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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!