Fitbit Versa review: Fitbit's $199 answer to the Apple Watch is mostly great

Admittedly, developers are making these fast, and mostly for free. (Some are free trials that eventually require payment beyond Fitbit's app, which gets weird.) It's a hobbyist or grassroots developer landscape, much like Pebble was. But it does mean a lot of sifting through the Fitbit app for nuggets. 

To make things worse, there's no way I can bookmark or otherwise save my "favorite" watch faces. And, oddly, only one watch face at a time can be stored. That gets annoying, because the Fitbit app loads apps slowly, and sometimes requires the Fitbit to be connected to Wi-Fi, which has to be connected manually from the Fitbit app running on a phone.   

The Apple Watch doesn't have a watch face store, something that feels ridiculously overdue (and could be coming this year, based on early WatchOS 4.3.1 reports). But Fitbit's mixed bag of watch faces shows the importance of good curation: a ton of bad-looking watch faces could be seen as worse than a few really good ones. I have, however, decided I like the variety.

Here's what made me miss my Apple Watch

Yes, the Apple Watch -- even the "affordable" Series 1 model -- is more expensive than the Fitbit Versa. But with that comes tighter integration with the iPhone (my preferred phone platform), plus the benefit of more mature features, which Apple has been polishing and refining since the first model debuted in 2015.

To that end, here's where the Versa fell short compared to Apple: 

Subpar music experience: There's only 2.5GB of onboard music storage on the Versa, and tracks have to be loaded from a computer, unless you subscribe to Pandora or Deezer and sync playlists with those services. None of these options are as good or convenient as the Apple Watch's dead-simple auto syncing from Apple Music  Google's newly rebranded Wear OS watches and Samsung Gear watches are better on this point, too. 

Fitbit Pay isn't as big as Apple Pay: Overseas, contactless payment options are much more ubiquitous than in the US, and it's a great travel convenience. Fitbit Pay on-wrist payments exist for global Versa watches (which is the one that costs $30 more in the US). But thus far, Fitbit's payment service doesn't support my bank, so it's a moot point.

Phone calls and responding to messages: At home, it's helpful to have the Apple Watch to field phone calls via speakerphone, Dick Tracy-style. Apple Watch also makes it easy to choose simple responses to text messages. (Android phone owners can do quick canned responses from the Versa.) Now, I'm running around to find my phone again.

No more "Find my phone" pings: I had used the Find My iPhone feature on the Apple Watch daily. Now, I have to make sure I don't actually lose my phone.

No Siri: Ah yes: everyone ridicules Siri, but you'll miss her when she's gone. With Versa, I can't use a voice assistant for quick-action things like setting timers. 

Adrift without maps: No more looking to my wrist (or waiting for the taps) for quick directional hints.

Paying for apps and loading them is easier on Apple Watch: The Versa's store is clunky, and doesn't catalog watch faces I've used or gotten. Paying for them is even worse, requiring steps like direct PayPal payments to developers or KiezelPay to get codes that activate these after trial versions expire. 

Other Versa nitpicks

Recording workouts is easy on the Versa, but I don't find the readouts as good as what the Apple Watch offers -- I can't see as many lines of stats and I can't tell the time while working out -- and music controls aren't easy to juggle. Fitbit Coach, a subscription service for workouts, costs extra per month (I haven't used it yet with the Versa), and I'd prefer not to pay for a service for my watch.

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Josh Miller/CNET

Battery life depends on what you're measuring against. The first time I used it, I lasted three days on a single charge, while Fitbit advertises four. Other Fitbits have done better -- some last a full week. Fitbit says that music playback battery life is only 7 hours, but I haven't tested that claim.

The Versa's battery life beats the Apple Watch, but not as much as I expected. And those old Pebble watches I loved lasted five days or more. The included charger is yet another new proprietary Fitbit charger, incompatible with anything but the Versa. The clip-on charge cradle is bedside-friendly, but bulkier to pack.

And, the Versa lacks onboard GPS, which the Ionic and Apple Watch Series 3 have. Runners might miss that, but they should be buying one of those aforementioned models, or something from Garmin. I don't think the vast majority of users will miss GPS, and the tradeoff for the Versa's smaller size was worth it. (You can link to your phone for GPS, however.)

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Lots of band options. Leather and metal mesh look sharp but didn't feel as good as the standard rubber.

Josh Miller/CNET

I love it despite its shortcomings

If you're OK with those shortfalls, the Versa is really comfortable, surprisingly nice-looking and fun to wear. The shorter-than-most-Fitbits battery life, still slow-to-download apps and clunky main interface hold it back.

Sometimes I even like that it's a little less deeply hooked in to my phone, because that means I am, too. It's a good companion, with just enough connected smarts.

If you're looking for a general everyday fitness watch right now, I think this is the best option if you're not interested in an Apple Watch.