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Smartwatches have never been able to come close to smartphones in the hierarchy of digital needs. But that’s slowly starting to change.
Although Android Wear still languishes in the doldrums of slow development, Apple’s Watch Series 2 adds notable features to an already competent smartwatch. The Series 3, launched around September 2017 went one better, adding LTE support and more.
But it’s a watch that only works within Cupertino’s ecosystem, and that, for many, is a deal breaker. The same too can be said about Android Wear. That’s where the Fitbit‘s Fitbit OS powered Ionic comes rushing through the door.
Launched a little more than 10 years after Fitbit was founded, the Ionic is undoubtedly the company’s biggest leap forward in terms of technology and ambition. It’s also its first smartwatch, that is, a watch dedicated to more than simply tracking your fitness.
But what of its credentials as a competent, feature-laden Apple Watch rival?
Courtesy of Fitbit South Africa, I’ve had one strapped to my wrist now for about five months. More than enough time to formulate an opinion? You bet.
Unlike the Fitbit Blaze — its predecessor — the Ionic’s face, watch body, and band seamlessly flow into one another. For anyone who appreciates smooth lines rather than unkempt utilitarianism, the Ionic will satisfy your desires.
Said svelte lines are broken up by buttons that jut from the Ionic’s metal frame, and themselves are patterned similarly to the straps.
The face has a gentle Gorilla Glass curve bowing out from the screen, making it resistant to mild scratches but also allows the light to bounce off it at pleasing angles. It also hides a subtle Fitbit logo at the bottom, an ambient light sensor and a remarkably bright screen.
And yes, the screen on the Ionic is one of the stars of the show. While the Blaze’s screen was barely readable in bright light, and lacked colour depth, the Ionic pushes out a few more lumens, and with it, bolder colours.
One particular rainbow watch face shows this off particularly well.
The Ionic is put together well too.
Unlike the modular Blaze, the Ionic’s body and face is one unit. This makes it feel stronger, sturdier and more resistant to day-to-day bashes. The straps are also joined more sturdily to the face.
The Ionic is packaged with small and large straps, so users can pick which fits them best. Both are fastened using a buckle and push-clasp system — basically, the watch probably won’t fall from your arm, unless you take a knife to it.
But while it seems solid, it does have chinks in its armour. Literally.
The screen may be coated in Gorilla Glass, but its solidity doesn’t last forever. I noticed a number of tiny scratches on the face within two months of regular use; that is, bumping against walls, walking into doors, and inadvertently smacking my wrist against clothing buttons. You know, the usual human stuff.
This is to be expected though. And to be fair to the Ionic, I only notice these scratches when I’m trying to notice them.
The buttons are least still taut and show no signs of spring fade at all.
Back to the strap: it makes it remarkably comfortable to wear on the daily, and in bed.
It doesn’t eat into the arm like the Blaze or Fitbit Charge models, and that’s also probably thanks to the Ionic’s weight. At just over 30g, it’s barely noticeable on the arm, which has also led to many a panicked moment when I thought it fell off my wrist.
This is good news for those who run, swim or sleep with the watch on — all things you’re supposed to be able to do with the device.
And gone is that horrible hump at the rear of most Fitbit devices that poke into your inner arm. The Ionic’s sensor array is slightly raised, but now fits snugly on the body.
I have often taken off the watch, especially when working at a desk with a keyboard. The constant knocking of the strap against the table top is something that could easily drive me crazy. But this isn’t entirely the Ionic’s fault.
Functionality and Fitbit OS
So aesthetically and fundamentally the Fitbit Ionic ticks all the boxes. But smartwatches can rarely get by on look and feel alone. What of its smarts?
This is where things fall apart.
First and foremost, the Fitbit Ionic is not a smartwatch in the same vein as its contemporaries, even if the company claims that it is.
It’s not an extension of your Android or iOS device like an Android Wear or WatchOS device. It’s running Fitbit OS, which for the most part, is the company’s play-nice-with-anything operating system. That’s a bonus. It means regardless of your device, the Ionic should connect to it. But it has some major disadvantages.
One, there’s a huge lack of apps currently available on the Fitbit App Store. If you drink at Starbucks, run around giving Strava military secrets, or enjoy looking at fake digital clouds on Accuweather, you’ll be fine. Beyond that, the watch really doesn’t have the breadth of app support seen on WatchOS or Android Wear.
The Fitbit Ionic is just a glorified notification strap that can tell the time
Third party apps added in a November 2017 update give users a traditional calculator, altimeter and tip calculator, for those moments you fancy arguing with your friends over a restaurant bill. But that’s largely it. And as of mid-February 2018, this hasn’t changed much.
There’s no support for Google Play Music, Uber, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp or the usual array of supported apps you’ll find on Google or Apple’s OS.
You will be able to see notifications from your device for a multitude of services and apps, but that’s about it. There’s no way to quick reply, or open a notification on your phone through the watch. In terms of being a smartwatch, the Fitbit Ionic is just a glorified notification strap that can tell the time.
The apps that come standard with the device are dull and cumbersome.
For instance, checking the weather involves one button press, three swipes, one tap and a wait of around two seconds for the app to load. Checking the weather on my phone is as easy as lifting it to my face as I hold the fingerprint reader. It’s simpler. Smartwatches should be the simpler of the two devices.
Fitbit OS does have an open SDK, which means developers are currently smelting apps that will play nice on the watch. But the real question is, how long before we see useful apps for commonly used services hit the Store?
Beyond apps themselves, getting anything onto the Fitbit Ionic is a test of patience.
