Fitbit Ionic review: Not the smartest smartwatch

  ·  3 weeks ago   ·  

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Fitbit started out making simple step counters that clipped on your pocket, but over time it added displays, exercise tracking, heart rate monitors, and more. Many of its rivals have changed their focus or simply gone out of business, but Fitbit is fast becoming a household name. The last few wrist-based Fitbit devices have been vaguely smartwatch-like, but the true Fitbit smartwatch has been elusive—until now. After acquiring some bits from the now-defunct Pebble, Fitbit has its very own smartwatch called the Ionic.

This device has a definite “Fitbit” aesthetic. It’s thick, and the screen is rectangular and rather small. You want corners? This watch has so many corners. It includes all the usual Fitbit features like step counting, heart rate tracking, and exercise logs. However, it adds basic smartwatch necessities like apps, multiple watch faces, and even NFC payments. Taken together, the Ionic is an interesting first attempt at a real smartwatch from Fitbit, but it has precious few advantages over competing devices, especially when Fitbit is asking $300 for it.

Design and display

With most wearables, the trend is toward more compact design. This is not the case with the Fitbit Ionic. It sticks to the Fitbit tradition of lightweight design, but it’s thicker than you’d expect. The Ionic weighs in at 50 grams, roughly the same as the Watch Style, ZenWatch 3, and Gear Sport. The Ionic has an aluminum chassis broken up by antenna lines for the built-in GPS. The frame has a matte texture, and from a distance, you can’t tell if it’s metal or plastic.

To my dismay, the buttons seem extremely cheap. They wiggle and feel spongy when pressed. It takes some time to get used to how the buttons work because they do different things in different contexts, and sometimes there are multiple ways to access feature. For example, the top button launches music with a long-press, but you can swipe to access music from the home screen. A single press of that button opens the Today tracker, but it won’t do that if you have an app open that has taken over the button for one of its built-in functions. It’s all a bit convoluted, and Fitbit could probably have made this work with fewer physical buttons.

The Ionic isn’t round, and it’s also not technically a square device, either. It’s sort of an octagon, with the top and bottom sections blending smoothly into the band. In the middle is a vast, black expanse that’s slightly convex. Most of the face is taken up by the 1.42-inch LCD panel. Below the screen is Fitbit’s logo emblazoned on an empty section of bezel. The bezel on the other sides of the screen is also quite substantial but not symmetrical. This watch does not look modern—it’s like someone from the 90s designed a “futuristic” watch.

The display resolution is 348×250, which is passable for an LCD of this size. It looks clear enough, but you can make out the pixels if you look closely. The brightness is good enough for use outdoors, and it does have an ambient light sensor. The screen is rectangular, so the interface and watch faces seem cramped. The colors are also flat, and the black levels are middling at best. It’s just not a very impressive display.

The underside of the watch is convex, which throws off the fit slightly. It basically guarantees you’ll have gaps between your arm and the watch where the band connects. However, I understand the reason for this design element. The shape ensures the center of the bottom maintains good contact with your wrist because that’s where the heart rate sensor is located. It takes continuous readings throughout the day, which sync to the Fitbit app on your phone. The numbers I’ve been getting from the Ionic are similar to what I see on other devices, and it seems a bit better at getting readings during workouts than a lot of watches.

Fitbit opted to go with a non-standard band connection, so none of your current watch bands will work. To remove the band, just press the button on the underside, and it pops right off. I’m not sure this connection will be very durable, but it’s incredibly quick and easy to swap bands. The stock band is rubber, and I didn’t find it to be particularly comfy. I do like how the excess band clips onto the band rather than feeds through a loop like most watch straps, but I hate how that tugs on the buckle, keeping it from laying flat. Again, this does not look like an expensive piece of hardware. You might be tempted to have a few different straps for this watch, and luckily there are some cheaper third-party options.

Tracking

Like all Fitbits, tracking your workouts is one of the primary use cases for the Ionic. In fact, one of the watch’s three buttons is dedicated to starting workouts, and another is used to call up your daily fitness stats. If you’re interested in how active you’ve been, press the upper right button for the “Today” interface. This UI shows you your steps, heart rate, distance, and more. You won’t get detailed stats here—for that you need to go to the Fitbit app on your phone.

