Is it a Smartwatch with Fitness and Health tracking features or a Fitness and Health tracker with Smartwatch features?
That is the question that was on our mind when we got our hands on the Ionic, Fitbit's first full-fledged Smartwatch.
Fitbit. The word has become synonymous with fitness trackers of all types, much as "Hoover" for vacuum cleaners or "Google" for internet searching. Generally speaking, if someone wanted a fitness band or step tracker, they would think Fitbit first. The company has been successful in building a community of loyal followers around their devices and services.
Time and technology wait for no man, so when Google and Apple entered the field of Smartwatches with their Watch and Android Wear systems the expectation for a wearable device changed. Steps and heart rate tracking are useful to know, but we wanted to be able to interact more with the device on our wrist. Just as phones became more than talk and text machines, watches became more than timepieces.
After years of development and acquisition of smartwatch duo Pebble and Vector, the Ionic is the result.
Basics A deliberately anonymous design was chosen for the Ionic, it will not win any high fashion awards but also cannot be called ugly. It is designed to get the job done, to be comfortable and functional at the same time. It bears enough of a family resemblance to last years Blaze but has a much sleeker and slim profile.
The 38mm square colour touchscreen, activated by either raising your wrist or pressing one of the buttons, with brightness up to 1000 nits is easy to read outside and under most lighting conditions.
As a touchscreen, it is fast and responsive to user input. Swiping and tapping bring immediate results, and haptic feedback confirms your chosen action.
Housed in an aerograde 6,000 series aluminium body, which according to Fitbit means that it is the same Aluminium used in planes and rockets, the Ionic feels like a premium device - you never fear that it is weak or not up to the task, physically.
Water resistant up to 50 metres makes this an excellent fitness device for swimmers and those of us mad enough to enjoy running in Ireland's almost perpetually wet climate.
Getting Around Three physical buttons, one on the left and two on the right, allow for additional navigation options beyond the taps and swipes on the screen.
The left serves as a general purpose Home or Back button: a single-click when within an app or menu brings you back one screen; if the display is off on the device, a single-click will display the watch face. A long-press of the left button will bring you to the new Fitbit pay screen, allowing you to use the NFC payment option of the Ionic to tap and pay for purchases up to €30, similar to a tap and go debit/credit card.
Fitbit pay is only available for KBC bank in Ireland, but, unfortunately, we could not test this feature. The master list of banks supporting this functionality is here (https://www.fitbit.com/fitbit-pay/banks)
The top-right button acts as a shortcut to your daily statistics summary (short press) or brings you to your music on the device (long-press).
US-based Ionic owners will be able to use their Pandora subscription to add music playlists to the Ionic. For the rest of the world, we will need to sync music manually using an old-fashioned file copy that takes longer than you would expect in this day and age, more details on this later.
The bottom-right button is a shortcut to your sports activities (short-press) or your notifications (long-press). Here, you can manually begin tracking or configure your individual sports activities: Running, Swimming, Weights, Treadmill, etc. The Ionic also automatically tracks exercise: if it detects and activity that raises your heart rate it will begin to record the details for you, without needing you to start the tracker.
The touchscreen is used to full effect by Fitbit for navigation also. From the home screen, a swipe from the right brings you to your apps, a swipe from the bottom brings up your latest smartphone notifications, a swipe from the top brings your music player into focus.
Sensors The Fitbit Blaze was almost the perfect fitness tracker, but some shortcomings left consumers cold on the device. Fitbit is not about to make the same mistake twice and have crammed as many sensors as possible into the small frame of the Ionic.
We are used features like accelerometers and motion-detecting sensors in our fitness trackers, Fitbit has added built-in GPS - sorely missing from the Blaze - an optical heart-rate monitor, an SpO2 sensor, an NFC chip for Fitbit Pay and just short of 3GB to store music and apps on your Ionic.
The Fitbit Alta HR already featured an optical heart-rate monitor, the unit in the Ionic has significantly improved accuracy, mainly because of the improved processing power and the design of the watch.. Since the Ionic is flat against your wrist, this will help the heart-rate monitor build a more accurate picture of your pulse.
The SpO2 monitor is an unusual and welcome addition, as it helps to track the amount of Oxygen in your bloodstream. While this is not yet used for reporting, Fitbit believes that this may be useful for monitoring and diagnosing conditions such as sleep apnea or to help track your VO2 Max for understanding your cardio fitness.
