The new Fitbit Ionic smart watch ($299.95) has been on the grapevine since May this year when leaked product renders made its rounds on the net. This is Fitbit’s first full fledged smart watch with storage for music, a killer coloured display and BLE connection. The Ionic has officially been released and is currently battling for market share this holiday seasons.
I managed to snag a unit a while back and have been using the Fitbit Ionic for more than a month now. Here’s what I have to say about Fitbit’s attempts at reversing their fortunes and stopping the Apple Watch juggernaut in its tracks.
Fitbit Ionic look and feel
The Corning 3 Gorilla glass display is the single most prominent feature of the Fitbit Ionic. It’s beautiful, hydrophobic, and capable of emitting 1000 bits of brightness.
I personally found the display crisp for workout stats projection but I’m perplexed why Fitbit limited the number of stats to a paltry 3 instead of maximising the entire screen estate; even the Suunto Spartan Trainer, with a way smaller display, squeezed in 7 stats.
Save for the Fitbit Zip and Fitbit one, nearly all of Fitbit’s devices are either squarish (think Fitbit Surge) or rectangular in appearance. (Alta HR and Charge 2) So it follows naturally that the Fitbit Ionic is built along these lines, pun intended, and adopts the appearance of which is nearly a perfect square for the frame with a rectangular display.
The watch feels light because it’s crafted out of 6000 series aerospace grade alumnium along with a surgical grade stainless steel strap buckle.
The Fitbit Ionic sports a slim profile from the side but it’s actually thicker at the center due to a tapered design. There are a total of 3 physical buttons which control the watch along with a less than sensitive touch display that lagged on more occasions than I would’ve liked.
The watch is pretty slim for a piece of hardware that’s packed with a multitude of sensors.
For a quick summary, it houses BLE, WIFI, wrist based HR sensors, altimeter, accelerometer, digital compass, ambient light sensor, NFC, and GPS. And according to Fitbit, the company has engineered the GPS antenna into the watch frame to allow for better satellite connection; the Ionic is both GPS and GLONASS enabled. So far pretty impressive.
The NFC chip will come in handy when using Fitbit Pay for cashless transactions or purchasing a drink from Starbucks. (Starbucks app not available in Singapore) In Singapore, UOB is the only bank so far to support contactless payment with the Fitbit Ionic.
The watch faces are changeable though it requires the user download and install each face one at a time. Furthermore, the downloaded faces are not kept on device other than the one being displayed. So if you’re keen to change watch face, you’ll have to go through the process of downloading and installing every single time.
The Ionic ships with 2 sizes of quick release changeable wrist bands which can be a tad rigid for wearing, unlike the softer version on the Apple Watches.
Also, since fitness is a huge part of Fitbit’s plan in getting people to buy their wearables, I thought it’d have been great had they thrown in a pair of sports wrist bands which has more perforated holes. Even if it’s just to one-up Apple or any of its competitors.
Charging is initiated via a proprietary charging cable. After a full charge, I managed four and a half days of use.
The watch also tracks swimming so naturally water resistance is a given.
The Fitbit Ionic isn’t the first device from Fitbit to ship with GPS, that title goes to the Surge. With the Ionic, Fitbit has drastically reduced the physical size and weight to allow for a comfortable running or working out experience.
There are only a limited number of workout profiles – run, bike, swim, treadmill, weights, interval training and just workout.
You can further customise the stats display for each profile. Optical HR sensors are turned off during pool swim mode.
I need to stress that Fitbit Ionic only allows 3 visible stats at any one point even thought the display is one of the largest in comparison to the competition. Of the 3 rows of stats, only the middle can be scrolled to reveal more metrics.
GPS reception is relatively quick and a satellite icon on the display blinks during the process before a buzz of the wearable informs the user it’s good to go.
The distance tracked is close to the actual distance run based on my own experience. There’s this loop where I regularly run which is filled with tall buildings and overarching trees, effectively making it a nightmare for GPS watches.
Based on the plotted running route, Fitbit’s Ionic performed superbly.
You can also enable laps manually or automatically. In manual “Cue” mode, the top right hand button records the lap. In automatic “Cue” mode, the laps are GPS tracked.
At the end of each workout, the user will be shown a session summary. However once that particular summary is closed, there’s no other way to access it again other than within the mobile app. I found this strange since Fitbit should be able to keep the workout easily accessible on device; I’ve seen 16MB capacity watches from Garmin store more workouts than Fitbit’s Ionic can.
There’s also a “Coach” function on the Ionic. Activating the app brings up a workout menus which the user may select from. Within each menu, you’ll find animations on how a particular exercise should be done before the workout timer commences for that exercise.
As for wrist based HR measurements, since Fitbit doesn’t allow export of the workout data, I could only do a side by side comparison versus the HR data recorded by Polar H10 chest strap HR. monitors.
On the whole I had no issues with the wrist based HR measurements from running and stationary cycle but I had concerns when it came to strength training.
You can refer to the above screen shot of the HR graphs of both Fitbit Ionic and Polar H10. Very few wrist worn wearables do well for strength training and that’s inevitable. If you’re interested, this is my workout routine which works the entire body but rely heavily on the upper limbs in carrying weight.
- Hammer Curls
- Dumbell lunges
- Tricep pull down
- Romanian deadlift
- Lat pull down
- Push ups
- Seated row
Fitbit’s graph looks a bit squashed because of the aspect ratio. I’m always curious if the results might be better if I had worn the Fitbit Ionic on my upper arm instead. Maybe I’ll try it sometime.
Adding music playing capability, be it streaming or from on board storage, is absolutely liberating for workout. And rightfully so since the appropriate music during workouts has been proven to delay fatigue. So kudos to Fitbit for adding music playback on the Fitbit Ionic.
