FEATURE REVIEW – Fitbit Surge

The next item up for review in our smartwatch round-up is the Fitbit Surge. Let’s take a look…

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Introduction

My quest to stop being a fat slob continues.

What to do, how much of it to do and what else I need to do to keep myself healthy is a never ending battle… and its not easy. There are way too many different daily challenges that present themselves.  Am I moving enough?  Am I eating right?  Am I sleeping right? These questions are difficult to answer as it is, and Fitbit has been trying to help people answer it for more than a few years now.

Their latest foray into fitness band/ smartwatch arena is the Fitbit Surge. It has a few nice things to offer not only the fitness conscious, but the smartwatch curious as well; and in this article, we’ll be taking a look at its suitability in both arenas.

This is the second review in a series – or round up – of smartwatch reviews that I’m doing.  The first on the Microsoft Band was large and in depth enough for me to break it up into two parts. You can see them here and here.  Its good and certainly worthy of more than a casual look.

My review of the Fitbit Surge is likely going to be just as lengthy and just as in depth. I’m going to pick apart the hardware. I’m going to pick apart the software. Smartwatches aren’t cheap. The Microsoft Band is $199… IF you can find one to buy.  I’ll cover the cost of the Fitbit a bit later, but I will say that it isn’t cheap, either.

Is the Fitbit Surge the right smartwatch and fitness band for you? Let’s stop dawdling and get down to it!

Hardware

Like the Microsoft Band, the Fitbit Surge is a single piece of hardware.  It has a wide, silicone/ rubber band with a traditional, aluminum alloy buckle.  Its much easier to wear than the Microsoft Band, as there’s a great deal of give and flexibility in the Fitbit’s rubber band.  Aside from the same kind of issues that you might find in wearing any other sports watch, band or bracelet made of silicone or rubber – where you sweat a great deal and your skin may become irritated due to a lack of exposure to air – the Fitbit wears the way you would expect a sports watch to wear.  Honestly, I was very pleased with the way it felt while it was on. The only comfort issues I had were related to breathabiltity.

Wearability and Usability

I’ve been wearing the Fitbit Surge for quite some time now – well over six weeks.  The device is easy to wear and its very comfortable.  However, there are a few things about it that I am not too crazy about.  Part of that is esthetics, part of that is design and while the device is comfortable to wear, it does have Wearability issues.

 The first thing that I noticed about it is that its BIG, even the small sized Surge is big.  The device comes in 3 sizes, small, large and extra-large.  However, size doesn’t relate to device size, it relates to band length and the size wrists it fits. The device itself is 1.34″ wide (34mm) and the screen is 0.82″ x 0.96″ (21mm x 24mm).

 Here are the sizing requirements, direct from Fitbit:

    • Small fits wrists that are 5.5″ x 6.3″ (13.94cm x 16.00cm) in diameter.
    • Large fits wrists that are 6.3″ x 7.8″ (16.00cm x 19.81cm) in diameter.
  • X-Large fits wrists that are 7.8″ x 8.9″ (19.81cm x 220.61cm) in diameter.X-Large is available as an online only purchase.

There are a couple of gotchas here that you need to be aware of.  While they aren’t mission critical, they are important to be aware of so that you can deal with the issues they present.

  1. The wrist band is made of silicone or rubber
    Wearing a silicone band in and of itself isn’t bad, unless you’re allergic to the rubber.  Even if you aren’t allergic to it, you need to make certain you spend some time with the band off.  Silicone can often cause rashes and other skin irritation, and its important that you spend at least some inactive time during the day with the band off, especially if you start to notice any dry, red or flakey skin, or if you start to have some other sort of skin reaction to prolonged wear of the device.
  2. The device, though flexible is bulky
    While the band in and of itself is flexible, the actual Surge itself, is stiff and bulky. The Surge is much more comfortable to wear than the Microsoft Band but the actual electronics of the device go out a bit farther than you might think.  Its clear that Fitbit have created a device that’s very compact, but if you look at it from the side and feel around the ends of band near the actual device FOR the device, you’ll see that its actually a lot bigger than just the screen.

