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Fitbit Ionic review: A better Fitbit watch, but still not a great smartwatch

The Ionic packs in all the features, but making them work together seamlessly is another story.

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. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR | Gaming | Metaverse technologies | Wearable tech | Tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
10 min read

The Good The Fitbit Ionic offers a comfortable design, with 50-meter water resistance for swimming, GPS and mobile payments. You only need to recharge it once or twice a week.

The Bad While the Ionic supports future apps and watch faces, few are available yet. Included apps feel slow and don't launch from the watch face. There's not much on-watch coaching and music storage and playback is often more trouble than it's worth.

The Bottom Line The Fitbit Ionic has all the features we've been wanting in a Fitbit for years, but it ultimately feels less than the sum of its parts.

This is the original review of the Fitbit Ionic, first posted October 13, 2017. The updated review, based on newer software with additional features, can be found here.

Imagine there was a version of the Apple Watch that could go for four or five days between charges and work with Android phones as well as iPhones. The catch is that this superlative waterproof fitness tracker -- with sleep tracking! -- would come with a litany of trade-offs: A small handful of apps. A limited selection of watch faces. A contactless payment system far less robust than Apple Pay. And music playback that requires syncing up with your computer, like the bad old days of iTunes.    

That's pretty much the pitch for Fitbit Ionic. This $300 (£300 or AU$450) watch sits at the top of Fitbit's product line and offers battery life that Apple Watch owners could only dream of. It's the company's first product to incorporate some of the ideas from the late, great Pebble Watch, which Fitbit acquired in late 2016.

The newest Fitbit aims for the high-end. It's designed to be the complete package: fitness tracker, music player, mobile wallet, GPS running and swimming device. And, yes, a smartwatch.

After a month wearing Ionic, I found myself wanting it to be better than it is. It's not all there yet. I really like Fitbit's main fitness app. But in this review, I'm looking at this question: What does the $300 Ionic do for you that the already fine $150 Fitbit Alta HR or Charge 2 doesn't? You get GPS, swim-ready water resistance, onboard music, mobile payments and apps. It's a deep package in theory, but it's not all as excellently integrated as I was expecting. It's best used as a basic fitness watch: The extra "smarts" have some pretty rough edges.

Fitbit Ionic Watch

Clean, blocky and oddly comfy.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Fine as a basic watch

The Ionic -- which only comes in one design -- has an angular body that looks at first like a retro throwback of sorts. The slightly curved glass display helps lessen the squared-off look of the rest of the watch. It might not be a match for all wrists, but I thought it looked good on mine. And it feels comfortable: I started to forget it was there. It's more comfy than the Apple Watch.

The large steel body feels well-constructed, and three physical buttons launch some key watch functions without doing too much swiping. The included rubber band feels sturdy; I didn't feel an urge to invest in one of the additional proprietary-fit bands that range from leather to perforated sports loops.

Glancing at the time feels like it does with any other smartwatch. The display isn't always-on, but it lights up when my wrist turns and it's bright in direct sun. An included set of 17 watch faces (with more to come, Fitbit says, via a Watch Face app store on the Fitbit app) do a fine job of mixing time, date and fitness stats. At the very least, there are a lot more watch face options than on the Fitbit Blaze, the company's earlier stab at a smartwatch.

The Ionic has a touchscreen, as well as physical buttons. That offers some options, but sooner or later you'll have to swipe the screen to navigate apps or control deeper features. The touch display's responsiveness is really bad.

Fitbit Ionic Watch

There are some apps... they're not that great.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Not so fine as a smartwatch

Things start to feel really clunky when you make the Ionic actually try to do anything more complicated. Browsing apps involves swiping the display. The touchscreen is nowhere near as responsive as a normal phone or an Apple Watch or Android Wear watch. The interface is sluggish. Apps load slowly.

It's nice that Fitbit Ionic works across iOS and Android, and even syncs with Windows and Macs, via a Fitbit Connect app. That helps for fitness tracking and connecting with friends, but as a phone-connected accessory, it suffers.

