Choosing a fitness tracker is so complicated it should come with a health warning.

One of the chief culprits is Fitbit, whose range – which now stands at eight devices – seems to have been designed to confuse as much as coach casual exercisers.

So where does the Fitbit Alta HR sit in the headache-inducing Venn diagram? It looks like another unassuming band, but the Alta HR might just have the broadest appeal of any tracker so far. Why? It's the first one of its size to offer continuous heart-rate monitoring.

This might sound like overkill for a fitness band, but it's a pretty big deal. Heart-rate tracking isn’t just useful for endurance training – it can also help boost the accuracy and insights of broader health-tracking, in particular sleep.

The sport-mad will still want trackers with built-in GPS, but for everyone else the Alta HR looks to have joined the Samsung Gear Fit2 and Fitbit’s own Charge 2 in the low calorie sweet spot of features, size and price. Here are some first impressions of my boxfresh band.

Fitbit Alta HR design: familiar face, new heart

The Alta HR is the physical twin of its predecessor, which means it’s a very slim, unassuming bracelet that comes in a big enough range colours to make it a unisex offering.

The main physical difference between the Alta HR and the likes of the Charge 2 is the size of its OLED screen – while big enough to show snippets of info like the date and time (you can add heart-rate to its clock face), it’s not large enough for the continually checking live exercising stats. This makes it more of a passive, background tracker, rather than a real-time motivator.

Inside, Fitbit has crammed in a smaller version of its optical ‘PurePulse’ heart-rate sensor, and still had room left over for a slightly bigger battery than its predecessor. This means it should reach the golden mark of one week from a single charge, which lets you leave recharging to weekends. 

While I personally prefer the look of the Misfit Ray and the comfortable fit of an Apple Watch, the Alta HR seems a fair compromise between the two – light enough to forget you’re wearing it, but with the bonus of heart-rate tracking. The only minor annoyance is that there's no waterproofing, which means you still need to take it off every time you shower. 

Fitbit Alta HR features: more about health than sport

If the Alta HR’s size and screen suggests that it’s more for health-tracking than triathlon training, then its features list confirms it.

It might seem unfair to start with the omissions, but there are potential deal-breakers for fans of certain sports. The Alta HR isn’t waterproof, so it’s no good for swimming or even showering. Keen runners will also want to know that it lacks VO2 max tracking (a good general marker for aerobic fitness) and ConnectedGPS, which uses your phone’s GPS to give you maps and more accurate tracking of your runs.

It’s not that the Alta HR can’t track individual sports – the Fitbit app’s ‘MobileRun’ feature works in much the same way as ConnectedGPS, only you start the activity on your phone rather than your tracker. And the Alta HR supports SmartTrack, which automatically recognises which activity you’re doing and creates an individual, summarised entry.

But the focus is very much on helping you improve your general daily health – burning calories, increasing daily movement, monitoring your resting heart-rate and, in particular, improving sleep.

An update to the Fitbit app on 27 March 2017 will bring two big new features – ‘Sleep Stages’ and ‘Sleep insights’ – that are compatible with the Alta HR, as well as Fitbit’s Blaze and Charge 2.

Tracking sleep using just an accelerometer – the method used by most fitness trackers up to now, including Fitbit’s – is more of a general marker. But the Alta HR’s ability to combine this data with heart-rate variability (the changes in time between your heart’s beats) promise to boost its accuracy and the quality of the advice it can give you.

For example, it’ll be able to spot whether exercising is generally improving your sleep quality, or remark on your recent bedtime consistency (or lack of), which is a good way to improve sleep quality.

I’ll need to test this over a longer period, but I like the concept and general ethos of less nagging, better advice (or ‘actionable guidance’, as Fitbit regrettably calls it).

Fitbit Alta HR: the competition

Heart-rate tracking is the big new sell for smaller fitness bands, but until its rivals catch up, the Fitbit Alta HR has carved out a nice little niche for itself.

It’s the smallest tracker with continuous heart-rate tracking we’ve seen – only the 13,990 Samsung Gear Fit2 and ₹14,999 Fitbit Charge 2 are comparable before you start getting into watch territory, which is ruled by the likes of the Garmin Vivoactive HR

With some major sleep-tracking features coming to the Fitbit app, the Alta HR could well become our general health-tracker of choice – if that heart-rate sensor lives up its billing. So far, it's largely matched the readings from my Apple Watch, but more rigorous testing is needed. 

Fitbit Alta HR early verdict

For health-tracking newbies who want a subtle band that doesn’t look too much like a watch, the Alta HR is shaping up to be a very solid option.

It’s not quite as handsome as Jawbone or Misfit's offerings. And it's not as suitable for all-out sports tracking as a GPS watch or even Fitbit’s own Charge 2.

But its new sleep features and colour options might just make it the most gift-friendly fitness tracker around. My only real qualm is Fitbit's decision to spread out features across such a big range of devices - the lack of waterproofing (found on the cheaper Flex 2) and features like guided breathing feel like a calculated decision rather than a result of technical limitations.

Still, these are relatively minor issues - we’ll let you know if its new sleep-decoding skills propel it to fitness tracker victory in a full review soon.

Buy the Alta HR here from Fitbit

Tech Specs 
Sensors
3-axis accelerometer, vibration motor, heart-rate sensor
Battery life
7 days