Review: Fitbit Versa, a great fitness watch at the right price

Fitbit Versa

8.1

Design

8.0/10

Ease of use

8.5/10

Use of information

8.0/10

Motivation

8.0/10

Pros

  • Fitbit's best looking wearable
  • Beautiful screen
  • A versatile fitness tracker
  • Swim-proof
  • Affordable

Cons

  • No built-in GPS
  • Plasticky design
  • Shortage of apps

 

Versa is Fitbit’s second smartwatch. Launched in mid-April, its swim proof, it can store on-board music, it has an all new female health tracking feature, but no built-in GPS. Best of all, it comes in an attractive design that’s equally appealing to both men and women. No doubt, the timepiece has a much better chance of competing with the Apple Watch than Ionic ever did.

Essential reading: Heart rate zone training with wearables

Once the dominant force, Fitbit’s has been losing market share to the likes of Apple and Xiaomi. At the start of the year James Park, the company’s CEO, hinted that investors can expect a more “mass appeal” smartwatch in 2018. And it seems the company has delivered. Six weeks after the launch, the San Francisco outfit announced it has shifted more than one million Versa smartwatches.

I’ve been testing Fitbit’s latest fitness device over the past few weeks. Here is what I made of it.

Design
Features
Overview

View technical specs


Design

In the box, Versa arrives with the core unit, a proprietary charger and a little instruction booklet. Because this is a one size fits all affair, you’ll find a large and a small strap. Swapping between them is very simple. Just move the spring holding the strap in place and swap with a new one. If you’re good with your hands, it probably takes all of about 5 seconds.

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Fitbit has stuck to its no-nonsense, practical design over the years. After all, why change something that works well and has been proven to be popular. But fitness trackers and smartwatches are no longer the chunky and unattractive devices they once were. So its not really surprising that some pretty big design tweaks have come this time around.

Versa comes with a modern wrapper, something that resembles a blend between the Apple Watch and a Pebble smartwatch. And this is a welcome change. The timepiece is smaller, slightly thinner and lighter (38 grams versus 50 grams) than the Ionic, which should appeal to the female demographic. Fitbit is clearly learning from its Pebble acquisition and it shows.

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The core unit is built from strong and lightweight 6,000 series aerospace-grade aluminium. Fitbit says this is the lightest metal smartwatch sold in the US.

The screen is very crisp and sharp, viewable both indoors and out. Fitbit has gone with increased pixels and amplified brightness up to 1,000 nits which is as good as it gets right now. In terms of actual specs, Versa sports a hi-res 300 by 300 pixel LCD touchscreen that measures 24.1 x 24.1mm.

The display is off by default to conserve battery life. Its very responsive to touch, allowing you to wizz through the stats. Having said that, I would have liked if the device was more sensitive to waking up by raising your wrist. This usually works but not always.

There are three physical buttons on the sides, one on the left and two on the right. In combination with the touch-screen, this allows you to navigate through the display.

Another welcome design change is to do with waterproofing. Versa comes with a 5 ATM (50 meter) water-resistance rating. Up to now, the Flex 2 and Ionic were the company’s only wearables you can take swimming with you.

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As always, there are lots of options in straps, colours and watch faces. While it is a bit plasticky looking, the watch is light, unisex and the screen is gorgeous. This is clearly the best looking Fitbit wearable to date. If you were worried about wearing a bulky smartwatch, you need not worry any more.

When it comes to 24/7 activity monitoring Versa ticks most boxes. The full list of sensors makes pretty impressive reading: 3-axis accelerometer, 3-axis gyroscope, optical heart rate monitor, altimeter, ambient light sensor, vibration motor and Wi-Fi antenna (802.11 b/g/n). You also get 4GB of on-board storage for music and NFC payments (selected models).

As mentioned, Versa does not have the built-in GPS of its big brother. GPS ensures that all your running stats are accurate. It uses lots of battery and finding a signal can result in a bit of a wait, but the results are definitely worth it. But this comes at a price. No doubt, Fitbit has opted to go for Connected-GPS to keep the cost down.

Connected-GPS is a fancy way of saying the watch taps into your smartphone for a GPS satellite signal. While this is perfectly functional, it does mean you’ll need to have your smartphone with you on those early morning runs.