The device itself is, well… ugly.

I hate to say it, but it is.  It’s a lot bulkier than it first appears or seems and its one piece construction means that you don’t have any kind of style choices with it.  Other Fitbit devices like the Apple Watch and even the Fitbit Flex have interchangeable bands. The Surge is a single piece unit, and… right now… you can have ANY color you want… as long as its black.  It’s the only color currently available.  The Surge is supposed to be available in blue and tangerine, but as of this writing, both are currently – still – unavailable. I’ve had my Surge for about two months or so. It was announced at CES and black was the only color available then.  You would think by now – or at least, I did – that the other two colors – which, quite honestly, aren’t all that attractive either – would be available by now.

However, don’t expect to be able to change bands. Unlike the Apple Watch or even the Fitbit Flex, this is an all in one unit, and you’d better be happy with the color choice(s) you make. Once you buy the device, its yours to keep; and there’s no way to change colors or change bands. What you buy is all that you get.

Notifications

If the Microsoft Band got notifications right, the Fitbit Surge doesn’t even come close.  On the Band, it was very easy to overdo notifications, as you could choose to have ALL of your notifications from your phone come over to Band, or you could choose specific ones that it does and keep the vibrations down to a dull roar.

With the Fitbit Surge, its exactly the opposite. You have just a single on-off setting for notifications on the device and then you get only notification of incoming text messages or incoming phone calls.

That’s it.

That can be good or bad, depending on what you’re looking for Surge to do.  If all you’re looking for is basic notifications from incoming messaging, you may be in luck.  As I said, the only notifications that the Fitbit Surge picks up are text messages and incoming phone calls.  If you’re looking to get notifications from upcoming appointments, Facebook Messenger or some other app on your phone, you’re out of luck.

The other big problem I have with notifications on the Fitbit Surge, is that the device doesn’t seem to understand or know when I don’t want them, or want them to stop.  I had notifications turned on for a while on the Fitbit, but have recently turned them off, as I didn’t need BOTH it AND the Microsoft Band buzzing my wrists every time my iPhone received a message, a phone call, or some other event occurred.

So, as I said, I turned notifications off on both bands.  Interestingly enough, Notifications on the Surge are still occasionally received, even though they are clearly turned off on the watch. I have no idea why. This is clearly a huge bug, as there shouldn’t be any notifications coming over at all.

However it clearly shows that the device’s software is capturing the notification and broadcasting the data. It clearly shows that the watch is receiving it through the Bluetooth partnership created on the device, even though its not supposed to be collecting ANY data at all. I’m seeing issues on both ends of the pairing; and its problematic at best. The fix for this – and it definitely needs to be addressed – will likely involve both a software update on your smartphone as well as a firmware update to the device.

UPDATE – The more that I wear the Fitbit Surge, the more I continue to have issues and problems with Notifications coming to it when they are clearly turned off on the device.  While the device does not alert that any text messages have come it, they are clearly coming across and they should not.

Period.

This is an issue that needs to be resolved immediately.

Battery Life

Battery life on the Fitbit Surge is actually pretty good. Compared to the Micrsoft Band, though, nearly ANYTHING would have better battery life… Well, not everything… the Apple Watch won’t last longer than 18 hours. The Micrsoft Band lasts 36 to 48 hours (even if you have Bluetooth turned off and sync via the USB cable).

The Fitbit Surge on the other hand, will last the better part of a week, even with all of the stuff that it does and all of the activities it tracks. Since the Surge tracks nearly everything you do, including sleep, the best thing to do when you do have to charge it is to charge it when you know you’re going to be inactive, or when you can’t wear it.  Swimming and showering come to mind as good candidate times when you might want to charge your Surge.  While the device is DEFINITELY water resistant, I wouldn’t hold it under water for long periods of time. Its not a perfect world, and my luck would have it getting water damage.

