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Our verdict of the Fitbit Ionic:
Fitbit's third smartwatch struggles to find a reason to exist beyond fitness tracking and excellent battery life. It offers a tantalising glimpse into the future of Fitbit but, for now, the Ionic feels half baked.
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Back for its third attempt at cracking the secret sauce, Fitbit has launched the Ionic Smartwatch. You may be thinking that you’ve seen it all before — after all, this is the same company that previously brought you the disappointing Surge, and decidedly un-fiery Blaze. This time is different, though, we promise. Late in 2016 Fitbit acquired the company that started the smartwatch craze, Pebble.

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Bringing Pebble’s software and engineers into the fold, Fitbit has gone all out on creating their own smartwatch platform, Fitbit OS. Clearly, the company is hoping to create something to rival Android Wear and Apple’s watchOS. With its own app store, onboard GPS, and NFC chip, the feature packed device looks comparable on paper. So, how does the $300 Ionic hold up in real life?

Design

As the smartwatch market has matured over the past few years, the designs have become more elegant. Early models like the Samsung Gear Live, or even the original Pebble, looked like plastic toys strapped to your wrist. The Ionic doesn’t quite hark back to that era — but it isn’t entirely dissimilar. While standard Fitbit trackers aren’t known for their fashionable design, they are subtle devices made to blend in. The Ionic is the opposite of that approach — it is there to be noticed. The large square screen stands out on your wrist, often feeling oversized. You’d overlook this if it weren’t for the sizeable bezel emblazoned with the Fitbit logo.

Fitbit Ionic: Great Fitness Tracker, Rubbish Smartwatch Fitbit Ionic 2

The watch’s gorilla glass fronted, color touch screen, is augmented with three hardware buttons — one on the left, two on the right. The left button returns you to the home screen, while the two on the right act as shortcuts. Fitbit claims that the body is made of “aerospace-grade” aluminum to make it stronger and more durable. The Ionic has been manufactured using nano-molding to create one continuous part, which probably has something to do with its 50m water resistance. The heart rate sensors, found on the rear side of the watch, provide data to Fitbit’s PurePulse tracking.

Fitbit Ionic: Great Fitness Tracker, Rubbish Smartwatch Fitbit Ionic 5

The Ionic gives you the option to change straps to customize the watch depending on what you are up to. Most smartwatches offer changeable straps, but rely on complicated or fiddly mechanisms. Not so with the Ionic, as depressing the small button on the rear of the strap makes it easily pop out. Attaching a strap is similarly hassle free. It’s only a small part of the overall watch, but shows that Fitbit has considered how to make the experience better for users.

Fitbit Ionic Features

Fitbit’s ambition is that the Ionic will sit comfortably alongside more mature smartwatch platforms like Android Wear and the Apple Watch. With that goal in mind Fitbit has designed their own operating system, Fitbit OS. The new OS comes with the ability to run third party apps, including the likes of Pandora, Starbucks, and Strava. As Fitbit only made the SDK available just a few weeks before launch it may take a while before that list expands.

One of the major successes of Pebble’s smartwatches was the battery life. Fitbit has inherited that strength and, despite the color LCD screen, the Ionic can last up to four days on a single charge.

Fitbit Ionic: Great Fitness Tracker, Rubbish Smartwatch Fitbit Ionic 8

The Ionic struggles though when it comes to notifications. Turning on the screen allows you to swipe up and browse a list of all your notifications. And that’s it. You can’t do anything with them — no replying to messages, dismissing calendar events, or making calls. This is one of the major disadvantages to Fitbit using their own operating system, as Android Wear and watchOS are heavily tied into their respective platforms. It may also be a sign of Fitbit OS’s short development. After all, Fitbit only acquired Pebble nine months prior to the Ionic’s launch.

