Fitbit Ionic review

Fitbit has long been a leader in the activity tracker market, and is now taking on the smartwatch market with its new Fitbit Ionic. With a definite health and fitness focus, the Ionic sticks to what Fitbit does best, but takes things to a new level with on-board music, built-in GPS, contactless payments and more - hence the Smartwatch status. Indeed, Fitbit calls the Ionic "a smartwatch with a purpose".

You can find out more about the rest of the Fitbit range and how the Ionic compares in our Fitbit buying guide, which includes a detailed feature-comparison table so you can learn which one is best for you.

The Ionic replaces the Surge at the top of the Fitbit wristband range, but includes many more features and a larger, colour touchscreen.

Its on-screen workouts via the new Fitbit Coach trainer are its most obvious standout feature, but there are several more, including the built-in GPS, onboard music and contactless payments that together mean you can exercise without worrying about your lugging a round your phone or wallet/purse. And you can take it swimming too!

Fitbit Ionic options

Fitbit Ionic price & availability

The Fitbit Ionic is the most expensive Fitbit yet, priced at £299 / $299 / €349. Our current chart-topping smartwatch is the Huawei Watch 2, which is priced at just £30 more than the Ionic, so Fitbit is aiming to compete with the best here.

It’s a high price tag for a smartwatch that, while fitness-feature-full, doesn’t yet offer many apps or feel as premium of those it's directly competing with. You can buy the Apple Watch Series 1 for £269, for example - although that doesn't include GPS or an altimeter, and suffers weaker battery life.

For those in the market for a a fitness-first tracker with some cash to splash, the Ionic is going to be an appealing option with a brand name and excellent eco-system of challenges and health guidance that fitness fans are familiar with. It’s available to pre-order now and will begin shipping in October.

UK: Pre-order the Fitbit Ionic now here.

US: Pre-order the Fitbit Ionic now here.

There will also be a special edition Fitbit + Adidas Ionic next year, but we don’t have many further details on that just yet.

Fitbit Ionic: Design and build

The Fitbit Ionic definitely looks and feels sporty, designed to be lightweight (important for sports) and comfortable, although there are additional bands available if you’d like to wear it on an evening out, for example. It's noticeably slimmer than most smartwatches, yet still boasts battery life over 4x greater than the Apple Watch.

It’s available in three colours: Silver Grey body with Classic Blue Grey band; Smoke Grey body with Classic Charcoal band; and Burnt Orange body with Classic Slate Blue band.

Previously Fitbit's most popular colour band was black, so its omission here is a bold move. That said, the Charcoal band isn't far off black. Fitbit believes these new colours are more modern, and designed to have a "space" feel. The Burnt Orange, for example, is based on the movie The Martian, for instance.

Fitbit has used nano-moulding technology to pack sensors and antennae into the body of the watch without causing it to become too bulky, and we found that its curved design helped keep the watch flush to the wrist for comfort and practicality - plus more accurate heart monitoring.

The gorilla glass screen is a 1.42in LCD touchscreen that we found to be bright, crisp and brilliantly colourful, and is designed to work even in bright sunlight. It’s a little too responsive, though, sometimes registering a tap as a swipe and visa versa, but we imagine over time we’d become more familiar with how to interact with the smartwatch to prevent this from happening.

Fitbit Ionic in the box

What's in the box? The tracker is available in just the one body size, but it comes with two sizes of strap so smaller wrists are catered for. You also get the neat charger, which attaches magnetically.

The detachable tracker body, like many other smartwatches, felt too big for the daintiest wrists. However, for most it should fit comfortably. If you have small wrists we’d recommend popping into a store when the Ionic is released and trying it on. You’ll be able to do so in stores such as Currys PC World.

If it feels too big then consider the slimmer Fitbit Alta HR, although this lacks the high-end features such as built-in GPS and apps.

Fitbit Ionic straps

Ionic wristband options: Left: the Classic wristband (included) features a watch-like buckle and secondary clasp, which feels very secure. Middle: leather band. Right: Sport band.

For the ultimate secure fitting the Sport Band in three colour options (£24.99 / $29.95) features the buckle but with two "tangs". A tang is the prong that fits through the hole in the strap depending on how tight you like it on your wrist. Two tangs are more secure than one, and this is important when you're being energetically mobile in the gym or on the road. The aerated Sport strap is available in Cobalt & Lime, Coral & Blue Grey, and Black & Charcoal.

