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Hands On with the FitBit Ionic

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Sep 1, 2017, 7:23 AM   by Eric M. Zeman   @phonescooper

FitBit hopes to take on Android Wear and the Apple Watch with its new Ionic smart wearable. This fitness tracker on steroids introduces many smartwatch features along with basics such as water resistance, GPS tracking, and music controls. The Ionic isn't cheap, however, and may not be smart enough considering the competitive prices of full-fledged smartwatches. Here are our first impressions of the FitBit Ionic.

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FitBit announced a true smartwatch this week, the Ionic, its first device since FitBit purchased Pebble late last year. This enhanced wearable, like the majority of FitBit's products, targets those seeking to record workouts and manage their exercise regimen. The device blends the features and design of both FitBit's trackers and Pebble's smartwatches in a way surely some will appreciate.

Speaking frankly, I was not impressed with the Ionic's looks when the device was revealed on August 28. I thought it a bit utilitarian and ugly. It's much more appealing in person. The watch has an angular, square-ish shape that feels right for a fitness wearable. (Personally, I prefer round watch styles.) The display has curved Gorilla Glass 3 covering it. The glass meets the aluminum unibody chassis with seamless joints. The chassis has hard angles all over the place. I'm glad it's made of metal and not plastic. The metal gives the Ionic a boost in strength and quality. It's available in three color versions, including black, blue/orange, and blue/gray.

Ionic  

The screen is small but incredibly bright. Moreover, it includes an excellent number of pixels, meaning everything on the screen looks sharp and clean along the edges. The full color display does a fine job.

You'll notice three buttons on the wearable's side edges, with a single key on the left edge and two on the right edge. The button on the left is a dedicated mobile payment activator. A long press of the button turns on the NFC radio, launches your credit card, and can then be used to make mobile payments. According to FitBit, it relies on the same mobile payment standard as FastPass and other NFC readers at payment terminals. There's nothing like "FitBit Pay" involved here. The button is rather stiff, but it has a fine profile.

I'll be darned if I can tell you what the buttons on the right edge do. Ostensibly, the top one opens the main app menu and the bottom one takes you back a screen, but that was not my experience with any of the units on hand in Berlin. None of them functioned properly, which I'll chalk up to pre-production bugs. At least the buttons are easy to find and use.

The Ionic makes use rubber/vinyl straps, though you can swap them out for straps from FitBit that resemble (but probably aren't) leather. The straps are proprietary, so you'll have to get your straps from FitBit directly rather than the 22mm bands at your favorite watch store. I liked the sporty look of the rubber straps, which have vent holes for those extra sweaty workouts. The straps are tough enough and close with a standard buckle.

FitBit placed a number of sensors on the bottom of the watch, including the optical heart rate monitor. The magnetic charging pin is on the bottom as well, and attaches to a charging plate that's included in the box with the wearable.

FitBit sealed the Ionic up tight and it is water resistant to 50 meters. It can handle swimming workouts in the pool, but I wouldn't wear it into the ocean. GPS is inside to help track your runs, walks, hikes, and bike rides. According to FitBit, the mobile app (for Android and iOS) and Ionic work together to track and sync workouts, heart rate, and other data throughout the month. The watch can help manage music playback via Bluetooth controls. The wearable has access to FitBit's app store, which includes offerings from Strava, Pandora, and Starbucks. Other features include customizable watch faces, call and message notifications, rapid charging, and sleep tracking.

The Ionic is a decent piece of hardware, but there's nothing classy or refined about it.

Ionic UI  

I'm going to call the user interface a bit odd. The main "home screen" is your watch face, which can be populated with data such as step counts and the like. You swipe side to side to access other apps, or press one of the side buttons to (hopefully) call up the main app drawer. The units on hand each had about 16 preloaded apps. Interacting with the touch screen and buttons just doesn't feel natural or smooth. Notifications aren't easy to find once you dismiss them, and the watch rarely did what I wanted it to do in the few moments I played with it.

FitBit explained that the accompanying mobile app is key for managing the wearable. While the watch will gather and store your daily movements, it's the phone app that can create trends and show you just how well you're performing.

The one thing that bugs me most is the price. The FitBit Ionic costs $300. That's nearly as much as the Apple Watch, which is a far more intuitive device to use as far as I am concerned. I'm not sure FitBit has the Ionic priced competitively, especially considering that the bulk of FitBit's other trackers cost around $100.

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