The biggest problem that I’ve found with the Surge is that it doesn’t give you a lot of warning when the battery is low, and you might find yourself out and about when you DO get a low battery warning. I’ve actually had mine die on me a time or two because I didn’t get an early enough warning that the battery was level was low.

Connectivity

The Fitbit Surge uses Bluetooth 4.0 to connect to your smartphone. I’ve found that while there are there are issues with this on other devices, the Surge specifically doesn’t use Bluetooth LE. I’m not certain if that’s why there are less connectivity issues with it as opposed to the Pebble Steel and Microsoft Band that I currently own.  Perhaps it is, and points to some larger issues with BT-LE devices.

What I can say about the Fitbit Surge is that while its connection to my iPhone 6 is much more stable, it isn’t as reactive or responsive as other devices are.  When implemented correctly, BT-LE devices tend to see their paired counterparts better and will actively connect when in range (though there’s even issues with this, as you can see in my article), as opposed to devices that do not pair with a BT-LE profile.

While I have less connectivity issues with my Surge, and while the battery life is decent even with its Bluetooth radio on all the time, I have found that data doesn’t come across the pairing unless the application is open and active. This means that I need to be actively using the app for the sync to work and pull data over.  Leaving it run in the background doesn’t do much… at least not consistently. I see this more as a Bluetooth issue rather than an issue with the Surge.

When you pair your Fitbit Surge with your smartphone, you’re going to see two connection partnerships – one for the Surge and one for Surge (Classic). The connection for the Surge is the one that you’d expect to see, and the one that is responsible for all of the connectivity and communication between the device and your smartphone.  If you want to use your Surge to control music playback, you need to enable Bluetooth Classic in the Settings app on the watch. After your Surge and your smartphone are paired, you can use it to control music playback.

To do so, open up a music app on your smartphone.  Then, double tap the home (left side) button on the Surge.  This will bring up the music control app on its display.  You will see your Surge attempting to connect via the (Classic) pairing, and then the current song’s meta data should appear on the watch face’s display.  You can pause the current song’s playback or skip to the next track. Unfortunately, not all music apps broadcast track information, which means that when using apps that don’t do that, the song title won’t appear on your Surge. However, you can still pause or skip to the next track.

I can see where this might be a great tool for someone who is exercising to NOT have to pull out their phone to control their playlist. Depending on where you have your phone stashed (not everyone fancies or trusts an armband case…), you may have to break your stride or stop exercising all together to retrieve and return your phone to its original place of storage.

However, I’ve tried this, and while its easier than pulling a phone from a shirt or pants pocket while running or walking, it isn’t totally a walk in the park, either. You’re going to need to get used to the interface and controls. You can pause, play, and skip songs. You’re going to have to pull your phone out if you’ want to repeat or replay any tracks or if you want to change playlists, midflight.

If you wear glasses for reading, you may have issues reading the audio file’s metadata, provided that your music app of choice transmits that information, on the Surge’s screen. While this isn’t a deal breaker, you do need to be aware of its limitations. Its hard to handle all of the varied functionality with only three buttons; AND to do it while you’re moving, too.

UPDATE – While writing this review of the Fitbit Surge, I’ve had it synching to my iPhone. Over the past few weeks, I’ve started to notice a few issues with Bluetooth connectivity between them both. They always seemed to work and play well together.

Right now, they are not; and NOTHING has changed on either end to warrant the issue in their pairing.  They just seem to not be looking at each other right now unless I absolutely tell them to get together. This is problematic at best, as when I started my Fitbit Surge journey, getting these two together was the easiest paring I’ve ever seen.  It just worked… straight out of the box.  Now, its like they love each other, but their not “in” love.

 Really..?

This is yet another reason why I think that while Bluetooth offers a LOT of potential, it has REAL issues as a data communications and transmission technology and conduit.

