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Fitbit Ionic Review: Serious Apple Watch rival?

The Good

  • Gorgeous display
  • Sleek and light design
  • Solid fitness features

The Bad

  • As pricey as an Apple Watch
  • Limited 3rd party support
  • Fitbit Pay not yet active in UK
3.5

Fitbit is back with a fully-featured smartwatch, set to rival the likes of the Apple Watch Series 3. We’ve been testing the Fitbit Ionic and here’s how it stacks up against rival devices.

When you think of fitness trackers, chances are you’ll think of Fitbit. Even though you’ll find plenty of rival devices in the stores these days, from the likes of Garmin and Samsung, Fitbit is fast becoming the recognised brand for monitoring your exercise sessions and encouraging you to ditch the Mars Bar for a five mile hike.

Most Fitbits are simple wristband affairs, although some offer a proper display for feedback and pretty much all of them deliver a strong range of fitness features. From the simple Flex 2, with its LED dot indicators, to the more premium Alta HR with its heart rate sensor and proper readout, you’re bound to find one to suit your needs.

Last year, Fitbit had a stab at a smartwatch-style tracker. The Fitbit Blaze could be seen as a pilot device; the manufacturer dipping a toe in waters already populated by the likes of the Apple Watch, complete with a large screen and proper smart features. It wasn’t exactly a success, although Fitbit has clearly learned from many of its mistakes and refined pretty much every part of the experience for this year’s release, the Ionic.

Fitbit Ionic vs Fitbit Blaze, what’s the difference?

As well as a fresh new design (which remains customisable), the Fitbit Ionic sports a revamped interface and fresh new features. You can store a decent selection of songs on the watch itself, for instance, to stream direct to your wireless ‘phones. Meanwhile you still get the same comprehensive set of fitness features, including the Fitstar coaching app and full monitoring of your vital stats.

Check out our guide to which Fitbit is best for you, for a comprehensive run-down of the range. We’ve been testing the Ionic full-time for a week now and here’s our in-depth review, complete with hands-on videos.

Fitbit Ionic Review: Design

If you like angles, chances are you’ll like the look of the Fitbit Ionic.

This smartwatch sports a relatively slender body, which is pleasingly light too. You’ll soon forget it’s even on your wrist and it certainly won’t weigh you down during exercise sessions. In sharp contrast to the likes of the Apple Watch, which has quite a curvy finish, the Ionic is all about corners and right angles. It’s quite a funky finish, which helps the watch to stand out from the crowd.

That 6000 series aluminum is certainly rugged too, resisting scratches and scuffs even when you accidentally smack your arm off a wall or otherwise bump it during training. Likewise, the Gorilla Glass 3 screen seems to be just as tough.

Although the body of the watch has quite a premium vibe, the same can’t really be said for the straps. The standard rubbery bands look pretty basic, although they do at least hold firm and prevent sweat build-up. However, the leather straps are the real disappointment, barely offering any upgrade in looks. Apple definitely has that side covered, with all kinds of premium options to jazz up your wrist rocket com evening time. Fitbit is still wanting in this area.

Check out our full Fitbit Ionic unboxing below to see the design up-close. We also show you the leather band accessory and how to swap straps.

Fitbit Ionic Review: Display

One of the best bits of the Ionic is that gorgeous screen, which delivers all of the information you require in an eye-pleasing fashion.

The 348×250 pixel resolution keeps images nice and crisp, while colours are pleasingly punchy. That vibrant interface looks fantastic, as do the photo images in the fitness tracking menu. Visibility certainly isn’t an issue either. At max brightness, this screen puts out an incredible 1000 nits, which is a lot more powerful than most smartphone screens. Plus viewing angles are as wide as you like, so you can glimpse at your stats without having to raise the watch to your face.

You have a small number of watch faces to choose between (17 in total at the time of writing), which offer a variety of designs as well as different information. These range from simple affairs which just show the date and time (in digital or analogue form) to more complex efforts with your important health stats on display.

We actually prefer the default face, which boasts a slick font as well as steps, activity and calorie burn wheels. Some of the analogue clock faces are neat too, although the rectangular aspect ratio of the display isn’t well suited to that kind of face. Either the clock is stretched, which makes it difficult to read, or the top and bottom are cut off entirely.

