FitBit Alta May Be the Tracker You’ve Wanted
The Fitbit Alta is about as chic as fitness trackers come.
And the equally chic Alta HR adds continuous heart-rate monitoring and better sleep tracking to help close the gap between it and Fitbit’s more hard-core offerings. The Alta HR gave accurate heart-rate readings and consistent step-count tracking, and it exceeded expectations for battery life in testing. It lacks some of the features of the Fitbit Charge 2, which remains our Editors’ Choice—but of all of Fitbit’s trackers, it comes closest to hitting the sweet spot between form and function.
At a glance, the Alta HR is nearly identical in design to its predecessor; after all, why fix something that isn’t broken? The bottom of the OLED screen features a small, largely unnoticeable Fitbit logo, and the strap has a slightly different textured pattern. Fitbit has done away with the prong closure found on the original for a more traditional buckle. That’s a plus for exercising, as prongs tend to become less secure over time. But it’s a little disappointing that the buckle feels like it’s one strong tug away from breaking. This might just be because of its thin design. The buckle held up over three weeks of testing, but it still doesn’t feel nearly as secure as a metal buckle.
- Long battery life. More in-depth sleep tracking and insights over its predecessor. Accurate heart rate and step count readings. Slim and comfortable to wear 24/7 with plenty of band options.
- Screen is occasionally unresponsive. Buckle feels a bit flimsy. No altimeter. Lacks GPS.
Although buckle closures last longer than prongs, this plastic one feels a little flimsy.
Because the Alta HR hews closely to its predecessor, it retains many of the same quirks. The touch screen is finicky, for instance. You have to double tap directly in the center and with a bit more force than you might expect. Light taps and anything on the edges are unlikely to register. This isn’t unique to the Alta HR— I’ve experienced the same problem with the Charge HR and Charge 2. Eventually you grow used to it, but it can be pesky at first, especially since the Alta HR doesn’t have a button to let you cycle through the different stats it tracks.
The main physical difference can be seen when you flip the tracker over: a tiny PurePulse heart rate sensor. The Alta HR is also one of the smallest fitness trackers with continuous heart rate monitoring you can get. Fitbit says it’s 25 percent slimmer than the Charge 2.
TAKING THE ALTA HR FOR A SPIN
Can a heart-rate sensor that small deliver accurate results? I was able to spend 30 minutes testing the Alta HR in a SoulCycle-esque spin class led by Fitbit Ambassador Julianne Hough. Amid thudding club beats and black lights, we were encouraged to periodically check our heart rate on the Alta HR. I admit I’m not the most coordinated person (and I’m nowhere near as glamorous as Ms. Hough while working out), but this was more of a challenge than I expected.
Trying to tap the screen with one hand while simultaneously attempting not to fall off the stationary bike was a scene straight out of Broad City. When I finally did get it, I felt it was a feat worthy of its own Fitbit badge, given the fact that you have to tap multiple times to get to your heart rate. Thankfully, you can customize the main display via the Fitbit app so that all you have to do is raise your wrist to see your heart rate. This works fine while you’re at rest, but during a workout, you might have to do it multiple times.
You can customize the main display via the Fitbit app so that all you have to do is raise your wrist to see your heart rate.
A Fitbit representative told me the Alta HR should be flush against your skin and worn one finger-length below your wrist bone for accurate heart-rate tracking.
On the plus side, it’s still easier than viewing your heart rate on the Apple Watch. I wore an Apple Watch Nike+ at the same time, and having to navigate the digital crown to find and open the heart-rate app was a nightmare. It took ever)’ ounce of coordination in my body, but I did manage to check the Alta HR’s accuracy against the Apple Watch’s (and stay on my bike).
The Alta HR proved accurate in heart-rate testing compared with the Apple Watch, Charge 2, LG Watch Sport, and a Polar Hio chest strap. In both walking and mnning tests, the Alta HR remained within tobpm of the Hio, which measures heart rate through electrical signal as opposed to optical. It performed even better when compared with other wrist-worn trackers, matching the Apple Watch, LG Watch Sport, and Charge 2 to within sbpm.
I did find there were some instances w hen the tracker wasn’t able to get a reading immediately—usually because of where I had it positioned on my arm. At the spin class, a Fitbit representative cautioned that the Alta HR should be flush against your skin and worn one finger-length below your wrist bone.
