When I reviewed the Fitbit Sense two years ago, it was an ambitious smartwatch. Its successor, the Sense 2? Eh, not so much. It’s hyperbole to say the Sense 2 is a complete downgrade, but I don’t think you can truly call it a smartwatch, either. This, my friends, is what I’d call a premium fitness tracker — and if you view it from that lens, it’s a good one. But is it really $300 worth of fitness tracker, especially since the Pixel Watch is only $50 more, has nearly all the same health features, and is much smarter?
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Falling behind in smarts
Before I get into why the Sense 2 isn’t a smartwatch, we need to set the stage. In 2020, the Sense was plenty smart. It had a novel stress-tracking electrodermal activity (EDA) sensor, FDA-cleared electrocardiogram (EKG) sensors, blood oxygen saturation (SpO2) sensors, temperature sensor, contactless payments, and the choice between Alexa and Google Assistant. It was a viable alternative to the Apple Watch Series 6 and the Samsung Galaxy Watch 3 — even if it didn’t have cellular connectivity and its third-party app ecosystem was meh.
A lot can happen in two years. Since then, the Series 8 and Galaxy Watch 5 have caught up to the majority of the Sense 2’s health features while widening the gap in terms of smarts. There’s also now the Apple Watch Ultra and Galaxy Watch 5 Pro to contend with. The Sense 2’s main advantage is weeklong battery life, but that all but disappears if you enable the always-on display. In my testing, enabling the AOD meant three days on a single charge at most.
And then there’s the Pixel Watch. It’s clear that Google, Fitbit’s parent company, sees that as the future of its wearable lineup. The Pixel Watch uses Fitbit’s platform for its health and fitness features; Fitbit CEO James Park even introduced the Pixel Watch at the Made by Google event. And it has all the features you’d expect from a smartwatch, including a voice assistant, emergency calling, and smart home control. If you read between the lines, it all feels like a death knell for the Fitbit as a smartwatch.
Fitbit spokesperson Jonathan Moll told The Verge that the Sense 2 was designed to “prioritize the most important features our users care about and use the most, including heart rate tracking, sleep tracking, and stress management.” It makes sense that Google would take steps to differentiate the Sense 2 from the Pixel Watch. There’s no reason for one company to have two competing smartwatch platforms, and it makes sense for Fitbit to to narrow its focus to fitness. But it feels like Google nerfed the Sense 2 a bit too much.
For example, you can’t use Google Assistant on the Sense 2. This is weird. On the original Sense and the Versa 3, you can pick between Alexa or Google Assistant. Now, your only option is Alexa. Fitbit spokesperson Jonathan Moll told me, “At this time there are no plans to deploy Google Assistant on Sense 2 or Versa 4. We look forward to bringing this feature to future devices.”
Regardless of whether you like digital assistants, their presence on smartwatches is a given these days. Sure, there’s Alexa — but that’s a whole other smart home ecosystem. Why wouldn’t you put Google Assistant on a Google smartwatch? The whole theme of the Made by Google event was that all these devices work together! If not, what’s the point exactly? I’m truly lost at the thought process here.
Previously available third-party apps like Starbucks and Spotify don’t seem to be an option anymore. At least, they weren’t listed as compatible with the Sense 2 when I tried to download them from the Fitbit App Gallery. Fitbit’s third-party ecosystem was already paltry, so this is yet another baffling decision.
Google may have nerfed the Sense 2 a bit too much
The addition of Google Maps and Google Wallet takes some of the sting out. Except, I can’t tell you how well either app works because they’re not available yet. It’s not unheard of for companies to launch features after a product hits shelves. But when you combine this with Google taking away previous third-party apps, it sure is a head-scratcher.
The Sense 2 has a combination Bluetooth / Wi-Fi radio, as did the Sense, but the Wi-Fi is deactivated, per Fitbit’s official spec sheet. Moll told The Verge, “Historically, Wi-Fi was used for updating firmware and music storage. Sense 2 and Versa 4 now use Bluetooth to update firmware, and do not have music storage capabilities.” Add offline music — which the Sense supported for Deezer and Pandora — to the casualty list.
All this is odd. The Sense 2’s redesigned UI certainly makes you feel like it’s meant to be a smartwatch. The refreshed design is spiffier than previous versions of Fitbit OS. It looks exactly the same as Wear OS on the Pixel Watch. For example, swiping left and right will let you view widgets. Pressing the button brings up an app list. Swiping up brings up notifications, and swiping down gets you to the quick menu. It’s a great improvement, performance doesn’t lag, and everything looks much nicer as well.
