Fitbit Ionic review: Great battery life, beautiful design – but is this really a smartwatch?

£299
Price when reviewed

Despite the growing popularity of the Apple Watch and its maker recently announcing it had overtaken Rolex to become the world’s most popular watch manufacturer, Fitbit doesn’t seem to be backing down anytime soon.

The wearable tech firm recently announced its latest addition to its fitness tracker lineup – the Fitbit Ionic – a device that looks to excel where its predecessor, the Blaze, did not. By throwing built-in GPS in the mix – as well as dedicated swim-tracking features, mobile wallet payments and better battery life – Fitbit is doing all it can to make it harder for any jack-of-all-trade smartwatches to compete for fitness fanatics’ attention.

But priced at £300, will it be enough to sway the health conscious away from the Apple Watch Series 3?

READ NEXT: Apple Watch Series 3 review 

Fitbit Ionic review: Design

First things first: when unboxing Fitbit’s new wearable, you’ll find two watch straps in the box, with both small and large options for all wrist sizes. This means there’s no longer any confusion over which size to opt for when ordering online, as there was with the Blaze and previous Fitbit smartwatches.

These can also be swapped out easily by pressing the small release buttons on the underside of the watch. Our review device was fitted with the Sport Band watch strap, sold separately, which is geared towards those who will be wearing the device for long, sweaty workout sessions.

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As looks go, the Ionic is not a million miles away from the firm’s last flagship smartwatch, the Blaze. With its square face and minimal, clean design, it’s rather understated in its look and it’s a lot nicer in the metal than the initial hands-on press shots made it look.

Flipping it over reveals a smooth, convex rear plate, which makes the watch appear slimmer when worn on the wrist than it actually is, alongside a prominent heart-rate sensor and three connectors for the proprietary magnetic charging dock. Yes, it’s different again to that on the Blaze, which means if you’re upgrading, you won’t be able to use your old charger cable as a spare.

And the heart-rate sensor is an always-on flashing green light, which you can’t choose to turn off, even when it’s not being worn. It’s a slightly irritating quirk that – if fixed – would probably help save on battery life, especially for those who only want to wear the watch for exercise.

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Nevertheless, the Ionic is generally a good-looking device. It’s also one of the most comfortable smartwatches Fitbit has made. It fits more securely and comfortably on the wrist than previous versions and it’s light, too, thanks to a new manufacturing technique the company calls “nano-moulding”, which fuses plastic and metal together in the watch body. It also means it curves slightly to hug your wrist, so no matter what you’re doing, you forget it’s there, helping you focus on burning the calories.

With a tough, scratch-proof Gorilla Glass touchscreen, I found you can really get down and dirty into your workouts without worrying about damaging the display. Brightness is also high enough to see all the on-screen details, even in direct sunlight, and this dims automatically when you’re indoors to save your eyes when you wake up in the night and want to check the time.

Fitbit Ionic review: Apps, notifications and smartwatch features

A big thumbs up for design, then, but that’s only part of the Ionic’s appeal. It’s also supposed to be Fitbit’s first proper smartwatch, with support through the watch’s new operating system software for apps and notifications.

Fitbit now offers all the facilities for third-party developers to produce apps for the Ionic and it says more than a thousand developers have signed up to produce software for the watch. I can’t see Android smartwatch manufacturers and Apple losing any sleep over this, though, because it’s going to take a while for the number of apps available to build up to a useful level.

And yes, you can add music to the watch and listen via Bluetooth, but let’s face it, who’s going to bother with spending time doing this? Notifications handling is basic, too: you can’t respond, just read and swipe away. And the performance level of the watch, which sees scrolling animations stutter slowly across the screen, simply doesn’t suit this type of use anyway.

Fitbit is also going to have to sort out the reliability of connection between watch and phone. It’s early days yet, but I’ve found it to drop out frequently and get stuck synchronising – if Fitbit wants the Ionic to be a proper smartwatch, it needs to nail this and fast.

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Fitbit Ionic review: Fitness features

I think Fitbit will struggle to match devices such as the Apple Watch, which is increasingly able to do everything, but in fitness terms, Fitbit has at least ensured the Ionic is brimming with features.

As with every Fitbit since the original, the Ionic tracks steps. It also counts floors climbed, a feature that’s been an on-and-off inclusion for the series since the Flex dropped it. It analyses your sleep and measures heart rate just like the Fitbit Surge and Charge HR. But one thing the Blaze lacked was built-in GPS and waterproofing, with a dedicated swimming mode built in. Both these features are now included on the Ionic as standard.