To go along with their newly formed Fitbit OS, the Ionic’s NFC chip enables contactless payments. Instead of co-opting an existing platform, Fitbit has designed their own payment service, imaginatively titled Fitbit Pay. At launch only six US and three Australian banks are supported with more to come in the future. Residing in the UK meant that I sadly couldn’t test out Fitbit Pay. With Apple and Google having already established dominance in mobile payments, you have to wonder why Fitbit has taken this route. Especially given that so few banks are currently signed up.

Fitness Tracking with the Fitbit Ionic

Fitbit’s main business has been in fitness wearables, and they’ve become the market leader for good reason. Having spent many years honing and developing their fitness tracking across multiple devices, the Ionic excels in this area. The most notable addition is swim exercise tracking thanks to the Ionic’s 50m water resistance. It also means that you can now wear the tracker while in the rain or the shower. Coupled with the long battery life, the Ionic is a smartwatch that can be your companion in the same way as their other fitness trackers. This includes overnight with the Ionic’s automatic sleep tracking — a feature that would be useless if you had to charge the device every night.

Fitbit Ionic: Great Fitness Tracker, Rubbish Smartwatch Fitbit Ionic 3

The same features that make Fitbit trackers so popular are available on the Ionic too. Automatic activity recognition and tracking means no fiddling with options pre-run. Fitbit’s PurePulse heart rate tracking allows you to see your heart rate zone, and provides more accurate calorie burn. The built-in GPS should allow you to leave your cumbersome phone at home while out exercising. Fitbit’s premium personalized workout service Fitstar has been rebranded as Fitbit Coach and is available directly on the watch. Fitbit’s bread and butter has always been step tracking, which is still front and center on the Ionic. Comparing performance against my current Fitbit — the Charge 2 — I got consistent results.

Real World Use

Being a Fitbit fan, I’d love to tell you that uninspiring design was the worst of the Ionic’s problems. Sadly, it’s the tip of the iceberg. After the initial pairing, there was an update waiting for the tracker. This isn’t uncommon for newly released products — day one updates are a fixture in the gaming world. The app displayed a friendly reminder that the update may take up to 10 minutes to complete. Over an hour and a quarter later, the Ionic was finally ready to use. When a $50 game requires a day one update it’s acceptable. For the $300 Ionic to require such a massive day one update (and still have problems) is quite disappointing.

Fitbit Ionic: Great Fitness Tracker, Rubbish Smartwatch Fitbit Ionic 7

Once the Ionic was ready to go, I ran into more problems. The onboard GPS would never connect. The watch would display a heart rate even when I wasn’t wearing it. I didn’t receive a single notification on the watch from my phone. The weather app couldn’t access my location. The most critical problem was that I couldn’t get the Ionic to sync with my Fitbit account. Despite being connected for setup, there was nothing I could do to force the sync. At the same time, the data inside the app reflected the data on the tracker, but it showed that the tracker hadn’t synced in over a day. I’d then compare this against my Fitbit dashboard on the web and nothing was there.

Fitbit Ionic: Great Fitness Tracker, Rubbish Smartwatch Fitbit Ionic 9

Sometimes you’d put these things down to compatibility issues, especially when Android can be so variable between devices. However, my smartphone of choice is the Google Pixel — the gold standard for clean Android experiences. I turned off battery optimization for the Fitbit App with no joy. I reinstalled the app a few times to no avail. The app was granted all permissions that it asked for. In the end, uninstalling the app and factory resetting the Ionic was the only way to fix the sync issue, but all the other issues remained.

Not Quite Iconic

I have been adorned with a Fitbit ever since I purchased the Fitbit One in October 2013. I see value in tracking your steps, exercise, and other health data and Fitbit does it better than the competition. The fitness trackers have always maintained a reasonable price point, with even the most recent devices only just tipping $100. The Ionic tries to wrap that penchant for fitness tracking into a $300 smartwatch. Even the most successful smartwatches like the Apple Watch are still a niche product, that no one can quite find a practical use for. The Ionic walks into the same trap — an expensive, unattractive device with no practical use, except fitness tracking. That’s the main problem — there is no reason to buy the Ionic for three times the price of any of Fitbit’s other fitness trackers.

