Fitbit Ionic hands-on

Key Features

  • Review Price: £299.99
  • GPS and GLONASS
  • Heart rate and relative SPO2 sensor
  • NFC
  • 2.5GB onboard storage
  • Waterproof to 50m with swim tracking
  • 1000nits screen
  • Open SDK for app development
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Hands-on with the Fitbit Ionic: Fitbit’s first fully fledged waterproof smartwatch with 4-day battery

  • Release date: October 2017
  • Price: £299.99/€299.95

Fitbit made some high-profile acquisitions recently in the form of Pebble and Vector, two companies known for their smartwatch smarts. So it’s little surprise that its subsequent new device could be considered its first true smartwatch.

Fitbit’s new flagship wearable takes the best component parts of many of Fitbit’s recent devices like the Surge, Blaze and Charge 2, making it the ultimate Fitbit for those wanting advanced sports tracking alongside smartwatch convenience and customisability.

I’ve been wearing a Fitbit Ionic for the past few days with the important caveat that it is running non-final software. In fact, I spent the first few days with the device waiting to be whitelisted for the Beta version of the Fitbit mobile app before I could pair or customise it in any way. As such, I’ve updated the hands-on with some new observations. The device and experience on my wrist is far from the final thing, so for now I’ll focus mainly on the day-to-day aspects of wearing the Fitbit Ionic.

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Fitbit Ionic – Design and screen

The first thing that struck me about the Fitbit Ionic was how much it looked like a more refined Fitbit Surge mixed in with a bit more of the fun styling of the Fitbit Blaze. There’s going to be a choice of three different colour combinations at launch, alongside the typical Fitbit customisation option of replaceable silicone or leather straps. These detach with quick release clips on the back, meaning you can adapt the Ionic to the occasion.

Related: Apple Watch 3 vs Fitbit Ionic

Fitbit Ionic

While the Ionic looks far from an elegant traditional timepiece, it’s got a sort of retro appeal to it. At IFA 2017, I had a chance to speak to Fitbit’s VP of design to hear more about what went into designing the Fitbit Ionic. According to Jonah Becker, it’s all about space. Space, after all, is the ultimate journey, and Fitbit considers health and fitness like another kind of journey.

It therefore looked at films like The Martian and Interstellar in designing the Ionic and selecting its colours and materials. Becker also detailed why Fitbit continued to opt for a square design rather than a more traditional circular face seen on analogue timepieces. You can read a more in-depth take in my interview.

Having spoken to others, both colleagues and general tech consumers, the Ionic’s design is proving rather divisive. It’s never going to look the most elegant, but it is a grower. Most have agreed that it at least looks better in person compared to still images or renders.

The other notable aspect is just how light it is on your wrist. For something you’ll likely want to wear all day and night, this is important and the Ionic felt really comfortable even when wearing overnight. There’s a standard watch buckle so no fiddling around with some of the awkward clasps of Fitbit devices of old. I really like that the end of the strap locks in, ensuring there’s no annoying strap potentially flapping around,

The watch is flanked by a single button on the left and a pair on the right, which almost feels Pebble watch-esque, which can be used to navigate menus and interact with the watch when using the touchscreen might prove too fiddly. Having spent a few days with the interface, it can be a little confusing. Some interactions use swipes from the edge of the screen, some use the left button as a way to back out of menus. But it tends to jump between the two without consistency.

Like the Fitbit Flex 2, the Fitbit Ionic is the second Fitbit to now be water-resistant to 50m, which is fantastic. Even if you’re not a swimmer, not having to worry about getting the watch wet in the shower is a convenience you quickly learn to appreciate. The waterproofing is helped by the Ionic’s unibody design, which helps keep that meddling H2O out.

Fitbit Ionic

New is a Relative SPO2 sensor, which can detect your blood oxygen levels. Fitbit hasn’t announced an actual use for this just yet, but possible applications could be for medical conditions such as sleep apnoea, potentially taking sleep tracking to the next level. This isn’t the first wearable to detect bloody oxygen levels, though, in the past there’s been the Withings Pulse O2.

Fitbit is promising an impressive 1000nits of brightness from the screen, which is as bright as the Apple Watch 2 can reach and as high as a proper HDR TV. What this really means for a wearable is you shouldn’t ever struggle for visibility even under the brightest outdoor conditions. The touchscreen display is 1.42-inch with 348 x 250 resolution.

From my time with the Ionic so far I’ve found the screen bright, vibrant and sharp. Regardless of ambient light conditions I’ve never had a problem with visibility. The stronger emphasis on the visual interface is much more apparent. Fitbit has replaced many of the animated exercise examples with actual people taking you through each exercise. You can expect better guidance from the watch face itself, so an easy to see screen is critical when you’re busy sweating away.

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Fitbit Ionic

Fitbit Ionic – Specs and sensors

In terms of sensors, the Ionic has GPS built in, much like the Surge. It improves on this with support for GLONASS as well, meaning improved location accuracy. While trackers like the Charge 2 and Blaze required connected GPS from your paired smartphone for location, the Ionic is more of a phone-free experience.

