Fitbit Sense review: Ambitious to a fault

There are a lot of things the Fitbit Sense does that the Apple Watch can’t. Fitbit’s latest smartwatch can track your stress level and help you calm down. It records your nightly skin temperature to help predict if an illness is coming on. It lets you choose between Alexa and Google Assistant (or at least it will soon). And the battery lasts for days and days.

fitit sense stats Michael Simon/IDG

The Fitbit Sense has a bigger screen and lots of new sensors and capabilities.

But while Fitbit has done an admirable job in building a smartwatch that’s truly different—and in some ways better than Apple’s latest wearables—the Sense ultimately tries too hard to be an Apple Watch alternative. Where Apple has slowly added features to its Watch in an effort to keep things simple, Fitbit’s quest to leapfrog Apple has given the Sense too many things to do. Rather than embracing the simplicity of the Versa and distilling the effortlessness of its sleep detection into a watch that adapts to the user, the Sense adds enough complexity to make the whole experience more frictional that it should be.

Fitbit doesn’t need to go back to the drawing board, but the Sense isn’t the next-gen smartwatch Fitbit needs, at least not yet.

A familiar, refined design

If you’ve been paying attention to Fitbit over the past few years, the Sense will look very familiar. It’s not quite a carbon copy of the Versa, but it’s very similar, with a design that’s a bit more rounded but still square. It’s a smidge bigger than the Versa 2 but identical to the Versa 3’s dimensions (40.48 x 40.48 x 12.35mm). The Versa 2’s mechanical button has been replaced by an inductive one, which gives the Sense a sleek, seamless aesthetic.

fitit sense screen Michael Simon/IDG

The Fitbit Sense’s display is only slightly larger screen than the Versa 2 (left), but the rounded corners make it much nicer to look at.

The bands look very much like the ones on the Versa 2 as well, but you won’t be able to swap your old Versa bands onto the Sense. That’s due to the new quick-release mechanism that’s light-years easier over the clunky pin method on the previous Versas. It’s very much like Apple’s method on the Apple Watch, but even easier, as there’s no sliding. The straps just snap in and out. If you’ve collected a bunch of Versa bands, buying a set of new ones isn’t ideal, but for most it is an acceptable tradeoff.

The Sense’s OLED screen jumps to 1.58 inches from the the Versa 2’s 1.39 inches. And it has rounded corners now just like the Apple Watch, which helps the Sense’s display blend into its bezels. There’s still a bit more space between the screen and the edges than I like, but Fitbit OS’s dark UI mostly makes the edges of the screen invisible to the naked eye.

fitit sense buttons Michael Simon/IDG

Like the Versa 2 (bottom), the Sense has just one button, but it’s inductive.

In previous Fitbit reviews, I gripe a lot about the constantly changing and finicky chargers, but the Sense finally gets it right. It’s magnetic like the Inspire, but strong enough so it won’t shift loose, attaching with a firm snap. And in a first for Fitbit, the Sense supports fast charging, so you won’t have to keep it attached to a charger for very long. In 12 minutes (Fitbit’s recommended power-up time), I went from 4 percent to 27 percent, more than enough to get my though a full day of use.

Sensors and sensibilities

The Sense looks nice, but the design isn’t the thing that’ll convince most people to buy it. You get the usual metrics on which Fitbit has built its reputation, including best-in-class sleep tracking and Active Zone Minutes, which automatically record and alert you to intense exercise even if you’re not tracking a workout.