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Battery life does not disappoint. The lightweight device runs between 4 and 5 days on a single charge. Fitbit knows battery capacity is an important selling point with all its fitness trackers. Luckily, battery capacity is progressing with each passing year which gives users more bang for the buck. The charger, though, is a rather bulky looking thing. It clips around Versa to hold it in place the couple of hours needed to recharge from empty to full.


Features

Activity and health tracking

Just like Ionic, this is a timepiece that puts fitness first. As you would expect, it comes with Fitbit’s full gamut of exercise tracking goodies.

This includes steps, distance, floors, heart rate (current, resting and heart rate zone information), active minutes and calories burned. The tracker will also spit out motivational messages and nudge you with move reminders if you are having a particularly slow day. If you’re not a fan of these, you can always switch them off.

Fitbit’s app is the same for all its devices, and its probably one of the best ones out there when it comes to user friendliness. In manages to provide a wealth of information, while not overloading you with data. If you’re interested in knowing more, you can always head over to the company’s web dashboard. This provides much more detailed information and allows you to export data, too.

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In the morning the app will provide you with detailed info on light, deep and REM sleep stages and awake time. You can also set the alarm to wake you up at a particular time. The watch benefits from advanced sleep features and insights which were introduced in the spring.

I was told, for example, that I have a relatively inconsistent bed time, and that those with swings of 40 minutes or more from day to day lose sleep. There is also a comparison table that shows a breakdown of your sleep stages and compares it to those your gender and age.

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No surprises so far. Fitbit has had 24/7 activity tracking nailed down for a while now. So lets quickly move on to the exercise functions.

Versa has separate apps for running, cycling, swimming, treadmill, weights, interval timing and workouts. Each of these comes with its own metrics and features. There is also automatic activity recognition which means you’ll get credit even if you forget to log a workout.

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Fitbit’s Purepulse heart rate sensor stores heart rate data at 1 second intervals during exercise and at 5 second intervals all other times. The company has recently upgraded its sensor so that it now sits flush with the rear of the body. The quality of readings have improved, too, so much so that Fitbit says Versa may be used in the future to help determine atrial fibrillation.

While not chest strap quality, the watch’s heart rate sensor is surprisingly accurate. I’ve tested it on multiple runs against the Garmin Forerunner 935, Polar H10 chest strap and Scosche RHYTHM24, and the average value for the runs was spot on each time. Its only the maximum heart rate which would sometimes be off by 1 or 2 beats.

For running you’ll get the total distance, time, average pace, split times, heart rate (a chart, the average value and zone information) and calories burned.

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This is how Versa compared against the Polar H10 chest strap on my last run. Versa was a bit slower to get going, but after that the two were pretty much in sync.

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As mentioned, there is no built-in GPS. Unless you are a hard-core runner the lack of built-in GPS is probably not going to make much of a difference to you. The Connected GPS means that the watch will actually be quicker to obtain a signal by tapping into your smartphone. It does mean, though, that you’ll need to have your phone with you. Having said that, you can still do your run even if you leave your phone behind. But in this case the distance will not be as accurate, and you will not get a map of your run.

review fitbit versa a great fitness watch at the right price 8 - Review: Fitbit Versa, a great fitness watch at the right priceI am also an occasional swimmer so have tested Versa in the pool. And again, the tracker does not disappoint. Like all of its exercise apps, the swim app has a little gear icon in the corner which allows you to tweak the settings.

This is necessary to personalise the experience, and is the place where you set the pool length, customise stats and more. Just like running and other exercises, you also have the option to toggle the always-on screen option, although switching it on will reduce battery life.

In terms of metrics (depending on your settings) the swimming app dishes out total minutes, time per 100m, calories, lengths and more. You will not get heart rate. This is because its not possible to get that sort of information with much precision in the water from wrist-based optical heart rate monitors.

A nice touch is that the app will take your swim session, convert it into steps taken and increase your count for the day by that amount. A step total that does not take into account other exercise is misleading. I have not seen other companies take this approach but it does make perfect sense.