Despite its UI, the Sense 2 isn’t really a smartwatch by 2022 standards. It’s a fitness tracker masquerading as one.
A refined yet comfy redesign
The Sense 2’s software feels like it’s been deliberately limited — or focused, if you prefer — but the physical hardware has been improved all around. You can tell Fitbit’s put a lot of effort into streamlining the design so that it’s more comfortable for everyday wear.
The Sense 2 is lighter than its predecessor, though you may not notice the change in weight. I didn’t when I compared them one after another. I did, however, notice the Sense 2 is much thinner. The Sense had this tapered, trapezoidal shape on the side where the sensor bump dug into your skin. It was a means of masking the thickness when actually on your wrist. The Sense 2 doesn’t need to do that. And as far as numbers go, the Sense 2 is 11.2mm thick, while the Sense is 12.4mm. The difference in thickness is roughly that of a penny.
It was refreshing to wear such a lightweight device after testing the Apple Watch Ultra. It didn’t catch on any sleeves or jacket cuffs, even when I was wearing several layers while hiking. It was also comfy for sleep tracking and all-day wear. I hardly noticed it while running or working out, which is a nice change of pace from the chonkers I’ve been testing as of late.
The new design also means completely different sensor arrays — both on the bottom of the watch and in the display. Where the Sense had a metal top ring for EKG and EDA readings, the Sense 2 builds that capability directly into the display’s bezels. The result is it looks even more like the Apple Watch. And while I wish those bezels were thinner, I’m glad Fitbit is making use of the “wasted” space.
But the best change is that Fitbit replaced the Sense’s infuriating inductive groove with an actual physical button. That groove was a confounding design choice. Not only was it prone to accidental presses, but the haptics also weren’t strong enough if you were trying to use the long-press shortcut. I often sat there pressing, confused why my shortcut wasn’t launching. I eventually got the hang of it, but peruse any Fitbit forum or subreddit, and you’ll find plenty of frustrated users.
I had none of these issues with the physical button. Plus, it’s so much more satisfying to press something and know it’s registered. The button, while raised, doesn’t protrude too far. I haven’t experienced any accidental presses so far — even while wearing multiple layers and a winter coat.
A thoughtful tool for stress management
Fitbit clearly put a lot of effort into stress tracking. With the Sense 2, Fitbit’s made some meaningful improvements to the lineup’s most unique feature.
Quick refresher: The Sense watches measure stress via an EDA sensor. EDA sensors detect minuscule changes in your skin’s sweat levels. That, along with other metrics like heart rate variation, can be used as an indicator of stress. Or, as Fitbit dubs it, “body responses.” Previously, the EDA features worked more like spot-checks that users had to initiate. The Sense 2 upgrades the original’s EDA sensor to a cEDA sensor. The “c” stands for continuous, meaning you can now get automatic alerts in real time.
Basically, if the Sense 2 detects a body response, you’ll get a nudge to log your mood. You’ll also see prompts to take a few stress-relieving actions like a guided meditation, a two-minute EDA scan, or going on a short walk.
It works! Mostly. In my experience, the alerts lagged a bit and often came at inopportune times. For example, I had a bit of a car rental snafu when I visited Iceland last week. It was 4:30AM ET at Keflavik International Airport, I hadn’t slept on the flight, my phone was malfunctioning, and the car rental agency was so new none of its information was on Google yet. It worked out, but I was one misfortune away from hyperventilating into a paper bag. You’d think the Sense 2 would’ve been buzzing incessantly on my wrist. Instead, it only notified me about 30 minutes after everything was sorted. When prompted to log my mood, I hit the “Frustrated” emoticon.
By that time, I wasn’t able to do a guided meditation session, go on a walk, or sit still enough for a two-minute EDA reading to alleviate my stress. I was in a car, giving my husband directions to our next destination. Another time, I got a body response alert while trekking up Seljalandsfoss waterfall in the freezing rain and wind. I logged my mood as “excited,” but I wasn’t interested in anything but being present in the moment. It became a recurring theme. Whenever I had powerful body responses, I was too preoccupied to do more than note how I was feeling. And that’s if I even noticed the alerts, to begin with.
The execution might be a little clunky, but Fitbit’s stress management feature is still the best I’ve ever tested. I didn’t always respond to alerts as intended, but overall, it is good to take a step back and acknowledge how you feel in a high-stress moment. I appreciated that Fitbit acknowledges that bodily stress can be positive or negative and that it may not always align with your mood.
