Fitbit Ionic Review: The Arms Race for Wrists Shifts Into High Gear


Among the high-achieving, mostly urban-dwelling professionals who spend a lot of time, money, and psychic energy on endurance competitions, athletic ambitions are worn on the wrist.

That’s why investment bankers and executives helped make the Timex Ironman one of the best-selling watches in the world—a Rolex communicates wealth, but that $100 digital wristwatch says you’re serious about training in and out of the office. I consider myself part of this demographic, not so much for my performance level as for my willingness to spend troubling amounts of money on workout clothes, event fees, and the airline tickets to get there.

And gear. Especially gear. I’ve had a Fitbit since the company introduced the Flex (an early model that looked like a bracelet) in 2007. I then early-adopted the Charge (a bit bulkier, but with a larger screen), and finally the Blaze, Fitbit’s first real smartwatch, in January 2016. So far, I’ve resisted the Apple Watch. The hype is a turnoff for me, but the bigger issue is its battery life—18 hours, compared with almost five days for the Fitbit.

This fall, the San Francisco-based brand released its most ambitious gadget to date: the Ionic, a sleek watch meant to replace the bulky GPS-enabled devices marathoners obsessively check during training runs and races.

Runner Ryan Hall with Fitbit Ionic.
Source: Fitbit

I was especially intrigued by the notion of ditching the Garmin I’ve worn in tandem with my Fitbit for several years. The Fitbit was my daily watch, dutifully tracking my steps and calories and sleep, but it lacked Garmin’s GPS and heart-rate monitor. As a practical matter, that meant I wore one on each wrist when I was running, a look that signaled I was trying a little too hard.

A more robust smartwatch would be a nice-to-have for me, but it’s a must-have for Fitbit Inc. Since the initial public offering in 2015, the stock price has plummeted from $47 a share to about $6. Investors remain worried about competition from Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co., which Bloomberg Intelligence analysts describe as “dominant players with accompanying mobile ecosystems.” But they all take solace in a fast-growing market: According to International Data Corp., sales of wearables may reach as much as $34 billion by 2020, up from $20 billion this year.

Source: Fitbit

That cautious optimism also describes how I came away from the Ionic after spending a month running, swimming, and sleeping the smartwatch through its paces. This version has potential: It’s far less reliant on the app than previous models, allowing more functionality directly on your wrist. I can set an alarm on the watch rather than choose my wake-up time on the app and wait for it to sync. The look is more distinctive than that of its predecessor, which had a similarly square shape but required you to pop it out of the casing to charge it.

Notably, the Ionic caters to the fickle habits of today’s daily athlete, with a menu of exercise-tracking measurements that start with running, biking, and swimming. It’s also waterproof and counts laps automatically. And there are options for treadmills and weights, helpful for keeping track of your timing and heart rate when you’re traveling and relegated to a hotel gym.

A much-improved holdover from previous versions is the Coach app, which leads you through a series of high-intensity workouts, including 7- and 14-minute ones designed to get your heart rate up and kick the rust out. It even shows clips that demonstrate various exercises, which is good, because I didn’t know what a “typewriter pushup” was.

The Fitbit Ionic in smoke gray case with charcoal band, cobalt and lime sport band, and cognac brown leather band.
Source: Fitbit

That feature, says Fitbit’s director for product marketing, Michael Polin, is where the possibilities for this device become clear. An update will give the watch the ability to learn your strengths and adapt, steadily increasing the challenges in a workout.

At $299, the Ionic is less expensive—but only slightly—than the Apple Watch Series 3, suggesting a coming arms race to develop the best apps. It’s hard to bet against Apple when it comes to design and ease of use. The Ionic’s download times for music—played through wireless headphones—are still long. And Strava, the workout-tracking social network, comes preloaded, but an even richer interface that gives more data about runs and rides, along with those in Strava, would be welcome.

Polin says users should think of the watch as a platform that’s easy to build on. “The idea is that it’s better for you a year in than it was when you first got it,” he says. “I think of the hardware as being an enabler.” As if fitness addicts like me need another.

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