’s better than nothing, but only just.
Don’t expect anything too fancy out of Google Wallet or Google Maps, either. For starters, you don’t have a lot of screen space to work with, so these are very utilitarian. I used Google Maps for a couple of walks around the neighborhood. (It also supports cycling and driving directions.) It gets the job done, but it’s still easier to pull out your phone. Especially since you have to start directions on your phone anyway. I can see this being more useful for cyclists. Likewise, Google Wallet is similarly utilitarian. It’s a pain when it prompts you to enter your PIN code because you have to do a LOT of scrolling, but you don’t have to do it every time. Google Wallet, however, is a much more expansive network than Fitbit Pay ever was, so this is still a step up.
The Google-fication of Fitbit
Despite my gripes, I’m glad the Charge 6 exists. There’s been a definite shift toward smartwatches over the last two years and not a ton of options for folks who want simpler trackers. It’s nice to see a new fitness band from a bigger, established brand.
However, $160 is on the pricier side for a fitness band, especially when you factor in the subscription costs. Plus, there are lots of cheaper trackers with huge feature sets like the $50 Amazfit Band 7. If you find the Charge 6 on sale for about $100, however, that’s a pretty good bargain. On the flip side, paying $120 to $150 more gets you an Apple Watch SE or a Samsung Galaxy Watch 6.
But aside from price, for the Charge 6 to make sense, you have be willing to bet that Google’s vision for wearables can succeed. So far, I’ve seen mixed signals. On the one hand, Google continues to invest in wearables, making small updates throughout the year. Its ongoing efforts in this Fitbit integration are also proof of that. As I mentioned earlier, Google did go back and address feedback about the redesign. At the same time, massive server outages aren’t a joke and every so often, I have to wonder about unforced errors like eliminating Challenges and Step Streaks.
A part of me feels nostalgic for the Fitbit of old, but the Google-fication of Fitbit is only going to continue. I’ve started to make peace with that. Have you?