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Fitbit Ionic review: not iconic, but still pretty good

It’s finally here

Photography by Vjeran Pavic

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Fitbit made a smartwatch. I know what you’re thinking: didn’t Fitbit already have a smartwatch? Last year, Fitbit released the Blaze, a touchscreen watch, but that was positioned as a smart fitness watch. Now, Fitbit has its own operating system, its own platform for apps, and some partnerships with brand-name app makers. Is this what makes a smartwatch? Fitbit believes so, and now we have the $299 Ionic smartwatch.

I didn’t know what to expect with the Ionic. This may be due to the fact that the Ionic is arriving well after other smartwatches, or maybe because Fitbit faced challenges actually producing the watch. I knew it would have the standard Fitbit stuff — it would track a bunch of health and fitness things, and it would work with both iOS and Android phones and sync across desktops — but I wasn’t sure if all the other features would come together.

The Ionic exceeded my expectations. Its fitness tracking has improved from earlier Fitbits, it has just enough apps and watchfaces right now to be useful but not overwhelming. Most notably, the watch can get up to five days of battery life, which is hands down one of its best features, and something very few smartwatch makers can claim.

Its biggest flaw is that it is not, in any meaningful way, an interactive smartwatch. As it exists right now, you can’t respond to messages, check your calendar, get turn-by-turn directions, or try to talk to a virtual assistant — even an unreliable one.

Also, its looks. I should probably mention its looks.

The Ionic is angular and hard-edged, with noticeable bezels and a chunky, railroad-style strap that drove me crazy. (I swapped this out for a more flexible sport band.) It has a slightly domed display, but at first glance it looks flat. Its display is nice; it’s a multi-color, touchscreen, LCD display. There are a few tactile buttons, too.

It lacks the elegance of other smartwatches, like the fluid design of the Apple Watch, or the traditional round faces of Samsung watches and Android Wear models. Fitbit’s design lead said during a briefing this past August that the Ionic’s design was partly inspired by space: space exploration, space in pop culture (with movies like The Martian), the fanboyism of Elon Musk.

The Fitbit Ionic lacks the elegance of other smartwatches

I see where they were going with this, but it feels like a forced effort to appear more edgy. Fitbit has always been familiar, utilitarian. Now it’s like it chopped off its hair, got a tattoo, and is declaring itself badass. But to be fair, I also didn’t like the looks of the Fitbit Blaze, and that ended up being a popular watch.

There are a few things about its build that are worth mentioning. To build the Ionic, Fitbit used a process called nanomolding to fuse metal and plastic into one continuous part. This is a process that’s used a lot in smartphones and tablets, but not often in wearables. It’s supposed to improve accuracy for antennae performance, including things like GPS.

The Ionic also has a new heart rate sensor module — you can see the difference in the patterns of optical sensors when you compare the Ionic with last year’s Blaze — which Fitbit says is its most advanced heart rate sensor to date. It has built-in GPS, something the Blaze did not, and it has 2.5 gigabytes of internal storage for music.

The Ionic is running a new operating system called Fitbit OS, something that Fitbit built using some of the Pebble technology (and the Pebble engineers) it acquired in late 2016. There’s a whole lot of technical stuff behind this — like the fact that Fitbit now has a software development kit and app makers can write apps in languages like JavaScript and CSS — but the point is that, for the first time, app makers can make apps for Fitbits.

For the first time, any app maker can make an app for Fitbits

The Ionic launched with just a few app partners, such as Pandora, Starbucks, and Strava. (Notably, there’s no Spotify on the watch.) But it’s reasonable to expect that more are coming. Fitbit says that more than a thousand app makers have signed up on its platform so far.

More important than the number of apps, though, is how well the thing actually works. I found the Ionic’s interface to be really intuitive; I skipped the initial tutorial and just swiped until I found my way. The physical home button on the left side of the watch takes you to the home screen, as you might expect. Swiping left to right gives you a glimpse of battery life. Swiping right to left brings you to all your shortcuts and apps: your day at a glance from an activity perspective; the exercise app, which brings you to a sub-menu of more exercise options; the weather; the “relax” app; music; and more.

On one occasion, the Ionic kept crashing when I tried tapping on the Exercise tile, forcing a reset of the watch. After that, it was fine.

There’s also now a “Fitbit Wallet” on this watch, which lets you buy things using the watch’s NFC chip, rivaling the capabilities of Apple Pay and Android Pay. This is utilizing something called Fitbit Pay, which again, was built on top of the technology that Fitbit acquired when it bought a company called Coin. When Fitbit first announced the Ionic, it said that it would work with AmEx, Mastercard, and Visa cards. However, right now on its support page, Fitbit simply says it works with “many” of the major credit and debit cards from top banks and card issuers and that customers should “check back soon” for a list.

For the purposes of testing this, I used a $25 prepaid Mastercard that Fitbit provided for reviewers. Paying from the watch worked fine at a nearby market with an NFC payment terminal. Again, it was easy to use: I held down the left button on the watch, waited until an image of my card appeared, and then tapped at the terminal to pay.

Once you set up payments on the watch, it becomes passcode protected, requiring a four-digit pin for you to not only pay, but to do anything on the watch after it’s removed from your wrist. (This is similar to how the Apple Watch and Samsung’s Gear watches work.) The watch’s Starbucks app, which relies on a QR code rather than NFC, worked as well.

And then there’s swiping up on the watch for notifications.

