Fitbit Ionic review: A better Fitbit watch, but still not a great smartwatch

Imagine there was a version of the Apple Watch that could go for four or five days between charges and work with Android phones as well as iPhones. The catch is that this superlative waterproof fitness tracker — with sleep tracking! — would come with a litany of trade-offs: A small handful of apps. A limited selection of watch faces. A contactless payment system far less robust than Apple Pay. And music playback that requires syncing up with your computer, like the bad old days of iTunes.    

That’s pretty much the pitch for Fitbit Ionic. This $300 (£300 or AU$450) watch sits at the top of Fitbit’s product line and offers battery life that Apple Watch owners could only dream of. It’s the company’s first product to incorporate some of the ideas from the late, great Pebble Watch, which Fitbit acquired in late 2016.

The newest Fitbit aims for the high-end. It’s designed to be the complete package: fitness tracker, music player, mobile wallet, GPS running and swimming device. And, yes, a smartwatch.

After a month wearing Ionic, I found myself wanting it to be better than it is. It’s not all there yet. I really like Fitbit’s main fitness app. But in this review, I’m looking at this question: What does the $300 Ionic do for you that the already fine $150 Fitbit Alta HR or Charge 2 doesn’t? You get GPS, swim-ready water resistance, onboard music, mobile payments and apps. It’s a deep package in theory, but it’s not all as excellently integrated as I was expecting. It’s best used as a basic fitness watch: The extra “smarts” have some pretty rough edges.

Clean, blocky and oddly comfy.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Fine as a basic watch

The Ionic — which only comes in one design — has an angular body that looks at first like a retro throwback of sorts. The slightly curved glass display helps lessen the squared-off look of the rest of the watch. It might not be a match for all wrists, but I thought it looked good on mine. And it feels comfortable: I started to forget it was there. It’s more comfy than the Apple Watch.

The large steel body feels well-constructed, and three physical buttons launch some key watch functions without doing too much swiping. The included rubber band feels sturdy; I didn’t feel an urge to invest in one of the additional proprietary-fit bands that range from leather to perforated sports loops.

Glancing at the time feels like it does with any other smartwatch. The display isn’t always-on, but it lights up when my wrist turns and it’s bright in direct sun. An included set of 17 watch faces (with more to come, Fitbit says, via a Watch Face app store on the Fitbit app) do a fine job of mixing time, date and fitness stats. At the very least, there are a lot more watch face options than on the Fitbit Blaze, the company’s earlier stab at a smartwatch.

The Ionic has a touchscreen, as well as physical buttons. That offers some options, but sooner or later you’ll have to swipe the screen to navigate apps or control deeper features. The touch display’s responsiveness is really bad.

Fitbit Ionic Watch

There are some apps… they’re not that great.

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Not so fine as a smartwatch

Things start to feel really clunky when you make the Ionic actually try to do anything more complicated. Browsing apps involves swiping the display. The touchscreen is nowhere near as responsive as a normal phone or an Apple Watch or Android Wear watch. The interface is sluggish. Apps load slowly.

It’s nice that Fitbit Ionic works across iOS and Android, and even syncs with Windows and Macs, via a Fitbit Connect app. That helps for fitness tracking and connecting with friends, but as a phone-connected accessory, it suffers.

Also, there aren’t many apps at all. Right now, it has the following apps onboard:

  • Weather (powered by Accuweather)
  • Strava (synced workouts with a Strava account)
  • Starbucks (stores your Starbucks card barcode for paying on the go)
  • Pandora (syncs playlists from a paid premium Pandora account)
  • Coach (three recorded sets of workout instructions)
  • Relax (breathing/relaxation app timer, like Apple Watch’s Breathe)
  • Exercise (workout tracking)
  • Music (for storing music files from your computer)
  • Alarms (vibration alarms on wrist, no speaker)
  • Timer/Stopwatch
  • Wallet (store credit cards for mobile payments)

That’s it, for now. And right now, most of these apps have drawbacks compared to something like the Apple Watch. Even Android Wear, Google’s struggling smartwatch platform, has a full App Store and Google Assistant hook-ins, which Fitbit lacks. Launching apps involves swiping through an annoying, sluggish grid via the touchscreen, or assigning two apps to quick-launch physical buttons on the right side of the watch.

Fitbit Ionic Watch

The music remote is clunky. So is music syncing, and your only subscription music option is Pandora.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Frustrating music options, but there is music at least?

Good news: You can use this Fitbit as a wrist iPod. Bad news: You’ll have to sync files from your computer or a paid Pandora account.

Seriously: You can only transfer music files from your computer, or via a Pandora subscription (who has that?). Either path is frustrating. It’s a pale shadow of how Apple Music now works on Apple Watch. Even Android Wear’s music solution is better. Samsung’s new watches, meanwhile, are getting Spotify integration. Fitbit’s music solution is a hassle, and I generally didn’t want to use it. Even after adding a Pandora Plus account, I could only pick from a dozen or so generic playlists to sync with (or, my own “top playlists”).

That being said, once Pandora’s playlists finally transferred, they weren’t bad at all — Thumbprint Radio, an autosynced list of favorites, matched my tastes pretty well (cheesy ’80s songs and John Williams soundtracks). But really, who’s paying for Pandora?

The syncing process also requires the Fitbit to be logged in on Wi-Fi (which doesn’t happen automatically, you have to set it up in-app) and on charge. Syncing was so slow on my office Wi-Fi that I didn’t even know if it was happening, and I initially gave up. Fitbit’s own Flyer wireless headphones delivered on their promise of seamless pairing. Other Bluetooth headphones work, but the on-watch volume control didn’t work with the AirPods.

However, at least this watch can store music. And if you can bear to transfer music from your computer via the Fitbit Connect app and Wi-Fi, it can be a sorta kinda mini fitness iPod.

Fitbit Ionic Watch

On-wrist coaching amounts to recorded instruction sets, not much more.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Hello, Coach: You there?

What Fitbit calls “coaching,” I call “a list of workout instructions.” It’s no better than what was on the Blaze over a year ago. Fitbit is adding voice coaching to the Ionic next year, but it will involve a premium monthly subscription of $8 a month (roughly £6 or AU$10). In the meantime, the Ionic offers almost no daily guidance on-watch. The Apple Watch at least has some motivation in the mornings and evenings. Why did Fitbit drop the ball? If you’re using Fitstar, the coaching app Fitbit acquired, eventually it will tailor new workout routines to meet your challenge level. But it also requires a subscription, and didn’t surface anything meaningful in my daily use with the watch.

The one motivational touch I do like is how Fitbit manages “standing hours.” You have to get up and walk at least 250 steps per hour to avoid being sedentary. The watch pings you with reminders to not just stand, but how many steps you still need to take. It can be a good reminder to take a break from work, too. I’d just like more active coaching on a daily basis than what this watch provides.

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