When you hit the gym, press the lower right button to start a workout. The watch includes various modes like running, weights, and swimming.  When you start a workout, that’s all the watch does until you’re finished; the interface is entirely taken over by the workout. The Ionic shows a timer, heart rate, and other stats, but you need to end the workout to access anything else. There’s also an option to keep the screen on during a workout, but the setting doesn’t seem to stick for me. The watch stays awake for a while, and then the screen shuts off again.

Ending a manual workout seems clunky, too. You have to pause with the bottom button, end the workout with the top button, then confirm via an on-screen dialog.

You can bypass a lot of this with the automatic SmartTrack feature in the Ionic. Similar to other Fitbits, the Ionic can detect workouts and automatically log them. However, this feature has been very finicky for me. Sometimes it logs an exercise perfectly, but other times it won’t detect anything. Hopefully this is something Fitbit can fix with an update.

I do like the way activity data is displayed in the Fitbit app. It’s clearly focused on fitness, so you don’t have a bunch of other junk in the way when you just want to see how active you’ve been. All your “Today” stats are at the top of the app, and you can dive deeper on any of them to find historic data. It even shows live heart rate data when you have the app open.

The Ionic can also be used for sleep tracking, but this seems like a bit of an afterthought. There’s no way (that I have found) to begin sleep tracking from the Ionic. You have to start sleep tracking from the phone app, which then pulls data from the watch. You can set reminders and schedules for sleep mode, but why not at least have a sleep app on the watch?

Performance and battery

While Fitbit calls the Ionic a smartwatch, it’s taking a very different approach than Samsung, Google, and others. This device is tuned for battery life rather than performance. That’s anything I want to see more of in wearables, but in in this case it makes the Ionic frustrating to use. The interface is noticeably sluggish and jerky, and apps sometimes take a few seconds to launch. There’s also no option for keeping the display on all the time. There’s just the always-on workout option, and that doesn’t even work properly for me. More annoying, the watch is sometimes unwilling to wake up when I lift my wrist. The sort of movements that other watches would correctly identify as “looking at the watch” are frequently ignored by the Ionic.

If battery life is your primary concern for a wearable, then the Ionic might be exactly what you want. What it lacks in speed, it makes up for in longevity. Since the display shuts off when you’re not actively looking at it, you get incredible battery life. I’ve been using the Ionic for a few weeks with a combination of workout tracking, notification sync, and Bluetooth music playback. It usually lasts around 4 days on a charge.

It’s a good thing I haven’t had to charge the Ionic much because the cable is bothersome. The magnetic connector clips onto the underside to make contact with three pogo pins. If it’s not lined up just right, the watch won’t charge. Additionally, the stock band gets in the way of the cable, so you have to lay the watch down carefully to avoid knocking the cable off. Including a dock or mount would have made this vastly easier.

Software and watch faces

Setting up the Fitbit Ionic is straightforward. Just open the Fitbit app, tell it you want to add an Ionic, and it’ll find the device. Input the PIN code shown on the watch, and pairing is complete. Although, if there’s an update, it will take ages to download. I left the watch on the charger for the better part of an hour while I waited for the update to download and install. Once I finally got to use the watch, I found myself perplexed by some of Fitbit’s software decisions.

The main screen is the watch face (obviously). Swipe to the left, and you have a setting for display wake up and notifications. These can be turned on or off, and that’s it. These aren’t settings I change a lot, and I don’t think other people do either. So, I don’t know why they’ve been given such prominent placement. The app list is available with a swipe over to the right. The watch comes with pre-installed clients for Starbucks, alarms, weather, Strava, and a few other fitness-oriented apps.

Swiping down on the watch face pulls down the music player, but I found this to be pretty useless. There are modes to play music from the watch or the phone, but it just tells me the phone is not connected when I choose that setting (it is connected). I don’t see any way to control music playback on my phone from the Ionic. Okay, so what about playing music from the watch itself? There are two options. If you have Pandora Plus, you can cache radio stations on the watch. However, this only happens when the Ionic is plugged in and connected to WiFi. Likewise, you can sync your own music over to the Ionic, but you can only do so with the desktop Fitbit manager. You can connect Bluetooth headphones to the watch to listen to these tracks.

