Fitbit Ionic review: Tops the Apple Watch with fitness focus, long battery life, detailed sleep tracking

  • Editors' rating
    9.3 Spectacular
  • $299.95

Pros

  • Gorgeous high quality design
  • Bright and clear display
  • Lightweight and comfortable for 24 hour wear
  • Long battery life
  • Detailed sleep and heart rate data
  • Reasonably priced band options
  • Music playback, workout coaching, and accurate GPS tracking
  • Fitbit ecosystem well supported

Cons

  • Limited music services
  • Can't respond to texts or answer calls

While some of us have been mounting high tech wearables on our wrist since 2004, others are just discovering them. The Fitbit Ionic brings everything I have wanted in a GPS sports watch with essential smart watch functionality in a sleek, attractive form factor.

Just like there are Apple iPhone or Google Android fans that will only buy those phones every time, there are those dedicated to the Fitbit ecosystem that will only buy Fitbit devices as their preferred wearable. With the new Fitbit Ionic it is clear that Fitbit ecosystem users now have the ultimate GPS sport watch, activity and sleep tracker, and basic smartwatch that they deserve.

Fitbit recently announced its third product in the GPS sport watch category with the Fitbit Ionic, technically its first smartwatch when you use the definition of a smartwatch as one that supports applications. The Ionic is exactly what I was hoping to see after trying out the Fitbit Blaze last year.

The Apple Watch Series 2 and Samsung Gear S3 Frontier have been sharing most of the time on my wrist over the last few months, but the one to one and a half day battery life keeps killing those experiences. I thought the Garmin Fenix 3 HR was the one for me and while it is an excellent GPS sport watch, wearing it at night to track sleep nearly knocks my wife out when I roll over.

After testing many wearables over the years I have learned that getting the core experience right and having a battery that lets you get through at least a weekend are keys to satisfaction. The Fitbit Ionic has a perfect mix of health apps, music playback support, mobile payments, and battery life to provide it with the potential for huge success.

Specifications

  • Display: 36mm LCD Gorilla Glass 3 curved display with brightness up to 1000 nits
  • Materials: 600 series aluminum and elastomer material with stainless steel buckle
  • Wireless: Bluetooth 4.0, 802.11 b/g/n WiFi, NFC
  • Water resistance: Up to 50 meters and sweat, rain, and splash proof
  • Storage: About 2.5GB to store an estimated 300 songs
  • Sensors: Altimeter, 3-axis accelerometer, digital compass, GPS/GLONASS, optical heart rate monitor, ambient light sensor, vibration motor
  • Battery life: Up to 10 hours with GPS, 4+ days of standard smartwatch usage
  • Dimensions: 38 mm width and 12.7 mm thickness, 50 grams

Hardware

When I saw pictures of the Fitbit Ionic I have to say I was not that excited about the device. It looked like a slightly improved Fitbit Blaze with integrated bands. I was wrong on both counts.

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Fitbit sent along the smoke gray watch body with charcoal band in large with an optional midnight blue perforated leather band. The Fitbit Ionic is gorgeous in person with smooth aluminum angular ends transitioning into curved Gorilla Glass 3 that has a slight arc that runs along the length of your wrist. The bands appear to be integrated, but has an interesting mechanism for a seamless appearance on the outside of the watch body.

There is one button on the left side and two on the right that have a pattern for tactile feel and good looks. The buttons protrude just enough to be easily functional without being distracting or pressing accidentally with your wrist rotated while doing pushups.

The back has a rather interesting design that appears to be focused on making sure the very best connection is made to your wrist with the heart rate and new SPO2 sensors. The four sides of the back are angled down to a center sensor area so that sensor area is sure to press securely against the top of your wrist while the rest of the watch sits flat against your wrist, making the Fitbit Ionic effectively one of the thinnest tech watches I have ever tested. The three pins for the charging cable are positioned above the sensors on the back.

The heart rate sensors provide PurePulse technology for one of the most advanced heart rate tracking experiences ever. The sleep stages support measuring and showing light sleep, deep sleep, and REM are very impressive. The Apple Watch doesn't measure sleep natively and this is one of the most important aspects of your health so I am pleased to see Fitbit continuing to improve in this area.

