Video shot by Justin Wolfson
Fitbit has a lot riding on its new $300 Ionic smartwatch. Analyst reports suggest the smartwatch category will continue to grow over the next few years, and Apple and Google already have well-established devices and operating systems. Being one of the top players in the wearables game, Fitbit is unlikely to build a device that runs Android Wear (much less watchOS), so it designs its own devices from the ground up. The Ionic is Fitbit’s serious attempt at a smartwatch, far more so than the $200 Blaze that came out last year. Running Fitbit OS, the Ionic combines the most crucial fitness features with what Fitbit believes to be the most crucial smartwatch features.
While testing the Ionic, I asked myself two main questions: does it provide the best fitness experience for the price? And does Fitbit thoughtfully incorporate smartwatch features into a primarily fitness-focused device? It does—but there may be better solutions out there.
It was hard to be excited when the first images of the Ionic leaked months before its debut. Those images confirmed many of our worst fears: Fitbit stuck with the core design that influenced the Blaze fitness watch, which is chunky and unattractive at best.
The Ionic isn’t fashionable, but few smartwatches are. However, it does improve on the Blaze in several ways. First, the module’s unibody design is thoughtfully made with nano-molding technology; this fuses metal and plastic together to make a continuous device and allows the Ionic to be water-resistant up to 50 meters. The device is relatively thin thanks to the internal grouping of the GPS, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi antennas, and the unibody design also means that it’s not a module held in place by a square cut out of metal, which is the Blaze’s biggest design sin. The Ionic’s module is a single piece of slightly curved hardware that attaches to two ends of a wristband, much like the Apple Watch and most Android Wear devices.
The compatible Ionic bands are also much like those available for its competition. Fitbit developed its own regular, sport, and leather accessories for the smartwatch, all of which have a traditional watch-like adjustable clasp. I had one of eachm and they’re generally comfortable. My favorite is the sport band because it has holes all over to allow better airflow to the skin. It might not be an original design, but it prevents skin irritation through exercising and beyond.
Fitbit’s mechanism to attach and detach the bands is similar to that on the Apple Watch. Small, narrow buttons at either end of the module release the band pieces, allowing you to quickly snap in others. Fitbit’s method is actually easier than Apple’s, because the Apple Watch’s band-release buttons are built into the module itself rather than on its edge. To release those, you need a pointy object or long fingernails to press and hold the button long enough to slide the band pieces out of their clasps. Props to Fitbit for making a similar mechanism that’s quicker to complete and easier on the fingers.
What you interact with most on the Ionic is the 1.4-inch, 348 x 250-resolution, 1,000-nit touchscreen, which is great to look at in both good and bad lighting. The bottom bezel is the largest and has the Fitbit name on it, while the side and top bezels are slimmer. The black portion of the module is deceiving, though, because it’s not all screen real estate. Hugging the display are three physical buttons: one on the left side for powering up the device and two on the right side for in-activity selections. The top-right button doubles as a quick-access button to the Today app, which shows your current fitness data, while one press of the bottom-right button quickly opens the Exercise app.
On the bottom of the module are the magnetic nodes that connect to the proprietary charging cable and the heart rate monitor. Fitbit designed the bottom of the Ionic to be flat against the skin, with no ridges or indentations around the optical heart rate monitor. This should produce more accurate readings, thanks to the lack of pressure points created by uneven surfaces.
There’s an SpO2 monitor—a peculiar sensor that measures oxygen levels in the blood—inside the Ionic. Fitbit claims this could eventually alert users to issues like sleep apnea, but right now it has no outward-facing features. There’s no blood oxygen indicator on the Ionic, nor is there a section for that data in the Fitbit app. According to a Fitbit representative, the company is “still exploring how this could manifest in the consumer experience,” meaning that for now, you won’t even know it exists.
A huge part of the Ionic’s appeal is its 195mAh battery life. Fitbit claims the device can last more than four days on a single charge or 10 hours while using GPS. After four days of consecutive use of my Ionic, the battery was still at 45 percent; the next day I used the GPS a bit, and that knocked the remaining battery life down to about 38 percent. It’s clear that battery life is one of the best features of the Ionic, especially considering the Apple Watch and most Android Wear devices can only last a maximum of two days on a single charge.
Fitbit Ionic module and detachable bands.
Heartrate monitor sits flush with the bottom of the device.
Watchband snap closure.
A bit of Fitbit’s smartwatch OS.
Workout categories have full-color photos.
1,000-nit display looks great in direct sunlight.
Optional accessory bands: leather and sport.
Fitbit Flyer earbuds.