The stress data is also presented thoughtfully. For instance, you get both a Stress Management score and a weekly summary. The former looks at your body responses, exertion level, and sleep patterns to give you an idea of how your cumulative stress may impact you on a given day. The weekly summary visualizes how many body responses you got each day in the previous week, as well as your most common moods.
Stress management can be challenging, especially if you’re someone who tends to ignore bodily signals until burnout kicks in. (It me.) The mix of quantified data and logging is a helpful visualization tool, and I appreciated it wasn’t linked to athletic performance.
Fitbit’s always had some of the best overall sleep tracking features. It’s recently added profiles, which categorize you as a type of animal based on your sleep patterns and give you sleep hygiene insights based on those patterns. (It’s similar to what Samsung does with its Galaxy Watches.) You get a new profile on the 1st of every month. I’d love to tell you how it works, but there’s a catch. You’ve got to wear it for 14 nights out of the month in order to get a sleep profile for the next month, and it only offers profiles on the first of the calendar month. In September, thanks to my review queue, I only got 12, which meant I didn’t get a profile for October and won’t get one until November 1st, six weeks after I started using the Sense 2.
I recognize that I’m an edge case. This reviewer life has me constantly rotating between devices, and I’ve only got two wrists. Customers sticking to one Fitbit will have less of an issue, but there’s no good reason to tie sleep profiles to the first of the calendar month rather than updating them on a rolling basis.
The price is not right
I’ll be blunt. If you want a durable tracker that can withstand extreme elements or one with hyper-accurate GPS data, this ain’t it. The Sense 2 has built-in GPS, but if you really care about accurate route maps, you’re better off with a Garmin or another fitness watch with multiband GPS. Case in point, you only have to look at these screenshots of a recent hike to see that Fitbit’s GPS isn’t the greatest. The same goes if you’re looking for in-depth training plans and more raw data.
Then again, Fitbit’s always been a platform for general users. Its greatest strength is that it has always presented raw data in a digestible format. That’s what makes the Sense 2 — and other Fitbit devices — great for building healthier habits in a gentle, holistic way. It’s got great recovery tools in its Sleep Score, Daily Readiness Score, and, now, stress management features, as well as simple but convenient tools for logging calories, weight, and water intake. Its Active Zone Minutes metric is excellent for helping beginners visualize whether they’re getting an adequate amount of exercise per week.
So the Sense 2 is a good overall health tracker but a not-so-great smartwatch. Compared to dirt-cheap fitness bands, you’re getting a prettier design and a unique take on stress tracking. I’m just not sure why anyone would pay $299.95 for a fancier fitness tracker with fewer overall features when you can get an entry-level smartwatch for less. I can understand wanting a fitness tracker and not a smartwatch, but in that instance, there are also more affordable options.
For iPhone users, the Apple Watch SE costs $249. For Android users, the 40mm Samsung Galaxy Watch 5 is $279.99. I mean, come on, the Google Pixel Watch costs only $50 more than the Sense 2 at $349.
Fitbit’s other trackers muddy the water even more. The $229.95 Versa 4 has the vast majority of the Sense 2’s features, and even the $179.95 Charge 5 has an EKG sensor. If you just want a basic tracker, the Inspire 3 is out here for $99.95. Unless you find the Sense 2 on sale for under $200 or really want stress tracking, this isn’t a good deal.
Somebody at Fitbit (or Google) didn’t do the math right. It would’ve been a smarter move to retire the Versa line and let the Sense 2 take the place of the Versa 4, especially if you were going to nerf the smarter features on both devices. But that’s not what happened, and even if it had, it’d just be delaying the inevitable. The Sense 2 is a casualty of Google’s ambitions for the Pixel Watch. And it’s possible that we’re only a Pixel Band away from all Fitbit trackers sharing a similar fate.
Photography by Victoria Song / The Verge
Agree to Continue: Fitbit Sense 2
Every smart device now requires you to agree to a series of terms and conditions before you can use it — contracts that no one actually reads. It’s impossible for us to read and analyze every single one of these agreements. But we started counting exactly how many times you have to hit “agree” to use devices when we review them since these are agreements most people don’t read and definitely can’t negotiate.
There are two mandatory Fitbit agreements:
- Fitbit’s Terms of Service
There are also several optional agreements, like connecting via Bluetooth to your phone, contacts, photos, camera, Face ID, Media, notifications, cellular data, and background app refresh. If you choose to enable Alexa, you’ll have to agree to Amazon’s terms for that as well. Integrating with any other third-party services will also require you to agree to that app’s terms and privacy policies.
Keep in mind that Fitbit will require you to log in with a Google account by 2025, which means agreeing to those policies as well.
Final tally: Two mandatory agreements and several optional agreements