Also, there aren't many apps at all. Right now, it has the following apps onboard:

  • Weather (powered by Accuweather)
  • Strava (synced workouts with a Strava account)
  • Starbucks (stores your Starbucks card barcode for paying on the go)
  • Pandora (syncs playlists from a paid premium Pandora account)
  • Coach (three recorded sets of workout instructions)
  • Relax (breathing/relaxation app timer, like Apple Watch's Breathe)
  • Exercise (workout tracking)
  • Music (for storing music files from your computer)
  • Alarms (vibration alarms on wrist, no speaker)
  • Timer/Stopwatch
  • Wallet (store credit cards for mobile payments)

That's it, for now. And right now, most of these apps have drawbacks compared to something like the Apple Watch. Even Android Wear, Google's struggling smartwatch platform, has a full App Store and Google Assistant hook-ins, which Fitbit lacks. Launching apps involves swiping through an annoying, sluggish grid via the touchscreen, or assigning two apps to quick-launch physical buttons on the right side of the watch.

Fitbit Ionic Watch

The music remote is clunky. So is music syncing, and your only subscription music option is Pandora.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Frustrating music options, but there is music at least?

Good news: You can use this Fitbit as a wrist iPod. Bad news: You'll have to sync files from your computer or a paid Pandora account.

Seriously: You can only transfer music files from your computer, or via a Pandora subscription (who has that?). Either path is frustrating. It's a pale shadow of how Apple Music now works on Apple Watch. Even Android Wear's music solution is better. Samsung's new watches, meanwhile, are getting Spotify integration. Fitbit's music solution is a hassle, and I generally didn't want to use it. Even after adding a Pandora Plus account, I could only pick from a dozen or so generic playlists to sync with (or, my own "top playlists").

That being said, once Pandora's playlists finally transferred, they weren't bad at all -- Thumbprint Radio, an autosynced list of favorites, matched my tastes pretty well (cheesy '80s songs and John Williams soundtracks). But really, who's paying for Pandora?

The syncing process also requires the Fitbit to be logged in on Wi-Fi (which doesn't happen automatically, you have to set it up in-app) and on charge. Syncing was so slow on my office Wi-Fi that I didn't even know if it was happening, and I initially gave up. Fitbit's own Flyer wireless headphones delivered on their promise of seamless pairing. Other Bluetooth headphones work, but the on-watch volume control didn't work with the AirPods.

However, at least this watch can store music. And if you can bear to transfer music from your computer via the Fitbit Connect app and Wi-Fi, it can be a sorta kinda mini fitness iPod.

Fitbit Ionic Watch

On-wrist coaching amounts to recorded instruction sets, not much more.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Hello, Coach: You there?

What Fitbit calls "coaching," I call "a list of workout instructions." It's no better than what was on the Blaze over a year ago. Fitbit is adding voice coaching to the Ionic next year, but it will involve a premium monthly subscription of $8 a month (roughly £6 or AU$10). In the meantime, the Ionic offers almost no daily guidance on-watch. The Apple Watch at least has some motivation in the mornings and evenings. Why did Fitbit drop the ball? If you're using Fitstar, the coaching app Fitbit acquired, eventually it will tailor new workout routines to meet your challenge level. But it also requires a subscription, and didn't surface anything meaningful in my daily use with the watch.

The one motivational touch I do like is how Fitbit manages "standing hours." You have to get up and walk at least 250 steps per hour to avoid being sedentary. The watch pings you with reminders to not just stand, but how many steps you still need to take. It can be a good reminder to take a break from work, too. I'd just like more active coaching on a daily basis than what this watch provides.

Fitbit Ionic

Running stats don't take advantage of the full screen.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Fitness works well, but could use that big screen more

Fitbit's basic stats show up easily on many of the watch faces, and can be scanned at a glance: heart rate, steps, distance, estimated calories, stairs climbed, active minutes. But deeper readings aren't there.

Apple's watchOS 4 shows some graphs of your daily heart rate on-watch. The Fitbit Ionic doesn't. A summary list of daily activity, much like on the Fitbit Blaze, shows general progress. But I expected more fitness solutions using that nice display. A few watch faces do some clever tricks (one changes color to match heart rate, another uses an hourly ring to show flares of activity), but I expected more.

Additionally, the Ionic doesn't have any onboard nutrition-tracking tools or readouts yet. And, during workouts, only one key stat is displayed at once (the rest have to be tapped through). Why not multi-line stat readouts so pace, heart rate, calories and more can be seen at once?

Fitbit Ionic

There's a good handful of watch faces, but many are similar. And, to switch faces, you have to load them from the phone app.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Watch face limitations

Apps and watch faces have to be loaded from the phone app (iPhone or Android), but the process is kinda weird. To change a watch face, I have to tap and pick a new one and wait for it to load on the watch, like an old-school Pebble. Actually, even the years-old Pebble stored several watch faces at once.