The display is perfectly sized for my wrist and eye sight with crisp clear color and a brightness of 1,000 nits that makes sure you can view it in any lighting condition. The display activates when you rotate your wrist, press the left button, or double tap the display. You can enable an always-on mode while working out, but battery life will suffer.

The display is a touchscreen too so while you use the three buttons for navigation, swipes and taps on the display are also needed to use the Ionic. These functions are described below in the software section.

I had the opportunity to take a 6 mile hike in a heavily wooded area on Sunday and the GPS accurately tracked my path without any gaps in coverage. I was surprised since I walked in a forest with large old growth timber blocking nearly all of the sky from my view.

The Fitbit Ionic is light at just 50 grams, 1.8 ounces, and over the past five days of use I barely noticed its presence on my left wrist. It is extremely comfortable and form fitting, making it perfect for sleep tracking.

The included elastomer sport band has a traditional buckle design with post on the bitter end that fits into one of the notches in the band to hold the bitter end securely against the band. There are three additional sport bands available for $29.95 in black and charcoal, cobalt and lime, and coral and blue gray. These optional sport bands are covered in openings to allow for air to flow freely through the band.

The perforated leather band is made of Horween leather from its Chicago tannery and has a lovely smell and soft feel with a classy look. A black stainless steel buckle and one leather loop secure the band in place. The leather bands are available for $59.95.

To switch out bands, you simply lift up on the securing button on the underside of the watch body. The band pops out easily when the button is properly activated. To secure a new band in place, simply press the band mechanism into the open slot and make sure the button clicks into place. It's an even easier mechanism than the Apple Watch and gives the Fitbit Ionic a much more seamless watch body to band appearance.

In my experience, the Fitbit Ionic battery matches the advertised value of 4+ days. I've charged it up once over the five days of use because I needed to put it on the charger to get music transferred to the watch. I used the Fitbit Ionic for a 5 mile run, a 6 mile hike, and another 3 mile run with GPS.

Music was played on the two runs and performance was flawless with the Fitbit Flyer and Jabra Elite Sport headsets. I haven't gone on enough runs yet to fully measure the battery consumption with music and GPS on at the same time, but it is clear I could run a full marathon (takes me about 4.5 hours) with GPS and music so that is good enough for me. My last 30 minute run only consumed about 4 percent battery for music streaming with no GPS tracking.

To charge up the Fitbit Ionic, you connect the included USB charging cable to the back of the watch. The connection for the charger is magnetic so attaching the charger to the watch is quick and easy. Charging from empty to full takes a reported two hours.

James Park, co-founder and CEO of Fitbit, stated:

Ten years ago, Fitbit pioneered the wearables category with the introduction of its first health and fitness tracker. Since then, we have become the leading global wearables brand, setting the pace of innovation in the category and establishing the largest social fitness network that helps millions of people around the world be healthier. With Ionic, we will deliver what consumers have not yet seen in a smartwatch - a health and fitness first platform that combines the power of personalization and deeper insights with our most advanced technology to date, unlocking opportunities for unprecedented health tracking capabilities in the future.

Ionic watch software

The first screen that appears when you rotate your wrist is the watch face. There are 17 clock faces in the Fitbit app gallery for you to use on the Ionic. There are options for customizing many of these and I've been satisfied with all of the ones I tested.

A swipe from left to right on the watch face shows you the battery status, display toggle, and notification control toggle. Swipes from right to left move to the app launcher with four app shortcuts appearing on each screen.

A swipe down from the top launches the music player. A swipe up from the bottom launches the notifications. You can tap on each notification to see more detail, but that is about it. There is no ability to send replies to messages, return calls, or other actions. I hesitate to call the Ionic a smartwatch due to the limited interaction with communications, but it does support apps and that is often the standard for defining a smartwatch.

Pressing the left single button toggles the display on and off. A press and hold of this button launches Fitbit Pay with your credit card appearing on the display so you can tap the NFC-enabled watch onto a payment terminal. When interacting with apps, the left button also serves as a back button.

