- Vibrant screen.
- Changeable straps.
- Safe for swimming.
- Excellent battery life.
- Smart notifications.
- Built-in GPS and NFC.
- Pandora integration.
- Open SDK for app developers.
- Thick bottom bezel.
- Case easily scratches.
Ever since Fitbit bought Pebble last year, the question wasn’t if the company was going to release a smartwatch, but when. The answer is finally here, in the form of the $299.95 Fitbit Ionic. It’s a smartwatch-fitness tracker hybrid with an open SDK, superb battery life, and NFC payments, making it more of a competitor to the Apple Watch than Fitbit’s other, more fitness-centric devices. You won’t find standalone cellular connectivity like you get in the new Apple Watch, and a lot is riding on how well Fitbit builds out its app ecosystem over time. But if you’re looking for a smartwatch that puts fitness first, the Ionic deserves a spot on your short list.
A Familiar Face
At a glance, the Ionic looks like a cross between the Apple Watch Series 3 and the Fitbit Blaze, thanks to a rectangular touch LCD that stands out from many of the circular smartwatches on the market. The screen measures 1.2 by 0.85 inches (HW), about 1.5 inches diagonally, and features a resolution of 348 by 250 pixels. It’s surrounded by a bezel, thicker at the bottom than at the sides or top, which gives the face a square form factor.
While the bezel isn’t the most attractive design element, the screen itself really pops with rich colors, sharp image quality, and 1,000cd/m2 of brightness. That’s due in part to a curved, spherical glass lens. Fitbit vice president of design Jonah Beckett explained the curved glass was a deliberate choice to break away from the flat-screen feel you often encounter on other watches.
Unlike the Blaze, the screen is firmly embedded in the watch case—you can’t pop it out to change straps. On the right side you’ll find two buttons with tactile geometric faceting—a fancy way of saying a textured finish to make identifying them by touch practical—and a single button on the left. The Ionic has a fairly slim profile, and even though the back protrudes a bit, it shouldn’t snag on shirt or jacket sleeves. The case itself made of lightweight aerospace-grade aluminum, and while that gives it a premium feel, I noticed some minor dings and scratches after a pool workout with Fitbit ambassador Gabby Reece (the Ionic is waterproof). Dragging myself across the bottom of a pool with two 20-pound weights was definitely challenging, but I didn’t scrape the watch up against any walls, so seeing the damage was surprising.
Like the Apple Watch, the bands are swappable. The default band features an attractive isometric pattern, and a combination buckle and prong enclosure. The Ionic comes in three strap and case color combinations: Blue Gray and Silver, Charcoal and Graphite Gray, and Slate Blue and Burnt Orange. You can buy alternative Sport Bands, which feature hexagonal perforations and a more secure clasp, for $29.95 each. There are also perforated leather options in Cognac Brown or Midnight Blue for $59.95 each.
In terms of hardware, the Ionic has one notable difference from previous Fitbits. If you flip it over, you’ll see an array of three LEDs—two red, one blue—in addition to the customary green optical sensor. That’s a noteworthy change that opens the Ionic up to more medical use cases. Currently, most trackers use green light to measure heart rate, but red light can give you a more accurate read, as well as measure a host of other biometrics. For example, red light is used in pulse oximeters to measure SpO2, or blood oxygen saturation. While Fitbit didn’t reveal any concrete plans for these sensors, it recently updated its sleep tracking features for the Alta HR, and confirmed its interest in sleep apnea—which can be detected through monitoring SpO2 levels.
Smart, but Not Standalone
The Ionic is compatible across mobile platforms, which is great news for Android users who are ambivalent toward Android Wear and feel left in the cold by the iOS-only Apple Watch. When it comes to smartwatch features, Fitbit has clearly been paying attention to the competition. For starters, it has its own operating system and app store called the App Gallery. The interface hews closer to Apple’s watchOS than the improved-but-still-clunky Android Wear 2.0. Pebble fans shouldn’t get their hopes too high, however. Little here bears resemblance to the beloved Pebble Steel or Pebble Time.
Fitbit is also taking a page from Pebble with an open SDK for third-party developers. Anyone with a bit of coding savvy will be able to create their own clock faces and apps from a web-based platform. That’s important, as the Ionic’s success will depend at least somewhat on its app ecosystem. While the selection available right now isn’t the most extensive, it’s too early to make any sort of judgement call, as the watch itself isn’t due to ship until October.
As of this writing it comes preloaded with the Coach app (a rebranded FitStar guided workout), Music, Weather (powered by AccuWeather), Pandora, Starbucks, and Strava. That’s on top of Fitbit’s native Today (an overview of your daily stats), Exercise, Wallet, Alarms, Timers, and Relax apps. Fitbit plans to expand its offerings this fall with apps such as Adidas All Day, Flipboard, Game Golf, Nest, and Surfline. As of now, there are also 17 default clock faces, but this number is sure to grow as more developers get the chance to play around.
