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Fitbit's $300 Ionic smartwatch takes on Apple Watch Series 3

With Apple's next-gen Watch hitting shipping soon, Fitbit is making the final push to deliver its premium smartwatch to consumers in October.

Sleek and square.

Sarah Tew/CNET

In late August, Fitbit unveiled the Ionic, an all-new, full-fledged smartwatch that clearly aimed to compete with the Apple Watch. Back then Apple was still on its Watch Series 2, but the company just last week announced the Series 3, which comes with cellular connectivity and has a lot of people excited.

The Apple Watch Series 3 starts shipping on Sept. 22. The smaller 38mm model starts at $399 with cellular and $329 without. In the UK, that's £399 with LTE and £329 without; in Australia it's AU$559 and AU$459. Larger 42mm models have starting prices that are a bit more expensive across the board. And, of course, you'll need to add the cellular model to your wireless plan. In the US, that'll cost you about $10 per month. 

The Ionic, meanwhile, is available for preorder for $300, £300 or AU$450. It's due to arrive in customers hands' sometime in October.

It's unclear what the timing of the Ionic's release will mean for its sales, but both CNET editor David Carnoy and I have been using it for several weeks and found a lot to like about it.

Fitbit's most feature-packed wearable

The Ionic looks sharp, is fully waterproof up to 50 meters and has a crisp, bold display, as well as GPS. It also has better battery life than the Apple Watch -- around four days compared with just 18 hours for Apple -- and focuses on Fitbit's core competency: fitness tracking. However, thanks, in part, to Fitbit's acquisition of Pebble, the Ionic will have a real app store when it ships (we've only tested a very limited number of apps). There's also contactless payments and onboard music storage. 

And the list goes on: The heart rate sensor has added sensitivity for possible use as a sleep apnea detector. Embedded NFC also lurks for possible features that would let you tap the watch against a sensor, like unlocking doors perhaps. Yeah, it's ambitious. It's a giant fitness-watch moonshot to compete with the bleeding-edge watches on the market. Whether Fitbit can make all the pieces work perfectly remains to be seen.  

The Ionic is just one of Fitbit's new products: There's also a set of wireless sport headphones, called Fitbit Flyer, that are meant to be a companion to the Ionic watch. But Ionic is, all at once, a sequel to the aging GPS-equipped Fitbit Surge, which Ionic replaces, and last year's watch-like Fitbit Blaze, which is still on sale.

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After Fitbit finalizes its software in the coming weeks, we'll post a full review, but in the meantime here's a quick rundown of the Ionic's key features.

Swappable bands, new design: It feels like a sleeker Fitbit Blaze, with design touches of the Fitbit Charge 2 and Alta. For what it's worth, this is Fitbit's first in-house-designed tracker. Perforated sport bands and leather bands snap on and off easily, and all felt nice. 

But the Ionic's body is big, and somewhat thick. It's a bit bigger-feeling than the 42mm Apple Watch Series 3. Sport bands cost $30, £25 or AU$60, and leather bands cost $60, £50 or AU$100. You can easily use the curved touchscreen glass display to get around the interface, and there are also three buttons for activity control, navigation, payments and music or notification shortcuts.

Fitbit Ionic Watch

Easy-on bands.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Swim-ready: Finally, Fitbit addresses one of its biggest flaws (past models have been barely splash resistant.) The Ionic adds 50 meters of water resistance and can do swim tracking, catching up with the Apple Watch Series 2.

Payments: Fitbit acquired Coin last year, and Fitbit Pay is the fruition of that. The contactless payment system works like Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Android Pay. I tried it with a preloaded card for a test payment and it worked. The side button triggers the transaction. But the number of banks and markets Fitbit Pay will work with at launch is still unclear.

Fitbit Ionic Watch

Pay on the go, if your bank's supported by Fitbit Pay.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Music: It gets more complicated here. Unlike Apple Watch or Android Wear, which tap into the Apple Music service and Google Play store for music, Fitbit Ionic's 2.5GB of music storage can only be loaded with a computer. 

