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Wearable Tech

Apple Watch vs. Fitbit Versa: How to choose

We tested the new Fitbit Versa alongside the Apple Watch Series 3 to find out their strengths and weaknesses as smartwatches and fitness trackers.

The Fitbit Versa ($199.95 at Amazon.com) is a worthy Apple Watch ($469.00 at Amazon.com) alternative.

The Versa is like if you took the Fitbit Ionic ($299.95 at Dell Home), gave it a slimmer body and prettier design -- and dropped its price. It also costs $50 less than the cheapest Apple Watch model, the Series 1, or $130 less than the Series 3. (In the UK, the Versa is £50 less than the Apple Watch Series 1 ($215.99 at Amazon.com) and in Australia, AU$60 less.)

So, how do you choose between the Fitbit Versa and the Apple Watch 3?

CNET's Vanessa Hand Orellana and Lexy Savvides wore them both for about a week side by side to figure out which best fit our needs.

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Design and durability

Both share a similar design, interchangeable straps, a selection of metal finishes and a variety of watch faces to customize the look. Each watch is water resistant to 50 meters so you can wear them in the shower or use them to track laps in the pool.

Those are the facts, but here's a few things we like and dislike about each watch's design:

Fitbit Versa

  • It's really comfortable to wear, one because it's so thin and sits flush on your wrist, and two because it's so light
  • There are three different buttons on the Versa and it's confusing to work out what button does what
  • Changing the band is a real struggle -- it's very fiddly

Apple Watch

  • Swapping the straps out is a breeze
  • The LTE version is bulkier on your wrist than the Versa
  • Depending on your wrist size, it can dig into your skin when the strap is pulled tight

Smartwatch features

While both mirror notifications from your phone, the Versa doesn't let you respond to a text message or summon the voice assistant like the Watch does. (But Android users will get the ability to respond to texts on the Versa with canned responses in a future update.)

Fitbit Versa

  • It's compatible with Android and iOS
  • Vibrations are quite weak, so it's easy to miss notifications
  • Not all third-party app notifications came through when we were testing
  • There's a limited number of apps available in the store at the time of writing (here are a few worth your time)
  • Fitbit Pay is only available if you buy the Special Edition, which costs $30 more in the US. But elsewhere in the world, the Versa comes with NFC for mobile payments by default. The list of supported banks isn't as large as Apple Pay, either

Apple Watch

  • You're tied into the Apple ecosystem, so you can only use it with the iPhone ($999.99 at T-Mobile USA), not Android
  • But it has a lot more smartwatch features than the Versa, like being able to ring your phone or unlock a Mac from the Watch. Transferring cards from your digital wallet to the Watch for Apple Pay is simple
  • Being able to leave your iPhone behind (when using the LTE version) means you don't feel disconnected if you get an urgent call or message come through during a workout
  • If you have multiple languages set up on your phone, voice dictation doesn't always choose the right language to respond in

Fitness tracking

Runners who want to leave their phone behind might think the lack of GPS in the Versa is a major deal-breaker. But in our real-world use, we didn't miss the GPS as much as we thought, unless we wanted to review our route on a map. The Versa seemed fairly accurate at calculating distance through steps and stride length. (If your phone is on you, at least Versa can use your phone's GPS.)

The Versa can also act as a personal trainer with the Coach app that comes with a few basic workouts, or fork out $40 a year for unlimited access. It shows you the moves right on your wrist -- and being able to initiate a guided training session in your living room is a game changer if you're tight on time. Fitbit's stand reminders are also better than on the Apple Watch: by requiring 250 steps an hour to "win," it's more focused on motivating regular movement.

fitbit-versa-coach

The Coach app on the Versa has a selection of workouts and guides you through each move.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

Visual cues on the Apple Watch only give you notifications to stand or keep moving during the day rather than guide you through workouts (although there are plenty of third-party apps that can help fill that gap). And it's really easy to become addicted to closing your rings if you're motivated by those sorts of notifications.

Interpreting your workout

Both let you dive into a deeper breakdown of your fitness data over time. Fitbit consolidates all this into its main phone app, while the Apple Watch splits this across the Watch app, the Activity app and the Health app on the iPhone.

