Part 2: Tried FitBit, Mostly Fixed Garmin, More Stats

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Ignore all my long-stressed over words and skip to Bottom Line.

In the last post, I was complaining about a lack of Garmin accuracy on the smallest watch with built-in GPS I could find between Polar and Garmin, the Garmin Venu Sq. It’s not really much smaller than the Polar M400, but it’s less bulky and the band is thinner and just feels tad nicer to wear (plus newer tech is fun). Anyhow, I am pretty irritated that I have to dive into Garmin settings on all their newer devices to get their GPS to be accurate. I never used to have to do this, but the new handheld 66i is a constant struggle (the 64 never was) and this watch I finally got distance and map accuracy to match the laser-sharp Polar – mostly due to asking it to save every second versus whatever “auto” was doing. Hilariously, to me, the choice between “Smart Recording” and “Every Second Recording” states “Smart recording captures key data points as changes occur in your direction, speed, heart rate or elevation. This method is recommended as it saves space on your device and has no negative impact on GPS accuracy” which is total bull as it was 3% off (not massive, but annoying) before. The result is now tit-for-tat mile notifications between both devices on a recent 7.8 mile run on a hilly trail. The only issue left is the elevation chart which is really choppy, and I think inaccurate, resulting in the gain/loss being wrong. I’ll dive into the details below…

Did I run with four watches on? Yup. It was weird and very sweaty but during activity it wasn’t bothersome outside of a bunch of beeps and shakes from all over the place.

The problem still was that I wasn’t going to wear a 38mm wide watch constantly, and that width is on the small side! I have been hoping to find the one GPS watch to rule them all so I could have just one gadget and one app and one website. I somehow realized that FitBit makes watches with built-in GPS that are really small! Great, I thought, and immediately bought the FitBit Charge 5… a week before it’s on sale for Black Friday, of course. ANYHOW, it’s 22.6mm wide, which is more the width of bands on most watches – and it’s shorter than all my other contenders at 36.6mm tall. Nice. Still, despite being nicely far shorter than the very tall 46.6mm of my daily-wearer, Samsung Galaxy Fit2, it does feel noticeably wider than the Fit’s 18.6mm width and every other watch’s band feels huge compare to it’s mostly 16mm width. But this was far smaller and really tempting, especially as there are more features on the FitBit besides GPS such as oxygen levels, so the only thing left was to test its GPS on a run. Spoiler alert: it sucked. I’m returning it. It’s a really great lifestyle band, actually, but I already have one of those and my goal was to use one watch and there is no way this thing is made for serious activity tracking. I wish I read DC Rainmaker’s review first, though I did not experience loss of GPS or heart rate as he did.

Anyhow, TO THE STATS

BandTimeDistanceCaloriesPace (min/mi)Cadence (steps/min)StepsElevation GainElevation LossElevation MaxHeart RateGPS TypeExportBattery DrainCableFace DimenionsBand
Polar M4001:41:277.8 miles83713:02 avg (max 9:01)138 avg (max 222)13,888820 ft804 ft841.8 ftN/AGPS, GLONASS, GALILEAOGPX, TCX, CSV~16%Micro USB38mm W x 50mm H x 12mm D29mm, thick and stiff classic watch style
Garmin Venu Sq1:42:237.8 miles93713:00 avg (max 8:59)134 avg (max 166)N/A, user error1117.4 ft1179.9 ft850.1 ft156 bpm (max 178)GPS, GLONASS, GALILEOGPX or TCX ~16% Special endpoint37mm W x 40.6mm H x 11.5 mm D20mm, soft and flexible, classic watch style
FitBit Charge 51:41:438.1 miles94112:26 avg (no max given)Not shown13,732No elevation map or stats provided in their apps151 bpm (no max shown)GPS, GLONASSTCX only ~16% Special magnetic cradle22.6mm W x 36.6mm H x 11.2mm D20mm, soft and flexible, come w/two sizes, wraps inside
Samsung Galaxy Fit21:43:02
(auto)
7.2 miles (no GPS)63214:34 avg (max 7:56)131 avg (max 166)not per activity, but under 14kN/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/AImperceptible, though heart rate was not fully activeSpecial clip-on cradle18.6mm W x 46.6mm H x 11.1mm D16mm, soft and flexible, wraps inside

The obvious:

  • it’s not that the FitBit didn’t have some of these stats, like elevation, they just refuse to show them within their mobile app or website. I don’t know why, it’s insane.
  • the Samsung won’t track heart rate unless I actually start a session, I just kinda forgot and let it auto start – so it also marked it as a walk (I guess I was slow? lol) – and it doesn’t have built-in GPS so it’s just guessing (I don’t hit the trails carrying a phone, I don’t even take a walk with it).
  • Setting the Garmin to track every second definitely worked to improve accuracy and it buzzed nearly with, but usually a smidge after, the Polar beeped. I somehow, while digging around to get the GPS up-to-snuff, turned off “activity tracking” which meant no step count. /-:
  • NONE of the built-in GPS watches are gonna last longer than a day hike and they all went down in battery life about 16% for 1.75 hours. The Polar M400 will start to cry about low battery if I’m out for 8 hours, and it seems the rest will, too. Also, the others are more set up for ‘smart watch’ things and drain a bit just sitting around even when not worn, so you’ll be charging often if using as your daily-wear. Fitness bands, especially the Samsung Galaxy Fit2, never seem to wear out. The first gen one was about week and this one is about 3 weeks: daily workouts, auto-activity for walks and runs (I’m sure I could waste battery if I manually started hiking which uses the heart rate monitor much more frequently), wearing all day and night, wearing for days on end in the backcountry – and, unlike the others, it charges FAST – within 20 minutes usually. It’s a bit nuts.