The Perforated Leather strap in Midnight Blue or Brown Cognac (£49.99 / $59.95) features the same one-tang buckle as the Classic, but (like the Sport) with a loop instead of a clasp at the end. It's made of premium Horween leather.

Straps are super easy to swap, where in the past and on some other smartwatches switching bands was a little fiddly.

You can swipe through screens or use the buttons as well as tapping the screen. On the clock you can single-tap to flip through your daily activity stats. The left button navigates back, and the right side top and bottom buttons trigger the on-screen actions.

Fitbit Ionic: Fitness and Health Features

You’ll get everything you’d expect from a Fitbit, including tracking of Steps, Distance, Calories burned, Floors Climbed and Active Minutes, as well as automatic Sleep and Activity Tracking. Reminders to Move help get your off your bottom at least once an hour (in the daytime!) for 250 steps. 

Fitbit Ionic Heart monitor

Heart-rate monitor: More than that, though, there’s an improved PurePulse heart-rate monitor and a new relative SpO2 sensor that can measure blood oxygen levels. The latter is a future-proofing sensor more than anything, as it could lead to the ability to offer a deeper insight into the user’s health and even detect sleep apnoea and arterial fibrillation.

Fitbit claims that the heart-rate monitor is more accurate, partly because of the more stable point of contact as the sensor lights are flush at the back. This is especially important during exercise when the tracker is in more energetic motion.

SpO2 sensor: This estimates the amount of oxygen in the blood. The sensor works by emitting and then absorbing a light wave passing through blood vessels in the fingertip.  Good blood oxygenation supplies the energy your muscles need in order to function, which increases during a sports activity. If your SpO2 value is below 95 percent, it could be a sign of poor blood oxygenation (hypoxia).

Fitbit hopes this will also help identify signs of apnoea, a sleep disorder characterised by pauses in breathing or periods of shallow breathing during sleep. People with sleep apnoea have problems with excessive daytime sleepiness and impaired alertness, and can be at greater risk of diabetes. This lack of oxygen to the body can also be fatal. It’s estimated that up to 10 percent of people may suffer from apnoea, but most are unaware of the condition.

Like the Charge 2, Alta HR and Blaze, the Fitbit Ionic is excellent at tracking your Sleep Stages. Using your heart rate and its other sensors it tracks when you are in the Light, Deep or REM stages of sleep. The Ionic is comfortable to wear in bed. I hardly noticed it was on.

Fitbit Ionic Sleep Stages

Sleep is increasingly being seen as a key long-term health indicator, so this is important. And some smartwatches - such as the Apple Watch - don't have the battery life to allow users to wear it through the night, so the Ionic is a winner here.

GPS: A key feature that fitness fanatics will love is the Ionic's built-in GPS, which means you can track a run or bike ride in detail without requiring your phone while you’re out and about. You’ll be able to take advantage of the GPS for tracking your pace and distance as you run or ride, as well as elevation, split times and a map of your route.

To remove the chance of interrupted GPS signal Fitbit utilises not just standard GPS satellites but also the Russian Glonass (Global Orbiting Navigation Satellite System) satellites. Glonass offers better accuracy at high latitudes.

Fitbit Ionic Swim

Water resistance: For swimmers, the Ionic is water resistant up to 50 metres, and swim tracking includes the ability to count laps and how many calories you’ve burned. The screen is visible in most clear water, but remember to use the buttons as the touchscreen won't work under water. It's also great that you can leave your tracker on your wrist when taking a shower or a bath - although this feels odd at first.

Exercise and sports: The Ionic can track lots of other activities including gym-based workouts such as running on a treadmill or weight training. Activities include Run, Bike, Swim, Treadmill, Weights, Interval Timer, and Workout. It recognises when you’re running and automatically enters Run Mode - starting the GPS so you can see key run stats on screen. It even automatically pauses when you do, so your pace and duration are more accurate and take into consideration that annoying wait for the lights as you cross the road safely.

How to set up auto Run Mode on the Fitbit Ionic: Open the Exercise app on the watch; Open the Run module; Open the gear icon; Turn on Run Detection; Turn on GPS; now you can go back to the Ionic's Home screen. You're all set up, and GPS won't drain your battery when you're not running. It recognises a run after five minutes so it won't confuse your dash for the bus - hey, and why are you running for the bus, you should be getting more steps in!

