Conflict of interest disclosure: I own 20 shares of Fitbit stock, which I purchased halfway through writing this review, on the hope that apparently strong Ionic sales would give the stock a boost. So far, that hasn't been the case. At any rate, the value of the stock is less than the cost of the device itself, so I don't think it compromises my objectivity, but you have been warned.
Fitbit recently released their first true smartwatch, the Ionic. After going through a phase of slight obsession in the lead-up to its release, during which I spent many hours watching preview videos and reading comparisons between the Ionic, the Apple Watch Series 3, and the Garmin Vivoactive 3, I ultimately decided to buy the Ionic. I've now had it for about a month, so this seems like a good time to review the device and discuss what I think it does well, and not so well.
If you're looking for an in-depth review of the Fitbit Ionic with a particular emphasis on how it performs as a fitness tracker, I'd recommend reading DC Rainmaker's review. I'm not that serious an athlete, so I won't be going into depth about the GPS and heart rate accuracy, and really there's no need for me to do so, since DC Rainmaker has already covered those aspects of the device. This review is merely my own non-expert opinion of the device based on my own experience, with a bit more emphasis on the smartwatch features of the Ionic and how suitable the watch is for various types of users.
Even though I don't consider myself a serious athlete, I did buy the Fitbit Ionic primarily as a fitness tracker, so I'd be remiss to not mention how the device fares in that respect. Indeed, I think it's fair to say that the Ionic was designed primarily as a fitness tracker, with the smartwatch functionality being somewhat secondary. In my mind, this puts the Ionic in a slightly different category than the Apple Watch—plus, the Ionic supports Android and Windows devices, whereas the Apple Watch does not. Unfortunately for Fitbit, competition in this market is extremely fierce, even if you only consider all the Android and Windows users that the Apple Watch can't reach.
So, how does the Ionic perform as a fitness tracker? I think it's pretty good for the most part, but there are some noteworthy shortcomings that Fitbit absolutely needs to address in future software updates if they want to stay competitive. But let's start with the good parts. First of all, I've been impressed with the GPS. It connects quickly and consistently, and in my experience, the accuracy is pretty good for a wrist-mounted device. I have found that it tends to cut corners if you make sharp turns, which can result in runs appearing slightly shorter than they actually are, but the deviation is only about 50-100 meters over a 5km run. This is on par with the accuracy of other devices, and it won't be cause for concern for most people. Besides, in some cases that error will be averaged out by other noise.
Likewise, the heart rate monitor is quite reliable. Like most wearable devices, it records continuously throughout the day at a lower frequency, and at a higher frequency during activities. I have found it to be fairly accurate, only occasionally getting confused during strenuous exercise, and pretty much always appearing correct at rest—even if I wear it on my tattooed arm. I say "appearing" because my testing of the heart rate sensor's accuracy has been thoroughly unscientific; I've just counted beats manually and compared it to the reading on the Fitbit. Optical heart rate sensors are never as accurate as chest straps, but they're much more convenient. I've owned a chest strap for years now, but I can never be bothered to actually use it.
Arguably the most important aspect of a wearable device is its battery life, and happily Fitbit did not disappoint with the Ionic. They advertise 4+ days for most users, and in my experience that is accurate. If you don't use the GPS much, I think you could easily get 5 days on a single charge, but even with fairly frequent GPS use, you should have no problem lasting at least 3.5-4 days between charges. With GPS on constantly, you should get 10 hours of battery life, which is nice as it would allow you to track a longish hike without having to bring a battery pack to recharge at the top of the mountain. Ultramarathon runners or multi-day backpackers might find 10 hours of GPS time insufficient, though.
I have had a couple days where the battery rapidly dropped from 40% to zero over the course of only a few hours, part way through the fourth day of use. I assume this is an issue with the calibration of the battery guage which can be corrected by a software update; at any rate, it has only happened to me a couple times.
Garmin, Suunto, and some lesser-known brands do have Fitbit beat in terms of battery life, but the important thing for me is that I can use the Ionic all day for several days without having to think about when I last charged it, or when I'll next have to charge it. That was not the case with the Microsoft Band 21, which I previously owned. At only two days to a charge, I had to be mindful of when to put the Band on the charger if I wanted to be able to consistently track my sleep, and if I happened to forget, I'd just have to forego sleep tracking that night. Incidentally, this is the main reason I didn't get an Apple Watch; the short life is a deal breaker for me.