Having your fitness metrics across three different apps can be confusing if you're looking to track progress over time. Again, there are plenty of third-party apps available for the Watch that let you find everything in one place. Vanessa's a fan of Nike+ Run Club for runs or AllTrails for hikes, while Lexy prefers Strava to track progress against previous workouts and other users.

The Fitbit app was better at translating heart-rate readings into useful information, like telling you if you were in a fat-burning, cardio or peak zone during a workout. Apple's heart-rate data in the Activity app can be hard to interpret on its own, but becomes more useful when overlaid as colors along your route. Orange and red segments show your heart rate was elevated, making it easy to see how hard you were working at each stage.

apple-watch-hr-map

The colored overlay shows your heart-rate zone at each stage of your workout when using the Apple Watch with GPS.

Screenshot by Lexy Savvides/CNET

Our biggest complaint about the Fitbit app? It doesn't show you elevation gain during activities, so for hikes uphill the only way to figure out altitude is from the summary page (but this seems to disappear after you finish a workout).

Both have third-party apps, though many big partners seem to be less invested in developing wrist-based apps, with Google Maps, Amazon, eBay and Instagram all leaving the Apple Watch platform in recent months.

Music

You can sync songs to each watch while they charge. The Versa has 2.5GB of storage set aside for music which is around 300 songs, while the Apple Watch has 8GB for music on the LTE model (2GB if you have a non-LTE version).

Fitbit Versa

  • Syncing music is a challenge because you need to use the desktop app. It takes a long time if you transfer lots of songs
  • You can only load music you own and nothing with DRM protection
  • If you pay for Deezer or Pandora, you can sync playlists and stations for when you don't have your phone (Pandora is US only)

Apple Watch

  • Syncing music is easier than the Versa because you can do it from your phone. But you have to have the songs in your Apple Music library (Spotify users are out of luck at this time, same as the Versa)
  • Streaming over LTE is possible through Apple Music as long as you're a paid subscriber, or you can listen to Beats1 radio if you don't subscribe
  • But streaming music over LTE is a major drag on battery life

Battery life

Where the Fitbit really shines is battery life. After five days of wearing the Versa all day during workouts, but not listening to music, it still had about 10 percent battery remaining.

The Apple Watch struggles by comparison, especially if you are using battery-intensive features like LTE and GPS. If you're just tracking a workout, mirroring notifications or responding to texts, you'll get about a full day's use before you have to charge it -- anything extra is a bonus.

Both use proprietary chargers but they do juice up fairly quickly.

apple-watch-power

The Apple Watch has a power reserve feature that lets you conserve battery but it disables all features apart from telling the time.

John Kim/CNET

Futureproofing

Note that the Fitbit Versa is brand new: It just hit stores in April, so we don't expect we'll see another Fitbit smartwatch in 2018. If you want state of the art for Fitbit, this is it.

The Apple Watch is a different story. The current Apple Watch Series 1 and Series 3 models were released in September 2017, and Apple has been pretty diligent about refreshing the line since the first model debuted in 2015. Expect to see new Watch software features unveiled at WWDC in June, and don't be surprised to see new Apple Watch models to hit in September of this year.

That said, those thoughts on future Fitbit and Apple products are merely educated guesses. We don't have any inside info. 

And our winner is?

Vanessa: The Fitbit Versa is a great fitness companion that's comfortable and stylish enough to wear all day, so I would probably pick it over the Watch. I'm a runner who likes to leave my phone behind and I didn't miss having GPS as much as I thought I would. The Versa seemed fairly accurate at calculating distance, even if I couldn't review my route on a map like you can on the Ionic. As a working mom, fitting in a workout is challenging so I loved the Coach app because I could do a guided training session in my living room right from my wrist.

Lexy: Neither are quite there as an all-round smartwatch for me, but if you're an iPhone user and want a smarter companion that can also free you from your phone once in a while, then the Apple Watch may be a better fit. I love that the Versa is so comfortable and has amazing battery life, but I'd pick the Watch because it can do a lot more.

Both the Fitbit Versa and Apple Watch Series 3 received the same overall rating from our CNET editors. Read CNET's official Fitbit Versa and Apple Watch reviews.