Fitbit Ionic: Great Fitness Tracker, Rubbish Smartwatch Fitbit Ionic 1

The Ionic sits uncomfortably between their fitness trackers and other smartwatches, struggling for a reason to exist. The Ionic probably isn’t worth the $300 investment, but that doesn’t mean the Ionic is a total failure. It offers a glimpse into what Fitbit may become — potentially pivoting from a company that produces fitness trackers to a fully-fledged tech business. In nine short months since the Pebble acquisition, Fitbit OS was born. The Ionic’s battery life is one of its strongest selling points. Fitbit Pay is ambitious and may eventually offer competition to Android and Apple Pay. The Fitbit Ionic isn’t worth the investment — yet. However, it does offer a tantalising glimpse of what the future may hold.

Are you a Fitbit user? What do you make of the Ionic? Willing to give it a try? Or do you not see the point of smartwatches? Let us know in the comments!

Enter the Competition!

Fitbit Ionic Giveaway

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  1. Cindy Rupp
    October 20, 2017 at 8:32 am

    I don't have a fitbit but I've had other activity trackers and smartwatches that were of poor quality. I love this watch (Ionic) and would be thrilled to win it! Very nice!

  2. Cindy Rupp
    October 20, 2017 at 8:29 am

    I don't have a Fitbit but I love, love, love the Ionic! I've been eyeing it for a couple of weeks, but cannot afford to buy one right now. I've had a few cheap smartwatches but none were of good quality. Thanks for this opportunity and good luck to all!

  3. Lucinda Morabito
    October 16, 2017 at 3:44 pm

    Thanks for the review! It's definitely not the most attractive fitness tracker.

  4. Jerry Attrick
    October 16, 2017 at 12:38 pm

    Maybe you just don't work out enough to get use out of the Fitbit? I've had the Blaze for over a year now and I'm addicted to it. No it's not the smartest watch on the block but it never claimed to be. Tells me what I need to know including the date. I'm confused did you want a smart watch or a work out tool?

    • James Frew
      October 16, 2017 at 12:46 pm

      Fitbit does refer to the Ionic as a smartwatch. There are expectations set on that category of products by the market leaders in the Apple Watch and Android Wear devices. I'm glad you enjoy the Blaze. As you can see in the review I also have another Fitbit device - the Charge 2 - and have been using Fitbit products since 2013. As mentioned, the Ionic is the first smartwatch from Fitbit since the acquisition of Pebble (the smartwatch manufacturer) and is the first running their smartwatch Fitbit OS.

      Many people have commented on both this and the video review stating that they have another Fitbit device and I shouldn't be negative. However, the purpose of the review is for the reviewer to trial the device and reflect what they found. I understand that it may not have been the ideal result - I wanted it to be better than it ultimately was in my experience. However, I also took time to highlight the conditions under which I found any issues and the set up I use. I also highlighted that Android is a variable system and so results may vary. Additionally, my review and rating is not out of step with the general consensus of other professional reviewers.

  5. Angela Jeffries
    October 15, 2017 at 6:36 pm

    I have a step tracker. It is useless. If I walk a mile into town it tells me I have taken 400 steps!!!!!! So I would love a Fitbit, please.

    • James Frew
      October 16, 2017 at 6:33 am

      Good luck in the competition - make sure you've entered using the widget above.

  6. betty kulyk
    October 15, 2017 at 3:43 pm

    Would love to wi this for my hearI think this is a good medical alert for exercise etc
    thks

    • James Frew
      October 16, 2017 at 6:34 am

      Good luck in the competition - make sure you've entered using the widget above. If you don't win the Ionic though, any of Fitbit's trackers are a great investment.

  7. Gladys Rice
    October 15, 2017 at 11:05 am

    omg I have a Fitbit and have lost 30 lbs . I truly love Fitbit, My boss just got the watch Fitbit and my friend has it also, I can't afford to buy one I am so Jealous would love to win this.

    • James Frew
      October 16, 2017 at 6:35 am

      It motivated me into doing more walking too. Good luck in the competition - make sure you've entered using the widget above.

