Fitbit's Ionic smartwatch is here to take on the Apple Watch

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor

Fitbit’s all-new smartwatch is designed to do battle with the Apple Watch.It’s no secret that Fitbit (FIT) has been working on a smartwatch — Co-founder and CEO James Park said as much during the company’s Q2 2017 earnings call earlier this month. And now it’s official.

This is the Fitbit Ionic, the company’s first “true” smartwatch. I say that because while the Fitbit Blaze was essentially a smartwatch, Fitbit markets it as a fitness watch with smart components.

Either way, the Fitbit Ionic is a straight-up smartwatch in that it’s designed to be a timepiece that also provides you with fitness data, as well as a set of third-party apps.

After spending some time with it during a preview event, I found the Ionic to be an impressive, comfortable device. That said, the Ionic could have some serious competition in the form of (AAPL) Apple’s rumored updated Apple Watch with LTE data connectivity, which is expected to debut next month alongside the iPhone 8.

 It’s prettier in person

Our own JP Mangalindan got the scoop on the Ionic and Fitbit’s new Flyer wireless headphones, and, well, they look more or less how he said they would.

The Ionic is a sporty smartwatch, and its square design, which it shares with the Fitbit Blaze, proves it. Though it’s not as elegant as the Apple Watch and doesn’t go for a classic aesthetic like Samsung’s Gear S3, the fit and finish of the Ionic are top notch. Its display is plenty bright and colorful, but its bottom bezel is a bit thicker than I prefer.

The Apple Watch has a more elegant design than the Fitbit Ionic.

The watch’s right side is home to two rectangular buttons that let you navigate workout and other apps without having to tap the touchscreen with your grossly sweaty fingers.

One of the biggest problems I have with fitness trackers and smartwatches is that they always seem to get in the way. If I’m lifting weights at the gym and bend my wrist a certain way, the watch inevitably bumps against the top of my hand or hits that weird little bone on the outside of my wrist.

The Ionic, however, doesn’t seem to do that. That’s because Fitbit angled the watch’s bottom edges ever so slightly to ensure you’re able to move your wrist and hand more freely.

It’s got a big face, but the Ionic is surprisingly thin.

The Ionic’s bands are also relatively comfortable, though I haven’t been able to use them during a workout, so I don’t know how they’ll hold up when I’m sweating enough to raise the relative humidity in my immediate vicinity.

If the standard rubberized bands aren’t your bag, Fitbit is also offering Horween Leather bands to class up your watch, as well as perforated sports bands for when you want to hit the gym in style.

Brains over brawn

Fitbit says it will launch the Ionic with four partner apps that run on its new Fitbit OS: Starbucks, AccuWeather, Strava and Pandora. You’ll also be able to save up to 300 songs offline. Still, four apps is nothing next to the thousands of apps available for the Apple Watch.

To help increase the size of the company’s app store, Fitbit is following the example of smartwatch maker Pebble, which Fitbit acquired earlier this year,  by not requiring developers to create a smartphone experience for the watch’s apps. In other words, apps can be built that only exist on the watch. That should make it easier for Fitbit to populate its new Apps Gallery store.

The Ionic will look a bit out of place on people with smaller wrists.

What’s more, developers don’t have to make their apps available to the public at all. Fitbit says that they can build apps for friends and family and share them without having to get the company to screen them.

Still, the watch’s operating system didn’t feel as smooth and or refined as the Apple Watch’s watchOS.

Outside of apps, Fitbit says the Ionic will also be able to make mobile payments via NFC. The feature, which is a result of Fitbit’s acquisition of Coin in 2016, allows you to store your credit and debit cards in the Fitbit app and transfers them to your watch.

Powering through

The Ionic is Fitbit’s most powerful fitness tracker to date. It uses a tri-color sensor that lets the watch not only measure your heart rate but also how much oxygen is in your blood.

Like the Blaze, the Ionic can also play fitness videos to help coach you through your workouts. After each workout, Fitbit says you’ll be able to tell the Ionic whether you found the exercise too strenuous, too easy or just right and then adjust your future workouts accordingly.

Still, the idea of looking at my wrist to check which part of my workout I should be at seems a bit distracting.

Naturally, the Ionic also has multisport workout detection, so the watch will be able to tell the difference between a jog and weight lifting.

The Ionic is a lot more attractive in person than in its initial renderings.

One of the major complaints about the Fitbit Blaze was that it wasn’t waterproof. Sure, it could withstand your sweat and the rain, but if you took it swimming, you were on your own. Fitbit struggled mightily to get the Ionic waterproof like the new Apple Watch, and it did just that. This Fitbit can go as deep as 50 meters under water — just like the Apple Watch.

Also like the Apple Watch, the Fitbit includes both GPS and GLONASS location tracking to ensure when you’re running around a large city like New York, the watch can properly map your route.

Unlike the Apple Watch, however, the Fitbit Ionic is expected to last more than four days on a single charge. That blows away the Apple Watch, which lasts about a day.

Another place the Ionic beats Apple? Price. Fitbit will sell the Ionic for $299 versus the Apple Watch 2’s price of $369. The original Apple Watch is $269, but it’s not waterproof.

Still, Apple is expected to launch a new LTE-equipped smartwatch alongside the iPhone 8 in September, which could drive down the price of the Apple Watch 2. That could spell serious trouble for the Ionic.

Should you drop your cash on this sporty wristwatch? We’ll have to wait to find out when I review the Ionic in the coming weeks.

Correction: A previous version of the video in this story listed the Iconic as $399. In fact, it costs $299.

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Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.

 

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