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'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 in late 2016, and is 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.