For as long as it could, Fitbit tried to avoid using the word 'smartwatch'. Even when it introduced the Blaze two years ago, which was more or less a smartwatch in terms of its shape and features, Fitbit declined to call it that. The Blaze was merely a 'fitness watch', it said, in order to not rub up against its obvious competition. Well, that has now changed. The Fitbit Ionic, launched late last year and now available in India, is Fitbit's first true smartwatch.
Once you spend time with the Ionic, it becomes clear why we say that. Fitbit has been building up to this for a couple of years now. It acquired Coin in mid-2016, and then picked up the Kickstarter-famous Pebble at the end of that year. Both those acquisitions have been put to good effect: the Pebble team has helped design the new Fitbit OS, and now the company is hoping that developers will build apps. The Coin team now powers Fitbit Pay, to help users make payments, but this feature doesn't have support from any banks in India yet.
The Ionic is also Fitbit's first product in three years to have in-built GPS, and only the second after the Flex 2 to have full waterproofing. That means you can leave your phone behind while you take a dip in the pool, and still record your exercise metrics. However, all these improvements and additions come at a cost: the Ionic is now Fitbit's most expensive product, at Rs. 22,990. It needs to do a lot to justify itself at this price point, going up against the Apple Watch Series 1, the Samsung Gear Sport, and various Wear OS (formerly Android Wear) efforts from Fossil and others.
Though it has a nearly square body, the actual display on the Ionic – a 1.42-inch LCD touchscreen with a pixel density of 301ppi – is rectangular, thanks to a thick lower border that carries the Fitbit logo. The screen is slightly bigger than what you get on the Gear Sport (1.2-inch) and slightly smaller than that of the Apple Watch Series 1 (1.5/1.65-inch), but here's the kicker: the Ionic absolutely destroys both at battery life, delivering 4-5 days as opposed to a day and a half.
The Ionic is also quite light, sitting at 47g versus 41g/50g for the Apple Watch Series 1 and 67g for the Gear Sport. Unless your previous wearable was the super-light Fitbit Alta, you won't notice the Ionic on your wrist even if you wear it all day like we did. We also liked this smartwatch's edgy design, which almost fuses the main body with the included rubber strap. Fitbit ships the Ionic with both small and large bands and both have a nice embossed pattern.
The Ionic's strap is proprietary, so you'll need to find ones that are designed for it if you need replacements. There are tons of band options from Fitbit and third-party makers internationally, but they are hard to come by in India. There are just two options on Flipkart - Fitbit's exclusive online seller for the Ionic - and both are priced at Rs. 2,000. Most, if not all, of the options available elsewhere are being imported from the USA, and are more expensive than they should be.
Moving on to navigation, the Ionic has a total of three buttons - one on the left and two on the right. You can use any of them to wake the screen, in addition to tapping on the display or tilting it towards you, but only the left button puts the device to sleep. When the watch face is on screen, the other two buttons act as shortcuts to the first two apps (top-left and bottom-left) on your first app screen.
Once you wake the Ionic, you can swipe up from the bottom of the screen to bring up the Today app, which gives you a quick glance at the battery life, your stats, and your last three activities. If you swipe down on the main screen, you'll get access to older notifications, including those you've already swiped away on your phone. Swiping right on the watch face brings you into the apps menu, with four shown on each screen.
Thanks to Fitbit OS on the Ionic, the Fitbit app now has more layers to it. On one hand, it's good that Fitbit doesn't require Ionic owners to download multiple apps on their smartphones to use all the Ionic's features. On the other hand, the Fitbit app is still primarily designed primarily for fitness, so you now have to jump through more hoops to get to the Ionic's settings for things like watch apps and watch faces.
The Ionic was originally shipped with the first version of Fitbit OS, but it was upgraded to v2.0 during our testing period. The update took about half an hour, so you'll definitely want to do that when you don't need to use the device for a while. Fitbit OS is quick and smooth, making use of distinctive colours in different sections for easy navigation.
It has a variety of watch faces, including some unique ones from Fitbit itself, which encourage you to "take care" of a dog or a cat by essentially "feeding" it steps. The more you walk, the more food you collect for your virtual four-legged companion. If you don't collect enough on any day, said animal leaves your screen at night, leaving behind an envelope with a sad face, hopefully motivating you to do better.
Since Fitbit OS is relatively new, in comparison to watchOS and Wear OS, it doesn't have a great app collection. It's also far too US-centric, with the likes of Pandora, Deezer, Yelp, Nest, Walgreens, Starbucks, and United Airlines, none of which are usable India. That said, there are some useful ones such as The New York Times, Flipboard, Strava, and Tennis from Fitbit Labs.
