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Fitbit Ionic review: Buy The Versa Instead

Fitbit's original smartwatch pointed the way to where its products would head next.

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Scott Stein
Scott_Stein.jpg

Scott Stein

Editor at Large

I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets.

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8 min read

Editor's Note, March 2, 2022: The Fitbit Ionic is no longer available for sale, and a current battery-related safety recall means you should stop wearing yours if you have one. If you're in the market for a Fitbit, here are our recommendations. My original review from 2017 is below, along with an update from 2018 about Fitbit's changing lineup. It originally had a rating of 7.8 and we gave it the CNET Editors' Choice award.

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7.8

Fitbit Ionic

The Good

Fitbit Ionic has a better-than-most-smartwatches four-day battery life, while still having always-on heart rate and a comfy fit. It has features galore: waterproofing, GPS and on-wrist mobile payments, plus new watch faces and a growing app store. It works with iOS and Android, and has an excellent phone app and social community.

The Bad

Wrist payments don't work with as many banks as Apple Pay and Android Pay. On-wrist music is hard to set up and use. Software and apps sometimes feel buggy.

The Bottom Line

Fitbit’s fitness smartwatch has gotten better with an infusion of watch faces and apps, but some of its extra-smart features still aren't as polished as the competition.

Update, May 29, 2018

The Fitbit Ionic was announced in August 2017 and released in October of that year to less than rave reviews. The design wasn't great, the software felt unfinished and its price ($300, £300 or AU$450) was hard to swallow. Even worse, it arrived after the 2017 refresh of the Apple Watch line, which introduced the Apple Watch Series 1 and Apple Watch Series 3.

Thankfully for Fitbit fans, the company has already released a new smartwatch. The 2018 Fitbit Versa delivers a better design and many of the same features of the Ionic at a much lower price. We recommend that model to anyone in the market for the Ionic, unless they need on-watch GPS tracking, which the Versa doesn't offer. But smartwatch shoppers should note that the current 2017 Apple Watches continue to be periodically discounted, and that new Apple Watch models may hit in September, if the company follows its traditional schedule.

Check out CNET's best smartwatches for more information on competitive products.

The review of the Fitbit Ionic -- last updated Feb. 15, 2018, and otherwise mostly unchanged -- follows.


A few years ago -- before there was even such a thing as the Apple Watch -- my favorite smartwatch was the Pebble (the best one was Pebble Time). Pebble's smartwatches accomplished what many others could not at the time: They were waterproof, had always-on screens and lasted for a week on a charge. And, they had some fantastic geeky watch faces.

The Pebble is gone now. Fitbit bought the company in late 2016, and is discontinuing support and services for Pebble smartwatches this year.

Fortunately, I've found the next best thing... a product I reviewed months ago.

Fitbit's first true smartwatch, the Ionic, debuted last fall. At the time, it was fine, but not stellar. Promises of more apps and watch faces weren't fulfilled yet.

Now, things have changed. Thanks to some of the former Pebble employees who are now making a Fitbit app store in the same spirit, dozens of quirky watch faces and apps have appeared on the Fitbit Ionic since last December.

The Fitbit Ionic is now pretty damn fun, if you're looking for a fitness tracker with a taste of what Pebble used to bring. It's still missing some of the finessed extras that other connected smartwatches like Apple Watch do better. And, its most advanced features still hit a wall. But it's finally starting to feel like the Fitbit Ionic is living up to what it was intended to be in the first place.

Editors' note: This is a re-review of the Ionic. The rating has been raised to 7.8 because of the improvements described herein. My original take, posted October 13, 2017 and rated 7.2, is archived here.

Fitbit Ionic

What? A puppy fitness watch face? Yes, a puppy fitness watch face.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What it does great: Adorkable watch faces, weird apps, great battery life

I put a crazy retro digital watch face on my Fitbit Ionic and instantly got compliments. I wanted to share photos of it. It reminded me of what the Pebble Time could do.

I don't share pictures of my Apple Watch faces, because everyone has the same faces. And Apple doesn't even have a watch face store, crazily enough (even though Samsung, Google, Fitbit and even the soon-to-be-extinct Pebble do).

Dozens of watch faces are now on tap for the Fitbit Ionic, up from the handful previously available. The Ionic is Fitbit's first watch that can take advantage of these faces and apps. It's not hard to imagine more are coming. These watch faces make the Ionic much more fun to use. Pebble fans probably recognize some of these.

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Fitbit: TNG.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The watch faces are cool, and nerdy, and ridiculous, and often ugly, but mostly in a good way. Abandon all sense of seriousness, all ye who enter the Fitbit watch gallery. But it's also a relief: The ability to swap in new watch faces from a far larger collection makes it feel like the Ionic finally has a personality. After all, isn't that the whole point of a fancy smartwatch? You're meant to be able to turn it into different designs on the fly.

Fitbit Ionic

Almost like a Casio?

Sarah Tew/CNET

That perfect Casio watch-type face I mentioned above makes the squared Fitbit Ionic look like a perfectly retro digital watch. Fibit's own virtual pet watch face adds a puppy or kitten that can be fed with fuel powered by your steps. A mood-logging experimental face from Fitbit Labs lets you enter your energy and mood throughout the day, and see if patterns emerge.

Fitbit Ionic

I don't know how I feel.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Most of these watch faces are the furthest thing from what I'd call "elegant." But they are fun, and if you have patience, it's fun to explore the options.

The one big problem with the watch faces is that the Ionic only allows one face to be installed on the watch at a time. Each new face install happens via the Fitbit app, and involves a slow syncing process. Some watch faces aren't free, and are only available as trial apps. But it's hard to figure out how to pay for them. You can't pay in the Fitbit app, and while some watch faces I download via iOS suggest some are "trial versions," I can't seem to find a way to unlock the rest of the features -- and they seem to work anyway. Also, you can't easily search for watch faces or store previously-acquired ones in a collection.

