January 8, 2017

Review of the Fitbit Charge 2

I received one of these as a Christmas gift in December of 2016. Five years later I replaced it with a Garmin "Instinct" and it was like replacing an abacus with a super computer. Wow! I didn't know what I was missing.

Some things I hate about the Fitbit

Whenever I charge it up it resets what few settings the watch does have. Such as when I set it to pester me every hour to get up and move. So I have to redo any setting changes after every time I charge it.

The phone app is entirely useless if you use this out of doors (i.e. any place you don't have a cell connection). The way the app is written, all the real work is done on their website and the app just renders information it gets from the website. Useless for the ourdoorsman.

The band is simply awful. It is a pain in the ass to put on and it is a pain in the ass to take off. Maybe this is intended to make the watch secure, and I suppose it does, but a civilized band like the Garmin instinct has, is like a breath of fresh air.

You never know what the watch will do next. You lift it up to look at it and sometimes it turns on, sometimes it doesn't. So you develop a habit of pressing the button, but if it decides to turn on and you habitually press the button, it navigates to some page you don't want to look at and you just have to wait a minute or so until it times out and try again. Awful. When I got the Garmin with a display that just stays on all the time, it was like coming out of the dark ages.

There is no way to find out battery status. So, you better charge it every night or expect to find it dead when you wish you could use it.

The overall feel is that they did the absolute minimum necessary, but had no desire or motivation to make a quality or polished product. Fortunately there are better options, like the Garmin instinct.

Reverse engineering and other software options

As I have already mentioned, I have been disappointed by not being able to use my Fitbit in the way that I should be able to on trail runs. Without the ability to "call home", the fitbit app is essentially paralyzed. Even with the ability to call home, the app is extremely limited. There is no "real time" data synching (and don't tell me that blue tooth can't do it; blue tooth does audio which has pretty serious requirements for sending data in real time). This is all about the design philosophy that makes fitbit.com the center of the universe.

There also seems to be a deplorable attitude from Fitbit that I would describe as the "good enough" attitude. I do not see a drive to do their best or to serve their customers. A concrete example of this is the VO2 Max measuring feature in the Fitbit Charge 2. People who own older, more expensive and capable fitbit units are told that they have no intention of adding this feature to the phone firmware. Clearly this is simply a software feature (and I seriously doubt it would require any firmware changes at all now that I think about it). It is all about corporate lethargy.

What is truly sad about this (and I do digress here) is that modern cell phones are such incredibly capable computers. Mine is a quad core ARM with at least 1 Gigabyte of ram and a fabulous color graphics display. Not long ago this would have been an unimaginable desktop computer. Too many App programmers are unimaginative and/or incompetent.

So what about using the fitbit unit with other software? Apparently fitbit will cooperate with my current favorite app, Runkeeper. I arrived at using Runkeeper after trying (and rejecting) a number of apps that absolutely insisted on having a network connection. Runkeeper works quite nicely on trail runs without any kind of connectivity, telling me my pace and displaying location and distance derived from GPS. Sadly though the fitbit interoperability is entirely between fitbit.com and runkeeper.com.

Reverse Engineering

Well, I am an android app developer and a long time software person. Maybe I could bite the bullet and write an app that would satify me. Apparently the protocol is not entirely closed, which is hopeful. Do a google search on "bitbit protocol".
Have any comments? Questions? Drop me a line!

Tom's home page / tom@mmto.org