  8. Paul Hopkins
    October 15, 2017 at 12:39 am

    I've never had a Fitbit but always wanted one

    • James Frew
      October 15, 2017 at 9:32 am

      Make sure to enter using the competition widget above - good luck!

  9. Sam
    October 14, 2017 at 8:26 pm

    I love my fitbits. I have been using fitbit for years. I would love to win. Thank you

    • James Frew
      October 14, 2017 at 8:36 pm

      Make sure to enter using the competition widget above - good luck!

  10. Annette potter
    October 14, 2017 at 8:11 pm

    Would love to win

    • James Frew
      October 14, 2017 at 8:36 pm

      Make sure to enter using the competition widget above - good luck!

  11. Angela Wilcox
    October 14, 2017 at 7:30 pm

    I would like a Fitbit to get going after heart surgery and to get more healthy with lung disease and Fibromyalgia. I think having the Fitbit watch on the wrist to remind one to exercise and be healthy is a great idea!

    • James Frew
      October 14, 2017 at 7:42 pm

      Good luck in the competition then! If you don't win the Ionic then I'd definitely suggest looking at their other wearables. Probably the best value for money are the Alta HR or the Charge 2.

  12. Paul V
    October 14, 2017 at 3:14 pm

    I hope I win this, I recently won 2 Fitbit Ionic cases I have no use for :(

    • James Frew
      October 14, 2017 at 7:24 pm

      Make sure to enter the competition using the widget and maybe you'll end up with an Ionic to fill those cases!

  13. Allida Webb
    October 14, 2017 at 12:27 am

    I would love to win a Fitbit Ionic. U would give it to my niece for Christmas. She is the athlete in the family. She lives on the big Island of Hawaii, she does triathlons, half marathon at the Ironman competition. She goes all over the States including Alaska to race for charity. She hikes all over to waterfalls, lava flows, and to remote beaches to wait and watch turtle eggs hatch so she caƱ count and make sure they all get to the ocean safely.

    • James Frew
      October 14, 2017 at 11:32 am

      Make sure to enter using the widget above for your chance to win the Ionic for your niece!

  14. Vicky Keener
    October 14, 2017 at 12:03 am

    I really found out things that I did not know this evening while entering the fibit giveaway thanks.

    • James Frew
      October 14, 2017 at 11:32 am

      Glad you found it informative - good luck in the competition!

  15. Philip
    October 13, 2017 at 6:31 pm

    As long as you are not looking for something to last more than a year.

  16. m-p{3}
    October 12, 2017 at 1:15 pm

    As a Pebble owner and who doesn't care a lot about connected fitness equipment, this is why I'm not upgrading..

    • James Frew
      October 12, 2017 at 1:17 pm

      Seems like a good decision. Bet it was disappointing when you heard the news of the acquisition!

      • m-p{3}
        October 12, 2017 at 1:19 pm

        It was, I kinda hoped they'd use the acquired talent and resources to further what Pebble achieved and make a great fitness tracker and a great smartwatch.

        I was too optimistic.

        • James Frew
          October 12, 2017 at 1:20 pm

          As I said in the review, I think it could work out alright in the end, but they need to give it more development time. Its pretty clear that they pushed out the Ionic in time for this year's holiday season when it would have made more sense to aim a year later.

    • likefunbutnot
      October 13, 2017 at 11:50 am

      I got a used Pebble Round from Amazon just a few weeks ago. It was $35 and it's exactly what I want. It's tiny and it runs a couple days on a charge. It shows me notifications and gives me better control over my music in places where I can't look at my phone. I don't need it all the time but after messing with Garmin and Samsung watches, I don't know how Pebble isn't the biggest player in industry, let alone how it got eaten by Fitbit.

      • James Frew
        October 13, 2017 at 4:21 pm

        Once big players like Apple and Google came to market with smartwatches I think they just dominated most of the coverage and forced Pebble out, even though their offerings were less compelling.