Swimming

Fitbit claims the Ionic can more accurately track your laps of the pool or performance in open waters than its competitors. During our testing during both these types of swimming exercises, the Ionic performed perfectly underwater, displaying tracking data clearly as I swam.

However, unlike the Apple Watch Series 2 or 3 or Garmin Forerunner 935, there is no dedicated function to track open-water swimming and neither the GPS nor the heart-rate monitor work in swimming mode.

It works brilliantly in the pool, though, accurately sensing when you’ve completed a length and updating the display with this information each time you stop to take the next length. This is thanks to the device’s new Run Detect feature, which means the Ionic is clever enough to know when you’re taking a break and automatically stops and starts tracking a run, swim or bike ride by sensing the status of your movement.

Circuit training

The other good news here is that the Run Detect feature doesn’t come into play if you don’t want it to. Choose a standard “workout” exercise from the list before beginning circuit training, for example, and it will track your heart rate continuously until you tell it to stop.

Speaking of which, I’m a big fan of the heart-rate sensor, which displays the corresponding measurements on the screen clearly whether you’re exercising or not. That’s one thing Fitbit does very well: on-screen icons are displayed beautifully and in a clean way so as not to confuse. And, thanks to new customisation options, you can also design your own watch faces so you see only the information that’s most relevant to you.

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Running

Firing up the Running app is easy, too. Simply select Running from the Exercise app by swiping left from the home screen, tap Go and you can get going. The built-in GPS can take while to connect, which is irritating but it’s still fast compared to most other GPS smartwatches I’ve used.

The other bugbear I had with the Ionic is that previously completed workouts can’t be viewed on the smartwatch. While you’ll receive a roundup of your exercise stats right after your exercise, this disappears once you’ve pressed “Done”, and you’ll have to sync the watch with the app and view them on your phone to see them again.

Nevertheless, what it lacks in some details, the Ionic makes up in others. Take its ability to work as a wallet thanks to NFC payment capabilities. Yep, the Ionic’s rich feature set isn’t just about sweating. Unless that includes spending too much money on a pair of Nike Air Jordan 13s, that is.

Sleep

The Ionic’s sleep function works in the same way as it did on the firm’s previous devices, which was revamped and renamed recently as “Sleep stages”. This splits up your sleep into three types of shut-eye: REM, light and deep, and the analysis provided within the app is as easy to understand as it insightful.

I especially like the way the app delivers tips and compares the amount of sleep you’re getting with people of your age and sex so you can see whether you need to take action. It’s excellent.

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Fitbit Ionic review: Fitbit Pay

Fitbit Pay is the big new feature on the Ionic and it brings the watch into line with Android Wear and Apple Watch rivals. It works in pretty much the same way as every other wrist born payment device on the market. Register your credit card with the app and, when you need to pay for anything, hold the left button down until the credit card symbol appears on-screen, then touch the watch to the reader.

For testing, I was issued a prepay Boon Mastercard issued by Fitbit and this worked quickly and efficiently on the occasions I used it, whether that was paying for journeys on London’s Tube network, or tapping to pay for a swim session at the London Olympic swimming pool. It’s straightforward and uncomplicated.

The key to the system’s usefulness, however, will be ongoing bank and credit card support and it looks as if Fitbit is up and running on this front. There’s already support from AMEX, Mastercard and Visa, and Fitbit Pay will have support from HSBC, Santander and Capital One at launch, with more set to be added over the coming months.

Fitbit Ionic review: Battery life

But the biggest question, and also one of the most crucial, concerns battery life. How long will the Ionic last before you need to charge it again? This can make or break a smartwatch these days because, let’s face it, who wants yet another device to charge before bedtime every night?

So far, I’ve been impressed with its stamina. On day one, after unplugging it at 7am, it was still going strong with capacity at 64% after four back-to-back gym workouts.

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Four days after the charge with minimal use, I still hadn’t charged the Ionic, and the capacity was reading 31%, draining by around 10% per day for the three days it was used without tracking a workout.

So the answer to the battery life question is it depends on how much you make the Ionic work. On average, though, I’d say the avid gym-goer should probably get a solid three days wear out of it.

Fitbit Ionic review: Verdict

The Ionic is Fitbit’s strongest smartwatch yet, despite a few annoyances such as the inability to view past workouts on the watch itself and its rather basic handling of notifications. Whether it can sway potential customers away from the latest Apple Watch Series 3 is another question entirely.

Market leader or not, at £299 the Ionic is rather expensive and while it’s able to track whatever workouts you can throw at it with ease, all with a beautiful yet comfortable design and great battery life, it’ll never be able to do as much as the Apple Watch or a decent Android Wear watch.

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