Couple of points to note. For starters, the transferring of music was more tedious than necessary. Music can’t be transferred from Fitbit web platform (Fitbit.com) nor Fitbit mobile app, it has to be initiated by the Fitbit Connect software program for PC or Mac and thereafter the slow transferring process commences. And even though there’s a provided cable, the music transferring music is done via WiFi. Anyway these are the compatible files:
- Windows 10
- MP3 files
- MP4 files with AAC audio
- WMA files
- MP3 files
- MP4 files with AAC audio
The transfer process is fine if you have music files, not DRM protected, which you can readily drag and drop or create your own lists.
Both Apple and Google have their own stronghold on music so naturally their products sync like hot knife cutting butter with their own devices. Whereas Fitbit doesn’t have any music library and has come up with a method to do so. So the music transfer process for the Ionic is unnecessarily tedious but inevitable.
I wasn’t able to try the Pandora app as that’s not available in the version that’s sold in Singapore.
Will it get better any time? I certainly hope so. Fitbit has alot of room for improvements in this aspect. You can refer to Fitbit’s FAQ for music transfer.
As for the Bluetooth connectivity feature, it’s currently available for pairing of Bluetooth earphones only. You can’t connect BLE HR monitors such as Polar’s H10 or OH1 but you can certainly pair the Ionic with BLE earphones other than the Fitbit Flyer.
All day stats
All day activity tracking is where the Fitbit Ionic performs like a fish in water. The company is almost synonymous with the term fitness wearables or fitness trackers and that’s because the first tracker from the company debuted in 2011. Effectively giving Fitbit a 6 years head start in figuring what it takes to get people moving.
The mobile app is clean and fluid with the essentials taken care of. Social circle, checked. Leaderboard ranking, checked. Challenge, checked. Weekly summary, checked.
You’d be hard pressed to find something that other companies are doing which Fitbit isn’t in terms of all day tracking needs.
Even when the user forgets to track the activity, Fitbit’s proprietary SmartTrack tech kicks in and automatically records the workout session.
I almost never give any weightage to sleep quality such as like light, deep or REM sleep on any wearble until I see validated data compared against polysomnography. But I found the Ionic’s sleep tracking highly accurate in terms of sleep duration. It even captured my 45 minutes nap which is a rarity for most wearables I’ve used. So that’s pretty impressive.
Fitbit did present their findings at the 2017 SLEEP conference and you can access the abstract here if you’re interested.
The Fitbit Ionic will also provide reminders or encouragements to get on your feet and move if you’ve customised it to do so.
The Fitbit Ionic can display app notifications and incoming calls though there’s no way of replying with quick replies at present.
The app platform saw its first major update on 5th December 2017 when it welcomed more than 60 app and 100 over new watches. It’s a major jump and a clear sign that Fitbit is committed to make their OS platform work.
Besides sleep tracking, the Fitbit Ionic is also able to estimate the user’s VO2 max levels just by having the user clock an outdoor run.
Lastly, Fitbit has revamped the breathing counter and its full glory can be experienced on the Ionic smart watch. I’ve used the Fitbit Charge 2 and I can assure you the animation improvement is a quantum leap.
The guided breathing duration can be tweaked but the number of duration of each breath can’t be adjusted. Personally, the breathing pace was too fast for my liking.
Fitbit Ionic in a nutshell
After so much hype, I can’t hide the fact that I’m disappointed. After all, this website started after a brush with the Fitbit One 4 years ago.
The Fitbit Ionic has a to-die-for display that’s large enough for the most stat-hungry athlete who would want their pace, HR, cadence, distance, duration, elevation, and more on a single screen. But the Ionic opted not to, instead forcing users to display only 3 metrics while scrolling the middle metric to view more stats in the midst of a hard workout. Do you even workout Fitbit?
There’s a fine line between design and practical use and it seems Fitbit scrimped on the design aspect. Unibody 6000 series aerospace aluminium aside, the physical appearance of the watch is not exactly desirable, resembling a flat screen TV plastered across the wrist. It isn’t big like the Garmin Fenix 5X watch, but it shows too conspicuously and informs everyone that there’s a Fitbit user in the house.
User interface could’ve shipped in a smoother state. Why is there a need to scroll another screen just to access 3-4 apps? Surely most of the apps could be placed on a single screen with scrolling up or down enabled – exactly how we would use all our mobile devices. But again Fitbit threw us a curve ball and cow-fenced each panel to only 3-4 apps and added a dash of lag.
Lengthy battery life, limited Bluetooth Smart connectivity, a formidable display screen, stellar all day activity tracking features and a rock solid mobile app honed by years of having a headstart in the fitness wearable industry are what saved the Fitbit Ionic. Failing which I’m convinced the Fitbit Ionic would’ve been in big trouble.
Apple Watch Series 3 is the undisputed king of the smart watch while the Garmin Forerunner 935 is the best in the class of fitness focused multi-sport watches. Unfortunately the Fitbit Ionic is stuck in the middle and faces competition from a multitude of similar devices.
Time is running out for the juggernaut that was once synonymous with wearables. Apparently being good at all day activity tracking is no longer sufficient to wow. The saving grace is that most of the Ionic’s shortcomings can be fixed via firmware updates and software tweaks – I’m looking forward to the full app platform and sleep apnea detection. Fitbit’s latest OS update should prove that the company is committed to doing better.
You can purchase the Fitbit Ionic smart watch (Silver/ Smoke Gray/ Burnt Orange) from Amazon where there’s usually a small discount, great return policy, and free delivery depending on where you reside. In return your purchase helps to offset the costs associated with the running of this site. Would love to hear your views in the comments section and thanks for reading!