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Fitbit Ionic review: Buy the Versa instead, unless you really need GPS

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

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

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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.

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Fitbit's phone app is great.

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The Ionic's cross-platform support of both iPhones ($899 at Amazon) 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.

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

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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.

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

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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
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Leather and rubber band options (sold separately).

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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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