Single pressing on the two buttons on the right side perform the functions specific to the app active on the display at the time. Pressing and holding on the top button launches the music player. Pressing and holding the bottom button launches your notifications.

While Apple promotes apps for its platform, my experiences with wearables is that very few apps are essential for wearables. My Gear S3 runs the Tizen OS and while there is an app store and plenty of available apps, the small screen of wearables limits the utility of apps and the app story is really a non-story when it comes to wearables. Fitbit has succeeded with its core functionality on devices and the real power of Fitbit is in the data that is collected and then viewed in the smartphone and desktop apps.

All of this said, the Fitbit Ionic is powered by the Fitbit OS with a public SDK available for developers this month. In my test period, there were 12 apps available and installed on the Fitbit Ionic, not including the settings utility. These apps include Wallet, Strava, Starbucks, Today, Timer, Music, Exercise, Alarms, Weather, Relax, Pandora, and Coach. Many of these can be uninstalled, except for the core experience apps like Today, Exercise, and Coach.

I was able to test out Fitbit Pay using a promotional pre-paid card. In October, eligible personal credit cards and debit will be able to be added to your Fitbit Wallet. Fitbit Pay works with NFC so most payment terminals should work with your compatible card.

The Starbucks app is similar to the Microsoft Band experience where you physically enter your Starbucks card number into the app settings and the bar code with your Starbucks number appears when you open the app. Simply scan your bar code to pay for your drinks. I tested it out and it worked flawlessly.

The Fitbit Ionic has internal storage so you can load up to about 300 songs for offline listening while you workout. There are currently two supported methods for music, Pandora and direct PC music syncing. With a Pandora Plus subscription, $4.99 per month, you can choose up to three stations for offline music listening and then sync those to your Ionic. You select the stations in the Fitbit desktop program and then sync that music to your Ionic via WiFi while you are connected to the charger. This took a few hours to sync the stations to the Ionic for my home network. For your own music, you can sync iTunes or Windows Media playlists to your Ionic via a WiFi connection when both your PC and Ionic are connected to the same wireless network. I have been testing both Pandora and one of my iTunes playlists. There is no ability for a direct cable connection for music transfer. Music does not play on the Ionic through any kind of speaker, so a connection to a Bluetooth headset is required.

There is a Relax app that will step you through some controlled breathing exercises to help you focus and relax.

You can select and reorder up to seven exercises to appear on your Ionic at one time using the smartphone software. Tap the Exercise app on your Ionic and then check the settings by tapping the gear icon in the upper left. This will give you access to some controls over that particular exercise setting, including GPS, auto pause, and cues.

The Fitbit Ionic is advertised to support auto detection of your running so you can just take off and after a couple of minutes the Exercise program will start and record your run with GPS. I have yet to get it working with GPS tracking and will continue to test out this functionality. I personally like to make sure my wearables are ready to go before I start exercising so cannot think of any reason I would ever use Run Detect. I guess it is useful if you start running and forget to hit go in the Exercise app.

PC/Mac Software

While you can use the Fitbit website to view your data, the richer experience is present in the actual Fitbit app found on both Windows and Apple computers. Like the smartphone app, the Fitbit PC app launches with the dashboard. You can customize what appears on the dashboard and the first thing I removed was the calorie counter. It shows me rather ridiculous values since I have a Fitbit calculated basal metabolic rate (BMR) of 2085 calories. This means that rather than starting me at 0 calories burned for the day I always see at least 2085 calories, which is of little value to me.

Other tabs in the PC software include challenges, guidance, community, and notifications. You can also access your Fitbit ecosystem settings for your Ionic and other connected gear. Clicking on various elements on the dashboard will also show you more details and then you can even dive down a few more layers to see all of the details of your collected data. There is a rather stunning amount of data available in the Fitbit software, collected by the Ionic and other Fitbit devices.

You can also choose to share your data with others in various ways.

Smartphone Software

There are iOS, Android, and Windows apps for Fitbit. The Fitbit app essentially mirrors what we see in the desktop software with a slightly different user interface.