(Apparently the Apple Watch doesn't natively do sleep tracking, anyway. One could argue that sleep tracking isn't actually very useful, but personally I enjoy having the data and being able to compare what the device measured to how I feel the next day. It also seems odd to me that the Apple Watch doesn't natively support sleep tracking given that the Apple Health app feature Sleep as one of four prominent tiles on the Health Data page.)
To my mind, there are three major shortcomings on the fitness front. First, you're currently limited to a maximum of seven "exercise shortcuts" stored on the device at a time. This means that if you want to track an activity that is not one of the seven you've chosen, you need to use your phone to reconfigure your shortcuts before you can track your exercise on the device. Doing that is a fairly tedious process when you just want to start exercising, and even as someone with a limited repertoire of athletic activities, I've already had to swap out activities a few times because I can't get everything I want on the device. I can't imagine that there's any real technical limitation behind this arbitrary maximum number of activities. If I had to guess, it's more of a UI issue, because swiping through activities on the device might be cumbersome if there were dozens of activities available. Whatever the reason, I really hope this is fixed in a future software update.
Second, the list of available activities has some notable omissions. The available options are:
- Swim (pool swimming)
- Interval Workout
- Martial Arts
- Circuit training
- Generic "workout"
This isn't a bad start, but I'd really like to see options for rock climbing (including bouldering and top roping/lead climbing), skiing, snowboarding, open-water swimming, standup paddleboarding, kayaking, and canoeing. There are dozens of other activities that can be logged on Fitbit's website but don't have an equivalent on the device, which begs the question: why not? Again, this is the kind of thing that could be easily corrected in a software update, but the extent to which Fitbit will provide updates and support for their new device and operating system remains to be seen. Frankly, looking through Fitbit's feature suggestion forum doesn't make me extremely optimistic about the level of post-launch support we're likely to see on the Ionic. There are over 9,000 suggestions on that forum, across all Fitbit products, but only a handful of them have been implemented so far. And I can't help but wonder why more exercise options weren't available at launch, given Fitbit's emphasis on, you know, fitness. It's especially irritating when you consider that the Apple Watch does support a lot of these activities.
Third, the Ionic cannot be connected to external sensors like chest strap heart rate monitors or power meters for bicycles. This is not a huge issue for me personally, because I don't use any of those devices. As mentioned previously, I do actually own a chest strap heart rate monitor, but I find it too much of a nuisance to wear it when I run or work out, which is part of the reason I like having a fitness watch in the first place. But other devices do support external sensors—including the Garmin Vivoactive 3 and, again, the Apple Watch. So this too is a big shortcoming for serious fitness enthusiasts, on a device that really should be capitalizing on its fitness features to make up for its shortcomings as a smartwatch. (More on that later.)
Aesthetics and comfort
Aesthetics are obviously inherently subjective, but personally I think the Ionic looks great. I've never been a fan of the Apple Watch's flat, rounded rectangular design, and although I haven't worn one, they've always appeared unpleasantly thick to me. On the other hand, I'm also not a huge fan of the circular screens sported by many other smartwatches. As a software developer, I can't help but think about what a pain in the ass it must be to develop UI for a round display, and the although I understand that many people have an aesthetic preference for round watch faces, it seems a bit backwards to me to constrain modern technology in a form factor that was designed for mechanical devices.
A lot of people have complained about the large black Fitbit logo bezel at the bottom of the Ionic's screen. I agree that it does give the front of the watch a somewhat dated look if you really focus on it—in fact, combined with the curvature of the screen, the Ionic's display almost looks like a tiny little CRT. Bezels are very much out of style in 2017, and it certainly would have been nice to just have more screen. I will say, though, that the close up marketing images somewhat exaggerate the bezel's prominence. It's really not that noticeable on the watch itself when it's on your wrist, at least to my eye.
Actually, although to some it may look dated, overall I really like the subtle curve of the Ionic. It's hardly noticeable from most angles, but it still manages to make the watch feel like it's hugging my wrist all the way around, rather than just sitting flat against it. As someone with small wrists, this is really nice. In contrast to a lot of other watches I've worn, including mechanical watches, the Ionic doesn't look absurdly bulky on my wrist. And more importantly, it's light and comfortable enough that I'm not constantly aware of it on my wrist, although I can't say that it ever entirely disappears. That said, the stock wrist band, which I'm still using, is definitely not great. It's a little too stiff, and it doesn't breathe at all. I'll definitely pick up a sport band at some point. There are already a good variety of third-party bands available on Amazon, although a lot of them are pretty low quality.