When it comes to step counting, the Alta HR is accurate, and more important, consistent. I tested it over eight one-mile walks and runs, and each time found that it was usually within 2 to 3 percent of the Yamax SW-200 Digi-Walker, a pedometer frequently used in clinical studies. On my most recent walking test, it logged 2,078 steps to the Yamax’s 2,139, for a difference of 2.85 percent. It did slightly better on a one-mile run at 5mph, registering 1,892 steps to the Yamax’s 1,936 (a difference of 2.27 percent).
You have to tap directly in the center of the touch screen with a bit more force than you might expect. Light taps and anything on the edges are unlikely to register.
That’s not the best result I’ve seen—the Alta HR has a tendency to underreport steps, which means you’ll need to walk more to hit your goals. (A blessing in disguise, perhaps?) But its average results are more telling. Over four one-mile walks at 3-5mph, the Alta averaged about 2,123 steps compared with the Yamax’s 2,135. And over four runs, it averaged 1,897 steps to the Yamax’s 1,950. With the exception of one walking test, the Alta HR generally reported results that were within 10 to 50 steps for the same repeated exercises. Long story short: There are more accurate trackers out there, but the Alta HR delivers reliable results.
Another plus is good battery life. Typically, most of Fitbit’s trackers are rated to last about five days between charges, depending on usage. With the Alta HR, Fitbit says you should get up to seven days. In the past, I’ve found my Fitbits last about three days between charges. So I was pleased as punch to find the Alta HR exceeded expectations. I’ve had to charge it only three times over three weeks, so it’s safe to say it lives up to the seven-day estimate, and that’s with continuous heart rate monitoring and multiple syncs per day.
Heart rate isn’t the only thing the Alta HR’s PurePulse sensor is good for. Fitbit is also introducing two new tools that utilize heart rate data: Sleep Stages and Sleep Insights.
Until now, Fitbit users could see sleep quality measured only in terms of how many minutes they’re awake, restless, or asleep. The Sleep Stages tool is designed to use the accelerometer, heart-rate variability (time between beats), and Fitbit’s algorithms to more accurately report when you’re awake or in light, deep, or REM sleep. This feature isn’t limited to the Alta HR—it’ll also be available on the Fitbit Blaze and Charge 2.
The feature had been enabled for only a few days when I started testing, but I’m already a fan. As someone who struggles with insomnia and sleepwalking, I found the data breakdown very useful. Sleep stages are displayed in an artful wave of blue and pink, a good visual representation that’s more helpful than the previous linear blocks of color the app used to show. Think back to your high school math classes: A “normal” sleep cycle should resemble a cosine wave. So if your waves are too pinched, or you notice that you fall into REM before light sleep, you might need to adjust your sleep routine.
Also helpful are the little bar graphs that show your 30-day average and how you compare with other Fitbit users of the same age and gender. Straight data can read like a jumble of numbers, so this is a clever visual aid to quickly let you know what kind of “better” sleep you should be aiming for.
The Sleep Insights feature is pretty much what it sounds like: context for the 2.5 million years of sleep data Fitbit has collected from its users thus far. So, for example, if you sleep significantly longer on weekend nights, the app will suggest you’re not getting enough sleep on weeknights. The Sleep Stages feature is limited to the aforementioned devices, but Sleep Insights will be accessible on any Fitbit that tracks sleep.
Both the Alta HR and the Charge 2 go for $150, which makes deciding between the two a tough decision. Neither is perfect for swimmers, triathletes, or anyone looking for more of a smartwatch experience. But for all-day, everyday use, the Alta HR and Charge 2 offer similar functionality in different form factors.
Sleep stages display in an artful wave of blue and pink, a more helpful visual representation than color blocks.
The Alta HR wins in terms of comfort. Slim and lightweight, I barely ever felt like I was wearing it during testing.
But the Charge 2 shines in providing context about your cardio fitness levels. Since it has connected GPS, it calculates V02 max to give you a better sense of where you stand compared with other people your age, weight, and gender-info you don’t get with the Alta HR. That makes it a better choice for anyone really looking to take charge of their health and fitness levels.
Ultimately, the one to pick comes down to one question: Would you rather spend your money on a better design and longer battery life or on more functionality and features? Though the Alta HR can keep pace with the Charge 2 on most levels, it makes slight concessions in order to maintain its attractive design. If you’re serious about kick starting a new fitness routine, you’re still better off with the Charge 2—but only slightly.