Fitbit has a full-fledged smartwatch. But can it compete with Apple Watch?
Squared-off, metal, a slightly curved screen. The Fitbit Ionic looks sharp on my wrist. It also looks like an Apple Watch. Or, close enough to one that most people might confuse it from a distance.
Fitbit's clearly aiming right at Apple Watch: much like last year's Blaze watch -- which Fitbit will keep selling -- but even more so, Ionic is a gigantic push right into premium watch territory. Fitbit has lots of fitness bands, but the Ionic costs twice the price of the Fitbit Alta HR, arguably the company's best fitness tracker.
The Ionic is just one of Fitbit's new products: there's also a set of wireless sport headphones, called Fitbit Flyer, that are meant to work with the Ionic watch. But Ionic is, all at once, a sequel to the aging GPS-equipped Fitbit Surge, which Ionic replaces, and last year's watch-like Fitbit Blaze. This is Fitbit's gigantic grasp at a smartwatch future, as Apple and Samsung loom with next-generation watches of their own.
Ionic has a lot of features, many of which have been absent on other Fitbit trackers: there's GPS like the old black-and-white Surge, but also swim-friendly 50-meter water resistance, contactless payments, onboard music storage and even a future app store. The heart rate sensor has added sensitivity for possible use as a sleep apnea detector. Embedded NFC also lurks for possible features that would let you tap the watch against a sensor, like unlocking doors perhaps. Yeah, it's ambitious. It's a giant fitness-watch moonshot to compete with the bleeding-edge watches on the market. Whether Fitbit can make all the pieces work perfectly remains to be seen.
Here's what you can expect when the Fitbit Ionic hits stores in October for $300 (International pricing wasn't yet available, but the price roughly converts to £230 for the UK and AU$380):
Swappable bands, new design: It feels like a sleeker Fitbit Blaze, with design touches of the Fitbit Charge 2 and Alta. For what it's worth, this is Fitbit's first in-house-designed tracker. Perforated sport bands and leather bands snap on and off easily, and all felt nice.
But the Ionic's body is big, and somewhat thick. It's a bit bigger-feeling than the 42mm Apple Watch Series 2. Sport bands cost $30, and leather bands cost $60. The curved touchscreen glass display is easily used to get around the interface, and there are also three buttons for activity control, navigation, payments and music/notifications shortcuts.
Swim-ready: Finally, Fitbit addresses one of its biggest flaws (past models have been barely splash resistant.) The Ionic adds 50 meters of water resistance and can do swim tracking, catching up with the Apple Watch Series 2.
Payments: Fitbit acquired Coin last year, and Fitbit Pay is the fruition of that. The contactless payment system works like Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Android Pay. I tried it with a preloaded card for a test payment and it worked. The side button triggers the transaction. But the number of banks and markets Fitbit Pay will work with at launch is still unclear.
Music: It gets more complicated here. Unlike Apple Watch or Android Wear, which tap into the Apple Music service and Google Play store for music, Fitbit Ionic's 2.5GB of music storage can only be loaded via a computer.
Alternatively, there's Pandora, the one music app Fitbit's partnered with. Spotify is a no-show. Pandora requires a premium subscription to sync playlists onto the Ionic for runs.
Wireless headphones can pair to the Ionic over Bluetooth, with Fitbit promising that its new Flyer headphones pair automatically to it. Fitbit also touts that their headphones can seamlessly switch between your phone and the watch.
Notifications: Like the Blaze, the Fitbit Ionic hooks into Android and iPhone notifications, (the watch syncs with Android, iOS and Windows). They're not interactive, though. Notifications pop up in a feed for quick glancing or can be turned off.
Apps: Fitbit's opening an SDK to developers next month and launching an app store (called the App Gallery) in October alongside the launch of the Ionic, promising watch faces, apps and even games... if developers are ready to deliver.
The app store is being built with inspiration from Pebble, the smartwatch pioneer Fitbit acquired in late 2016. The goal is to get lots of fitness watch faces and useful new ideas, as well as make it easy to develop for.
In the meantime, four apps come pre-installed on the Ionic: a Starbucks Card payment app, Pandora, the fitness app Strava and Accuweather (which is still stinging from a privacy outcry). According to Fitbit, some future apps include Adidas All Day, Flipboard, Game Golf, Nest and Surfline, along with new watch faces. The apps can be browsed by swiping (the grid layout looks a bit like an old iPod Nano).
Premium Coaching: Fitbit is also rebooting its Fitstar coaching subscription into a service called Fitbit Coach. Launching in the fall, it promises "dynamic coaching" for both workouts and health guidance. Some are multi-week plans, and others are ongoing.
Guided Health programs like "kick that sugar habit" promise a mix of milestones, guidance and tools, but that's not arriving until "this winter." Some of it sounds pretty ambitious. The Ionic has a handful of baked-in workout steps on-watch like the Blaze did, but no coaching yet... although Fitbit promises audio-based on-watch coaching for the Ionic coming in 2018.
Fitbit Coach will cost $8 per month (roughly £6, AU$10), or $40 a year (roughly, and it's clear that Fitbit is counting on subscription services to be a bigger part of its income in the future). International pricing for this service isn't yet available, but roughly converts to £6 and AU$10 for the monthly rate as well as £30 and AU$50 for the yearly rate.
Improved fitness claims: Fitbit says it has improved GPS accuracy by adding both GPS and GLONASS as well as redesigning the antennas (10 hours of GPS-enabled running on a full charge). The watch also boasts improved heart rate tracking accuracy and added desired previously-missing features like auto-pause when run-tracking.
Future models: Fitbit is also branching into variations of the Ionic, starting with an Adidas special-edition model next year. Considering that the Ionic can have custom-built apps, it's possible that more special editions could come in the future, similar to the Apple Watch and its Nike and Hermes variants.
Long(ish) battery: A "four day plus" battery life (or 10 hours using GPS) is somewhat equivalent to where Fitbit Blaze landed, and is days better than an Apple Watch, Android Wear watch or Samsung Gear S3. But it's still on the short side for less feature-studded everyday fitness trackers.
$300 price tag: The Ionic launches this October, without an absolute release date. It'll be available globally at launch (stay tuned for regions and prices). Its price isn't unreasonable for all that it promises, considering how it matches up against premium do-it-all watches like the Samsung Gear S3, Apple Watch Series 2 or even equivalent GPS watches from Garmin.
But it all depends on how good the Fitbit Ionic is at all that it wants to do. I've worn one briefly, and Fitbit's full software and firmware updates aren't here yet. So, it's hard to tell. I like the idea of it far more than the Blaze or the Surge. But it all depends on how it all works, and feels, on a daily basis.
We have an Ionic now: stay tuned for a full review in the coming weeks.
( cnet )