How smart do you like your fitness trackers?
If the answer is ‘not very’ then Fitbit has had you covered for a while with its merry band of clever, if not particularly connected, trackers.
But now it’s gone the other way and made a proper frontman in the form of its first smartwatch, the Ionic.
It’s a bold if somewhat belated move – rivals like the Apple Watch Series 3 and the forthcoming Samsung Gear Sport already boast powerful apps, mobile payments and, in Apple’s case, phone-free calls.
The Ionic doesn’t go quite that far. Sure, it has a new Fitbit OS, the promise of third party apps, and better phone notifications, but at its core it’s still a ‘wear and forget’ fitness tracker. Albeit a more powerful one with GPS and waterproofing.
The good news is that it offers something new and different, particularly for Android fans.
The bad news is that, right now, it’s pretty half-baked…
Fitbit Ionic design: back to the future
Unlike the Apple Watch, the Ionic actually looks better in the flesh than it does in photographs.
I was initially put off by the aluminium case’s sharp corners and screen bezels. But stick an Ionic on your wrist and it’s hard not to be won over by its 80s sci-fi charm. In a poll of eight people in the Stuff office, only one person didn’t like the design.
A lot of this is to do with how well the Ionic fits on your wrist. Side-by-side with the Apple Watch, it looks to have the same girth. But when you wear the Ionic, it nicely curves around your wrist rather than sitting on top of it.
I’d say it’s more comfortable to wear than the Apple Watch, though the latter has a more chameleon-like versatility thanks to its range of bands and different case sizes.
Not that the Ionic is completely lacking when it comes to band options. Right now, there are three types (classic, sport and leather), with seven variations in total. Nowhere near the size of the Apple Watch’s wardrobe, of course, but a decent start.
Another big win is the display. It’s crisp, sharp and has the same impressive brightness as the Apple Watch. You’ll have absolutely no problem reading it in bright sunlight.
The touchscreen and interface aren’t the zippiest, but you do get three hardware buttons to help you get around – and these are real boon when you’re out exercising.
All in all, Fitbit deserves a lot of credit for not just making a ‘me too’ Apple Watch. The Ionic has personality, maybe even a divisive one, but I’ll take any day that over another designed-by-committee blandwatch.
Health tracking: on home turf
The Ionic is the most powerful Fitbit so far, thanks to built-in GPS, 50m water resistance and some new Coach workouts (see 'Sports tracking' for more on those).
But what it really nails better than most smartwatches is the daily, background fitness tracking that’s Fitbit’s hallmark.
Yes, it logs steps, calories burned, flights of stairs climbed, distance moved and ‘active minutes’, all of which you can set goals for. That’s been standard on economy class Fitbits for a few years now.
There are two big health-related wins over other smartwatches though: sleep-tracking and continuous heart-rate monitoring, both of which benefit hugely from the Ionic’s impressive battery life.
The sleep-tracking, in particular, works superbly. Much like Fitbit’s other trackers like the Alta HR, it requires zero interaction – you simply doze off, then wake to find that the app has miraculously picked out how long you spent in REM, light and deep sleep.
The app’s ‘Sleep Insights’ seem to have matured too. For example, it recognised when I’d done a gym session a bit too close to sleepytime, and suggested that might be why I was feeling groggy the next day.
Another smartwatch rarity is continuous heart-rate monitoring. While most of its rivals tend to only switch this on during workouts, the Ionic does it all day – which means you get a diary of graphs to scroll through to see when fatigue or illness may have kicked in. Resting heart rate is also a handy marker of overall fitness.
Still, as great as these features are, they’re all available on a S$248 Fitbit Alta HR. You’d quite rightly expect more from a £300 (S$540) smartwatch. And this is where the ride gets a little rockier...