Software and Interfaces

I’ll get into Fitbit’s smartphone software in a minute, but I have to say something here, that’s bothered me since I started wearing the Surge – The information that it tracks and collects isn’t stored in Apple Health. Its stored in Fitbit’s proprietary program.  The app doesn’t share or swap data with Apple Health, and it really seems like it should. Some of what it does can’t be done in Apple Health, and that’s fine, but there really should be a way to have data from your iPhone and the data from you’re the Surge work and play well together, especially where Fitbit falls short.

Next Page

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The Reason Why I Drink, Or Why Documentation Is So Important

I’ve had a really bad couple of weeks…

So… gratuitous resume rewind – 25 years of QA experience… CHECK! On every, formal, Technical Windows Beta Team between Windows 95 and Windows XP and beta tested ALL versions of Windows between Windows 95 and Windows 10… CHECK! 20 years of experience as a technology journalist… CHECK!

Whoosh! Ok… I feel a LOT better. For a moment there, I thought I turned into an idiot.

Over the past three to four weeks, I’ve been having a great deal of trouble with my Surface Pro 3. I got the device in December and have had it warranty replaced once and swapped out to a NEW unit once. My original unit bricked when I tried to refresh it from Windows 10 Build 9926 to a clean install. I found out the hard way that installing Build 9879 blew the Windows 8.1 recovery partition and replaced it with a Windows 10 Build 9879 partition. Upgrading from Build 9879 to Build 9926 did NOT update the recovery partition, so the device choked upon refresh.

One appointment to the Microsoft Store’s Answer Desk had it restored to Windows 8.1; but then when it tried to setup Windows 8.1, the device froze during setup and was not recoverable. Hence warranty replacement number one.

A week so after that, I’m back at the SAME Microsoft Store, wanting to put Windows 10 back on my i3-based Surface Pro 3; and I’m having a problem creating a Windows 8.1 bootable, USB Recovery Drive. The process involves using the internal Recovery tool to create the drive. You’ll need the following:

1. An 8GB or larger USB Stick
2. A working Windows 8.1 PC with an whole and undamaged Recovery Partition on the internal SSD
3. About 30 minutes of free time

The full process can be found here. It’s easy to do, and anyone who can use Windows 8.1 (meaning EVERYONE) can complete the process. It’s really super easy…

However… please don’t think that you’re going to be able to actually USE that USB Recovery Image for anything, especially if you have a Surface Pro 3, and ESPECIALLY after the 2015-03-26 Firmware Update. The status quo has changed…but just slightly.

Before the firmware update, I could boot from just about any external, bootable image – from one on a USB stick to a bootable DVD on my USB-based BDVD-RW drive. It just didn’t matter. If it was a bootable image and Windows could read the image and the media, it all worked.

Then the firmware update hit, and it all went south.

I don’t have confirmation from anyone on this at Microsoft, but the latest firmware update modified the way Surface Pro 3 can boot. Now, you don’t need to hold Power+Volume Down to get the device to boot from USB. Now, you can set boot order preferences in UEFI, and the device will boot from the first device in that chain with a bootable image. So if you want to have your SURFACE PRO 3 boot from

Network–>USB–>SSD

Or

USB–>SSD

Or any other potential, hard coded methods, the device will just do that. You don’t need to hold the buttons down any longer and hope that you’ve let them go at the right point, so you don’t have to repeat the process. It makes life, much easier.

However, Microsoft fails to note a couple of very important items in any of the documentation – if you can find it – related to the firmware update or the process for making a recovery image. The USB stick you use must have a GPT partition table.

Say what??

Yeah… a GUID Partition Table.

Mac users will recognize this. This is the partition table scheme that Macs have been using for years. PC’s have been using MBR or Master Boot Record partition tables since the dark days (…before the empire…) of DOS 1.0. However, that was when all PC’s were using BIOS and not UEFI. UEFI will use MBR formatted disks, but they’re much happier with GPT formatted disks.

UEFI

And that’s NOWHERE to be found in the instructions here or here.

That second set is a better recovery image creating process than the first set of instructions. All you have to do is format a USB stick with FAT32, download a zip file, unzip it and copy the contents of the ZIP to the USB stick and you’re in business.