With both Pandora and Deezer not (yet) available in India, the only way to get music on your Ionic requires manually transferring files to its internal storage, for which you'll need a Windows PC or Mac. The Ionic has about 2.5GB of available storage, if you're wondering. It supports Bluetooth headphones, so you don't need your phone if you want to listen to music during workouts.
Installing apps is hassle-free, with downloads and updates happening in the background. Several apps received updates during our testing period, but whether developers will continue to support the platform isn't something anyone can promise. With big developers including Amazon, Google, Instagram, Slack and Twitter ending support one-by-one for the Apple Watch, even though it's currently the most popular smartwatch, there just might not be enough interest in apps for smartwatches in general.
That's because most people are happy just getting notifications on their wearables. Speaking of notifications, unlike most other Fitbits, the Ionic isn't limited to calls, texts, and calendar notifications. It supports every app on your phone, though it doesn't offer any way to reply to them the way you can with an Apple Watch, Samsung Gear, or Wear OS watch paired with their respective matching phones.
Like most fitness wearables, the Ionic is capable of tracking a wide variety of activities, including running, walking, hiking, biking, swimming, tennis, golf, weight lifting, spinning, yoga, boot camp, circuit training, kickboxing, martial arts, and Pilates. It can also work with interval workouts and equipment including elliptical trainers, stair climbers, and treadmills. Fitbit has included a stock image for every activity, and it shows up on the Ionic's exercise selection screen, which we felt was a nice touch.
Each activity has individual settings that you can tweak, including automatic laps function, GPS, auto-detection, and auto-pause. The Ionic then remembers them for the future. Most of this is fairly straightforward, but you have to remember to set parameters, such as the length of a pool, before diving in.
As is our standard procedure, we tested how accurately the Ionic measures distances by using mile markers on a running track, and comparing it with the in-built GPS of a smartphone (in this case the Samsung Galaxy S8+). With GPS turned on, the Ionic had an average error rate of 4.75 percent versus Runkeeper on the phone. With GPS turned off, the distance recorded by Ionic was all over the place, with error rates ranging from 2 percent to 24 percent, averaging 10.5 percent over five different workouts. This isn't a reliable figure given the large variance, and we'd suggest keeping the GPS on if you need to track distances accurately.
Thankfully, using the in-built GPS on the Ionic is a breeze. It got a lock on our precise location in under 10 seconds each time we tried it. Plus, unlike the Gear Sport, it doesn't go off in order to conserve power as soon as you move your wrist. Of course, this does impact battery life. We got about 10 hours with the GPS turned on, which is less than what we got with the Gear Sport.
Battery life overall is stellar though, as we mentioned previously. Fitbit claims five days, and we routinely got over four days, using the Ionic to check notifications all day and tracking an hour-long workout every other day. There are no power-saving options, unlike the Apple Watch and Gear Sport which can shut down most functions and only show the time.
The Fitbit Ionic is a solid first effort from Fitbit in the smartwatch segment; one that brings together a fantastic display, a stylish design, in-built GPS, waterproofing, and superb battery life in as light a package as possible. The battery lasts for over four days, which is practically unheard of in the full-featured smartwatch market. It's especially noteworthy given that battery life is an annoyance for any device with an LCD screen. That fact single-handedly places the Fitbit Ionic in the top tier. Add to that Fitbit's fitness ecosystem, which has always been better designed than Apple Health and Samsung Health, and we have a great new contender.
There are some niggles, yes. App numbers are low, but companies are still learning that many kinds of apps don't really need a watch counterpart. Of course, the Fitbit Ionic is also missing some basic offerings, such as Google Maps or Uber which can be useful. The Ionic does not benefit from any deep smartphone integration, like with the Apple Watch and iPhone, or Gear Sport and Samsung Galaxy phones. Perhaps the biggest problem for existing smartwatch users would be that you can't send canned responses or trigger your phone's voice assistant to dictate responses.
The charging cable is yet another proprietary effort from Fitbit (which means replacements might be hard to find in the future). At least it's magnetic, so you don't have to fiddle around when attaching it, like with the Fitbit Charge 2 or Alta.
But overall, the Fitbit Ionic could be a more compelling offering than its two closest rivals for some users. The Apple Watch Series 1 doesn't have GPS or an altimeter, and the Gear Sport is quite heavy and not as easy to use. Also, you can use the Ionic with both iPhones and Android phones. What you should pick, of course, comes down to what you need most from a smartwatch. If it's fitness tracking you're after, the Ionic is a great pick. You could also wait a little while and consider Fitbit's next smartwatch, the Versa, which is smaller and loses the in-built GPS, for a minimal price difference in India – Rs. 19,999 vs Rs. 22,990 for the Iconic.
Price: Rs. 22,990, available via Flipkart in burnt orange, charcoal, and grey
Ratings (out of 5)
Other features: 4
Value for money: 3