In addition, you can setup your smartphone notifications for the Ionic. Options include calls, text messages, calendar events, email and app notifications. On Android, you have full control over which apps have notifications appar on the Fitbit Ionic. I have ESPN Fantasy Football, Google, Keep, Nest, SmartThings, and TripIt setup at this time. The notifications are very basic and just provide you with the information in a few lines. You cannot answer or end calls from the Fitbit Ionic.

Pricing and competition

You can pre-order the Fitbit Ionic for $299.95 with shipping scheduled to start in 2-3 weeks. You can buy one in blue gray/silver gray, slate blue/burnt orange, and charcoal/smoke gray. Each pack includes small and large standard bands. You can also pay $59.99 for a two-year accidental damage protection plan.

Additional bands can be pre-ordered in a variety of colors. The Sport bands are $29.95 each and the Horween leather bands are $59.95 each.

The Apple Watch Series 3, without LTE, is fairly equivalent to the Fitbit Ionic, with only a day of battery life and no native sleep tracking capability. It starts at $329, but also requires an Apple iPhone to function.

The Samsung Gear S3 Classic and Frontier, without LTE, both start at $349.99. Battery life is a bit longer than the Apple iPhone, but cannot match what the Fitbit Ionic provides.

Conclusions

One of the strengths of Fitbit products is the community where friends, family, coworkers, and others challenge you to do your best and achieve your goals. There are plenty of challenges available for your friends and family, as well as community feeds to interact with others through the Fitbit ecosystem.

Through the Fitstar partnership, there is personal coaching available too and this part of the ecosystem has been rebranded as Fitbit Coach. There are three programs installed and found under the Coach app. These include 10-minute abs, 7-minute workout, and a 20 minute treasure chest program that includes 22 exercises. I do not go to the gym and prefer body weight exercises I can do at home or when I am on the road. I'm a major fan of these three workouts and love how you are shown the exercise and then walked through the timing and tracking of each.

When I go running, I want a GPS sport watch that provides offline music playback to my Bluetooth headset, solid and reliable GPS tracking, accurate heart rate tracking, and the ability to pay for items in a store without the need for my wallet or phone. I sometimes go on long runs and like to purchase a drink or snack to keep me going. A few wearables now provide this, including the Apple Watch Series 2 and 3, Samsung Gear S3 Frontier, and Fitbit Ionic. If the Fitbit community, detailed sleep tracking, and long battery life are important to you then the Fitbit Ionic may just be the perfect wearable for the masses.

The Fitbit Ionic brings integrated GPS, onboard storage for music playback, smart notifications, wearable payment support, and an application platform in a very attractive and comfortable form factor with a battery life of up to four days. The only thing it is missing from the latest high end wearables is an integrated LTE radio, which has proven to have limited utility on my Gear S3.

Specifications

Miscellaneous
Sensors accelerometer, altimeter, heart rate
Vibrating Alert Yes
Color charcoal, smoke gray
Color Category Gray
Body Material Aluminum
Protection 5ATM waterproof
Max Depth of Water Resistance 164 ft
Communications
Wireless Interface Bluetooth, IEEE 802.11b/g/n, NFC
Battery
Run Time (Up To) 4 day(s)
Style
Product type GPS Sport watch
Header
Brand Fitbit
Product Line Fitbit
Model Ionic
Packaged Quantity 1
General
Product Type smart watch
Size 1.47 inch
Wearing Style watch style
Integrated Components heart rate sensor, navigation
Set Goals Yes
Tracking Data active time, activity, calories burned, distance, floors climbed, heart rate, pace, sleep activity, sleep stages, steps taken, swim laps
CE Input Device
Type touch sensitive screen
Features
Sensors accelerometer, altimeter, heart rate
Dimensions & Weight
Width 1.5 in
Depth 12.7 mm
Height 0.5 in
Length 10.1 in
Weight 1.76 oz
OS Provided
Type Fitbit OS
Service & Support
Type 1 year warranty
Connectivity
Wireless Interface Bluetooth, IEEE 802.11b/g/n, NFC

Topics: Mobility, Hardware, Reviews

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Where To Buy

Fitbit Ionic (charcoal/smoke gray)

Part Number: FB503GYBK
Price
$299.95

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