Review: Fitbit Ionic, more fitness watch than smartwatch
Following months of rumours and speculation, in September the company whose name has become synonymous with fitness trackers presented to the world its first ever smartwatch. Dubbed Fitbit Ionic, this is a device with features that compete squarely with the Apple Watch and Garmin’s stable of sports watches.
Fitbit’s most ambitious product to date, Ionic tries to fill the gap between a fitness tracker and smartwatch. It comes with GPS, water-resistance, on-board music, mobile payments, all wrapped up in a design not all too different from other Fitbit wearables.
Essential reading: Top fitness trackers and health gadgets
So its this really the complete package? Read on to find out.
Its blatantly obvious so lets just come right out and say it. With its retro design, Ionic is not exactly a looker. Coming across like a blend between the Surge and Blaze, there is no mistaking this is a Fitbit product. Its slightly slimmer but still bulky. The saving grace is that at 50 grams, its very lightweight.
While you still get the same square unisex look, the core unit is built from strong and lightweight 6000 series aerospace-grade aluminum. The high-res LCD touch-screen measures 3.0 cm x 2.2 cm, and features a resolution of 348 x 250 pixels. Its subtly curved at the edges which helps to offset the blocky design. To compete with the Apple Watch the timepiece comes with increased pixels and amplified brightness up to 1000 nits. This is pretty much as good as it gets right now as far as screen quality.
The color display is sharp and great under low light conditions. Under bright sunlight it’s clearly visible thanks to auto-brightness adjustments. Its only on the rare occasion, you might have to tilt it slightly for visibility.
The screen comes in handy during workouts where the stats are clearly displayed. However Fitbit isn’t making full use of the screen size. Opting for large fonts, they could have squeezed in more stats but decided not to. The physical dimensions of the screen could have been larger as well. The bezels are fairly thick and the logo underneath takes up a lot of unnecessary space.
The display is switched off by default but is quick to wake up. There are three textured buttons on the sides, one on the left which wakes up the device and functions as a back button, and two context-sensitive function buttons on the right. In combination with the touch-screen, this allows you to navigate the display.
While all this sounds good on paper, in reality the navigation is fairly sluggish. Scrolling can be slow at times and touch control is definitely not as sensitive as it could be. It is functional but if you’re expecting an Apple Watch experience, think again.
The tracker is available in just one case size, but it comes with two straps – one for large and one for small wrists. By default, the watch is supplied with a textured rubber wristband, but you can swap this if you shell out for the Sport or Leather versions.
Further customization is possible by personalising the screen with one of 17 different clock face options, with more to come. Watch faces are not stored locally on device and can only be changed from the mobile app. Which means downloading and re-installing a new face every time you fancy a change. Not an ideal solution.
Next year, Fitbit will be offering an Adidas-branded special edition as well. What exactly this entails is not clear, but presumably it will come with a distinct look and include branded training programs. Considering Adidas has about 10,000 stores in China, this probably has a lot to do with helping Fitbit gain a stronger foothold in the Asian market.
All in all, its fair to say Ionic is neither stylish nor elegant but it is functional and looks and feels sporty. It comes with a great display, and sits comfortably on your wrist so is perfectly suitable for all day, every day use.
Under the hood you’ll find some fairly decent specs including a plethora of sensors: an altimeter, 3-axis accelerometer, digital compass, GPS/GLONASS, optical heart rate monitor, ambient light sensor and vibration motor.
The device also has something Fitbit calls a relative SpO2 sensor. You won’t get any data out of it right now, but it could be used to monitor blood oxygen levels and identify sleep apnea in the future. The company has also upgraded its heart rate sensor and its more snug against your wrist now. In addition to better heart rate data, the improved accuracy has the potential to help with determining atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat) down the line. Fitbit has big ambitions in this area.