Also, there isn't a single watch face that shows weather, or any data other than the basic set of steps/heart rate/calories/stairs/distance. It's nice that instant heart rate can be viewed on the watch face, and it works well. But other fitness ideas could have been explored. Samsung's Gear S3 watch faces, for instance, have different types of faces that emphasize heart fitness or activity graphs. The Apple Watch has motivational circles that need to be filled. Fitbit mostly has boring numbers. Where's my extra motivation?

Fitbit Ionic

You can see messages, but you can't respond.

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Basic notifications

The Fitbit Ionic does get notifications (I tested it when connected with an iPhone 7 Plus), but the notifications are non-interactive. I couldn't tell someone I got their text. Incoming calls can't be answered on the watch, because there isn't a speaker or microphone. For scanning incoming messages, it's fine, but that's it.

Fitbit Ionic Watch

It works, when you can add your credit card (I couldn't).

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Fitbit Pay has limits

Fitbit's onboard NFC-based mobile payments feature, Fitbit Pay, promises that maybe you'll be able to leave your wallet behind on a run. That depends on whether your bank works with it. I tried using a test Fitbit cash card, but wasn't able to add my own credit card because my bank isn't supported.

Fitbit Pay will work at standard contactless payment spots, but the list of currently-supported banks is far lower than Samsung Pay, Android Pay or Apple Pay. In the US, it works with American Express, Bank of America, BECU, Capital One Mastercard and Visa, First Tech Federal Credit Union and US Bank. In Australia, it works with ANZ, Commonwealth Bank and National Australia Bank. More will be added, but right now it's very limited.

At least it's easy to use: Pressing and holding one of the side buttons brings the virtual card up on-watch for tap-to-pay. When wearing the watch with Fitbit Pay enabled, a PIN is activated every time the watch is taken off or put on, like the Apple Watch. Payments stay enabled as long as the tracker stays on-wrist.

Fitbit Ionic Watch

You won't need to recharge often, but when you do you'll need to use this awkward magnetic charger.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Waterproofing and battery life are great

Being able to wear the Ionic in the shower is nice, and I tried swimming with it: lap-tracking worked. It's an overdue feature, and the Ionic also throws in GPS and everything else.

I was able to live with the Ionic on my wrist and only charge once every four days or so. That's far better than the Apple Watch, which I charge nightly. I made it through a whole day with only 30 percent battery in the morning.

One catch, of course, is that the Fitbit can't do phone calls like the new standalone LTE Apple Watch Series 3 can. The Ionic needs to be paired with your phone via Bluetooth, and even then it just gets notifications on incoming calls and messages: It can't communicate back.

Sleep tracking worked decently, and while no wrist-based wearable sleep analysis is truly medically accurate, I was able to scan what my light, deep and "REM" sleep cycles looked like in the Fitbit app. Fitbit claims the added heart rate sensor on the Ionic can eventually detect sleep apnea, but right now sleep tracking feels like it does on other heart rate-enabled Fitbit trackers.

The future could be like Pebble (if other apps come)

Fitbit has an open software development toolkit for future Fitbit Ionic apps and watch faces, and the goal is that the Ionic will have a store of watch faces and apps to download. So far, that doesn't exist. I can hope for some to come, but right now it's hard to tell what will arrive. Fitbit showed me how easy it is for developers to make sample watch faces. In theory, Fitbit's upcoming watch and app store will be open to lots of possibilities on-watch.

I say "in theory" because it isn't here yet. The idea of a Pebble-like app store for additional fitness apps and watch faces sounds pretty useful, if good apps emerge. But that's an if. For now, what I mentioned above is all there is. And for anyone plunking down $300, that's all you can expect for the moment. I'll update this review when more apps arrive.

Fitbit Ionic Watch
Sarah Tew/CNET

A full-featured tracker, but not a great fitness watch

The Fitbit Ionic still feels like a beta product, and its core apps seem extremely rough. I'm fine with it as a fitness tracker. I'm less fine with its step-up features. That's the problem with Ionic: so far, it's aiming high and missing. Its function doesn't meet its promised features yet.

If you've been dying for a waterproof Fitbit with a screen, and want GPS, this is your best bet. But at this price, the Apple Watch is a better fitness smartwatch if you have an iPhone. The Series 3 matches the Ionic's features best. The 42 millimeter Series 1 Apple Watch lacks the Ionic's full waterproofing and GPS features, but costs $20 less and feels far more responsive for music and apps.

And if you don't need all the Ionic's bells and whistles -- and you can live without the waterproofing -- stick with the Fitbit Alta HR. It delivers the core Fitbit experience for half the price.