Alternatively, there's Pandora, the one music app Fitbit's partnered with. Spotify, which works on the Samsung Gear Fit 2 Pro, is a no-show. Pandora requires a premium subscription to sync playlists onto the Ionic for runs. 

Wireless headphones can pair to the Ionic over Bluetooth, with Fitbit promising that its new Flyer headphones pair automatically to it. Fitbit also touts that its headphones can seamlessly switch between your phone and the watch.

Fitbit Ionic Watch

Fitbit's new watch does music, and Fitbit's selling wireless headphones too.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Notifications: Like the Blaze, the Fitbit Ionic hooks into Android and iPhone notifications, (the watch syncs with Android, iOS and Windows). They're not interactive, though. Notifications pop up in a feed for quick glancing or can be turned off. 

Apps: Fitbit has opened an SDK to developers and is launching an app store (called the App Gallery) in October alongside the launch of the Ionic, promising watch faces, apps and even games... if developers are ready to deliver. 

The app store is being built with inspiration from Pebble, the smartwatch pioneer Fitbit acquired in late 2016. The goal is to get lots of fitness watch faces and useful new ideas, as well as make it easy to develop for.

Fitbit Ionic Watch

Pandora, Strava, Accuweather and Starbucks come pre-installed, but apps can also be removed.

Sarah Tew/CNET

In the meantime, four apps come pre-installed on the Ionic: a Starbucks Card payment app, Pandora, the fitness app Strava and Accuweather (which is still stinging from a privacy outcry). According to Fitbit, some future apps include Adidas All Day, Flipboard, Game Golf, Nest and Surfline, along with new watch faces. The apps can be browsed by swiping and the grid layout looks a bit like an old iPod Nano.

Fitbit Ionic Watch

The watch has different exercise modes and also workout modes like the Blaze had.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Premium Coaching: Fitbit is also rebooting its Fitstar coaching subscription into a service called Fitbit Coach. Launching in the fall, it promises "dynamic coaching" for both workouts and health guidance. Some are multi-week plans, and others are ongoing. 

Guided Health programs such as "kick that sugar habit" promise a mix of milestones, guidance and tools, but that's not arriving until "this winter." Some of it sounds pretty ambitious. The Ionic has a handful of baked-in workout steps like the Blaze did, but no coaching yet... although Fitbit promises audio-based on-watch coaching for the Ionic coming in 2018. 

Fitbit Coach will cost $8, £8 or AU$13 per month. Or you can pay $40, £30 or AU$63 a year. It's clear that Fitbit is counting on subscription services to be a bigger part of its income in the future. 

Improved fitness claims: Fitbit says it has improved GPS accuracy by adding both GPS and GLONASS as well as redesigning the antennas (10 hours of GPS-enabled running on a full charge). The watch also boasts improved heart rate tracking accuracy and added desired previously-missing features like auto-pause when run-tracking.

Fitbit Ionic Watch

The Fitbit Ionic next to the 42mm Apple Watch Series 2 for comparison.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Future models: Fitbit is also branching into variations of the Ionic, starting with an Adidas special-edition model next year. Considering the Ionic can have custom-built apps, it's possible that more special editions could come in the future, similar to the Apple Watch's Nike and Hermes variants.

Long(ish) battery: A "four day plus" battery life (or 10 hours using GPS) is somewhat equivalent to where Fitbit Blaze landed. It's days better than an Apple Watch, Android Wear watch or Samsung Gear S3. But it's still on the short side for less feature-studded everyday fitness trackers.

The price tag: The Ionic launches globally this October, without an absolute release date. Its price isn't unreasonable for all that it promises, considering how it matches up against premium do-it-all watches like the Samsung Gear S3, Apple's Watch Series 3 (at least the non cellular version) or even equivalent GPS watches from Garmin. 

But it all depends on how good the Fitbit Ionic is at all that it wants to do. We won't know that until Fitbit's software and firmware updates arrive and app store gets populated. That caveat aside, the Ionic does seem like a significant step forward from the Blaze or the Surge. We look forward to continue testing it.

Editors' note: This story was originally published on August 28, 2017, and has been slightly updated to add information on competing products and some hands-on impressions.

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