Step counters, or pedometers as they’re more formally know, have existed for centuries – most people probably remember getting one alongside a box of cereal they purchased sometime in the past – but it’s really with the introduction of the Fitbit Classic, released in 2009, that step counting became a thing everyone did.
Think about this: you can now buy a Nintendo New 3DS, and it, a video game console, even comes with step counter. Fitbit may have not created the sea of change Apple did with the introduction of the iPhone, but, for better or worse, tech and fitness have become intertwined since the company hit the scene.
Still, you probably won’t find anyone that’s willing to argue fitness trackers are indispensable, but with its latest fitness tracker, Alta, Fitbit has gotten the closest to making a tracker that’s perfect for almost anyone and everyone. In short, the Alta presents the right feature set at a price that, even with the weakened Canadian dollar, is affordable.
The best looking Fitbit yet
Without a doubt, this is Fitbit’s most attractive product to date. Compared to the company’s earlier fitness trackers, most notably the Charge and Surge, the Alta can pass for something other than a tech gadget.
While not exactly beautiful, the Alta is light, unobtrusive and comfortable to wear, making it ideal for both sessions at the gym and day-to-day use. Moreover, with several different swappable bands to choose from, including the classic, made from elastomer and available in four different colours, as well as two separate leather bands and a stainless steel one, the customization options on offer aren’t extensive, but there’s still enough here to appeal to most fashion tastes.
Everything you need, nothing you don’t
At $169.95 CAD, the Alta is Fitbit’s most expensive “Everyday” fitness tracker, the category the company uses to distinguish the Alta, Flex and Charge from its more feature-rich and expensive devices, which include the Charge HR and Blaze at the “Active” tier and Surge at the absolute high-end.
It is capable of tracking steps, sleep, as well as a variety of activities that feature continuous motion like running and cycling. What it can’t do is monitor either resting or active heart rate. The Alta also doesn’t include a GPS module, a feature that’s only available with the Surge. However, given its price point, these omissions are understandable. Moreover, I didn’t find the lack of heart rate monitoring and GPS tracking particularly limited the Alta’s effectiveness as a tool for bettering my health, which speaks to the Alta’s target demographic: it’s perfect for office workers looking to offset the effects of sitting all day, while seasoned athletes will want to look elsewhere.
One feature the Alta does has over those more expensive peers is a reminder that pops up after long periods of inactivity. Every hour, the Alta will vibrate and its screen will turn on, displaying a cute message like “Take me for a walk!” or “Feed me steps!” to remind the user to walk 250 steps. According to Fitbit, 250 steps, which amounts to a minute or two of moving around, is enough to combat the effects of sitting for an hour. Speaking of step goals, one the thing the Alta does exceptionally well is celebrate whenever the user hits their daily goal. It lights up in what can only be described as a veritable EDM light show.
The Alta’s basic functionality is accessed via its OLED display. Double tapping the display wakes it and lets the user switch between five different screens. These screens display, in order, the date and time, steps taken, distance travelled, calories burned and how much time the user has spent being active.
More in-depth metrics are accessed via the Fitbit mobile app, desktop client or website, which means getting the most out of the Alta doesn’t actually require a smartphone.
Using this same display, it’s also possible to forward call and text message notifications from a smartphone. For most part, I didn’t find the Alta’s execution of this feature particularly compelling. When the Alta forwards a call or SMS notification, all the user sees is the name of the person calling them or sending them a text message. In addition, the Alta’s tap display is supposed to automatically wake when the user lifts their wrist to read a message, but I found I had to exaggerate this motion for my Alta to recognize it.
All of this functionality is housed in device that comes with a battery that is rated to last five days. In practice, I found the Alta was easily able to get to a full week without much trouble.
New hardware, same old software
For better or worse, the Alta ships with the same app that every other Fitbit on the market does. At first glance, it’s one of the more attractive and approachable fitness apps available on iOS, Android and Windows Phone. Warm colours and a clean interface make it easy to see, at a glance, exactly how close you are to accomplishing your daily goals.
The company’s app also does a great job of motivating the user to hit their daily goals. Should the user decide to grant the app access to their smartphone’s notifications, the app will send regular notifications, telling the user how close they are to reaching their daily goals. When you hit a major milestone, the app awards you a one-time badge. Even if it’s a bit silly, I couldn’t help but smile when I got a badge that told me I had walked the equivalent of the march of the penguins (100 kilometres) while wearing my Alta.
The one issue with Fitbit’s software — and it’s an issue that’s common across the whole spectrum of apps that come with these devices — is that the app often doesn’t do enough to provide actionable recommendations to the user. Other apps I’ve used, particularly ones from Microsoft and Under Armour, have done a better job of providing context and suggestions based on the information they collect.
The Under Armour Record app, for example, provides automatic insights based on changes it notes. Get a bit more sleep one day, and it provide information on the benefits of catching eight hours of sleep in a night. For the most part, this type of information is hidden behind a deep link to Fitbit’s website, and for the most part it feels the Alta is tracking these stats for the sake of tracking them, not because they offer an important window into places where one can improve their overall health.
All of this to say making the most of the Alta requires some effort on the part of the user. If you want to really take advantage what this device has to offer, you’ll need to talk to visit your doctor and a variety of websites and forums to find meaningful insights. Not that this surprising (health and fitness have always been about handwork and discipline), but it’s something to keep in mind if you plan to purchase one of these devices; they’re not a panacea to bad habits.
The easiest Fitbit to recommend ever
In a recently completed study on the effectiveness of fitness wearables, participants raised their daily step count by 950 after six weeks of using their wearable. Other studies have found that people who increase their daily fitness levels in this way have seen improvements in their body mass index and insulin sensitivity. According to Fitbit’s own statistics, the average person in North American walks about 5000 steps in a given day. It may not seem like it, but walking close to an additional 1000 steps each day constitutes a major change for most people; after all, its almost a 20 percent increase.
This is the power of fitness trackers like the Alta. Seeing dramatic changes in one’s health still requires motivation and discipline, of course, but it’s possible to see small but meaningful changes with just one device. It may not be perfect, but at $169.95 CAD, the Alta can do a lot of good for not significant amount of money. In this, it’s one of the easiest fitness trackers to recommend.
- Great design
- Affordable price
- Perfect feature set
- Software could be better
- No heart rate monitor
Patrick O’Rourke contributed to this review.
Related reading: Fitbit Blaze review: Not really a ‘smart’ watch