In the Exercise section of the Fitbit app, you also can personalise your weekly goal to the number of times you want to exercise per week.

Given that this is a fitness watch, it’s a shame that you can’t set the screen to stay on permanently - a feature common in many rival products. The raising of the wrist to glance at the stats doesn’t always trigger the screen, so running, cycling and swimming can be frustrating with the Ionic as you’ll find yourself occasionally glancing at a blank screen.

Fitbit Ionic wellness and fitness

Wellness and relaxation: Healthiness isn't just about keeping fit. Like other Fitbit trackers the Ionic can help you find moments of calm through the day by following personalised Guided Breathing sessions based on your heart rate. You can choose between-two-minute and five-minute breathing exercises.

Guided workouts: The Ionic comes the new Fitbit Coach app, a rebrand of the Fitstar Personal Trainer App. It offers more than 40 on-board workouts that you can complete without needing to dust off an old fitness DVD or look for a video on YouTube. Follow the on-screen instructions to complete workouts such as a 7-minute workout prefect for starting your day, or audio-based coaching such as power intervals for runners.

With Coach you can select from 7-to-60 minute workout sessions, including audio coaching and seven Fitbit Radio stations. You can choose from multiple trainers and activity levels. Your next session will evolve based on your ability and goals.

The Ionic comes pre-loaded with: 10-minute abs; 7-minute workout; and a 20-minute Treasure Chest (including jumping jacks, pushups, shadow boxing, shoulder tap pushups, one-legged spidermans, high knees, jumping jacks, superman planks, bicycle kicks and more).

Access to all the workouts and auto coaching in the Coach app will cost £7.99 per month - on top of the £299 you’re already paying for the watch itself - but we think Coach will be the killer app, offering personal training from the wrist.

Next year the Ionic will be able to monitor glucose levels through the under-the-skin G5 Mobile sensor through a partnership with Dexcom.

Is the Fitbit Ionic really a smartwatch?

Fitbit call the Ionic a "smartwatch with a purpose", which is health and fitness. This in itself is quite smart as other smartwatches try to be everything to everyone, and therefore lack a significant purpose. It's clear that the Apple Watch, for example, is trying to catch Fitbit up on the fitness front, but can't offer some benefits such as sleep monitoring because of its lousy battery life. For more on this shoot-out read our Apple Watch vs Fitbit feature.

On top of all of the health and fitness features, the Fitbit Ionic also offers a plethora of smartwatch features. There’s 2.5GB of storage that allows you to store 300 songs or a bunch of podcasts and audiobooks (whatever helps you on your run or down the gym) right onto the watch to accompany you on your workouts. To compliment the new on-board music feature, Fitbit has also launched new Fitbit Flyer Bluetooth headphones, priced at £109.99 / $129.95. You load music onto the tracker using the Fitbit Connect desktop app, and it's compatible with iTunes and the major digital music players - although not Spotify.

Fitbit Ionic apps and notifications music

You can also get notifications from your phone straight on your wrist, such as incoming text messages, emails and phone calls.The same is true of other Fitbits such as the Charge 2, Alta HR and Blaze. The Ionic also gets push notifications from third-party apps like Facebook and Snapchat. Unlike with smarter watches you can't actually respond to calls or messages via the watch itself - although that's fairly rudimentary of many smartwatches too.

You can set a silent alarm that buzzes on your wrist. If you don't press the button to dismiss it it will snooze once for nine minutes.

It’s easy to make contactless payments using the Fitbit Ionic, too. Register your card, and then press and hold the left button on the Ionic until an outline of that card appears on screen. You can then touch it to a compatible card terminal to may a speedy payment without needing to find your purse or wallet in your bag. The Ionic therefore requires a passcode, just like your smartphone. Fitbit is working with all the major banks to make Fitbit Pay compatible with their systems.

Fitbit Ionic apps list

With music and GPS onboard, on-screen notifications, and contactless payments the Ionic really does mean you can leave your bulky smartphone and wallet or purse at home when you go for a run, or safe in the locker at the gym.

You can personalise the Ionic with various optional clock faces (there are 17 to choose from), and you can even design your own see image further down.

Fitbit has opened up the Ionic to developers, which can create their own apps for the new Fitbit App Gallery. There are already apps for Starbucks and music services like Pandora, but we expect to see lots more apps available over time.

The AccuWeather Weather app lets you see current status and 5-day forecasts over multiple locations, and works well.