Back on the watch face, a swipe up drags the notification list into view. Notifications must be set up in the phone app ahead of time by granting access to the Fitbit notification listener service. The notifications that sync over are extremely rudimentary. All you get are the app icon and a snippet of the notification. You can’t reply or take action on any of them, and it’s one-way sync, so dismissing a notification on the watch won’t even dismiss it on the phone. When you turn on do-not-disturb mode for your phone, notifications on the Ionic just stop. I don’t mean they stop alerting with a vibration—I mean the notifications stop syncing entirely. This seems so broken I have to assume it’s a bug.

Every smartwatch needs to have customizable watch faces, and Fitbit ships the Ionic with a handful of them. Developers will be able to create more, but for now you’re stuck with the stock ones, and they’re not great. There’s not much you can do with a small display area, but some of the Fitbit watch faces are especially unattractive. There are analog faces that cut off the top and bottom to remind you how small and claustrophobic the screen is, and some of the others are just cluttered. None of them include much customization, save for a few with multiple background colors. You can’t even change the watch face from the Ionic itself—you need to use the app on your phone. Even then, the process takes 20-30 seconds, and it fails sometimes.

Fitbit has made a developer SDK available for the Ionic, but the app gallery is currently stocked only with apps from Fitbit and its partners. That will change later, but for now it’s hard to judge how good or bad the apps will be. I think we can safely assume the apps will be very simple. This watch has a small screen and no additional navigation input. The most complex app on the watch right now is the weather app, which is just a long, scrollable list. Most others are a single screen, possibly with a couple functions controlled by the buttons on the right side.

There’s one app that deserves a little more attention—Fitbit Pay. While there’s an entry for “Wallet” in the app list, the feature is called Fitbit Pay, and it’s accessible from any screen by long-pressing the left button. This immediately kicks on the watch’s NFC radio, allowing you to pay for items in stores that support Apple Pay and Android Pay. I’ve tested this feature with a pre-paid card, and it works just fine. The range of the watch is good, but the radio is on the screen side. You have to contort your hand a bit to bring it up to the reader, but that’s common on watches. The issue right now is bank support. Fitbit Pay only works with a few institutions, so it’s far behind Android Pay and others.

Conclusion

For a smartwatch to be useful to me, I want it to have fitness tracking, media controls, notification management, and voice input. On that first count, the Ionic is capable. It tracks steps and heart rate accurately, and you can log exercises. However, the automatic workout detection is spotty. Media controls? It seems like they only work with music that’s synced to the watch, and it’s a pain to do that with your own tracks. There’s Pandora integration, but only for paid accounts. I can’t find any way to simply control media playback on my phone from the watch. Notifications on the Ionic are borderline useless, and they don’t work at all in do not disturb mode. And as for voice input, there isn’t any.

Aesthetics are subjective, but I don’t think the Ionic is attractive—it certainly doesn’t look or feel like something that costs $300. The entire device looks cheap, and the display is tiny and unimpressive. It uses a proprietary band connector, so you have to go through Fitbit for additional styles. You can swap them quickly, but none of the bands I’ve seen make the Ionic look like a more expensive watch.

The best thing about this watch is the battery, which will last the better part of a week on a charge. That makes it feasible to use the Ionic as a sleep tracker, since you don’t have to worry about getting it on the charger every 18-20 hours before it dies. On the flip side, the performance fails to impress. The software suffers from low frame rates and sluggish apps. I’m also irked there’s no option to keep the display on all the time. Yes, that would wreck the battery life, but what if I’m okay with just two days (or whatever) of usage per charge instead of four?

The Fitbit Ionic is the most feature-rich Fitbit device yet, and I suppose it does technically count as a smartwatch. However, it’s missing a lot of features you get with Android Wear or Samsung’s Tizen. People who want a slightly more capable Fitbit will probably like the Ionic, but I don’t think it’s good as a smartwatch. It’s too expensive at $300 considering the clunky software and missing features. A $200 price tag would have been more justifiable for those interested in a fitness-oriented wearable.

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