About The Bands

Polar’s M400 is kinda stiff so it’s a bit difficult one handed and it’s super long on me and sticks out / can occasionally catch on clothes (doesn’t stick, just a pull). The clasp and pin are metal which is not going to rip. Again, this thing is a tank, but I do have problems getting it on at the correct size and off is a small struggle. It’s not as soft as other bands, so it slides – especially when sweat-soaked.

Garmin’s Venu Sq is a very soft band, you choose the size when you order, and it’s all plastic. These are marketed as “women’s” watches so it generally feels a tad more delicate than you might find on their more activity-focused, large-faced options. Like the M400 above, it’s a standard watch clasp system that goes under a loop, just like pant belts. The pin is plastic and I kept getting it caught in another hole while trying to remove it – not the biggest deal.

FitBit Charge 5 band is similarly nice and soft. They sell you both band sizes – I guess this is nice for off-the-shelf purchases, but it’s a bit of a waste as I doubt anyone would use both. This is the newer style where the end wraps inside. There is no pin on the clasp, but there is a kind of button that fills one hole after you fit it on. It’s a tad awkward, I just personally didn’t love it, but it was fine and I do like having the band inside.

Samsung’s Fit2 also has the inner band, but there is a pin on the clasp. This thing is real easy to get on and off, once you get the hang of the inside-band style.

I must have freakishly tiny wrists because I am within one or two holes of the end on every single band. As my wrist changes sizes with body heat or whatever, I sometimes change the Fit2 to be on hole 2 when the usual 3rd hole is feeling really loose.

Website Screens Note

The last post goes into what I like and don’t like about the Polar and Garmin website screens, but FitBits was every bit as unpleasant as Garmin’s, more so, maybe, because it wasn’t even responsive to browser window width. See screenshots below.

Chart Comparison

I am not showing anything from FitBit on here as the charts given on the website didn’t give at all the same level or detail or the same stats – they were kinda pointless graphics, as seen in the mobile app screens later on. It did require another click to make them be distance vs time, just like Garmin, which I hate: just show both rather than making me choose? Anyhow, I continue to strongly prefer Polar’s all-in-one which shows allll the data (except heart rate since the watch doesn’t have that built-in) which I adore. Again, Polar ‘just works’ across the board without editing settings of any kind.

App Screen Comparisons

Well, now that I have paid good money to allow four companies to sell my data, I can judge their mobile apps. I have never downloaded Polar’s before – I never used the M400 as a smart-watch, though it can and, judging by it trying to connect to my Fit2, desperately wanted to Bluetooth pair with something. It’s not much different than the website, hurray! It also makes syncing, which has always been slow and is no different now, a bit easier as it doesn’t need to be plugged in, obviously, to my desktop computer.

FitBit info was thin, even less than the Samsung Health app, which was really shocking to me. Maybe they would give me more information if I paid their monthly fee for ‘Premium’ but that is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard and not something you need from these other brands. And, again, I could not find an elevation map, cadence, or max pace stats anywhere. Maybe if you used your phone? But then what is the point of built-in GPS if you have a phone?


Garmin’s app screens were only slightly more condensed than their website: there is a lot more scrolling than Polar on activity details.


The only issue I ran into Polar’s apps overall was it was difficult to see step count: this isn’t on the main activity page, it’s in a seperate ‘Reports’ area, which is kinda weird… unless it’s considered that Polar is, thankfully, made for athletes and every other aspect of their UI shows this: there’s less stupid lifestyle stats, unless you want them, the charts and info are easier, less white space and more data, less colors and more focus. To that end, there are only 2 screenshots instead of 3, for this app.


Might as well throw in the Samsung Health app (aka my daily wear that provides a wealth of data for whatever Samsung does with it). Overall, it’s more lifestyle focused which is totally fine as it’s my daily-wear and doesn’t have GPS so I don’t use it for distance accuracy: it’s more step count and estimates and tracking of data I enter. It’s also by far the cutest. It has changed a lot over time, which is kinda nice to know they are always improving it – though the calories bit was de-emphasized (I was tracking specific foods for a while and that is totally removed). I get the feeling it wasn’t worth development time plus some social response that we shouldn’t be so stressed out about weight and calories and macros? Dunno.