Our only other complaint is a lack of an always-on display option, although the auto display mode is pretty accurate, displaying your main clock face when you raise your wrist – most of the time, at least.

Fitbit Ionic Review: Interface and features

Fitbit’s own OS is packed onto the Ionic, offering a pleasingly intuitive user experience.

The touchscreen navigation is pretty straightforward and you should get the hang of it in no time. Flick down to access the media controls, which are handy when you hook up to Bluetooth headphones and stream music during your fitness session. A flick upwards takes you into your notifications list, which displays anything that’s demanding your attention. Finally, a flick left brings up your apps list.

As well as the touchscreen controls, you have two side buttons on the right edge. These quick-load your daily stats and the exercise function, so you can quickly dive in and check out your progress or begin a workout session. As far as we can see, you can’t remap those buttons to other features, although that shouldn’t be an issue for most.

App support is a little limited right now, certainly compared with rivals like the Apple Watch. However, we’re confident that this will expand in the near future and you still get most of the basic functionality that you’d expect. The Fitstar coach is a good way to begin simple yet intensive workout sessions wherever you roam, with a relax function to help calm you down after. Strava comes as standard and you get a few basic everyday apps such as weather and timer functions.

As for the music, you can store ‘up to 300 songs’ locally (which seems an accurate enough estimate based on our tests), with support for MP3 format. Getting these songs onto the watch will be a laborious process for some, as you can only copy across iTunes playlists; meanwhile transferring files is tooth-grindingly slow. However, once your tracks are on there, the media controls are solid and pairing up with your Bluetooth headset is a simple enough task.

We also give the thumbs up to the watch’s notification support. The Fitbit Ionic by default will alert you to any new texts, calls and calendar alerts that pop onto your phone, while you can also add third party app notifications once they’ve been detected on your handset. The Ionic seems to pick up these notifications the very instant they hit your mobile too, so there’s no pesky delay.

Our only complaint is that flicking notifications away is an awkward affair, requiring a very specific action to register. Luckily there’s a ‘clear all’ option which does a much better job.

One potential advantage of the Ionic over many rivals is the Fitbit Pay feature. This uses the device’s NFC support to enable contactless payments, which can be setup and managed via the Fitbit app. So far we haven’t tested this feature, but we’ll be sure to update as soon as the service is fully available in the UK.

With the potential of strong app support from third-party developers, the Ionic’s functionality could expand quite rapidly. Still, the base apps and features are more than good enough for casual or more keen fitness fanatics, with plenty of smart features thrown in to rival the likes of the Apple Watch Series 3. Once you get away from the fitness side of things, of course, the Apple Watch has much more to offer.

Check out our in-depth tour of the Ionic’s menus, apps and interface below, to see all of the options available and how the watch pairs up with the Fitbit iOS or Android app on your phone.

Fitbit Ionic Review: Performance and battery life

Performance isn’t quite on par with the current range of smartwatches sadly, which is immediately evident when you start using the Ionic. Flicking through the menus, those UI transitions never feel quite as smooth as on rival devices from Apple and Samsung.

You’ll certainly see plenty of little judders as you use the watch, although the lag never gets too frustrating. Likewise, we haven’t seen any serious issues such as a proper crash or freeze-up. However, considering the premium asking price, it’s definitely a disappointment.

Thankfully the long battery life makes up for the performance issues somewhat. While most smartwatches die after just a couple of days of use, the Ionic goes strong for roughly four days between charges. That’s with constant heart rate monitoring and the odd bout of exercise tracking thrown in.

You can charge back up again using the proprietary charger when the Ionic runs dry. We like how Fitbit sends you email notifications when the battery needs a boost, so you’ve got no excuse for forgetting.

Fitbit Ionic Review: Verdict

The Fitbit Ionic offers strong fitness features, as well as a clean and simple interface that will appeal to pretty much any users. With its potentially great Fitbit Pay feature, water resistant design and vibrant screen, it’s certainly one of the more premium fitness trackers out there right now.

Of course, as far as third party app support goes, the Ionic still has a long trek ahead to catch up with rivals like the Apple Watch and Huawei Watch. Apple’s device has a more premium finish and a much stronger feature set once you look beyond fitness tracking, and unfortunately also costs the same in its most affordable form.

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