Sports tracking: more fun runs than marathons

Every smartwatch has a slightly different approach to tracking workouts like runs and bike rides.

The Garmin Vivoactive 3 is the stat-loving triathlete. The Ionic is more like a couch-to-5km improver, focusing on overall fitness rather than split times. And the Apple Watch is one of those annoying natural athletes that can do a bit of everything.

There’s no ‘best’ approach; it depends how and why you want to exercise.

If you aren’t training for an event or chasing PBs, and just want to do a quick run to make up for polishing off that box of macaroons last night, then the Ionic’s simple approach might well be for you. As long as you don’t mind its smartwatch limitations (see the ‘Smartwatch skills’ section below).

Press its bottom right button and you’ll get six sports to scroll through: run, bike, swim, treadmill, weights, interval timer and workout. You can change any of these in the app and pick from another 14 different activity types including yoga, spinning and hike, but these are really just labels – they track largely the same things, like distance and calories.

Once your body has decided it’s had enough exercise, you just press a side button to pause or finish the workout – a much better system than swiping a screen with sweaty fingers, as you have to do on the Apple Watch.

This being a Fitbit, you don’t actually have to press any buttons at all to track exercise, as long as you don’t mind sacrificing some accuracy. Turn on ‘Run Detect’, and it’ll auto-log a run (including GPS tracking) when it senses you’re out for a jog, although there was quite a big delay when I tried this.

More useful is the excellent SmartTrack feature seen on other Fitbits, which means the Ionic automatically tracks other activities like cycling, gym workouts and swimming that last longer than ten minutes, albeit without GPS tracking.

And then there’s the Ionic’s potential star, Fitbit Coach. This replacement for Fitbit’s Fitstar platform will have free and paid tiers that bring guided workouts to your wrist, including exercise, meditation and nutrition.

It’s coming in autumn 2017, but right now the Ionic has just three home workouts, complete with little animated figures showing you how to do crunches and planks.

The Ionic’s sport-tracking, then, is all about simplicity. You can log exercise without thinking about it. There are manual controls if you want them. And in my experience, the GPS tracking and heart-rate monitoring were very accurate.

But while a lack of third party fitness apps brings the Ionic a refreshingly clutter-free feel, it also means it lacks depth compared to rivals.

The swim-tracking, for example, doesn’t record stroke types, split times or heart-rate data like the Apple Watch. There’s no GPS-tracking for outdoor swims. And you can’t actually see any of your completed workout data on the Ionic itself – you have to go to the Fitbit app.

The exception is the Ionic’s Strava app, but this is very limited compared to the Apple Watch and Android Wear version. It’s simply a viewer for your completed Strava sessions – you can’t actually start a run or bike ride in the app, let alone see anything like Live Segments.

The Ionic and Fitbit app also currently offer nothing like Garmin Connect’s running training plans or the Apple Watch’s Runkeeper app, which lets you set target pacing or maximum heart-rates.

This might change when the Ionic’s app store gets properly up and running. But right now, it’s focused more on casual training and home workouts, rather than being a great watch for runners, cyclists or swimmers.

Smartwatch skills: a work in progress

The Ionic is a bit like a rugby player who’s just switched codes – it might come from a strong fitness tracking background, but it’s out of its depth on the unfamiliar smartwatch field.

This is most obvious when it comes to apps. It’s clear from the Ionic’s interface (four icons per screen) that it’s never going to embrace smartwatch apps in the same way as Android Wear and the Apple Watch – and that’s fine, it suits Fitbit’s simple approach.

But in the UK the Ionic currently has just two third party apps: Strava and Weather. And the US doesn’t fair much better, with only Pandora and Starbucks on top of that.

This is a result of developers only having had a month or so to create apps, and I’ve no doubt it’ll change soon. But if you fancy reading news headlines, getting Dark Sky rain alerts, checking your security cam, glancing at train times from Citymapper, seeing your calendar schedule, or trying other fitness apps, you’re out of luck right now. And there’s no guarantee that the Ionic will get those powers in the future.

More certain is the eventual arrival of Fitbit Pay for buying a post-run milkshake with just your watch. Our demo card worked well at checkouts and on the tube, but it’s not available in the UK yet and it isn’t clear which banks will be supported.

The Ionic is also badly missing an offline music streaming app like Spotify. It does has 2.5GB storage for music (enough for around 300 songs), but the process of getting them on there is iTunes painful. You have to install Fitbit’s desktop software, then wait for it to inevitably lose connection with your Ionic, then wait at least ten minutes for it to transfer two playlists. Not what you need just as you’re about to head out for a run.

Still, the Bluetooth connection to wireless headphones (be they Fitbit’s Flyers, or the Jaybird Runs I tried) is solid enough, even if I had to reconnect them for each workout.

And then there are notifications. The Ionic does show texts, calendar events, missed calls, and WhatsApp messages when you swipe up from the bottom of the screen, but there’s no way to interact with them due to the lack of a microphone or canned responses.

This wasn’t a huge deal for me, as I hardly ever feel the need to brush someone off with an impersonal stock reply on the Apple Watch.

But it’s just symptomatic of the Ionic’s smartwatch game as a whole – limited and dated, rather than retro chic.

Stuff says... 

Fitbit Ionic review

Fitbit’s best all-round fitness tracker, just don’t call it a smartwatch yet
Good Stuff 
Bold design
Excellent sleep tracking
GPS and heart-rate tracking work well
Strong battery life
Bad Stuff 
Virtually no third party apps yet
Fitbit Coach not available till later in 2017
Fitbit Pay not ready in Malaysia yet
Expensive for what it can currently do