All things considered, Versa is a great device which covers all the bases when it comes to 24/7 activity tracking. Its a fitness watch, so outside of VO2Max you won’t get advanced performance metrics that you might get on a Garmin, Suunto or Polar sports watch. But for the average person who is not a hard-core runner, Versa provides more than enough fitness and exercise related information to play around with.

And lets not forget Fitbit Coach. This provides personalised workout videos, wellness programs and other tools to boost your fitness. Three workout videos are available for free for you to try out on the Versa. There is a premium subscription which will set you back $39.99 per year. This unlocks more programs, unlimited workouts and additional features.

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In terms of other health functions, Relax is an app to keep you stress free. It allows you to choose between 2 and 5 minute sessions that guide your breathing. The screen spits out expanding and deflating circles at regular intervals and you are meant to inhale and exhale in the same rhythm. In many ways similar to mediation, only guided. At the end of the session you’ll get stats such as how aligned you were to the rhythm and how much your heart rate decreased.

Finally, this is the first device to debut Fitbit’s all-new female health tracking function. The San Francisco outfit says this was one of their most requested features.

The feature allows women to log information on their periods, and see how this effects different aspects of their lives – everything from sleep to activity levels. After two months the app will start to predict period lengths and fertile windows using its “proprietary cycle algorithm. This will get smarter and more accurate as users log more data. The app will even send optional push notifications two days prior and on the day of your predicted period start date.

Smartwatch features

With its decent sized screen, the Blaze replacement is a perfectly built to offer non-fitness functionality. Features that go beyond the standard notifications we have grown so accustomed to these days.

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If you live in the US, there is a special edition of Versa that comes comes with Fitbit Pay. In Europe all versions include the feature. Just like the Ionic, there is a built-in NFC chip which stores credit card information so you can leave your wallet behind.

review fitbit versa a great fitness watch at the right price 13 - Review: Fitbit Versa, a great fitness watch at the right priceVersa also comes with enough on-board memory for 300 songs. This means the smartwatch can function as a mini iPod if you take the time and effort to set it up. Music transferring can only be initiated manually, via Fitbit Connect on a desktop computer and WiFi. There are also apps such as Deezer and Pandora which allow users to download playlists.

Because it doesn’t have built-in GPS, Versa doesn’t provide for a true phone-free exercise experience. But, for example, you are able to leave your phone in you locker in the gym and still listen to music on a treadmill or while lifting weights.

There are also the usual notifications. You can read them but Versa doesn’t allow you to reply to them. You’ll have to take out your phone which is clearly not ideal. For quickly glancing at notifications the feature is fine, but that’s it.

Having said that, a “quick replies” feature was recently introduced for Android users. This allows them to send quick replies to text messages and messenger apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. These replies can be pre-populated. Fitbit is currently looking to extend this functionality to support iOS, but right now this is not possible due to iOS’ closed notification system.

Versa runs Fitbit OS 2.0. This brings a revised Fitbit Today dashboard along with more than 600 apps and clock faces. While this may sound like a lot, the company is still playing catch-up with the Apple Watch operating system and Wear OS. It is putting in a decent effort, though. Considering Fitbit has opened its operating system to third party developers, time will probably fix this issue.


Overview

The verdict

Versa is Fitbit’s best work to date. The Blaze replacement comes with most things you’ll find on Ionic, but with rounded edges, a polished look and more compact form factor, it simply looks much better.

When it comes to activity tracking the watch covers all the bases. It captures stats on numerous types of activities including swimming. And you’re able to keep tabs on all this in real-time on the gorgeous hi-res 300 by 300 pixel LCD touchscreen. There is on-board storage for music too, smartphone notifications, Fitbit pay and third party apps.

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Fitbit Versa
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Is it perfect? Well, nothing is.

While undoubtedly good looking, there is room for improvement. A few more premium case options would have been nice as the casing has a sporty, plasticky feel. Versa also does not have the built-in GPS of its big brother. But it more than makes up for that with its much lower price tag and more subtle design.

All things considered, Versa is a real step up from the Ionic. Its simple to use and comes with most things the average person would want from a fitness device. With a battery life of 5 days, this is a stylish wearable which represents a great compromise between a fully fledged smartwatch and fitness tracker. Fitbit is definitely sitting on a winner here.

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