Fitbit Ionic review: Smart on fitness, but not on apps

Nick Broughall 20 October 2017 NEWS

It may look like a smartwatch and feel like a smartwatch, but without a vibrant app ecosystem this is still just a really good fitness tracker.

Quick Verdict:
The Ionic showcases Fitbit's strength as a fitness brand, but also highlights how far it has to go as a smartwatch ecosystem.

The Good

  • Best in class fitness app
  • Up to 5-day battery life
  • Accurate and simple GPS tracking
  • Automatic sports tracking

The Bad

  • Limited apps
  • Notifications are hit and miss
  • Loading music requires PC connection


Fitbit has claimed that the Ionic is its first smartwatch, and in a literal fashion it’s true. The Surge may have looked a lot like a watch, but its functionality was 100% geared towards fitness tracking, with limited "smart" functionality.

The Blaze, meanwhile, seemed to straddle the two categories, with a watch-like design and some limited app functionality, but a definite focus on the fitness tracking elements that made Fitbit a household name.

So the Ionic has landed as the first official Fitbit smartwatch. But while it is full of promise for a competitive future taking on the behemoth that is the Apple Watch, right now the Ionic is still best regarded as a solid fitness tracker with some smartwatch benefits.

Track your fitness with the Fitbit Ionic from Rebel Sport

Track your fitness with the Fitbit Ionic from Rebel Sport from rebel Sport

Pick up the Fitbit Ionic from Rebel Sport and start tracking all aspects of your health with the first real Fitbit smartwatch.

View details

Design

The Fitbit Ionic is a sleek, comfortable device. The screen has an ever so subtle curve that wraps around the wrist. I tested the charcoal and “smoke grey” variant, and the colour scheme and the design fit my personal tastes more than most smartwatches typically do.

Unlike the Apple Watch 3, the Ionic’s screen has a pretty serious bezel, especially on the bottom of the face where the Fitbit logo stands out. Thanks to the contrast ratio of the OLED screen, the bezel isn’t too offensive, though it does seem rather strange to give so much frontal real estate to a logo.

fitbit ionic review 1
If you look at other leading smartwatches like the Apple Watch or the Huawei 2, there’s no logo in sight as the engineers tried to deliver as much screen as possible, and it’s a shame Fitbit didn’t follow the same approach.

The bands are interchangeable, so you can mix and match to suit your style or activity – that premium leather band probably won’t want to do laps in the pool with you.

There’s a single, central button on the left-hand side, while two buttons adorn the right. The left button is your wake/back button, while the two right buttons allow you to control the options on the Ionic to start and control music, workouts, or any other on-screen navigation.

When you take the watch off and flip it over, you’ll see the flashing green light of the Ionic’s standard heart rate sensor, but surrounding it are the red and infrared lights the Ionic introduces for even more detailed health tracking.

Three small metal dots above the optical heart rate sensors magnetically attach to the supplied charging cable to give the Ionic its power.

Performance

After a rocky start, I’m happy to say that the Ionic is a superb fitness tracker. The review unit I received launched before the device hit retail shelves, and it was abundantly clear from early on that the firmware running the show hadn’t been cleared of all its bugs.

After two days of frustration, which involved two firmware updates including one that took 4 hours (and a screen on the app that commanded I not leave the page while the update went on), the Ionic finally began syncing to the Xperia XZ Premium I’ve been using, tracking my heart rate and steps taken.

While early review units are sometimes subject to these quirks, it’s worth flagging that you may have to update the firmware of your device after you buy it, and that experience may not be an enjoyable one. But once completed, the Ionic is a powerful fitness tracker.

IMG_5892
For anyone that has ever used a Fitbit or the Fitbit app, there’s not too much to discover as a fitness device. Steps, heart rate and sleep are automatically tracked, with the results available to discover within the Fitbit app. Certain sports, like running, walking or cycling, are also tracked automatically after 10 minutes.

The Ionic does feature its own GPS though, so for more detailed results of your workouts, you can accurately track your location on a map with a handful of taps on the watch itself. The GPS is quick to find a signal, and the results are nice and accurate, even in the condensed area of the CBD.

You can set the watch to manually track up to seven different activities, including strength-based workouts like weights, or swimming.

The new heart rate sensor lights don’t seem to offer any real difference to performance yet, but Fitbit has been clear on the fact that this information will offer bigger and better health insights in the future.

For those unsure of how to kickstart their fitness regime, the inclusion of Fitbit Coach is a good starting point. Originally appearing on the Fitbit Blaze as Fitstar, Fitbit Coach offers three basic workouts with step-by-step instructions.

If you happen to be a Fitstar premium member, there’s currently no way to add new workouts to the Ionic smartwatch, which seems like a massive missed opportunity. It’s easily fixed with some software updates though, and Fitbit has stated that it will be focusing on audio coaching in the future.

