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When quality design fails - the Fitbit Charge HR Half Bar of Death

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright December 15, 2017
Here's how I've put right quality design fails on my Fitbit Charge HR such as the Half Bar Of Death from a frozen firmware update and when the back came off

Fitbit Charge HR firmware problem HBOD Brent_M
Maybe it's unfair to judge a brand on the performance of a discontinued model. But my experience with the Fitbit Charge HR draws attention to a wider issue across Silicon Valley and beyond, where digital startups sacrifice quality for the sake of volume. Like many other Fitbit Charge HR users, I've had problems with the casing falling off and more recently when an update got stuck on what many have been calling the Half Bar of Death. Here's how I resolved these problems, and my take on the real-world lessons for digital innovators.

But first, I should say that I do like my Charge HR, and it's already lasted a lot longer than I feared when I first got it. I've persisted with it because I prefer its slim form factor to more recent but chunkier Fitbit devices. I like the feature set that I get from such an unobtrusive, lightweight device. It delivers the time, date, alerts and alarms to my wrist, and I use it to monitor key wellbeing metrics, such as heart rate and sleep time, which it reports to the Fitbit app on my phone.

I have to admit I'm tempted by the additional sleep monitoring available on newer devices, in particular the new top-of-the-range Fitbit Ionic. This even has a built-in blood-oxygen sensor which in theory can screen for sleep apnea — except that Fitbit has not yet activated this functionality or given any timeframe for when it will happen. The Ionic is waterproof, and I also like the idea of using it for contactless payment instead of having to pull a phone or wallet out of my pocket. But when all is said and done, it's still not as slim and compact as my trusty Charge HR.

I'm also finding a perverse satisfaction in cheating the built-in obsolescence that Fitbit was no doubt hoping would have persuaded me to buy a new device by now. No thanks, Fitbit. I'll upgrade when I'm ready, not when your substandard build quality forces me to.

When the Charge HR update bar freezes

I must have been one of the last Charge HR owners to get a notification last week in my Fitbit app to tell me there was a new update ready to install. This is firmware release version 18.128, which Fitbit has been rolling out to Charge HR owners over the two months since early October. It adds a new feature — the ability to turn off real-time data tracking — but probably more important is a critical security update and some minor bug fixes and stability improvements. Having noted the warning that it would take 5-10 minutes to complete, I launched the update.

While the Charge HR firmware is updating, a solid white progress bar starts spreading across the center of the display from left to right. After about half an hour I noticed that the progress bar had got stuck about half way across. When later on it still hadn't moved, I started searching online to see if this was a known problem.

Oh yes it is. It turns out that the Charge HR is particularly prone to freezing during a firmware update. So much so that users have nicknamed this phenomenon the Fitbit Half Bar Of Death, or HBOD for short. Anyone who remembers using Windows PCs in the 1990s will recognize the allusion to BSOD, the Blue Screen of Death that became a familiar sight to PC users on the many times Windows would crash with an unrecoverable error.

Fixing the Fitbit Half Bar Of Death

The frozen progress bar or HBOD doesn't strike everyone, but at the time of writing there are just shy of 500 messages in the Fitbit product help forums thread devoted to this firmware update getting stuck, another 300 in the thread Charge HR Frozen Progress Bar and many more in threads dating back to 2015 and 2016, when people first started calling it the Half Bar Of Death. Applying the 1:10:100 ratio between those who post or comment compared to passive readers, that suggests tens of thousands of Charge HR users have experienced a frozen update.

I found it quite easy to resolve the problem having read several of these threads, although it seems others have had more difficulty. The full instructions are pinned to the top of the release version 18.128 message thread, but I found I only had to do two things:

  • First, fully recharge the Fitbit device (when it freezes it carries on using up the battery power, so after it's been stuck for a while it runs out).
  • Next, go into your phone's Bluetooth settings, find your Charge HR and forget that device. At this point I noticed that the progress bar on my Charge HR started moving again, and within a few minutes the update had completed. Shortly afterwards, my phone said the Charge HR was asking to reconnect and once I'd confirmed OK I was back to normal.
  • Some other people have found they also need to turn off notifications for the Charge HR, or even uninstall the Fitbit app from their phone and then do the update with the Charge HR plugged into their PC instead of via the phone.
  • If all else fails, several commenters have reported that Fitbit customer service agents are well briefed on this problem and can talk you through it over the phone.

Another quality design fail - the back came off

The other problems I've had in the past with my Charge HR have been to do with the physical construction. First, the button on the side fell out. Then part of the backplate casing, which clasps the power cord to the device when it's charging, fell off. Fitbit don't offer replacement spares, but fortunately several eBay sellers do.

I was impressed by nickb2325's initiative in creating a 3D-printed plastic replacement, which retails for $14 plus shipping. It's utilitarian rather than sleek, but I've found it works well — I haven't even gotten round to gluing it on yet, I just keep it clipped in place. To date, he has sold close to 3,000. Another seller who offers a choice of colors has sold more than 2,000. So again, this is a pretty common problem with the original Charge HR.

The poor durability of the casing is physical evidence of poor build quality or insufficient materials control and testing. The stalled update problem to me also implies poor quality control, this time within the electronics design process. I was surprised and curious when the update continued as soon as I unpaired the device — how was it still downloading from a phone that it no longer had a Bluetooth connection to? Evidently there's some kind of timing error that interrupts the download and which gets reset when the Bluetooth status is changed. But since this doesn't happen on any other Fitbit device, it must be due to a design choice — or error — that was only made on the Charge HR.

And this is typical of the technology industry — as the Windows BSOD episode reminds us. In fact Microsoft only got serious about what it ended up calling "Trustworthy Computing" in the early noughties, when there was a backlash from large enterprise customers against security vulnerabilities in its products.

My take

Today, digital innovators are pushing products out as rapidly as possible in order to grab market share, and along the way they're cutting corners on quality, compliance and trustworthiness. Fitbit is an example of a brand that's become well known thanks to its early sales success, but it also risks tarnishing its brand image with the quality fails experienced by Charge HR owners like me.

When you're in a battle against established brands that already have a presence in the same market, that's a dangerous gamble. Watchmakers understand how to build durable products that can be worn on the wrist without falling to pieces. While they may have to catch up on the digital front, that experience of the physical space they play in may prove to be a durable advantage. I'm reminded of an observation I recently read about Volvo's impending entry into the electric car market with a rival to the Tesla 3:

Volvo is known for the reliability and build quality of its cars. The same cannot be said of Tesla, which has been dogged with production issues.

In October 2015 Consumer Reports stated that 'Tesla's reliability doesn't match its high performance' citing problems with drivetrains, power and charging equipment, dashboard touchscreens, plus various noises, rattles and leaks.

For all that digital innovators may aim to disrupt incumbent businesses with brand new offerings, there are some real-world basics they still have to get right. Whether it's Tesla, Fitbit, or some other startup we've not yet heard of, you can't ignore all of the conventional wisdom about what makes a product successful in an established field. Especially not if you also want to expand into the enterprise market, as Fitbit aims to do in health monitoring, or as Tesla will with fleet sales.

Even in the virtual world, attention to detail and quality still counts. Capturing market share is important, but retaining it depends on delivering a product experience that builds durable trust and loyalty in a brand.

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