Statistics Comparison Tool

I downloaded Garmin, Polar, and FitBit activity, all in TCX since FitBit won’t gimme GPX which is weird, and put them into an online tool to merge them. Ignore the top stats as ‘merge’ make it one long event that was over 5 hours long, haha, just look at the map and charts below at: https://quantified-self.io/user/s0vK9b1q0HVpaYSnFYdhatYAisC3/event/0eoi8nYuzvomNGwdXHhJ

The Garmin is now tracking nearly exactly with the Polar – there were a few blips but the Garmin I am using is a “less serious” type of device than the “made for athletes” Polar I have. There are “better” Garmin watches, but my goal, if you remember, is SMALL. This one is nearly the same size, nearly every other option is, to me, impossibly larger. No, thanks! That being said, once I messed with settings, the Venu Sq results are really very good… save one issue: the elevation chart remains very choppy, which is incorrect, and the gain/lost is way off which I assume is due to this. I have no idea what is going on there, and I’m not sure how much patience I have left for spending time in settings and with Garmin’s customer service. There is a per-activity setting, no idea why it isn’t a global setting, to use “Elevation Correction” – without it the values are worse for me, so enabled is better, but 300 ft difference in gain and loss is nuts. The claim is “Elevation Corrections are calculated with data from professional surveys instead of the data from your device. If your device has a barometric altimeter, Elevation Corrections are disabled by default” but I can’t believe this based on the results. I don’t love the barometric altimeter on my Garmin handheld 66i, but even if the exact elevation is off the gain and loss are still accurate and chart is okay – the Venu Sq is just not a serious enough device for my elevation needs.

The FitBit bounces off track a lot, though not enough to account for the extra 1/2 mile distance. In the map, you’ll notice there are no mileage markers for the FitBit – whereas the Garmin and Polar are really close to each other and are very accurate to real, measurable distance, IMO. I don’t know what this means, except that the FitBit Charge 5 must not use GPS for distance tracking which is the most insane thing I’ve ever heard of. No elevation map, no distance tracking, what the heck does this GPS do, just save a map? That is basically useless for activity tracking – afterward, it’s the least important part of a run. I know where I’ve been, lol. I can only assume FitBit is taking a wild guess at distance based on steps, which is what the non-GPS Samsung Fit2 already does. The difference appears to be that it over estimates vs under. This is when I decided to return the FitBit Charge 5 which I now deem totally useless for running and hiking. I have no idea what is going on, but this company’s stats and GPS usage are garbage. I do think the watch face is small and nice, and it’s an attractive product overall, but I already have a lifestyle / step counter and it’s way thinner with and app that is nicer and a price that is less than one third. Yikes!

Where Does That Leave Me?

The Garmin Venu is the only one that sits flat like a non-tracking watch might. This seems nice but the downside is the fragility: I’m not just leaving it atop a pile as the screen or rear monitors will touch or rub on things.

I don’t know. I cannot find a small enough GPS watch to daily wear and I’m not convinced the Venu Sq is worth keeping: it may look nicer than M400, have built-in heart rate and some other newer technical features, have a thinner band that is also shorter so it doesn’t stick out and catch on things, but the elevation is troublesome and I don’t like the app screens as much. Before a run or hike I do not want to have to mess with settings, and afterward I just want to have a quick glance of stats and not have to dig around to multiple screens.

I am also concerned about toughness with the Garmin: I can’t toss it into a pile as it lies flat so one part or another will rub against something. It feels like I shouldn’t abuse it. Meanwhile, that Polar M400 is an indestructible beast and, if I would just clean the filthy thing, looks brand new 6 years in. I bought it to train for a half-marathon (which I will never do again because running far on pavement sucks IMO), and I keep it as the small alternative to a handheld GPS unit for trail runs and small hikes. It does lack modern features: no buzzing only beeps, no color screen, no optical monitors for heart rate or oxygen, band is too wide and too stiff, no touch screen (honestly, I kinda like that bit) etc. But it has worked as expected from day one, shows 4 stats on a screen that is easy to read while moving, and the Polar ecosphere is just more focused than others on activity – all data presented fast and together, for the most part.

Product Bottom Line

There isn’t a tiny watch face with built-in, accurate GPS. Bummer.

If you need accuracy, you’ll need to buy a bigger watch from Polar or Garmin that are absolutely made for training. You might need to fight with Garmin settings, as their customer service will point you to actually pages in their support about this, but most things can be fixed eventually – except elevation which I struggle with on watch and handheld. I care about elevation so much that I’m thinking I have to sell this Garmin and am “stuck” with the Polar which I’ve never needed to monkey with at all to work correctly.

FitBit Charge 5 GPS is useless outside of a map that is good enough for most people, but who cares about a map without splits and elevation? So you could be fine and happy if you want this as a fitness band and use your phone as GPS when out, but then why pay this much for built-in GPS when you can pay 1/3-1/2 as much for a thinner tracker that can do that anyhow? If I wanted to bring a $1k phone with me on walks, my cheap, thin Samsung Galaxy Fit2 can get GPS, too. I do not understand the market for Charge 5 at all.

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