The Fitbit Ionic will show you notifications from your smartphone, just like other Fitbits do. This includes text messages, iMessages, calendar appointments, phone calls, and some app-specific notifications. However, you can’t interact with these.

You can swipe to delete notifications one by one. Or you can tap “Clear All” at the bottom of the notifications tray. That’s it. There are no shortcut responses. Since there’s no microphone or speaker on the Ionic, you can’t dictate anything to it. And despite the fact that there are now apps on the watch, there’s no messaging app, no calendar app, and no maps app.

There are no shortcut responses, and since there’s no speaker or microphone, you can’t dictate anything to the watch

This is one of the least smart things about this smartwatch right now, considering that a lot of people buy smartwatches because they like the idea of brief glimpses of, or fleeting interactions with, notifications. Fitbit says developers could make cloud-based calendar apps or email clients that would allow for shortcut responses in a watch app, but it won’t be able to write an app for text messages.

Not all smartwatch makers do notifications well. Garmin smartwatches, for example, often don’t offer the ability to interact with notifications either. But this is one of the areas where something like the Apple Watch has a very clear advantage.

By now you’re probably wondering about health and fitness, because, well, it’s a Fitbit after all. Many of the fitness features on this watch are the same as other Fitbits: it tracks steps, stairs climbed, calories burned, heart rate, sleep, plus a whole bunch of specific exercise details.

It still does that auto-track thing where it will recognize and record an exercise even if you don’t actively press “start.” And earlier this year, Fitbit started showing even more detail around sleeping patterns, distinguishing REM phases from light and deep sleep phases.

But there are new things. The heart rate sensor is supposed to be more accurate. (In fact, it now includes a relative SPO2 sensor for measuring oxygen saturation in the blood, though this sensor is dormant right now.) Fitbit declined to make specific claims or share information around a potential margin of error when I asked about the new heart rate sensor, but it did say that it’s working with the Consumer Technology Association to develop new standards around wrist-based heart rate sensors.

Sensor array for the Fitbit Ionic

In my very unscientific testing of the heart rate sensor during a couple of spin classes where I compared the Ionic’s wrist reading to a reading from a chest strap, I did notice some discrepancies. These were especially noticeable after short bursts of increased intensity in exercise, which Fitbit chalked up to the challenges of tracking heart rate from the wrist. At the end of class, the beats per minute averaged out to be the same. But in either case, these kinds of tests should be done over longer periods of time, and in a more controlled setting. This was just my real-life observation.

Fitbit also says GPS tracking is more accurate on the Ionic, and in my experience hiking and running familiar routes, the distances were in line with what I expected to see (a different experience from my testing of the Fitbit Charge 2 last year). But again, I’m basing this on a relatively small sample of data so far.

So how does all of this compare to the Apple Watch?

One other new feature is that Fitstar, yet another company Fitbit acquired, has evolved into a self-contained workout app on the watch called Fitbit Coach. Runners will be pleased: the watch now has a new Run Detect feature that automatically activates GPS and tracks things like pace, distance, elevation, and split times. It also auto-pauses during breaks in your run.

So how does this all compare to the Apple Watch? They have similar yet different approaches. Both have built-in GPS, are waterproofed for swimming, record all-day heart rate, track elevation, and track a multitude of specific exercise sessions. Both also track your overall activity throughout the day, and send nudges for you to move: the Fitbit Ionic tells you how many more steps you should take to reach an hourly goal; the Apple Watch says “Time to stand!”

I think the Apple Watch is better at these kinds of health and fitness notifications overall, whether it’s during workouts, afterward, or at the start of each day — especially with its newest software. And I find closing the various rings on the Apple Watch to be more motivating than Fitbit’s decade-old motto of reaching a certain number of steps. But the Apple Watch only works with iPhones; Fitbit works with all smartphones. And Fitbit has one other big advantage.

The best feature of the Fitbit Ionic smartwatch is its battery life. In my experience, I started wearing it on a Wednesday afternoon, and by the following Monday morning, it still had 25 percent left. I charged it at that point because I didn’t want it to die during a GPS workout, but it made it nearly five days. Some other sport-focused smartwatches last this long on a single charge, like some of Garmin’s watches.

But the Apple Watch, and many Android Wear watches, last a day or two on a charge — sometimes less, if you’re using GPS or LTE. This means charging every day; with the Fitbit, I was able to go on a two-day reporting trip and not have to pack yet another proprietary charger in my bag.

Of course, there are things that will impact this, like if you have the display always on (which I did not), or if you use GPS continuously, which will only last about 10 hours. But with normal smartwatch and workout usage, you should be able to get four to five days out of the Ionic.

As a fitness smartwatch, Fitness Ionic is a solid choice

As a fitness smartwatch, the Fitbit Ionic is a solid choice — even more so than the Blaze, which didn’t have built-in GPS. As a smart smartwatch, it still falls short, mostly due to the way it handles notifications, but also because of its nascent app support.

So whether to get the Fitbit Ionic over another smartwatch comes down to the question of what you think a smartwatch is for (and again, what mobile phone operating system you’re attached to). Is a smartwatch supposed to be a mini computer on your wrist, offering interaction with microapps? Is it supposed to be a virtual assistant on your wrist? Or is it supposed to do one, maybe two things — like fitness and payments — and then just provide the basics beyond that?

If you believe it’s the latter, than the Fitbit Ionic is a surprisingly solid choice, even with its uninspiring looks. If you want true integration between phone and watch, you’re better off with an Apple Watch.

That battery life, though.