Water resistance is important when it comes to something that is sitting on your wrist 24/7. Its been a long-time coming, but Fitbit seems to have finally cracked this. Flex 2 kicked things off and Ionic now comes with a fantastic 5 ATM (50 meter) water-resistance rating. You can wear it come rain or shine, and it will track your swim sessions, too.
Just as important as water-resistance is battery life. After all, you do not want to be charging your watch every day. Ahhmmm. Apple, are you reading this?
Ionic promises between four and five days of battery life and real-world usage proves this to be the case. While this is perfectly decent, its worth pointing out that its partly because the watch display goes off automatically. Obviously, battery life will come down with continuous music playback, and switching the GPS on will shrink it right down to 10 hours. Nevertheless, this compares well with competition, and gives Apple a far distant target to aim for.
When it comes to features, as expected this is a timepiece that puts fitness first. You’ll get everything we have come to love from Fitbit devices. This includes the usual steps, distance, floors, active minutes and calories burned, along with inactivity reminders, automatic activity recognition and exercises to maintain moments of calm.
In the morning the app will provide you with detailed info on light, deep and REM sleep stages and awake time. The watch benefits from advanced sleep features and insights which were introduced earlier this year. The snug fit of Ionic insures that sleep data is better than on other Fitbit devices.
Fitbit’s first smartwatch is perfectly capable of phone-free exercising. For outdoor fitness tracking, the built-in GPS will keep tabs on pace, distance, elevation and split times. Rather impressively, the company has engineered the antenna into the frame. There is also the ability to connect to GLONASS satellites which should improve performance.
When looking for a signal, a connection logo will appear on the display accompanied by a short buzz when the signal is acquired. My first run was great. The route was perfectly recorded, so I was very very impressed. The runs after that started to register some veering so that’s when I realised the performance is similar to other GPS watches. It’s good, not perfect.
Fitbit’s Purepulse heart rate sensor stores heart rate data at 1 second intervals during exercise and at 5 second intervals all other times. You’ll get real time info on heart rate zones during your workouts and info on your resting heart rate in the morning. As mentioned, the heart rate sensor has been upgraded so should be more accurate than on other Fitbits. Its also now sits completely flush with the rear of the body, whereas on predecessor devices it protrudes slightly.
As far as wrist based heart monitors go, Fitbits are right up there with the best of them. They might be off by a couple of beats when engaging in vigorous activity, but this is the case with all such devices. If you are really into heart rate zone training, a chest strap is always going to be the better option.
In addition to detailed heart rate info, the accompanying smartphone app will also provide you with a snapshot of your Cardio Fitness Level (VO2Max). And there is the cardio friendly Relax to help keep you calm.
Moving on to activity tracking.
The watch has an exercise mode which captures real-time stats on a number of different types of activities such as running, cycling, yoga and tennis. A very useful feature is a new automatic pause function. When you are running and for example stop at a traffic light, the watch will automatically activate the pause option and than restart when you pick up speed.
Because Ionic is water-resistant down to 50 metres, it will track your swim sessions too. Having physical buttons to navigate in the water is very useful as touchscreen solutions are never going to be great. The timepiece is able to track lengths, duration and calorie burn fairly accurately, but will not dish out heart rate information. Its worth noting, you will need to set the pool length in the Fitbit app ahead of time as its not possible to do this on the device itself.
While you can look through your data during and after an activity, a slight annoyance is that there is no way to access training history on the watch. Once you exit from the workout after seeing the summary, it’s gone. This means you will need to use the smartphone app for reviewing your data going back.
Ionic also comes with a new Coach feature. Essentially a replacement for Fitstar, the digital personal trainer guides you through workouts on your wrist. The exercises are displayed on the watch via GIF-like animations so you know exactly what to do. During the workout you’ll be able to see the timer, your heart rate and an occasional vibration will alert you when its time to transition to a different activity.
By default, the device comes with three pre-installed workouts including 10-Minute Abs, 7-Minute Workout and the 20 minute Treasure Chest. None of these require you to be in a gym and you can do all of them from the comfort of your living room. Other workouts are available if you opt for a paid subscription.
