Everybody knows Fitbit for its fitness trackers, and now it’d like you to know it for its smartwatches too. Fitbit went shopping for smartwatch companies, snapped up Pebble, and added its fitness know-how and enormous user base to create the Ionic.
It’s similar to Android Wear watches but it’s also up against very heavy duty competition in the form of the Apple Watch, especially the five star, LTE-packing Apple Watch Series 3, and Garmin’s “hardcore” Forerunner 645.
Fitbit Ionic review: design
The name is clearly intended to make you think “iconic”, but… it ain’t. It’s square and looks horrible and clunky in most of the available colour/strap combinations.
We put it next to an Apple Watch and Apple’s device was embarrassed on the Fitbit’s behalf. The kindest thing we can say about it is that it’s retro, and if you go for the more muted colour options, it at least doesn't literally scream 'Look how ugly I am!' from your wrist.
Seriously, we know the Ionic is meant to be a fitness device, but it's also one you're meant to wear 24/7, not just at the gym. It really ought to look better.
Fitbit Ionic review: features and usability
Because it’s made from aluminium the Fitbit Ionic is lighter than many rivals, and the plastic and leather bands are simple to swap. We found it perfectly comfortable to wear whether we were pressing keys on a computer or pumping iron, and because it’s waterproof it can go swimming too.
The three hardware buttons are raised so you can still find them when you’re all sweaty, and the screen’s a touchscreen. It’s bright – 1,000 nits, same as the Apple Watch 2 – and legible in bright sunlight.
There’s also the new Fitbit Coach that works rather like the Fitstar phone app, offering suggested workouts. It’s basic and occasionally in too much of a hurry, and watching videos from your wrist while working out is, uh, not ideal, shall we say?
You can upload audio (audiobooks or music) and pair Bluetooth headphones, and if you subscribe to Deezer, you can save your offline playlists to it as well.
Heart-rate tracking is via your wrist, and you can't pair a chest strap with it, which is crazy, but there we go.
Fitbit Ionic review: performance
The touchscreen feels slow, and the raise-to-wake feature is even more annoying than Apple’s version: all too often we found ourselves jerking our arm in increasingly violent ways just to see our stats. However, praise the lord, Fitbit has finally allowed us to have the screen always on during exercise, although it does issue dark warnings about reducing battery life, should you dare to use this functionality.
The swimming app is rather limited and probably unsuitable for competitive swimming contestants.
The heart-rate tracking is reasonably accurate once you've warmed up, and doesn't drop out entirely as often as on previous Fitbits. It's not as good as a heart-rate strap, but they're not supported, so tough luck on that front. What is truly baffling about the way Fitbit uses cardio is that it never tells you what heart-rate zone you are in, only the rate itself. This is absolutely baffling to us.
Unlike the posher Garmins it also doesn't give a score for your effort when working out. It does give you an overall fitness score (we're 'excellent', since you ask) but again rather mystifyingly, this is buried in a sub-menu of the resting heart-rate widget on Fitbit's – admittedly excellent and very user-friendly – app.
GPS is built in, and is more reliable than on the Fitbit Surge thanks to better positioning of the antenna bands. Even so, GPS connection remains slow to establish at times, compared to a comparably priced Garmin.
We’d love to tell you about the blood oxygen sensor, but it wasn’t enabled at launch. Fitbit Pay contactless payments work really well – we know this because Fitbit put some credit on the watch we tested – but we are still awaiting support from UK banks for Fitbit Pay so you, sir or madam, cannot use it. Only the special people – ie: us.
Although the Fitbit Ionic handles basic notifications reasonably well, it is distinctly lacking in apps compared to Android Wear or Apple Watch.
The Ionic scores on battery life if you consider it primarily as a smartwatch, with about 4-5 days on a single charge. Consider it as a fitness tracker however, and the battery life is actually not so amazing – there are plenty of devices with more stamina, including from Fitbit itself. You get about 10 hours of GPS, which isn't bad.
Fitbit Ionic review: verdict
The Ionic hasn’t quite reached its goals: it’s a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly.
The divisive design doesn’t help (although Fitbit fans are used to it; the Blaze was divisive too), but the bigger concern is the sometimes sluggish performance and the relative lack of utility.
The Fitbit Ionic has two problems, when you consider its price and its expected position in the market. It's underbaked as a smartwatch, and when it comes to fitness activities beyond sleep and step tracking, it has all the usual Fitbit quirks. Garmin, for all its own faults, is still better at making wearables that give genuinely useful information to runners and gym-goers.
All that being said, the Ionic is also the most sophisticated Fitbit you can buy, and by no means a bad product per se.