fitnesFitbit Ionic review: A great fitness tracker, a mediocre smartwatchs tracker, a mediocre smartwatch

 

My first few hours with Fitbit Ionic were horrid. Mind you, it wasn’t the device I had a problem with, but rather what I was doing with it.

Before I received my review unit, Fitbit demanded that I test it first. Fair enough. What I didn’t know was that they really wanted to show off Ionic’s fitness capabilities. I did a mini boot camp with celebrity trainer Harley Pasternak, and a grueling bike ride with Tour de France veteran Jens Voigt. I opted out of the 8-mile run with ultra marathoner Dean Karnazes, but my legs hurt just thinking about it.

When it was over, I learned two things: I’m terribly out of shape, and Ionic is a fantastic fitness band. Fitbit’s new wearable tracked every second of my workout, dutifully calculating calories burned and recovery heart rate, and even knowing when I inevitably had to stop from exhaustion. But once I took it home and integrated Ionic into my far more sedentary lifestyle, I learned something else: It’s not very good at being a smartwatch.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

  • A sporty, casual design
  • Evolution of the fitness tracker
  • Excellence in exercise
  • Few apps, even less functionality
  • Ionic just isn’t that smart
SHOW MORE 

A sporty, casual design

Ionic is more like a wristwatch than other fashion-minded Fitbits such as Blaze and Surge, but it still has a definite fitness tracker aesthetic. I was particularly impressed with the profile, which is several millimeters thinner than most other smartwatches due to its unique convex design for the heart rate sensor.

fitbit ionic profile

Doug Duvall/IDG

Much of the bulk on Ionic is hidden when you strap it on.

The body of the watch is square, with an aluminum enclosure that cradles its 1.42-inch rectangular LCD screen. Like Apple Watch, it doesn’t have always-on capabilities, but the screen is impressively bright and crisp, especially when wearing it outside. However, while the bezels are smaller than Blaze’s, Fitbit could have cut down on bulk even further by ditching its logo on the front of the device.

There are three colors available—two shades of gray and burnt orange—and Fitbit has designed the body of the watch to naturally flow into the band so it looks seamless. Like Apple Watch, you can easily change up the look with one of the bands for sale, and its super-simple strap-swapping system is the best I’ve used, even better than Apple’s slide-out method.

fitbit ionic compare

Doug Duvall/IDG

When compared to the LG Watch Style (left) and the Apple Watch (right), Fitbit Ionic has a pretty slim profile.

Ionic feels as solid as any Android Wear or Apple watch, and it’s comfortable enough to wear for days on end. That includes when you’re showering or swimming (or drenched in sweat from pushing a Torque Fitness Tank sledwith muscles you didn’t know you had). Like Apple Watch Series 3, Ionic is equipped with 50-meter water resistance, far greater than the common IP68 certification (which only protects against 1.5 meters of submersion).

The biggest problem I had with Ionic’s design is one that’s hard to avoid: It’s still a Fitbit watch. I didn’t dislike the look as much as some of my colleagues, but there’s no denying that Ionic doesn’t feel as modern or fashionable as Apple Watch or even some of the better Android Wear watches.

Evolution of the fitness tracker

While the large color screen immediately conjures comparisons to Blaze, Ionic is quite a different animal. In fact, if you look at Fitbit’s lineup, you’ll see that Ionic is actually replacing Surge, and the $200 Blaze will continue to be sold as a cheaper alternative.

fitbit ionic sensors

Michael Simon/IDG

Fitbit’s new tri-color heart sensor is constantly monitoring your BPM on Ionic.

What Ionic strives to be is a smarter, fuller-featured version of Blaze. Both watches have an array of fitness sensors to track distance, elevation, and exercise, monitor sleep, guide your breathing, and count calories burned, but Ionic ups its game with even more fitness features. Most notably, Ionic has GPS, and there’s a new SpO2 sensor for estimating blood-oxygen levels, which Fitbit hopes to one day use to detect sleep apnea. And Fitbit has teamed with Dexcom to allow Ionic to monitor glucose levels through the under-the-skin G5 Mobile sensor next year.

Even with all those sensors and functionality, Ionic has more than enough battery to power you through several days of workouts, an impressive feat for a smartwatch with such a slim profile. I was able to push my Ionic well into a fourth day with light exercising, and even after my boot camp blitz, three full days wasn’t a problem. It’s a major advantage over the 18-hour battery life claimed by Apple Watch Series 3.

Excellence in exercise

Ionic’s premier fitness feature is a built-in training system called Fitbit Coach that offers quick visual instructions for a few different workouts. It’s part of a larger push by Fitbit to create a personalized fitness plan for each user. Having how-tos on the watch itself is a nice touch, and over time, they’ll adapt to your specific routines (or lack of one, as the case may be).

fitbit ionic workout

Doug Duvall/IDG

With on-watch training, fitness is definitely where Ionic excels.

It’s missing an audio component, which won’t be arriving until October, and even further down the line is a $40-a-year service that promises to construct a personalized, flexible lifestyle plan for sleep, exercise and nutrition, all on your watch. It’s ambitious and certainly distinguishes Ionic as the flagship Fitbit device, and it could end up being the killer Ionic feature once all the pieces are in place.

Even without the full fitness experience, however, the sensors and fitness features that are functional on Ionic are definitely a step above the activity tracking on Samsung, Android Wear, and even Series 3 Apple watches. From step counting to step training, Ionic tracked and tallied the exercises I did with precision, and the smart auto pause helped keep my numbers as accurate as possible. And once I was on my own, its constant prodding and praising did well to keep me motivated and stay active.

Few apps, even less functionality

Unfortunately for Ionic, nearly all of its smarts went toward fitness. While Fitbit boasts that Ionic is the company’s first fully functional smartwatch, it pales in comparison to even sensor-deprived, fashion-first Android Wear watches.

fitbit ionic app

Doug Duvall/IDG

The Fitbit app is the brains behind much of what Ionic does.

Fitbit has leveraged its Pebble acquisition to create a brand new foundation for apps, and you’ll get a handful of them at launch: Weather from AccuWeather, Pandora, Starbucks, and Strava, along with a few stock Fitbit apps, including Exercise, Coach, Wallet, Timers, Alarms, Relax, Settings, and Today.

That’s a pretty weak selection to start with, but it might be easier to overlook if any of the non-fitness-related apps did something useful. Aside from Timers and Alarms, which do what you’d expect, Ionic’s apps are frustratingly limited, with most offering single-page and in some cases, single-use functionality. For example, the Starbucks app is nothing more than a place to store your card. And the Wallet app (the logical place for your Starbucks card) merely offers instructions for how to make payments (by holding the left button).

That’s right, Ionic includes an NFC chip for on-the-go payments. The means yet another payment service (Fitbit Pay, natch), and it works like any other: pull up a card and hold the screen up to a checkout reader. But you can’t add cards without the phone app and Ionic only stores one at a time. It’s clearly designed for athletes who want to leave their wallet behind when on a run rather than someone who wants to abandon cash and credit cards.

Ionic just isn’t that smart

You might have noticed a few key smartwatch apps that are missing from Ionic: messages, phone, mail, and maps. As it stands, you can’t do any of those things on the watch. Notifications will alert you to incoming messages and calls, but you’ll need your phone handy if you want to interact with them. It’s a very hands-off affair that might have been novel with the first Pebble way back when, but today’s smartwatches are much more than mere conduits for our phones.

fitbit ionic exercise
[“Source-timesofindia”]