Power / Battery Life Let's be honest, shall we? The Apple Watch, perhaps the apex of smartwatches, is a beautiful device, full of apps and things to do. But the battery life is terrible. Apple advertises 18-hours as 'All day battery life', shaving six hours from your day if you are lucky. Of course, you can always charge the watch overnight, but then you lose the sleep tracking data.
Fitbit advertises the Ionic at 4-day battery life under normal circumstances. However, we have been able to get over five days out of the Ionic between charges (not by choice, mind you, as our charging cable got lost with our luggage for the guts of a week).
The more GPS-related activities or having features like phone notifications enabled will significantly eat into that time. Fitbit market the device as being able to track GPS-enabled activities for 'up to ten hours'. While we haven't got the stamina to run or cycle for ten hours to thoroughly test this claim, we can confirm that it is efficient when using GPS, and a 50-minute GPS-tracked run barely puts a dent in the battery.
The device doesn't feature quick charging, so can take about two hours to go from empty to 100% again.
How Smart is it really? Here is where things start to get a little sticky for the Fitbit Ionic. When you think Smartwatch, you think of Android Wear or Apple Watch. These devices extend the functionality of the apps and features of your phone and can even perform some useful functions independent of your iPhone or another handset.
Yes, the Ionic does have an App Store - or App Gallery in Fitbit terminology. The App Gallery is sparse, and that is saying something, as we have been dedicated Windows Phone users for years and can deal with not having the latest-and-greatest apps.
Aside from the Fitbit supplied apps (Exercise, Coach, Weather, Breathe, Music, Wallet and Timer / Alarms), there is a Strava app. That's it, if you are outside of North America. There are no other apps available.
If you are based in North America, you would have a Pandora app, to add music to your Ionic, and a Starbucks App that allows you to use your watch as a Starbucks card... and that is it.
Admittedly, Fitbit has just made the SDK available to developers and are using all open standards for their apps. They just need to build the community up for developers to create apps. The developers just need to see if there is a community worth investing in development before they put any time into building their app for the Ionic.
It's a dictionary definition 'Chicken and Egg' scenario.
The Notifications from your smartphone are dumb notifications. You receive a notice from your phone, but you cannot perform any action on it - you can't reply to texts, you cannot answer or decline calls. They currently serve very little purpose other than to drain your Ionic battery.
Is it all about the Smart-ness? It is possible that the smartest thing about the Ionic is that Fitbit position the device as 'the Ultimate Health and Fitness Smartwatch'.
Fitbit Ionic is a health and fitness device first and a smartwatch second.
The activity monitoring and health aspects of the device, coupled with the detailed app (even available and updated on Windows 10 Mobile!) that push the Ionic above some contemporary devices and sidestepping a head-on comparison with the Apple Watch.
Summary Looking for a replacement for our old Microsoft Band 2, the Ionic ticks all of the boxes that we would have asked of a fitness and health wearable.
As a smartwatch, it is somewhat lacking. It doesn't add much more to the Smart capabilities than the bargain-priced K88H smartwatch that we reviewed earlier this year. The K88H even allowed you to interact with incoming calls.
There is plenty of potential with the Ionic: A simple, lightweight and waterproof design for a device packed with sensors; paired with the wonderful Fitbit app, website and community the Ionic can bring more to your fitness.
Priced at €349, however, we cannot recommend this device as a Smartwatch. Keep your eye on the Ionic, though, as a price drop, or if the App Gallery begins to fill out the 'smarts' for this watch, it could be worth another look.
Battery Life: coming from an Apple Watch or Microsoft Band where a 24-hour battery life is a luxury having 4-5 days of power is so refreshing.
Screen: Bright, responsive, clear display without adding to the bulk of the device.
Waterproof: Up to 50 metres makes it good for swimming or running in the rain.
Fitness and health capabilities: Great for sleep, heart rate, exercise and step tracking.
Apps: There aren't enough to make this device a truly smart watch
Customisability: It is not possible to change the layout of the apps screen beyond the two or three third-party apps.
Music: It is ridiculously awkward and long to get music from your PC to the watch.
Notifications: Dumb notifications highlight the lack of smartness of the watch.
No Microphone or Speakers: We missed the ability to answer a call from our wrist, Michael Knight-style, or to interact with Siri, Google Now or Cortana.
Our Fitbit Ionic Review was based on four weeks using an Ionic device purchased by TechKnow Ireland. Fitbit Ionic retails for €349 and is available from Fitbit directly and most major stockists.