If you listen to music while exercising you’ll have another reason to not need your phone as the Ionic has around 2.5GB available to you for storing music. As you might then expect, there’s Bluetooth pairing for wireless headphones.

Fitbit Ionic and Fitbit Flyer

Fitbit is actually releasing its first pair of Bluetooth wireless headphones called the Fitbit Flyer alongside the Ionic and these will retail for £109.99. You can expect around 6 hours of battery life from the headphones with quick charge and an array of wingtip options for a more secure fit.

There will be two sound profiles, a standard ‘Signature’ sound and a ‘Power Boost’ that cranks up the bass to get you pumped up. As you would expect they’ll handle the sweat of your workouts and they’ll also work happily with other devices Bluetooth devices that aren’t the Fitbit Ionic, too.

Related: Best running headphones

Fitbit Ionic

NFC is also included and this also bolsters your phone-free experience. You can use the new Fitbit Pay service for contactless payments, much like Apple Pay on the Apple Watch and this comes courtesy of Fitbit’s other acquisition of payment company Coin. Handy if you find yourself out on a run and needing to make an emergency purchase. To access this, you can just hold the left physical button to bring up the payment screen. This wasn’t working in the early release software I’ve been testing, however.

Around back is the usual Fitbit PurePulse heart rate monitor, but it now sits completely flush with the rear of the Ionic’s body, rather than extending slightly as with previous trackers. It’s a small difference but supposedly should help with comfort and heart rate readings. Inside you’ll find the usual accelerometers and gyroscopes used for all-day and sleep tracking.

Related: What is VO2 Max?

Fitbit Ionic

Fitbit is promising an impressive 4-day+ battery life when in smartwatch mode. With the battery-sapping GPS turned on, you can expect around 10 hours of continuous use, which will be more than enough for even a marathon. With battery life one of the biggest bugbears about any smartwatch, managing more than four days is a real achievement.

Fitbit Ionic – Exercise and activity tracking

You can expect all the usual Fitbit exercise and activity tracking you’d find on Fitbit’s higher-end trackers, so expect the usual step-counting and more advanced sleep tracking. There’s more advanced exercise tracking that makes use of the Ionic’s new features, such as the real-time swim tracking that takes advantage of the waterproofing. Now you’ll be able to see live information on the screen during your swim such as the laps.

Automatic run tracking means you can just head out and start running and when the Ionic detects your movement it will automatically get a GPS lock and begin recording your run. Auto pause will also pause your run whenever you’re held up, such as at traffic lights.

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Fitbit Ionic

The big change is that Fitstar, as seen on the Blaze, is being rebranded as Fitbit Coach and plays a prominent role on the Ionic. Fitbit Coach will have three workouts pre-loaded on the watch, one of which is a dynamic option. This means at the end of a workout, you can state how you found it and the next time the difficulty will be adjusted accordingly to make it continually challenging and motivating.

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Fitbit Ionic – Smartwatch features

All great smartwatches live or die by their apps and this is a difficult one to gauge at present. Fitbit will be releasing an open SDK in September, allowing developers to create their own watch faces and apps through Javascript in a similar fashion to Pebble’s ecosystem in the past. This ease of development should hopefully mean a wide catalogue of apps down the line.

Fitbit Ionic

At launch for the UK, I only had mention of Strava being available and even this is just to show you the latest workouts. From what I’ve seen so far, there’s no way to actually start a workout in the Strava app in the way that you can on the Apple Watch. You can only authorise Strava through the Fitbit app, which lets it also upload to Strava.

In the US the likes of a Starbucks and Pandora app should also be ready for launch. Fitbit told me that development should be approachable and submission to the app store straightforward. If you fancy just creating a watch face for yourself and friends, there’s going to be a way to selectively share your designs without having to submit for approval.

Otherwise, you can expect the usual smartphone notification mirroring but for things like messages, there’s no way to currently reply from your wrist. It’s just a passive experience, which is rather limiting. Notifications are managed in a very familiar way for anyone who has worn a Pebble watch in the sense that all your notifications just come up as a list, accessible by swiping up from the bottom of the screen. It can become a bit of a mess with lots of notifications coming in. The vibration, which is customisable intensity, is at least noticeable on its highest setting.

As there’s no built-in microphone, there’s no smart assistant or message dictating, which feels like another limitation.

Related: Fitbit Ionic vs Apple Watch 2

First impressions

I came away excited for the Fitbit Ionic. There’s real potential for a great phone-free experience for fitness enthusiasts with all the sensors you could want alongside music storage. The design and comfort were two aspects I liked and the screen looked really great. If the Ionic can get anywhere near the battery estimations that’s also another feather in the Ionic’s cap.

Right now, the smartwatch side is still a bit of an unknown. Until more developers get onboard, it could be very limited, and the inability to at least reply to messages in some manner could be a major shortcoming. Still, if the developer community gets onboard in a similar fashion to Pebble but with added incentive from Fitbit, there could be some great apps for the Ionic but who knows how long a wait this will be. Then there’s now some strong competition from the newly announced Apple Watch Series 3. The non-LTE model is just £30 more at £330, potentially making the Fitbit Ionic a hard sell.

I’ll have to wait to test the final software experience before passing judgement, so check back soon for a full review.