But of course, the Ionic isn’t just a fitness tracker, it’s also the company’s first smartwatch and this is where things aren’t quite as enticing.

The Fitbit offers a small amount of onboard storage for music storage but doesn’t feature integration with any music streaming services like Spotify. In order to transfer music to the watch, you need to use desktop software, which seems completely backward seeing as how you don’t need a PC for any other aspect of owning a Fitbit.

The idea is to allow runners to leave their phone at home, as you can also pair Bluetooth headphones direct to the watch, but in 2017, we’d expect to see streaming platforms supported for this.
IMG_9704

Notifications are similarly underwhelming. Perhaps it’s an issue tied to the challenges of setup with the Android app, but in the entire time I’ve been testing the Ionic I’ve received just a handful of mobile notifications. Even as I write this, I am waiting for the watch to alert me of a text message I received from my wife 20 minutes ago. I don’t hold high hopes of it ever arriving on my wrist.

The Ionic also features an “App” store, but again the results are a little disappointing. Even weeks after the smartwatch launched officially, the only app not made by Fitbit to date is Strava. And of the Fitbit apps, there are only basic inclusions like Alarms, Timers and Weather.

Of course, there is Fitbit Pay, which is a nice inclusion, and Fitbit deserves credit for managing to sign ANZ, CBA and NAB to the service given rival payment services Apple Pay and Samsung Pay don’t have CBA or NAB on board. But mobile payments isn’t going to be the reason you buy an Ionic.

Battery

One of the biggest selling points of Fitbit devices historically is a week-long battery life. While the Ionic doesn’t quite meet that metric, in our testing it does manage to stretch out to about four days of 24/7 use.

Of course, your mileage will vary depending on what you use it for – pop on the GPS and go for a full day hike and there’s a good chance you’ll burn through the battery in a day.

For general use, that’s a big advantage over the likes of the Apple Watch Series 3, but arguably the latest Apple wearable offers a much smarter smartwatch experience thanks to its ecosystem of apps and integrated eSIM for phone-free calls.

Charging the Ionic from empty to 100% takes about two hours, though you’ll probably want to get into a habit of charging daily for a short period of time so you don’t have to take the Ionic off your wrist for two whole hours.

Fitbit Ionic review

Verdict

There’s a lot of potential for the Fitbit Ionic, but so far it sings much more to Fitbit’s strengths as a fitness tracking company than a smartwatch company.

The Ionic is a natural step up for Fitbit users wanting a bit more from their device. The inclusion of GPS, Fitbit Coach and Fitbit Pay all make the Ionic a well-rounded fitness device.

But as a smartwatch - and more specifically, as an Apple Watch Series 3 alternative - the Ionic still has a way to go. The app selection is basically non-existent, the notifications support is minimal and the lack of digital assistant support like Siri leaves the Fitbit way behind other smartwatches in terms of features.

It’s early days for the ecosystem, so there’s a good chance that the supported software will improve dramatically once developers begin making apps for the platform.

Other reviews

Site Comment Score
TechRadar "The Fitbit Ionic is a good wearable, but it’s not the great smartwatch some had expected it to be." 3.5/5
Gizmodo "If Fitbit can iron out the software kinks, that strong battery life and great fitness capabilities will make the Ionic a healthy rival for the Apple Watch." N/A
Sydney Morning Herald "Using the Ionic for a week reminded me that Fitbit's app is still the best in terms of overall health and fitness insights, and the easiest way to challenge friends." N/A
Australian Financial Review "The five to seven-day battery life (depending on how active you are) is by far the Ionic's best feature right now, at least compared to all the other smartwatches I've reviewed." N/A
CNET "The Fitbit Ionic has all the features we’ve been wanting in a Fitbit for years, but it ultimately feels less than the sum of its parts." 3.5/5
Engadget "I'm most impressed by how simple it is to create apps for FitbitOS, which bodes well for the company to get the massive library of offerings it needs to take on Android Wear devices and the Apple Watch." N/A
TechCrunch "The Ionic feels like an admirable but imperfect first step into smartwatches." N/A
The Verge "The best feature of the Fitbit Ionic smartwatch is its battery life" 7/10
MacWorld "Fitbit's new Ionic smartwatch is a smart fitness tracker but lacks intelligence as a smartwatch." 3.5/5
Track your fitness with the Fitbit Ionic from Rebel Sport

Track your fitness with the Fitbit Ionic from Rebel Sport from rebel Sport

Pick up the Fitbit Ionic from Rebel Sport and start tracking all aspects of your health with the first real Fitbit smartwatch.

View details

Specifications

Product Name
Fitbit Ionic
Display
29 x 21mm
Resolution
348 x 250 pixels
ppi
N/A
Software
FitbitOS
Battery
N/A
Processor
N/A
Size
38 x 38 x 12mm
Weight
45g

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