Fitbit Ionic

Syncing apps and watch faces isn't fun.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Multiple apps can be installed at once, though: There are now dozens of apps, too, many free. The New York Times app brings up quick headlines, like the Apple Watch version. Yelp finds local restaurants. A calculator app and a few puzzle games are here too.

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Yelp, meet Fitbit.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A gamified Fitbit treasure-hunting app turns steps into collectible treasures. I buy a few pirates and ships and crabs, and follow my progress on a map to earn more coins (it's not entirely clear what everything is meant to do, but it makes me walk half a mile to see what happens when I clear the next map). Another gaming app, Think Fast, is full of quick-decision challenges to test focus. There's a tip calculator. There's an app to control Philips Hue lights.

Fitbit Ionic

A quest for pirate treasure in Treasure Trek. Steps become progress, and you buy things, and...?

Sarah Tew/CNET

If this reads as random, It's because this feels random, and to be sure, the quality varies. But the options are far better than they were four months ago. I've found a few I'd use, and that's a start.

How the Fitbit Ionic beats the Apple Watch

I really like wearing the Fitbit Ionic. The steel case and rubberized band are a bit bulky, but it's always comfy on my wrist. Its three dedicated buttons are an advantage over the Apple Watch and most other smartwatches, and are useful when running or at the gym, but they don't totally replace having to touch the screen. Which is a shame, because the screen is sluggish and hard to swipe. The squared-off design won't be for everybody, but it's shockingly easy to wear.

Fitbit Ionic Watch

Square vs. square: Fitbit Ionic (left), Apple Watch (right)

Sarah Tew/CNET

Heart rate readings are fast and easy to access, and many watch faces allow instant heart rate readings on the main display. The Apple Watch's heart rate readings aren't always-on (it tends to ping every few minutes, unless an activity is started or the heart rate app is opened).

The Fitbit Ionic also has really good battery life (for a smartwatch): at least four days, in my anecdotal use. It means you can wear it for over half a week and never recharge, and that means it can be worn at night for sleep tracking.

Sleep tracking mostly amounts to sleep logging each night, and while I don't trust the Fitbit's measures of restlessness, deep sleep and "REM sleep," I do appreciate getting a clear sense of my sleep habits on a general scale. The Apple Watch lacks any baked-in support for this. Apple's Health app and some third party apps can do sleep tracking, but the Apple Watch battery life isn't good enough for nightly wearing without a morning recharge.

Fitbit Ionic Watch

Fitbit's phone app is great.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Ionic's cross-platform support of both iPhones and Android phones also allows it to be something I could wear and use with any friend or family member to compete in fitness challenges. Fitbit's app is still my current favorite for overall fitness logging. Its charts and goals are clearly presented, there are tons of tools and connected apps it works with, and Fitbit's social network is probably the best around: it taps into fitness challenges, groups interested in particular health goals, and odds are you have plenty of friends to connect with. The Apple Watch's social fitness functions are slowly growing, but nowhere near as vibrant.

I still wish the Ionic was a better coach, though. Fitbit's efforts here haven't impressed. I like the hourly push to walk at least 250 steps to "win" the hour, which gets me into a walking mood. But the exercise coaching and overall trend observations don't feel dynamic. Fitbit's subscription coaching service could start delivering more on-wrist guidance, but I haven't seen a strong sense of it yet outside delivering workout routine suggestions. The Apple Watch doesn't do much better, and neither do most fitness bands and smartwatches.

Fitbit Ionic Watch

Fitbit Ionic's on-wrist coaching isn't fantastic yet.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What the Apple Watch (and other smartwatches) still do better

No, I'm not totally satisfied with everything the Ionic brings to the table. It can be a clunkier smartwatch than the Apple Watch, or Samsung's Gear Sport, and even most Android Wear watches. It doesn't have a microphone for making calls or activating a voice assistant, either.

A Fitbit Pay feature on Ionic enables on-watch NFC payments at contactless payment spots, but it still won't work with my bank, so I can't use it. Your mileage may also vary.

Fitbit Ionic Watch

Wrist payments (if your bank supports them on Fitbit Pay, which mine doesn't).

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Ionic can store music like the Apple Watch, Samsung Gear or Android Wear watches, but hold your excitement: Those tracks need to be sideloaded via a computer or synced via a slow and terrible process with premium Pandora. Music is such a hassle that I skip even trying anymore.

And even though I like the Ionic's added app and watch face support, I find that many apps can hang, or crash. Watch faces load one at a time as needed from the phone, versus being able to swap a few on the fly, also makes the the whole connectivity process seem less elegant.

I also end up missing a lot of the other helpful on-wrist functions I've taken for granted on the Apple Watch: on-wrist navigation or quick voice assistance. Taking fast calls, paying for things. Using it for listening to albums easily on walks. Responding to a text message quickly. Fitbit Ionic's extras don't match up, making the $300 price hard to swallow.

Fitbit Ionic Watch

Leather and rubber band options (sold separately).

Sarah Tew/CNET

It needs a price drop, or more improvement

I'd prefer a $200 version that had a few of those features (GPS, wrist payments, music) and delivered on the watch faces and general fitness. Or, a $300 full-featured watch that nailed all the extras better. Ionic is closer to being better than it was before, and it's now my favorite Fitbit. But at this price, I wouldn't recommend it for everyone. The sleeker Fitbit Alta HR is a better, more affordable bet for most. Maybe the Ionic will get a price drop, or Fitbit will make a more affordable version? Check back in six months.

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7.8

Fitbit Ionic

Score Breakdown

Design 7Battery 8Performance 7Software 8Features 9
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