Fitbit Ionic or Garmin Vivoactive 3: which to get?

Garmin makes products for those who are very serious about tracking their athletic pursuits. Its strategy is centered on purpose-built devices for consumers who are interested in running, cycling, swimming, golfing and more. And while there may be some overlap with Fitbit customers, that overlap is minimal. Until now that is.

Essential reading: Top fitness trackers and health gadgets

Fitbit has, in the past, focused on coming up with more socially oriented fitness trackers with an awesome app. However its software platform is less data intensive than Garmin’s. With the Ionic, Fitbit has now crossed over into the sports watch territory and is competing directly with Garmin’s new Vivoactive 3 timepiece.

These two devices show that the respective companies have made big strides in style, functionality, and features. But how do they compare?


Fitbit Ionic or Garmin Vivoactive 3: Design

When it comes to looks, the Ionic and the Vivoactive 3 couldn’t be any more different.

Ionic retains the same square look of its Blaze fitness tracker. Its core unit is built from strong and lightweight 6000 series aerospace-grade aluminum. With a watch width of 38mm, depth of 12mm and weight of 50 grams, this is a fairly lightweight device. You navigate via the touchscreen and three physical buttons on the sides (one on the left and two on the right). After a bit of practice, it becomes easy to whizz through the stats.

To compete with the Apple watch, Fitbit has come up with its best ever screen. It sports increased pixels and amplified brightness up to 1000 nits. In terms of actual specs, Ionic has a hi-res 348 by 250 pixel LCD touchscreen with a screen real-estate of 29 x 21mm.

So you can customize it to your liking, Fitbit’s first smartwatch comes with swappable bands. There is a range of colors and materials to choose from, like elastomer, leather, or stainless steel. They can be attached using quick release spring bars while the tracker module simply pops out.

Vivoactive 3 is an updated version of Vivoactive HR. In terms of value for money, its predecessor is probably one of the best fitness trackers out there. But there is one big problem – its also one of the ugliest fitness trackers out there. Quite rightly, Garmin has realized that it needs a more attractive form factor if the Vivoactive is to appeal to a wider customer base. And on that count, the third generation device does not disappoint.

The new classy round design is more in line with Garmin’s Fenix and Forerunner range. Measuring 43.4 x 43.4 x 11.7 cm and coming in at only 43 grams, this is finally a sports watch that will appeal to men and women equally. Navigation is a combination of using the single physical button on the right and swiping on the touchscreen.

The 30.4mm (diameter), sunlight visible, transflective, memory-in-pixel (MIP) screen is very vibrant and easy to read. It comes with a 240 x 240 pixels resolution.

An important difference between Ionic and Vivoactive 3 is that Garmin’s tracker has an always-on display, whereas Fitbit’s screen is off by default in order to preserve battery life. Fitbit’s display is more high-res though.

Under the hood there is little to separate the two. Both share an optical heart rate monitor, 3-axis accelerometer, barometric altimeter, compass, GPS, vibration motor and ambient light sensor.

But Ionic also comes with something Fitbit calls a relative SpO2 sensor. This measures blood oxygen levels and could be used to identify sleep apnea in the future. And Vivoactive 3 comes with a thermometer for measuring outside temperature.


Fitbit Ionic or Garmin Vivoactive 3: Battery life and water resistance

Ionic and Vivoactive 3 come with pretty good battery life. But Garmin’s device will keep going for longer.

You will be able to go for a week between charges on Vivoactive 3. This is ideal for extended periods of time in the remote areas. With GPS switched on, this comes right down to 13 hours.

The Ionic, on the other hand, will keep going for around 4 days, which reduces to 10 hours with GPS tracking. Which is still pretty good, particularly when compared to the dismal 18 hours on the Apple Watch.

In order to become a true 24/7 fitness tracker, water resistance is essential. With their fantastic 5 ATM (50 meter) water resistance rating, both trackers easily fulfill this criteria.


