Fitbit’s Ionic Smartwatch

The newest Android-compatible smartwatch could be the best yet

by Michael Frank

Fitbit has had a simple formula for success: target women. Think about the average Fitbit wearer and it’s not only a woman, it’s a younger, gym-going woman. To make progress Fitbit needs men to care about its wearables, too, which is one good reason they’re now debuting their first smartwatch, the Ionic.

The greatest market strategy isn’t necessarily competing with the Apple Watch Series 3, but in besting all the Android Wear watches we’ve seen, which have been too large and heavy for 24/7 wearables. That leaves Fitbit in a good spot. They’re not including LTE here (at least not yet) but it’s arguable that wasn’t the biggest challenge in the space. Instead, Ionic solves both the size and interface issues of Android Wear in a lighter and more all-day comfortable case that still includes onboard music and GPS. Ionic is almost exactly the same size as the 42mm Apple Watch, but unlike it, plays happily with either an iPhone or an Android powered smartphone. Touchscreen functions are simple and three side buttons augment the screen so if you’re sweating in the gym you’re not tapping icons in vain. The Ionic also offers four whole days of battery life between charges, which is more than just about any wrist-worn wearable with this much functionality.

Daily Use

The Fitbit Ionic blurs the lines between a traditional watch and fitness wearable. At 50g it’s slightly heavier than the Apple Watch (though not noticeable). The screen is incredibly bright and legible and during daily wear raising an arm shows time, resting heart rate, as well as text message, WhatsApp, Twitter and calendar notifications. A downside is that unlike the Apple Watch and some Android Wear devices, you cannot text or speak a reply to your wrist.

Unlike the Apple Watch, the Fitbit Ionic has native sleep-tracking, and you don’t have to activate it. Just hit the hay and you’ll see sleep and awake stages on the Fitbit app once you arise the next morning. The Ionic did quite well when compared to a mattress sleep tracker we’ve used, with very close to identical resting HR and sleep stage tracking.

Heart Rate Accuracy

We compared the accuracy of the Fitbit Ionic’s optical heart rate sensor by wearing a Wahoo chest strap that measures your heart’s electrical impulses (EKG straps tend to be a lot more accurate than light-based sensors). At times we also tested while wearing an Apple Watch Series 2 on the opposite wrist. The Ionic proved at least as accurate as the Apple Watch—at times surpassing it, though there were glitches. During one afternoon jog it showed a much too low HR, and so did the Apple Watch. Restarting both solved the strange glitch. One workaround that Apple, but Fitbit doesn’t offer, is the option to pair with a Bluetooth chest strap. We like this solution because the Fitbit (and thus far, Apple as well, though we’ll have to report back on the new Series 3) tend to glitch with exercises that involve a lot of arm motion, like jumping rope.

For a wrist wearable the Ionic is quite impressive, keeping up with what we’ve seen from the likes of Garmin, one of our benchmarks for on-wrist HR accuracy. One oversight: while Apple is now pursuing the importance of resting heart rate and recovery, and the Ionic does an excellent job capturing resting HR, Fitbit has decided not to weigh resting HR and recovery into its daily goals metric. This is an oversight; Fitbit still wants you to target 10,000 steps daily.

That might be fine for a mass user base, but for athletic people it’s not a refined enough goal. And further, working out daily isn’t wise, either. A day of recovery after you’ve just hit your personal record best 10k is a lot smarter, and dedicated wearable brands like Suunto and Garmin have incorporated this logic into their apps and wearables for years. So while overall heart rate accuracy is excellent, Fitbit needs a more bespoke understanding of heart rate diagnostics and workout planning, not just recording.

Workouts and Apps

The Ionic also has a somewhat limited app suite. Fitbit bought Pebble and says that acquisition will allow it to debut several new apps in October, so we’ll have to sit tight on what comes, because that’s critical for the company’s bid to compete with other Android Wear and iOS offerings. Native fitness apps are good and we love the ability to set the display to always-on mode during workouts since too often the screen on competing wearables blanks out just when you want to see a critical metric.

Dedicated quick-start menus for the most popular fitness activities range from lifting weights to running, spinning (indoors), cycling, treadmill running, etc. The Coach app puts some exercise routines on your wrist, including an ab workout and a chest routine. The 7 Minute workout lets you vary interval rest times and shows a brief, animated illustration of each subsequent exercise, so you can see how to do something like a wall sit or an elbow bridge or a side plank and push-up, all without needing your phone around. Unfortunately there’s no rep-counting, just tracking HR and calorie burn. On the plus side, Fitbit Ionic automatically detects when you start a run, no button-pushing required, and its GPS locks very quickly and tracks accurately.

Music, Payments and a Verdict

We’re happy that the Ionic lets you port over up to 300 songs in just about any format (and podcasts, which Apple Watch only currently supports using third party apps). Unfortunately to pair these tunes you have to first download a Fitbit desktop app on a computer, create playlists, drag them into the app and pair the app with the wearable. Eventually that let us work out with the phone left behind and still get a GPS track, heart rate, etc., but actual music-syncing desperately requires Fitbit to craft phone-based app pairing.

Fitbit’s new $130 Flyer headphones are also quite good, with superb clarity. However, they lack a “transparency” mode that lets you hear the real world around you, which isn’t ideal for safety, and because they’re tethered eventually they’re fatiguing to wear, since any tethered earbud tugs against your flesh with every step, hop or swing of your workout. You can, though, pair any Bluetooth headphones to the Ionic.

If you’re a dedicated Android user and just won’t switch to the Apple Watch no matter what, the Ionic offers a great deal to like. While it’s a work in progress, it’s a good wearable. That said, two years ago the debut Apple Watch was in the same space. For Fitbit an issue is going to be readily syncing with phones made by manufacturers who continue to want to make their own wearables rather than playing nicely with a perceived rival.

Images by Michael Frank