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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Game on, Apple.

Fitbit on Tuesday unveiled a pair of smartwatches, most notably the Sense, a compelling, feature-filled device that signals the wearables pioneer may finally be ready to go toe-to-toe with high-end heavyweights Apple and Samsung.

Fitbit also introduced the Versa 3, a worthy follow-on to its successful mainstream smartwatch line. But the real news is in the premium segment, where Fitbit hasn’t managed a viable contender since the Apple Watch first lit up the category five years ago. On paper, at least, the Sense appears to be up to the task. 

Earlier this month, Samsung also aggressively upgraded its premium offering with the Galaxy Watch3, which like Fitbit’s Sense is packed with all the state-of-the-art features plus its own unique additions. Which begs the question, what will Apple do in late September, when it’s expected to show off what presumably will be dubbed the Series 6 watch?

Taken together, the sudden burst of capability could translate into one of the most interesting smartwatch seasons in several years, serving up a deliciously difficult selection of stocked devices for prospective buyers.

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Fitbit plays catch-up

Nearly three years after unveiling the Ionic, a flawed and ultimately unpopular premium-priced smartwatch, Fitbit’s upcoming Sense is nothing short of a total reboot. And it couldn’t come at a better time. 

Fitbit’s fitness trackers popularized the wearables category more than a decade ago. But a one-two punch of inexpensive trackers from China combined with the company’s own difficulties in transitioning to the fast-growing smartwatch segment have proved challenging for Fitbit. Versa, the company’s popular mainstream smartwatch series, has helped keep the company afloat. But the lack of a competitive premium offering has stunted growth and profitability.

On the positive side, Fitbit has stayed relevant thanks to its accessible and engaging metrics, even as it struggled to keep pace in the hardware department. 

And now the Sense has no obvious weaknesses, integrating just about all the capabilities a state-of-the-art smartwatch should have today, along with some intriguing new ones like a stress gauge that monitors minute changes in skin moisture and a temperature sensor that can, among other things, help watch for early signs of sickness. In the COVID-19 era, that could prove invaluable as healthcare looks for ways to identify and isolate the highly contagious disease.

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And, true to form, Fitbit is advancing its app with new-and-improved health and wellness features, particularly in the areas of heart health and stress.

The only omission of any consequence is the lack of built-in LTE, which both Apple and Samsung have offered for years. That said, both competitors also offer versions of their smartwatches without costly cellular integration. Which means the Sense should have no trouble competing with more moderately priced premium watches from the market leaders.

The Sense does offer plenty, including:

  • Irregular heart rate detection and spot ECG monitoring to produce readouts for your doctor. Apple pioneered the smartwatch feature with the Series 4. Samsung just added the capability with the Galaxy Watch3
  • Blood oxygen sensing, or SpO2. Fitbit has been building the capability into many of its wearables for several years, though it wasn’t accessible until early this year. Even then, it’s not actually used to report blood oxygen levels. Rather, it helps Fitbit trackers watch for signs of sleep disorders. Sense will be the first Fitbit device to actually report SpO2. Samsung added SpO2 with the Watch3, and rumors suggest Apple will add it this fall.
  • Magnetic charger. Apple and Samsung have for years included wireless chargers that use magnets to pair with the devices. That’s not only convenient. It’s also more reliable. With no exposed electrical contacts, it’s also much more difficult to short the device.

Both the Sense and Versa 3 will be available in late September. The Versa 3 costs $229.95, and the Sense $329.95, which puts it at the bottom end of the high-end segment. Premium smartwatches from Samsung and Apple both start at just under $400. 

What will Apple do?

Aside from adding SpO2 capability, indications are that Apple is planning a more subdued upgrade to its watch lineup this fall. The upcoming version of watchOS 7, which the company previewed at its annual WWDC developer event in June, features some cosmetic enhancements. But there is little indication the company is doing much to address the Apple Watch’s two biggest shortcomings: battery life and sleep.

Year after year, the latest Apple Watch devices consistently last barely a day on a charge, compared to at least two days for Samsung’s Watch3 and nearly a week for the Sense. On the one hand, battery life improvement would help convince users to wear the Apple Watch overnight to track sleep, rather than drop it on the charger.

On the other hand, Apple Watch’s sleep tracking offers precious little value to make users wish that battery life was better. At WWDC, Apple signaled it hears the complaints about the lack of sleep tracking, and introduced a new sleep feature. But the feature, called “Wind Down,” doesn’t track sleep. It helps users get to bed on time. Sleep tracking itself continues to be little more than lie-down tracking, remarkably unsophisticated given the advanced biometrics built into Apple Watches.

So Fitbit and Samsung advances could put some pressure on the category leader, Apple. But how much, given a fan base that is so loyal and forgiving?

Even so, if you’re in the market for a new smartwatch – and you’re not wearing a pair of iBlinders as you shop – then this year’s bumper crop is destined to please, no matter which device you select.

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USA TODAY columnist Mike Feibus is president and principal analyst of FeibusTech, a Scottsdale, Arizona, market research and consulting firm, and producer of the Privacy Now interview series on YouTube. Reach him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @MikeFeibus.

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