In 2018, the company will launch Guided Health programs which you can use to create customized workout and health programs. There are also plans to bring audio workouts to the timepiece, but this will come with a monthly subscription of $8 per month.
Ionic is not just about fitness. Fitbit has for the first time taken one of its wearables beyond the activity tracking environment. And this is where things start to go a bit clunky.
There is, for example, offline storage for music. A first for a Fitbit device. The 2.5GB of internal memory is enough to house more than 300 songs, plus you get access to Pandora, no phone needed. You can listen to all of this hands-free by connecting to Fitbit’s new wireless headphones.
But the news is not all good. Music transferring can only be initiated manually, via Fitbit Connect on a desktop computer and WiFi. The other option is to shell out for a paid Pandora account. Neither of the two is ideal. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself deciding that the easiest music solution is to bring your smartphone with you! But at least this watch can store music so can function as a mini iPod if you take the time and effort to set it up.
There are the usual notifications, including call, text and calendar alerts. You can read them but Ionic doesn’t allow you to reply to them. You’ll have to take out your phone for this which is clearly not ideal. SMS messages will be displayed in full but emails will be truncated. For quickly glancing at notifications the feature is fine, but that’s it. Having pre-canned responses as a way of interacting would be nice.
Another first for Fitbit, Ionic sports a built-in NFC chip which stores credit card information so you can leave your wallet behind. Fitbit Pay has now gone live in some, but not all countries. Those in the US can add their American Express cards and select Visa and Mastercards from supported banks. The number of banks, though, is still a far cry from those you can add to Apple Pay, Android Pay or Samsung Pay.
At least the feature is easy to use. Just press and hold one of the side buttons to bring up the virtual card. As added security, when setting up you’ll be asked to decide on a four-digit password that you’ll later use to verify payments. As long as you keep your watch on, payments will stay enabled once you have entered your pin. Take it off and you’ll need to re-enter the pin to use the feature. While this can be considered an inconvenience, its a small price to pay for the benefit of being able to leave your smartphone behind and still pay securely for things.
Finally, there are the apps, or more precisely the lack of apps! Thanks to its acquisition of Pebble, the smartwatch runs on Fitbit’s proprietary operating system and it comes with an App Gallery.
This, again, varies by country. In the US, Ionic comes pre-installed with about a dozen apps including Weather, Music, Strava, Starbucks, Pandora, Coach, Relax, Exercise, Music, Alarms, Timer/Stopwatch and Today. But this is pretty much where it ends. In other countries, the list is even shorter. And the apps that are there are not as polished as compared to something like the Apple Watch.
Fitbit has opened its SDK for third-party developers in September, so no doubt this will change in time. But as things stand right now, the offering is very sparse.
The first ever smartwatch from Fitbit is essentially a fitness watch. While it tries to cover all the bases in terms of non-fitness features, ultimately it falls short. It will take time for Fitbit to iron out the rough edges around the extra smarts.
The good news is that the company continues to excel at activity-tracking. If you are after a something that will keeps tabs on your fitness around the clock, Ionic performs well. It comes with everything we have come to love about Fitbits, and throws water resistance and built-in GPS into the mix.
If you’ve been looking for a waterproof Fitbit with GPS and a screen, the device will do the trick. Just make sure you keep your smartwatch expectations in check.
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4 thoughts on “Review: Fitbit Ionic, more fitness watch than smartwatch”
I find the retro design of the Ionic actually more classy and better looking than, for example, an apple watch.
To me the design does not look retro to me it looks like a modern sports smart watch.
Not ANT+ compatible.
If you don’t know what I mean it probably won’t matter to you…otherwise if it’s important to you then don’t buy this device.
I have a Pebble Steel watch. Its classy and has heaps of features. I’m just dreading when it eventually fails. Hopefully by then Fitbit will have produced a nice, business watch with full Pebble functionality. Not one of these pieces of plastic made just for fitness freaks.