The problem is that the instructions fail to inform you that you have to format the stick with GPT. Which, BTW, Windows will NOT do by default… AND there’s no way that I know of to get any GUI element in ANY Windows to do that, either.

However, you CAN do it with a third party tool called Rufus.

The tool is small, simple and easy to use, and you can use it to do a couple of different things
1. Use it to format a USB stick with the proper partition type, file system and cluster size
2. Use it to create a bootable USB stick from just about any ISO you can get your hands on.

With Rufus, I was able to create a bootable, USB Windows 8.1 Recovery Drive with the downloadable recovery image you can get here. The most important thing you need to know about this process – which, by the way, isn’t documented anywhere – is that in order to create a bootable Recovery Drive for Windows 8.1 AFTER the firmware update from 2015-03-26, you again, must format the USB stick with the following parameters:

Partition scheme and target system type – GPT partition scheme for UEFI computer
File system – FAT32 (Default)
Cluster size – 4096 bytes (Default)

There are a couple of things you need to be aware of:

1. Anything that is on the USB stick will be destroyed when you click Rufus’ Start button. Back it up or copy it off before beginning the process.
2. Microsoft recommends you use a 16GB USB stick for this process, though I’ve been able to demonstrate that an 8GB stick will work.
3. Some partition types and file systems don’t work together. Rufus will tell you which ones don’t work and play well with others when you try to use them together.
4. If you want to create a bootable USB stick for, say, a Windows 10 install, you can specify an ISO image to use.
5. That ISO image will likely have file system requirements that you may have to adhere to. Again, Rufus will tell you when your choices and the file system on the ISO don’t match up.

This app saved my bacon AND my sanity.

I have been working a support thread with Barb Bowman most of the day today, and without her help and DIRECT intervention; I would not have been able to resolve this problem. I would have created yet ANOTHER Microsoft Answer Desk appointment and they likely would have swapped out my SURFACE PRO 3 i5 for another unit, suspecting it to be defective.

Now… the big problems I have will be moving this device over to Windows 10. There are a couple of new issues with that, given that I want to run the Enterprise version of Windows 10 and not the Professional (consumer-based) version.

1. The Enterprise download for Windows 10 is still Build 9926. Currently, Microsoft has us on Build 10049 in the Fast Ring.
2. I don’t want to have to install/ download a version of Windows 10 that’s three versions back.
3. The file system in the Windows 10 Build of 10041 (the last Build released to the Slow Ring and the last official, released ISO) is formatted with an NTFS file system, and Rufus won’t let me create a GPT based partition table with an NTFS formatted ISO. They don’t work and play well together.

This still leaves me with a problem of creating a bootable Windows 10 drive so that I can install Windows 10 Build 10041 on the new Surface Pro 3. From there, I can use Windows Update to upgrade to Build 10049, which includes the new Spartan Browser.

But that’s been my life over the past few weeks. I’ve been banging my head up against this SP3/ Windows 8.1 Recovery Drive issue so I can figure out a way of getting BACK to Windows 10 so I can continue my coverage of the OS on Soft32. As a result of this problem, I may have left my OneNote Disappearing Ink problem in the dust, but I’m without a way to actively test current builds of Windows 10 as I sold my Surface Pro 1 to Gazelle.

The biggest problem here is the total and COMPLETE LACK of documentation. I’m a software quality professional. I TRIED to find information on the issue. I had to start a support thread with Microsoft to get any resolution to this issue. If Microsoft had included this information as part of their instructions for creating a bootable recovery drive, AND if they had their Windows 8.x recovery tool automatically format the USB stick with a GPT partition table and as FAT32 as part of the process that creates the Recovery Drive, this wouldn’t be a problem at all.

Do you have a SP3? Have you had issues booting to a USB drive since the application of the 2015-03-26 Firmware Update? Did you know about Rufus; or about needing to format ANY bootable USB stick to use a GPT partition table? I’d love to hear about your recent experiences with this issue, if you’ve had them. Why don’t you join me in the Discussion Area below, and give me your thoughts?

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