The Ionic works with Android, iOS and Windows, so developers will like that their apps will be accessible to the masses.

There’s a lot going on with this watch, which is both fantastic and a little bit daunting at first. It’s not completely intuitive so will take a bit of getting used to, and some time spent playing around within its menus and settings to become familiar with where everything is and how everything works.

Because of the current lack of apps the Ionic isn't one of the best smartwatches - take a bow the Apple Watch Series 3 or Samsung Gear 3. But none of these are as great at fitness and general health tracking as the Ionic.

Fitbit Ionic clock faces

Battery life

When it comes to battery life, the Ionic should last for four days on one charge, which is more than some of its rivals. However, when you start using GPS you’re looking at a dramatic loss in battery life, down to 10 hours if the GPS is on all the time, which is something to keep in mind. If you also have your screen set to always on during a run, Ionic will last just five hours - that said, if you've been running for five hours you too deserve a rest!

Apple claims the battery life on its new Watch Series 3 is 18 hours, and that's without GPS use - Apple claims Watch battery life with GPS at 5 hours -  so the Ionic comfortably beats it on battery life even with GPS turned on.

The watch has a low-battery indicator, so you shouldn't be caught unawares, and you'll also get an email telling you when it's time to charge. 

Fitbit app sleep

Fitbit app and ecosystem

However good a fitness tracker might be, a lot depends on how the data is stored and presented on app rather than on wrist. And the Fitbit app is second to none in its clarity and richness of detail. You can customise which health metrics are shown, and then dig down for more detail and historical data. There's also a great desktop app to show off your data.

There's a lot more, too - more than you'll get from Apple health, for instance. There is a great Friends league where you compete against other Fitbit users if you so wish - this is great motivation to keep going for more steps. You can also compete gainst friends or yourself  in interesting daily or weekly challenges and virtual adventures in real-life locations, such as the New York Marathon.

And there are hundreds of milestone badges to reward you along the way. 

On top of all this there is a ton of expert guidance in the app, telling you more about efficient workouts, cardio exercises, how to get better sleep, etc.

Fitbit Ionic vs Blaze

Fitbit Blaze vs Fitbit Ionic

Fitbit now has two watches: the Blaze (£159/$199) and the Ionic (£299/$299). Read our Fitbit Blaze review.

Both are similar in size, shape and weight – the Blaze is lighter at 43g compared to the Ionic’s 46g. The Ionic feels more comfortable, and with its flush back should be more accurate in its heart-rate monitoring.

The differences are mainly in features, although only a few. The Blaze lacks the Ionic’s built-in GPS, instead relying on a connection to your phone’s GPS.  The Ionic is swim-proof, while the Blaze is less water resistant.

And, while smart in looks, the Blaze is less of a smartwatch: no apps, on-board music, or contactless payments.

If the apps aren’t that important to you, and you can live without the built-in GPS or better waterproofing then the Blaze remains a contender, and comes in a lot cheaper.

Additional Ionic testing by Henry Burrell.

Fitbit Ionic: Specs

  • 1.45in LCD touchscreen (348x250)
  • 2.5GB storage
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi
  • NFC
  • GPS
  • Heart rate monitor
  • Accelerometer
  • Gyro
  • Altimeter
  • Ambient light
  • 5 ATM (50m) water-resistance
  • 1.45in LCD touchscreen (348x250)
  • 2.5GB storage
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi
  • NFC
  • GPS
  • Heart rate monitor
  • Accelerometer
  • Gyro
  • Altimeter
  • Ambient light
  • 5 ATM (50m) water-resistance

SHOULD I BUY FITBIT IONIC?

We’re really pleased to see a smartwatch made by Fitbit. While it's expensive for a fitness tracker, it does pack in a lot of high-end features that will appeal to a wide range of people, from hardcore fitness fanatics to the more casual gym-goers.While the range of non-fitness apps is not wide at launch what it offers is still beneficial to people looking for a more healthy lifestyle. With built-in GPS and music player, contactless payments and on-screen notifications it means you can leave your phone and wallet at home when out exercising.

The Ionic is lightweight and comfortable, and looks good too - even in the pool. The range of straps means you can swap out bands for different occasions - either at the gym, the office or out on the town.

While it can't rival the mainstream smartwatches for a dazzling array of apps, the smart-enough Ionic (allied with Fitbit Coach) looks like the first proper health smartwatch.