To install apps, you’re required to use the Fitbit app on Android or iOS to sync the device. And while this app (on Android at least) has improved considerably since the first Fitbit Charge I reviewed back in 2015, it remains dim-witted and confusing.
Often, the connection between the watch and the app would be severed. This can happen after installing an app, or a watch face, or simply syncing the device.
You’ll also need an internet connection — constantly — while browsing watch faces (you can’t download them to your phone and simply upload them to your Ionic) or apps. The Ionic doesn’t seem to store additional watch faces either to the phone or watch storage. So if you’re unhappy with your current face, and fancy something more info-heavy (say, for hikers), you’re shit out of luck if you’re out of a cellular or WiFi area.
Considering that the Ionic has 4GB of storage available, I can’t understand why Fitbit won’t allow watch face storage and selection on the watch itself. It’s just daft.
At least there are a number of watch faces available, and they’re mostly free too. This can’t be said about a number of Android Wear and WatchOS faces.
Gripes aside, fundamentally the OS is solid. Apps rarely crash if ever, and hitches are few and far between. Notably, the screen does often neglect to notice my touch, and stubbornly turns its head when I turn my wrist to check the time (the latter point is more annoying than anything), but I can live with it. I’ve recently switched the screen to only switch on when I press the power button, which negates this issue entirely.
Some watch faces can however make the watch’s responses slower than frozen molasses. This is obviously rectifiable, and only happens with third-party faces. The more time developers get with the OS, the better these faces will become.
So Fitbit hasn’t quite nailed the smartwatch aspect of the Ionic, but at least it hasn’t forgotten how to make an adequate fitness tracker.
The Ionic is the first large-face Fitbit that’s water resistant for up to 30 minutes at a depth of one metre. This is basically perfect for those who swim often (sea or pool), paddle, surf, or forget to take their watch off before a shower.
Water resistance makes it great for hiking too. When the watch is covered in mud, a simple rinse under the tap is now a solution. It’s a massive addition to the Ionic, and makes the watch an excellent proposition rather than just expensive vapourware.
But let’s talk sensors.
There are the usual suspects present, including an optical heart rate monitor that flashes green violently when the watch is worn, and a pair of blood oxygen sensors which aren’t yet operational. Fitbit at launch claimed that these sensors will be activated through a firmware update at a later date, but still nothing.
Notably, the company has also claimed that these sensors will be used to monitor potential health issues, like sleep apnea. So there’s promise there.
Fitbit has also crammed a GPS into the Ionic itself, meaning that you can now track your run across the neighbourhood without lugging your phone along for the adventure. While the Ionic is only partially functional without a smartphone companion, the GPS feature is a welcome addition for runners and hikers alike.
The resultant tracked path can then be synced with a smartphone and viewed on the Fitbit app.
And having the GPS on doesn’t kill the battery too quickly either.
What the Ionic does have though is potential
Arguably, the Ionic’s best selling point is its ridiculously-long battery life. Four days is absolutely possible when simply using it as a smartwatch. Throw in fitness tracking, and you’ll happily do three days. GPS included, you’ll probably get about two. But that’s perfect for a weekend away.
The charging cable isn’t as bulky as the Blaze’s either, which allows owners to slip it into a glove box or purse for later use. And it’s magnetic charging system makes lining up the pins on the back a much easier task. Although wireless charging would’ve been special.
Coming back to sleep tracking, the Ionic definitely feels more accurate and reliable than the Blaze ever did. Sleep monitoring is more detailed than ever, showing me when I tossed and turned, or was in the midst of a raucous dream (REM sleep).
I did however bump into a few issues with the system.
It constantly requires data from the heart rate monitor, but if you wear the watch too loosely on your arm it won’t be able to read your beats. When this did happen, the watch simply tracked my movement using the accelerometer. It couldn’t determine sleep stages. Nevertheless, this happened infrequently when I’ve worn the watch securely to bed.
Price and value
But let’s talk numbers now. Yes, the Fitbit Ionic is the company’s most expensive wearable to date, and it’s obvious why. It boasts more sensors than the Blaze, it’s sturdier, more polished and an overall better device. But is it worth R5500?
It’s about R800 more expensive than the Samsung Gear S3 Frontier — a Tizen-powered watch that can also connect to Android and iOS. But Samsung’s OS has its own issues with app support, and that’s really the issue with independent watch OS vendors nowadays.
The Ionic is a stellar device, marred by a few software and support issues, but it’s price is remarkably steep for what you’re really getting. It’s a compromise between basic smartwatch features, and a fitness product. Arguably, you could probably find a better fitness tracker for a similar price, or a better smartwatch. But the Ionic does straddle the middle, which places it in a no-man’s-land that few have crossed.
What the Ionic does have though is potential.
The blood oxygen sensors have yet to receive their big day, and the company is actively encouraging developers to build apps for the Ionic. The app has addressed a slew of issues since 2015. And while it has its issues, software problems are much less of a dealbreaker than hardware — they can be fixed.
But will the likes of Google join the development party? Highly unlikely. Can Fitbit accelerate its own development of the Fitbit OS platform? Just two updates later since launch, and I have my doubts.
Verdict: The Fitbit Ionic is an admirable first attempt to rival the likes of Apple, Google and Samsung on the fitness tracker-cum-smartwatch front, but it’s definitely much further from the latter. Its software lacks the polish its physical design shows, and app support is sparse at present. If you’re willing to put your faith in the Californian company, the Ionic won’t disappoint you on your treks through the wilderness. But as a smartwatch, you can absolutely do better.
Score: 7 out of 10