Unfortunately, the Ionic is pretty underwhelming as a smartwatch, at least in its current state. I've never really understood the desire to read news articles or compose tweets on a watch, but I assume there are some cool things a smartwatch can be used for. If so, though, the Ionic isn't a very good showcase of it, and it remains to be seen whether or not the app platform will be successful at all.
The Ionic has the following built-in apps:
- Exercise: is used to start and stop workouts. Currently, it supports 20 different activities, which I listed above. Annoyingly, although perhaps unsurprisingly given the Ionic's specs, the exercise app cannot run in the background. Once you're in a workout, you can't also check your steps or start a timer.
- Today: shows you your stats for the day (steps, hourly step goals, current and resting heart rate, distance, calories, floors climbed, and active minutes).
- Timers: has timer and stopwatch functionality.
- Alarms: allows you to set silent alarms. You can have multiple alarms active at the same time, and you can choose which days alarms repeat on. Whereas most other Fitbit devices only allow alarms to be configured from the phone app (since many of them have no screens or tiny screens), on the Ionic you can only edit your alarms on the device.
- Weather: provides weather at your current location and other locations of your choosing. This is an app I could see myself actually making a lot of use of, but I'm very disappointed in the current implementation. It seems to sync at random—perhaps whenever the Ionic syncs exercise data, but not immediately when the weather app itself is opened. As a result, it always seems to be 30 minutes out of date for me. That might not sound like a big deal, but the weather in the Seattle area is notoriously fickle, so 30 minutes can be the difference between sunny skies and torrential downpour.
- Pandora: allows Pandora Plus subscribers to sync a few of their Pandora stations to the Ionic. The Ionic can't stream music from the Internet, so a selection of songs are synced over WiFi while the device is charging. Unfortunately, this is only available to US customers. Personally, I use Spotify rather than Pandora, so I haven't used this. Fitbit is reportedly trying to get Spotify to support the Ionic as well, but that is easier said than done.
- Music: allows you to sync playlists from your PC or Mac to the Ionic. You cannot use your phone to sync music (which is probably an iOS limitation, but Fitbit doesn't support it on Android or Windows Phone either, probably just to keep the apps consistent). I haven't actually used this either since I basically always have my phone with me. From what I've read elsewhere, music playback on the device works pretty well, but syncing songs is very slow and you must create playlists for the songs you want to sync (i.e. you can't just sync a folder of music).
- Coach: offers guided bodyweight workouts with short animations that show you how to perform each move. The workouts are pretty fast-paced, and the goal is to do as many reps as you can during the time frame you're given for each exercise, so it should be an effective workout regardless of your fitness level. So far there are only three workouts available, but Fitbit has promised that more will be coming (via a paid subscription service), and future workouts should be tailored to your ratings of how difficult your past workouts were.
- Strava: shows you stats for your previous running and cycling sessions. In fact, this is the only way to look at your previous workouts on the device. Your workouts have to sync to Fitbit's website, and then to Strava, and then back to the watch via the Strava app before you can view them, so this app also seems to always be out of date. Also, it takes so long to load that sometimes it gets killed by the OS before it starts.
- Relax: provides guided breathing sessions and gives you feedback about how well your breathing was synchronized with the prompts and how your heart rate changed during the session. It's a nice idea, but I think traditional mindfulness meditation is more effective (albeit more time consuming) if you really want to relax.
- Wallet: stores your credit cards for use with Fitbit Pay. Fitbit Pay can be used anywhere that NFC payments are supported, which in my experience means it is available pretty much everywhere Apple Pay is, and possibly even at some places where Apple Pay isn't. There are a limited number of banks supported right now, but I was able to add both of my credit cards even though one of the issuing banks isn't actually listed as being supported. I've used Fitbit Pay several times and it has worked flawlessly almost every time. I did have one or two times where the terminal didn't seem to detect the Ionic, but that may have been an issue with the terminal.
- Settings: lets you change brightness, vibration, all-day heart rate, and notification settings. On the subject of notifications, the Ionic can display any notification shown on the smartphone, but there's no way to interact with the notifications (i.e. you can't reply to a text message from the watch), and currently notifications on the watch are not perfectly reliable. Also, there is no option to keep the screen always on, which a lot of people seem to want. Personally I find the rotate-wrist-to-wake functionality sufficient.