The Ionic runs Fitbit OS, the company’s own operating system that will be used on all its smartwatch devices going forward. It’s structured similarly to other wearable operating systems, with a watch-face homepage and adjacent pages hosting apps accessible by swiping left or right. We’ll get into the other apps on the Ionic when we discuss its smartwatch features, but for now we’ll focus on the Exercise app. This is where you’ll find all the exercises you can track directly from the watch. You can load up to seven exercise shortcuts onto the watch at one time, and the default shortcuts include run, bike, swim, and treadmill. (There are 20 total, including more particular activities like yoga, martial arts, hiking, and golf.)
As with other trackers, you can categorize workouts as other exercises in the Fitbit mobile app; in doing so, you have a much wider list of trackable activities. But in comparison to Apple Watches and Android Wear devices, the Ionic doesn’t have as many options available on the device. Fitbit does, however, allow you to customize features like GPS and auto-pause for each workout. These and other features can be edited right before starting a workout by tapping the gear icon at the top-left corner of the device’s display. The GPS on/off option will come in handy if you’re doing an indoor version of a workout rather than an outdoor session.
Starting a workout on the Ionic is as simple as pressing the “go” arrow at the bottom-right corner of the display or hitting the bottom-right button on the side. All of the Ionic’s workouts are “quick start” in this sense. (Apple has also updated its Workout app in watchOS 4 to have quick-start options. Before the watchOS 4 update, only your most-used workouts would start immediately upon hitting the icon in the Workout app. All others would ask you to define a workout goal based on distance, time, or calories burned.) But you can’t define a goal for an individual workout with the Ionic.
During a workout, the Ionic’s display shows three stats at a time. You can customize these from each exercise’s settings directly on the watch, choosing data that appears on the top, bottom, and middle of the display. By default, top and bottom stats are already chosen, but you can swipe on the middle section of the display to scroll through all available data including time, steps, calories, heart rate, distance, and pace information. I liked having that flexibility with the middle section, but I always made sure that the data most important to me was set for the top and bottom sections. You can customize visible in-workout stats on the Apple Watch as well (it can show four at a time on the display), but you can’t do so on the watch; you have to edit settings in the Watch app on iOS.
Fitbit includes a Weight exercise shortcut on the Ionic; however, it doesn’t have a rep counting or exercise recognition feature. Android Wear 2.0 added support for rep counting and some exercise recognition, allowing you to lift weights, input the amount of weight lifted, and complete exercises like crunches or bicycles with ease. New Garmin devices like the $140 Vivosmart 3 count reps as well, so it seems like Fitbit missed an opportunity on that front.
Heart rate monitor
Inside the Ionic is Fitbit’s PurePulse heart rate monitoring technology that also appears in its other fitness trackers, including the Alta HR. While the Ionic’s heart rate monitor floundered the first few times I used it (it was 20 BPMs off a couple of times), I didn’t experience many problems after that. Fitbit recommends wearing the Ionic three-fingers-width away from your wrist bone—and tight enough so it can’t wobble. The Ionic’s heart rate monitor was solid most of the time when compared to the Polar H10 heart rate chest strap and to the heart rate monitor on the Apple Watch Series 2, reading my heart rate within 2 BPM of those other devices.
The GPS inside the Ionic worked as expected. It took about one minute for the GPS to grab my location before an outdoor run. That’s not fast, but you don’t have to wait for the GPS to find your location before heading out, and once I started, the device did map my route accurately.
The Ionic is a major improvement over the GPS in the Fitbit Surge, which was released about three years ago. The Blaze only had “connected GPS,” meaning it knew your location only by using your smartphone’s GPS (which meant carrying your phone when working out). Considering the Fitbit Surge will likely be replaced by the Ionic, it’s good to see Fitbit make onboard GPS a solid feature on its high-end tracker.
The Ionic outshines the Apple Watch in sleep tracking. Apple still doesn’t natively support sleep tracking with its wearable (although there are third-party apps you can use to track), but Fitbit has tracked sleep for years across multiple devices. The Ionic uses its continuous heart rate monitor to track pulse during sleep, which allows it to categorize your state into awake, REM, light, and deep sleep. I always enjoy looking at the sleep line graphs in the Fitbit app because I can see when I woke up and how long I was in the different sleep stages the night before. It’s also clear when I don’t have a good night’s sleep, as my graphs show a lot more awake time than they do REM or deep sleep.
Fitbit’s Smart Track feature is also a perk that Apple Watches and Android Wear devices don’t have. Smart Track automatically recognizes exercises after you’ve done them for a set amount of time. Smart Track has evolved over the years so you can now customize that set amount of time; I usually keep mine at 10 minutes for each activity. It’s not just limited to running, biking, or other sports, either; Smart Track on my Ionic most often records periods of long walking when I’m moving around Manhattan or shopping at the mall.
Listing image by Valentina Palladino