The Ionic isn’t meant to be a standalone smartwatch. While you can get all your customary call, text, and app notifications, there’s no LTE connectivity for making calls or replying to texts without your phone nearby. You also need your phone for the initial setup, syncing data, customizing clock faces, and tweaking your preferences.
That said, the Ionic is perfectly capable of phone-free exercising. It features built-in GPS, Bluetooth, and NFC, as well as 2.5GB for music storage. Pandora Plus or Premium subscribers can also download playlists directly onto the watch. And Fitbit has its own pair of earphones, the Flyer, that can pair with both the watch and your smartphone at the same time.
Downloading music onto the Ionic isn’t the simplest. You’ll need some patience and a strong Wi-Fi connection, but it’s worth the effort. I was able to listen to my tunes while on a phone-free run in the park and pay for a coffee at Starbucks afterward without having to carry my wallet.
A single charge is estimated to last four days, or up to 10 hours while using GPS. That’s outstanding for a smartwatch—most only last for two days max. In testing, I was able to get as long as a week on a single charge, with multiple indoor and outdoor workouts during that time. That absolutely blows most of the competition out of the water—the Apple Watch lasts for little over a day—and seems like a fair trade-off for the lack of LTE connectivity.
Unsurprisingly, the Ionic has extensive abilities to work as an exercise companion and wellness monitor. I took it on a four-mile outdoor run. Not only was the screen completely visible in direct sunlight, it was able to automatically detect when I stopped for traffic, and pick things back up once I started moving again—a handy feature for city runners. In addition to automatic sport recording, you also get advanced sleep stage breakdowns and guided personal workouts.
As for accuracy, the Ionic delivered excellent performance. On a one-mile treadmill walk at 3.5 miles per hour, it logged 2,097 steps compared with the 2,120 steps recorded by my Yamax SW-200 Digi-Walker, a pedometer often used in clinical studies. That’s a superb difference of just 1.1 percent—most trackers tend to fall within the 3 to 5 percent range. It did, however, underreport my distance as 0.91 mile.
On a 1.24-mile treadmill test at 5mph, the Ionic recorded 2,409 steps to the Yamax’s 2,523 steps for a difference of 4.5 percent. This time, it got distance tracking dead-on at 1.24 miles. No tracker is perfect when it comes to step counting, but overall the Ionic performed consistently across controlled and all-day testing, which is important.
During both tests, I also simultaneously compared the Ionic’s heart rate monitoring against the Polar H10 chest strap and the Apple Watch Nike+. While it sometimes lagged a second or two behind the H10, it was generally within 5 beats per minute during low-intensity exercise, and within 10bpm for high-intensity workouts. That’s on par with most wrist-based trackers with optical heart rate sensors. It was also able to pick up my heart rate during the pool workout, which is great for swimmers.
I tracked my sleep for about a month using the Ionic and found it to be reasonably accurate. The Ionic was usually able to detect when I fell asleep and woke up within a 15-minute window. It was also fairly accurate in recording instances where I got up in the middle of the night.
Comparisons and Conclusions
If the Apple Watch is a smartwatch first and a fitness tracker second, the Fitbit Ionic feels like the inverse. Depending on what you’re looking for in a wearable, that could be a very good thing. The Ionic’s $300 price tag places it firmly in Apple Watch territory. Like Fitbit, Apple is making the case for the Series 3 to operate as a pseudo-medical device with enhanced heart rate monitoring.
Fitbit has an edge in terms of battery life and its established fitness platform, especially when it comes to features like sleep tracking and advanced workout breakdowns. While the framework of what it’s building in the app department is promising, however, it’s a bit of a gamble if fitness isn’t your main priority. It really will boil down to whether developers get on board with the Ionic’s SDK and what future partnerships Fitbit builds out its ecosystem with. For a head-to-head comparison, see my story on the Fibit Ionic vs. Apple Watch Series 3.
For Android users, the Ionic is a solid choice. Android Wear 2.0 is still clunkier than it ought to be, and the Ionic’s battery life far outlasts even the best sports-centric Android watches.
If you still love your Blaze or Surge, you probably don’t need to upgrade to the Ionic just yet. It’ll get you a nicer screen and support for NFC payments, but again, only time will tell what you’ll get in the way of third-party app offerings. We’ll take another look at Fitbit’s app store a few months from now to see how it develops. If you’re looking for a smartwatch, you might want to wait until then. If you’re focused on fitness, the Ionic is likely to make you happy.