Of course, built-in apps will only get you so far. Whether or not the Ionic proves to be a capable smartwatch will largely depend on the strength of its app platform. That is impossible to evaluate currently, because the third-party app store isn't available yet. (It should be coming before the end of fall, according to Fitbit.) However, I took a crack at developing my own app for the Ionic, and so far I have not been impressed with the SDK. If you're interested in that, I wrote a whole other post about it, but the gist of it is that the SDK is currently short on features, poorly documented, and extremely buggy. Let's hope that the next firmware update comes with some big changes.
The Ionic also contains a blood oxygen saturation sensor. This kind of sensor can be used in the diagnosis of sleep apnea and other medical conditions, although medical sensors are usually clipped onto the end of the finger; I've never seen a wrist-mounted one. Fitbit is reportedly experimenting with detecting sleep apnea using their sensor, but it's unclear whether that will ever actually see the light of day. I don't mind being a guinea pig for features that might not come out for several years, but I do wonder how much of the cost of the device went into that sensor and the R&D for it. If the Ionic could have been released at, say, $285 without the SpO2 sensor, I think that would have made it a much more competitive offering compared to the Apple Watch or Garmin Vivoactive 3. $15 might not seem like a lot, but I think there's a significant psychological difference between $280-ish and $300-ish.
Even if Fitbit finds an accurate way to detect sleep apnea using the sensor, they would require FDA approval to surface that data to US customers, which could take years to get. Fitbit claims to be working with the FDA to develop an efficient regulatory pathway for wearables, but that's going to be an uphill battle. Other countries may have fewer regulatory hurdles for features like this, though.
The Ionic also has a temperature sensor on board, which, as I understand it, is used to calibrate the barometric altimeter so that it can accurately measure elevation. This sensor is not currently exposed in the UI or the API at all. I'm not sure if there would be any benefit in exposing it to the API since its temperature reading is probably somewhere between the ambient temperature and the wearer's skin temperature, but it would be cool if Fitbit found a way to correct for the skin temperature and expose ambient temperature through the API. I wouldn't hold my breath on that happening, though.
One thing I haven't mentioned so far, which is a big advantage to the Fitbit ecosystem, is the community. The Fitbit app and website allow you to connect with friends and compete for the highest weekly step count or participate in challenges together. Of course, whether or not this will matter to you depends on whether or not your friends and family are also using Fitbit devices. But if they are, the significance of this feature as a motivational tool should not be underestimated. With my Microsoft Band, I never particularly cared about reaching my daily step goal, because the community aspect of the Microsoft Health platform was very limited. Even as a Microsoft employee, I only had three or four friends who participated, and I'm pretty sure none of them ever checked the rankings. With Fitbit, my whole family is on there, and I know they'll see it if I'm lazy, so I feel a lot more motivated to actually hit my goals.
So, do I recommend the Fitbit Ionic? Well, it depends. The main thing that my research into fitness wearables made clear to me was that there's no one device that will meet everyone's needs perfectly, so which one is right for you depends a lot on what you're planning to use it for. The Ionic is a great fitness device, but not a great smartwatch, and if you're a serious runner or cyclist, or a triathlete, there are better options out there. Bearing in mind that I haven't personally tested any of the devices on this list other than the Ionic, I can't really make specific purchase recommendations, but here are the devices I would recommend considering based on your needs:
- The Ionic is a great choice if you're somewhat serious about running or cycling and don't care that much about fancy smartwatch features. If you have friends or family who also use Fitbit devices, then I think the Ionic is a great choice for the community aspect.
- If you want a smartwatch first and foremost, and don't care as much about fitness, then the Apple Watch will probably be your best choice. If you're not an iPhone user, check out Samsung's Galaxy Gear lineup.
- If you're a serious runner, cyclist, or especially if you're a triathlete, you should be looking at Garmin and Suunto devices. Again, I'd recommend looking at DC Rainmaker's blog for reviews of these devices. (How did you end up here instead of there in the first place?)
- If your main sports are skiing, snowboarding, or surfing, take a look at the Nixon Mission, which is currently the only smartwatch to integrate with Trace. However, be wary of its limited battery life.
Disclaimer: I work for Microsoft, but the Microsoft Band has been discontinued, so Microsoft is no longer a competitor in this space. ↩