The Fitbit Sense is a classic case of trying too hard to beat Apple

Ever since the Blaze launched its first watch-sized tracker with a color screen just months after Apple unveiled its first Watch, Fitbit has seemingly been happy to be the “other” smartwatch maker. From the fitness-focused Blaze to the smart Ionic and smarter-still Versa, Fitbit has carved out a wearable niche by embracing its second-fiddle status, offering a simpler, streamlined, and cheaper alternative to Apple’s trendsetting wearable.

The Sense is Fitbit’s attempt to break that mold. Its squarish frame and swappable bands still look a lot like the Apple Watch, and the screen has rounded corners now to match. Its new fast charger is magnetic like Apple’s puck, and the strap system has been upgraded to be closer to Apple’s quick-release button. And the inductive button is trying to be as simple and distinctive as Apple’s Digital Crown.

But aside from its somewhat derivative looks, the Sense has a lot going on inside its 48 x 40.48 x 12.35mm frame. Fitbit calls it its most advanced health smartwatch and it’s not hyperbole to say the Sense is actually the most advanced consumer wearable on the market right now. Along with a new Sp02 face powered by its blood-oxygen sensor and a second-generation Pure Pulse 2.0 heart-rate sensor, it has multipurpose electrical sensors for measuring stress (EDA) and heart rhythm (ECG), a skin temperature sensor for tracking variations in body heat, and world-class sleep tracking.

I’ll post a full review later this week, but spoiler alert: the Fitbit Sense is trying too hard. It’s not so much that the Sense’s various apps and sensors don’t work—for the most part, they do what they’re supposed to do, though I wasn’t able to test the new ECG sensor yet—but nothing about the Sense experience feels as frictionless and effortless as Fitbit’s previous smartwatches.

fitbit sense button Michael Simon/IDG

The Fitbit Sense has just one inductive button.

The price is the biggest obstacle. To get the most out of the Sense, you need an $80 per year subscription to Fitbit Premium, which keeps the $330 entry price just low enough to entice Apple Watch Series 6 buyers who may balk at the $399 price tag. Fitbit provides a six-month free trial with every Sense purchase—and in a statement late last night, the company said it is “looking at ways” to at least open up the Health Metrics Dashboard that breaks down breathing rate, SpO2, and HRV “in the coming months”—but that only serves to show how necessary the Premium service and app are to the watch’s core functions.

Even if you don’t mind paying for Premium, a lot about the Sense feels like it was built to directly respond to the Apple Watch rather than forging its own path. And unfortunately, it’s the Sense, not the Apple Watch, that will suffer the most.

It’s in the blood

The Apple Watch Series 6 brings just two main enhancements over the Series 5: a blood-oxygen sensor and a brighter always-on display. Neither is particularly innovative or unique, especially when you consider that Fitbit has been shipping watches with Sp02 sensors since 2016. So the Sense should have hit the ground running and neutralized the Series 6’s premier feature.

But despite a four-year head start, the Sense’s Sp02 tracking still feels rushed. Fitbit has only recently begun using its Sp02 sensor in a visible way. Fitbit previously used the sensor as a way to augment its sleep monitoring by tracking the estimated oxygen variance as a way to pinpoint fluctuations rather than an actual reading. It was relatively invisible to most users who didn’t dig into their sleep scores to find it, but now it can deliver a daily score on your watch face each morning.