The worlds of fitness trackers and smartwatches have collided. There was a great big bang, a flash of light. But in the rubble you’ll find some of the best wearables you’ve ever seen.
Fitbit comes from the fitness wearable wilds, but the Ionic ups the stakes with a brand new smarty pants platform that lets you get smartwatch features without making you charge the thing every single day.
The Apple Watch has been the king of smartwatches since it appeared, but the Watch 3 has better fitness chops then ever. And now has the option of 4G.
So can a smartwatch that has hired a personal trainer beat a fitness tracker with an Open University diploma in smartwatch skills? Let's find out.
Design: Apple's versatility wins out
Strip the Fitbit Ionic and Apple Watch 3 down to the basics and they can seem quite similar.
Their shells are made of fancy aerospace-grade aluminium, the screen are covered with glass and the straps… well the strap can be made of what suits your wrist. Leather or silicone? Standard or ultra-perforated? Leather gets you a classy look, but a sport band is best if you’re going to sweat into it five hours a week.
If you want to tweak the design or look, there’s no contest: Apple wins.
The Fitbit Ionic offers three shell colours (gold, silver, black), three sport band shades and leather straps in “Cognac” brown or Midnight Blue. The Apple Watch 3? Prepare to get your head twisted. The aluminium casing comes in three colours: gold, black and silver.
You can then choose a fabric or silicone strap that comes in up to five colours. As with previous generations, you can also choose the size: 42mm for the big-wrested, 38mm for us dainty types.
That’s just the beginning. Pay a bit more and you can get the stainless Steel Apple Watch 3. It comes with stainless steel, leather and silicone strap options. It’s not over yet. There are also ceramic “Edition” Apple Watches that cost £1300 (S$2320), Nike branded ones and those with Hermes straps. We recommend a lie down before choosing an Apple Watch. You may need it.
Forget all the expensive fluff for now, though, because there’s a big style difference between the Watch 3 and Fitbit Ionic. The Fitbit looks much, much sharper. Not Hugo Boss and cufflinks sharp, the lines are all aggressively angular, while the Watch 3 has a much softer, less abrasive look.
We’ll leave your eyes to judge which is better. We’re leaning towards the Apple Watch. Both watches have fantastic 50m water resistance, meaning you can wear them in the shower or swimming pool without ending up with a dead lump of aluminium on your wrist. Phew.
Features: a fitness face-off
The Ionic is the most aggressive Fitbit ever, and not just because of that chiselled face. It’s out to do just about everything an Apple Watch can handle.
Both watches have an HR scanner on the back. They can connect to Bluetooth headphones. You can wirelessly pay for stuff with a quick swipe across a payment terminal (although Fitbit is yet to confirm which banks it'll support).
Built-in GPS lets you properly track runs rather than just guessing based on the number of steps you take. And, missing from a lot of rivals, an altimeter tracks the number of stairs you dance up when recreating the Rocky training montage. These little guys can do a lot.
They also have Wi-Fi, so they don’t have to always rely on a connection to your phone. There are some differences, though.
The Apple Watch 3 comes with the option of 4G/LTE. This doesn’t come for free, and you can only get it through EE in the UK, but it’ll let you stream Apple Music while your phone is at home and even take calls using the same number as your iPhone. Now that’s pretty cool.
Like the Watch's Apple Music playlist syncing, the Fitbit Ionic lets you store some tracks for offline listening as a consolation prize. Fitbit says you’ll fit 300-odd songs: you have around 2.5GB to play with, so it depends on whether you use audiophile-grade quality or not. Fitbit proudly boasts about Pandora integration, but we can’t get that in the UK yet. So it remains to be seen which streaming services, if any, it supports at launch.
Both watches do some pretty neat things with heart rate data, like tracking how your resting heart rate changes over time. However, Apple has the edge at the moment as the Watch 3 also monitors your recovery times. How quickly you get down from “my heart’s going to explode” 180bpm to your resting rate is a decent sign of how fit you really are. The size of your biceps? Not so much.
The Fitbit Ionic hits back with SP02 readings. This measures the oxygen saturation in your blood, another way to judge fitness. Strangely enough, teardowns indicate the Apple Watch hardware is actually capable of making these readings. But WatchOS doesn’t do it, yet.
Stepping back from the innards a minute, there’s a pretty big difference between the Ionic and Watch 3 screens. The Apple Watch 3 has an OLED screen that’s either 1.3in or 1.65in across depending on whether you buy the 42mm or 38mm version.
The Fitbit Ionic display, meanwhile, is 1.42in across, and uses an LCD. In the cinema or a dark room you’ll see some backlight glow that wouldn’t be a problem with the Watch 3. Disclaimer: Stuff does not condone the use of gadgets in the cinema. Turn your phone off.
Outdoors neither of these watches is going to struggle, as they can both reach an eyeball-melting 1000nits.
Apps and software: experience pays off
Software is where this comparison gets a bit sticky.
The Fitbit Ionic has a brand new platform and a Gallery section that will let you download third-party apps. But at the time of the Apple Watch 3 launch, developers are only starting to get their hands on the tools needed to make them.
By contrast, Apple Watch devs have been making Watch OS apps since 2015. There are tens of thousands of the things. And at least 20 of them are great.
The Fitbit Ionic app space is going to look pretty bare for a long time. It’s a good job there are some great features baked-in, then. You get a multi-sport personal trainer with guided workouts and breathing exercises for some ultra-relaxing mindfulness mental training. You need to pay an extra £7.99 a month to get access to all the workouts, but it’s a lot cheaper than a gym membership.
Like the Apple Watch, the Fitbit Ionic also offers proper phone notifications. Most other Fitbits just notify you of calls and texts, but this one can handle WhatsApp too. Strava integration is available at launch as well. It’s one of our favourite exercise trackers, so we’re actually not too bothered whether Runkeeper and the other dozen services get on-board.
One of the potential benefits of the Fitbit approach is that the Ionic interface doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s not designed to house dozens of apps, but you can flick through what’s on there with a few gestures on the touchscreen.
The Apple Watch 3 has a much more involved interface. There’s an icon-based app menu that can gives you quick access to loads of installed apps, but the app cloud takes some getting used to.
Both watches predominantly use the touchscreen, but the Apple Watch also has a digital crown that can be used to scroll through menus, while has Ionic just has two hardware buttons on the side.