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Fitbit Joins the Smartwatch Race, and Replaces the Rash-y Force With a New Wristband

Fitbit launches some compelling new wrist wearables, but it is missing the critical holiday season.

After complaints emerged last February that the Fitbit Force was causing skin rashes for some wearers, the San Francisco-based health and fitness company was forced to recall the device, and promised the Fitbit-wearing community it would share news about a next-generation tracker “soon.”

Seven months later, Fitbit is back in full, um, force.

The company has just announced a new line-up of activity-tracking devices, including one “smart” fitness watch. Two of the new wearables include optical heart rate sensors, something new to Fitbits.

The new Fitbit Charge is being marketed as the “reinvented Force.”
The new Fitbit Charge is being marketed as the “reinvented Force.”

The new products break down as follows:

  • The Fitbit Charge is being marketed as the “Force reinvented,” with an improved design. It measures steps, distance traveled, calories burned and floors climbed. It has an OLED display, is water-resistant and Fitbit is claiming it lasts up to seven days on a charge. As you can see from the photo here, it looks strikingly similar to the Force, but now includes automatic sleep detection and a caller ID function. It’s selling now for $130 dollars.
  • The Fitbit Charge HR is basically the Charge wristband but with a combination of heart rate sensors that Fitbit is calling PurePulse. This means the wearer can monitor his or her heart rate continuously (some heart-rate wearables require you to press “start” on an activity to get a reading), and the device will use that data to give a more accurate calorie reading or spot heart rate trends over time. It also means the battery on the Charge HR will likely last around five days, not seven; this one will cost $150 and won’t be available until early 2015.
  • And finally, there’s the $250 Fitbit Surge. This is the company’s first foray into connected-watch territory. It has a backlit LCD touchscreen display and eight different sensors: A tri-axis accelerometer, gyroscope, compass, ambient light sensor, GPS and heart rate. It records granular data around specific activities like running and cross-training, placing it firmly in the fitness-watch category, but will also cycle through the typical “smart” watch notifications like text alerts and incoming calls, provided a smartphone is in range. It’s water resistant, but isn’t meant to track swimming. Expected battery life is around seven days. Like the Charge HR, this one won’t ship until sometime in 2015.

Fitbit’s mobile app, which works on iOS, Android and Windows, will also be updated to include heart-rate measurements.

It’s a compelling new batch of products from Fitbit, which, according to one report, has nearly 70 percent market share in the activity-tracking market (unit sales are still unknown). And with every company and its mother company putting out a smartwatch, it’s hardly unexpected.

The Charge HR looks a lot like the Charge, but has heart-rate tracking capabilities.
The Charge HR looks a lot like the Charge, but has heart-rate tracking capabilities.

But Fitbit, which says it has been working on its heart-rate technology for several years, is also missing the crucial holiday retail season. When I asked Fitbit co-founder and CEO James Park whether the company had been aiming to get the new devices out sooner, Park was noncommittal, saying only that the company was “not going to launch products before we’re ready.”

Readying these new products also meant taking extra measures to ensure the wearables wouldn’t cause the same skin irritation as the Force did.

“We took these issues very seriously,” Park said. “We discovered that the users who reported issues were likely reacting to the adhesive we used in the product, and to a lesser extent, the nickel in the stainless steel casing.

He went on to say that all of the materials the company uses now are the result of enhanced testing protocols, which involved creating an advisory board of dermatologists. “No adhesive, in any part of the new devices, comes into close contact with the skin.”

Then there’s the elephant in the room, which is Apple — not just Apple’s upcoming smartwatch, but the fact that the consumer tech giant plans to yank Fitbit from its store shelves. Fitbit, on the other hand, is still holding out on working with Apple’s HealthKit app, which many other health and fitness app-makers have opted to do.

When asked about the current state of Fitbit’s relationship with Apple, Park declined to comment on “that particular decision,” but said he thinks that Apple “makes awesome products” and that he hopes the two companies will continue to be “great partners in the future.”

“I love Apple as a consumer, and HealthKit is really interesting to us. But we’re an open platform, and it’s something that we’re just going to continue to evaluate,” he said. “We were really aggressive in integrating with things like Microsoft Health Vault, and we’ve learned a lot from those experiences.”

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