My recent experiences with the Fitbit Blaze highlighted to me that the company really does struggle to make good quality hardware that is equal to the quality and density of the fitness tracking software every Fitbit device uses.
And so it was with little expectation that I received a Fitbit Ionic for review.
The sense that an Apple product costs more because it is ‘better’ is deep within me and I don’t consider the Apple Watch to be overpriced. For the same reason, I look at the Fitbit Ionic, run it around in my hands, and it appears expensive for what it is. £329 for a series 3 Apple Watch and £299 for the Ionic is not miles apart at all.
Apple’s watch comes in a decent box, looks the part and for many is a decent timepiece that they are more than happy, almost proud, to wear. As you know, I am a watch snob so both products are commodity products to me, but there is no doubt at all that Apple gets the watch industry to an extent whereas Fitbit appears to have released a plastic fitness tracker that just happens to tell the time.
All of the smarts that make a smart watch are either missing in the Ionic or not implemented in a way that makes them worthwhile.
There is an immediate problem with the Ionic that rules out at least 50% of potential buyers. I have asked 5 women to try the Ionic on their wrists and it looks ridiculous! It is far too large to look right on a normal woman’s wrist and at 36mm diagonal on the screen with the diagonal lugs and completely square form it looks too long to site properly. The straps do not help at all at this time, but even when a decent selection of mesh straps can be bought the problem will remain.
Two of the women I asked to try it on wore 38mm Apple Watches and the difference is stark in every way. The Apple Watch appears to be elegant by comparison and certainly fits people of all sizes with the 2 options available. As I said, Apple gets watches more than Fitbit.
The other issue that many have raised is the design which looks like a space age concept from the future. It kind of works, however, and I for one quite like the starkness of the form. It is certainly comfortable on my 7.5” wrist and light enough to not be noticeable when worn throughout the day. Overall I am positive on the form of the Ionic and like it much more than I expected.
There are no complaints with the screen which is bright and visible in all conditions. This is expected with amplified brightness up to 1,000 nits, but I can’t help feeling that it looks better than the Apple Watch display. The slight dome is impressive even with larger than expected bezels in 2017. Where is falls down, however, is the auto-display setting which is not great at all. You have to flick your wrist and not just lift it up to see the time which the Apple Watch never suffered from. This is disappointing for a new release and symptomatic of countless unfinished or poorly implemented features in the Ionic.
Battery life is very good and you will get 4-5 days of normal use without too much effort which makes it a practical option and the charging time is very short in my experience. The bespoke charger is OK I guess, but it does not really matter as you will not use it often.
Overall I find the Ionic to feel cheap, to be lightweight and comfortable, and designed in a Marmite way that will cause conversation when spotted by others. It’s adequate without doubt, but I can’t shake the sense that it looks and feels like a fitness tracker above all else, and as such does not merit the £300 asking price in an emotional sense.
Now it starts to get more interesting because the software is quite frankly terrible. I’m not being dramatic here either, I shall explain.
Firstly, you are given the option of using Wi-Fi for the first software update when you use the Ionic, but no matter what I tried it didn’t work and then the software lost the Fitbit altogether. Eventually I used Bluetooth instead and waited (forever) for the update to install.
So, here I was playing around with the newest device from Fitbit and I started to explore the smartness that makes this a smart watch. It took all of 2 minutes. I am not going to go into detail so here is a summary-
Apps: there are hardly any included and those that are remain incredibly basic. You can get the weather in a unit we do not use in the UK and with no way to change it. Timers and alarms are useful I suppose, but Pandora for music seems like a strange choice. I mean, who uses Pandora?
Payments: at least the Ionic includes the ability to pay for things. Oh no, only if you like in the US or Australia and use a supported bank. So that’s out as well.
Clock Faces: The ones on offer are fine, but I would hope to see many more coming in the near future. They are currently basic at best and in some cases fairly ugly.
Music: You have to move music to the Ionic fusing extra software and then through Wi-Fi, if you can connect it to Wi-Fi. It did work eventually, but was a bit troublesome at first.
Notifications: One way only sadly. You can read, but not send.
OS: It feels like using an Android phone after an iPhone. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but it isn’t buttery smooth and it feels just a little unfinished. Also, there are bugs that mean it freezes now and then and swiping does not always work.
Strangely, despite all of the above I enjoy wearing the Ionic. There is something close to compelling about the design and the comfortable way it wears on my wrist. I much prefer it to the Apple Watch as an object, but of course the finish does not match the pricing. It works extremely well on the fitness side and is peerless in this regard with the Apple Watch offering baby fitness novelties in comparison.
The fact is, however, that this is a fitness tracker and at this time nothing more. A handful of not very useful apps, no payment facility for the majority of users, a design that does not look like a watch at all and just fitness at the centre of everything. If you want the best fitness tracker available this could be it, but when I look at the Charge 2, Blaze and other Fitbit trackers, they offer 95% of what the Ionic does.
This is not a smart watch at all. It is a fitness tracker that may turn into one if Fitbit manage to add some serious functionality, but if you buy one today you will not be buying a smart watch (for £300).