Fitbit Ionic or Garmin Vivoactive 3: Features

You’ll have no trouble squeezing all the fitness tracking basics from either of these two devices. This includes the standard steps, calories, distance and floors. In the morning the accompanying smartphone app will provide you with detailed info on sleep.

The trackers spit out motivational messages through the day and nudge you with move reminders if you are having a particularly slow day. There is also automatic activity recognition which means you will get credit even if you forget to log a workout.

The optical heart rate sensor will provide you with real time info on heart rate zones during exercise and info on your resting heart rate in the morning. You’ll also get your Cardio Fitness Level (VO2Max) assesment and there are breathing exercises to help keep you calm.

Thanks to the built-in GPS, the sports watches also capable of phone-free exercising. When running you will get info on your pace, distance, elevation and split times. Ionic and Vivoactive 3 will track your swim sessions too, with lap count, duration, calorie burn and more.

Garmin Vivoactive 3
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Now to the differences.

The Ionic has introduced a new sensor with SP02 readings. This measures the oxygen saturation in your blood, i.e. how well oxygen is sent to parts of the body furthest from your heart (such as arms and legs). In the future, this sensor may be used to detect sleep apnea. Fitbit’s CEO James Park said that he is also hopeful Ionic may be able to determine atrial fibrillation.

Vivoactive 3, on the other hand, has more fitness features for sports tracking. It also comes with all-day-stress monitoring which you will not find on Fitbit’s device. The tracker does this by measuring heart-rate variability. A score between 0 and 100 will let you see how much of your day is spent experiencing stress. There there is Garmin’s Strength Training activity for the gym rats. This is a combination of manual tagging of activity and automatic counting of reps.

Although neither of the two can really compete with the Apple Watch on this measure, both timepieces come with some non-fitness features. This includes notifications (calls, texts, calendar events push notifications from your favorite apps), an app store and music control. Ionic, however, also comes with 2.5GB built-in storage for music. This is enough for around 300 songs and is an important point in Fitbit’s favor.

Another first for Fitbit and Garmin, their devices come with a built-in NFC chip which stores credit card information so you can leave your wallet behind. This means you can now pay for your coffee right from your wrist. Fitbit Pay will work with American Express cards and select Visa and Mastercards from supported banks. The new functionality on Vivoactive 3 is enabled by FitPay and also supports Visa and Mastercard debit and credit cards from major issuing banks.

All Fitbit trackers use the same smartphone app and website dashboard which are probably as good as it gets in terms of ease of use. Garmin’s Connect platform was originally created for more hardcore fitness users. While very comprehensive, it leaves a bit to be desired when it comes to simplicity. The company is, however, working on an update which should resolve some of these issues.


Fitbit Ionic or Garmin Vivoactive 3: The bottom line

Ionic and Vivoactive 3 are fully featured sports watches which pack a lot under the hood. You won’t go wrong with either of them. Both are well suited for tracking your fitness 24/7, and are also swim proof and come with GPS for keeping tabs on your runs. The trackers come in at a similar price point and sport pretty much the same sensors.

The two devices couldn’t be any more different, though, when it comes to design. In our opinion, with its always on screen, round form-factor and better battery life, Garmin’s timepiece wins easily on this measure. But if you’re a stickler for display quality, you will be happier with the Ionic.

Fitbit Ionic
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In terms of features, Garmin is more suited for endurance athletes and detailed performance junkies. With its support for golf, skiing, cycling with cadence/speed sensor, and navigating back to saved waypoint, Vivoactive 3 also shines when it comes to sports tracking. And it comes with all day stress tracking and keeping tabs on your reps and sets in the gym.

The Ionic also has a lot going for it. Fitbit’s first smartwatch is better for those that want a simpler user interface, are more interested in day to day activity monitoring and enjoy social features. Ionic also comes with the ability to store music on the device itself, for a true phone free experience.

Both Garmin and Fitbit have their own legions of fans. Our guess is those who are already in the respective Garmin or Fitbit ecosystems will choose to remain where they are. With so little to separate the two, the choice really comes down to personal taste.

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