Hands-on: 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".

We spent hands-on time with the Ionic to bring you our first impressions of the wearable. You can find out more about the rest of the Fitbit range and how the Ionic compares in our Fitbit buying guide.

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

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 as 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.

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 antennas 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.

The screen of the Ionic is an 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.

The tracker is available in just the one body size, but it comes with two sizes of strap so smaller wrists are catered for. The gorilla glass screen measures 1.42in diagonally, and 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.

Fitbit Ionic straps

Ionic wristband options: The Classic wristband (included) features a watch-like buckle and secondary clasp, which feels very secure.

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.

Fitbit Ionic: Fitness and Health Features

You’ll get everything you’d expect from a Fitbit, including tracking of steps, distance, calories, floors climbed and active minutes, as well as automatic sleep and activity tracking.

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.

GPS: A key feature that fitness fanatics will love is the 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.

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.

Exercise and sports: The Ionic can track lots of other activities including gym-based workouts such as running on a treadmill or weight training. It recognizes 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..

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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.

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, and you can even design your own.

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, AccuWeather and music services like Pandora, but we expect to see lots more apps available over time.

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.

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.

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.

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

OUR VERDICT

We’re really pleased to see a proper smartwatch made by Fitbit. While it's expensive for a fitness tracker, it does pack in a lot of features that will appeal to a wide range of people, from hardcore fitness fanatics to the more casual gym-goers. 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. The range of straps means you can swap out bands for different occasions - either at the gym, the office or out on the town.

We’ll be spending more time with the Ionic to bring you our verdict on how well the tracking performs for various activities, and how the watch’s design and build copes with day-to-day wear, but for now we’re impressed by the Fitbit’s first smartwatch.