Fitbit Ionic: Excellent activity tracker, but it's not a very smart watch

Fitbit's latest GPS sport watch may be the most capable Fitbit ever, but a month of testing reveals some areas for improvement. Matt Miller offers tips for new and prospective Ionic owners.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer

It's been a month since I started wearing the Fitbit Ionic (see my full review) and thus I've been able to fully test out all of the functionality and capability of this latest GPS sport watch. It's the most capable Fitbit ever, but it also feels like it was released a month or two early.


Most high-end wearables today need to be charged nightly, so the fact that I can go four to five days between charges on the Fitbit Ionic is a major selling point. This includes a couple 45 minute runs with GPS tracking and music playback.

Read more: CNET: Fitbit's $300 Ionic smartwatch takes on Apple Watch Series 3

With such good battery life, you can use the Ionic to track your sleep. Sleep tracking has been improved recently by Fitbit so you now see deep, light, REM, and awake times in your sleep data. Sleep may be one of the most important factors for long term health and with the Fitbit Ionic mounted on my wrist I have actually increased my nightly sleep average. This is largely due to the reminders to go to sleep, adjusting my goal up to 6.5 hours a night, and the realization that I have been depriving myself of sleep.

I've used the Fitbit Ionic to track my runs, walks, fly fishing river hikes, and bike rides over the past month. The GPS tracking has matched my Garmin Fenix 3 HR and Samsung Gear S3 Frontier, but in a more compact and comfortable form factor. The data on the watch is easy to view during runs and you have some ability to customize the look.

In the past, you had to manually export the data collected by the Fitbit Surge for each run and then import that into services like Runkeeper and Strava. After enabling the Fitbit connection in Runkeeper, my run data is now automatically sent to Runkeeper so all of my history is collected there for reports, analysis, and motivation to improve.

One thing I like about the Samsung Gear S3 is its ability to automatically recognize my one mile morning and evening walks to and from the train station. The Fitbit Ionic does the same thing and distinguishes these more intense walks from standard steps throughout the day.

Fitbit Ionic review: in pictures

Areas for improvement

One of the weaknesses of the Fitbit Ionic is related to its usefulness for sleeping. The vibration of the Ionic is weak, resulting in alarms never waking me up. Unlike the Jawbone UP, the Fitbit Ionic also does not have smart alarms that wake you during a period of light sleep. Even if it did have this capability, the vibration motor would need to be stronger to actually wake you up.

The weak vibration motor also impacts the Fitbit Coach functionality and notifications. I like using the 7-minute body weight workout module, but there are no audio prompts so I am left to relying on the vibration to know when each exercise has ended. With a weak vibration and no audio, I am left to regularly guess when 30 seconds has passed and spend too much time looking at my wrist while performing the exercise. Audio coaching will be coming to Fitbit Coach on the Ionic in 2018.

I miss most of the notifications as I barely feel the Ionic vibrate on my wrist. My current unit also does not let me answer or hang up on calls and after diving into the Fitbit Ionic discussion forums I discovered this capability may be limited to iOS users.

Transferring music to the Fitbit Ionic seems to take forever as it is done via a Wi-Fi connection that seems seriously restricted on data speeds. A physical connection would be nice or something faster. I haven't changed up the music since the first few days because it took so long to get the music on the watch.

Unlike my Gear S3, the Fitbit Ionic doesn't have an always-on watch mode, unless you are exercising. This is the same with the Apple Watch and other wearables, but that is really only acceptable if the wearable turns on the watch face reliably with every twist or lift of the wrist. At first I had major issues with the motion activating the watch face, but just performed an update and it now works quite well. You can enable an always-on display in exercise by toggling it on in the settings.

Fitbit advertises the Ionic as a smart watch, but I think that's a bit of a stretch at this time. It supports apps, but we have yet to see any additional ones from developers beyond what was included out of the box. It would have been great to see Fitbit work with key developers to be able to offer customers some options at launch.

I understand apps like Flipboard, Nest, and Game Golf are coming soon, but it would be nice to see even more for the large Fitbit community. I would even like to see something as basic as a water counter since the Fitbit app has that and it would be handy to enter the amount of water I drink right on the watch.

I missed talking about the details of the included elastomer band in my full review, but I've come to only wearing it when I run. The rubber is too stiff and not very comfortable for wearing over the long term. The holes in the strap don't seem to exactly line up with the buckle so I either have to make it a bit tighter or looser. The Horween leather band is fantastic and has gotten softer over the month, but the included band is not great. I plan to try out one of the $29.99 optional sport bands next.

Tips for new Ionic owners

Since I've been using the Ionic longer than those who just purchased one last week, here are a few things I have learned along the way.

  • Control music while exercising: While running the first couple of times I could not find any way to control the music playback on the Ionic. I read through the reviewer's guide and found that you have to press and hold the top right button to access music controls during an exercise. You should also be able to control music with a Bluetooth headset, but it's nice to know there are controls on the Ionic as well.
  • Customize watch faces: Make sure to look for the gear icon when choosing a watch face on the smartphone Fitbit app. Tapping on the gear icon gives you the ability to change colors, select the types of data you want to view, and more.
  • Customize auto recognition: I mentioned that my walks are automatically tracked when I walk to and from the train. You can setup auto recognized exercises for a number of activities and even customize how long you need to be participating in that activity for it to count.
  • Reorganize apps on the Ionic: Simply tap, hold, and then move the app icon around to optimize the location for your usage. I place my most used four app icons on the first swipe to the left.
  • Arrange the exercise shortcuts to match your needs: Rather than scrolling through a long list of exercise screen on the Ionic that you never or rarely use, customize these selected excercise in the smartphone app and then organize them so your most used appears first.
  • Restart your Ionic: Given that the Ionic is new and not everything is running smoothly, you should know how to reboot the Ionic. Simply hold down the left and bottom right buttons together and after a few seconds you should see the Fitbit logo appear on the watch.

Have any readers purchased a new Fitbit Ionic? I am interested in hearing about your experiences and any tips you may have for the rest of us too.


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