According to Apple, its smartwatch series has proved so popular that it has overtaken Rolex to become the world's most popular wristwear maker. And with rumours that TomTom is pulling out of the wearables race, there aren't many big name fitness-tracker makers left in this space anymore, potentially leaving it to be ruled by one instead of many.

Fitbit doesn't seem to agree, though, and is fighting back with its most feature-rich fitness tracker yet: the Ionic. With built-in GPS and a dedicated swim function, it delivers features that its predecessor, the Blaze, couldn't muster. All while looking a darn sight sexier, too.

We've lived with the Ionic for a few weeks, putting it through its paces during various workouts - both in the gym and at the beach - and here's why, despite its Apple-sized £299 price tag, we don't think Fitbit is fighting a losing battle.

  • Small/large wrist band size options
  • 1.4-inch, 348 x 250 resolution display

As looks go, the Ionic is not a million miles away from the firm's last flagship smartwatch, the Blaze. With its square clock face and minimal, clean design, it's rather understated in visual terms.

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Fitbit uses a manufacturing technique called nano-molding technology, which fuses plastic and aerospace-grade aluminium together, for a lighter design.

Flipping the watch over reveals a smooth concave design, which makes it appear slimmer when worn on the wrist than it otherwise appears. It also means the watch curves slightly to hug your wrist, so no matter what you're doing, you pretty much forget it's even there. The Ionic is one of the most comfortable smartwatches Fitbit has made

It's also on the rear you'll find the prominent heart-rate sensor, which is always on, as you'll be able to tell by its incessant flashing green light. You cannot choose to turn this off, even when the watch is not being worn, which is a slightly irritating quirk that, if fixed, would probably help save on battery life. When fixed on the wrist, however, the heart-rate sensor's flashing is hidden from view.

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With a tough scratch-proof Gorilla Glass-covered touchscreen, 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 bright sunlight, and this dims automatically when you go indoors to save on that much-needed battery life.

  • New operating system for smart alerts
  • 3-axis accelerometer, 3-axis gyroscope, altimeter
  • FitBit pay (contactless payments) coming November 2017 in the UK

As with every Fitbit since the original, the Ionic tracks steps, counts floors climbed (a feature that's been an on-and-off inclusion for the series since the Flex dropped it), analyses sleep, and measures heart rate (like the Fitbit Surge and Charge HR).

In addition, the Ionic is the company's first fully fledged smartwatch. With the addition of app support through its new operating system software, the company is now offering support for third-party developers to produce apps for the Ionic. However, we can't see the likes of Apple or Android Wear treating this as a threat, as it's going to be a while before Fitbit builds up a good level of useful apps for this watch.

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Furthermore, notifications handling on the Ionic is basic: you can't respond to incoming messages, for example, only read and swipe them 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.

One of the Ionic's big features is Fitbit Pay, a platform built into the watch which means you to buy stuff without your phone or wallet - and will include major credit card companies like AMEX, MasterCard and Visa (plus HSBC, Santander and Capital One banks in Europe). While this would be perfect for an emergency pit stop at the coffee shop when out on a long run, the feature still isn't up and running in the UK - so we were unable to test it. However, we've been told it's due to go live sometime in November 2017.

Another major smartwatch feature the Ionic boasts is music playback. You can add tracks to the watch and listen via any Bluetooth headphones; a great feature for those who don't want to have to take their phones on a workout with them.

  • Built-in GPS, built-in heart-rate monitor
  • Water resistant to 50m for swimming/diving

One thing the Blaze lacked was built-in GPS and complete waterproofing for swim tracking. Both these features are now included on the Ionic, making it a major upgrade.

Fitbit claims the Ionic can more accurately track your laps of the pool or performance in open waters than its competitors thanks to its new dedicated swim mode. During our testing, the Ionic performed perfectly underwater, providing on-screen data with its brightly-lit display as we swam. However, unlike the Apple Watch Series 3 or Garmin Forerunner 935, there is no dedicated function to track open-water swimming - as GPS won't work accurately.

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At least the Ionic works brilliantly in the pool, 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 cycle by sensing the status of your movement.

The other good news is that Run Detect doesn't come into play if you don't want. Choose a standard "workout" exercise from the Ionic's list before beginning circuit training, for example, and it tracks your heart-rate continuously, until you tell it to stop.

Speaking of which, we are big fans of the heart-rate sensor, which displays the corresponding measurements on screen - whether you're exercising or not. On-screen icons are displayed in a beautifully clean way, which is great for obtaining information with just a quick glance.

Thanks to new customisation options, you can also design your own watch faces (or "complications") to make the Ionic unique to you.

Such faces can be useful when viewing the data that's relevant to you when out running, which is one of the Ionic's key workout pillars. We found that the built-in GPS can take a good few minutes to connect, however, so had to wait around for this to kick in before we began our run. A little irritating, but faster than some other GPS smartwatches we've used in the past. Still, it's not a patch on the Garmin Forerunner 935.

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The other bugbear with the Ionic is that previously completed workouts can't be viewed on the watch itself. While you'll receive a roundup of your exercise stats right after you finish a workout, this will disappear once you've press "done", and you'll have to sync the watch with the app to view details on your phone instead.

Last but not least: sleep. This tracking function works in the same way as the firm's previous devices, offering a summary of your sleep pattern - split into REM, light and deep sleep - after waking up. The analysis provided within the app is as easy to understand as it is insightful.

The Ionic is said to have a five-day battery life, which, depending on how much you use it to measure workouts, is pretty accurate.

As an example: after a full charge overnight and unplugging it at 7am, by 5pm the watch remained at a rather impressive 64 per cent - and that was after four back-to-back, varied workouts. On that basis we'd say the avid gym goer should probably get a solid three days wear out of it.

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On a different week, we went lighter with use and didn't record any workouts. Four days in and the Ionic was at a respectable 31 per cent. So if you're more casual and just want heart-rate tracking and some notifications, you'll get the full five day quota.

Fitbit doesn't opt for recharging its devices via traditional Micro-USB though - so if you are travelling then the special Fitbit charger will need to make its way into your suitcase.

  • iOS and Android compatible

The Fitbit platform remains mostly unchanged from our review of the Blaze, making it one of the best out there. It's clear, simple to understand and everything is easy to navigate. The Ionic syncs via Bluetooth and it is a much faster and slicker experience than competitors like Withings (now Nokia).

We tested the Ionic with the iOS app for iPhone, but it is available on Android and Windows Phone, too. In secondary testing with Android, we've found the experience to be a little buggy with sync - which isn't an issue we had on the Apple device.

There are five tabs within the Fitbit app: Dashboard, Account, Challenges, Guidance/Notifications, and Friends.

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Dashboard is the main one, which presents all the data collected for each day - from food and water intake (if entered), to the number of steps taken - in tile form, making it easy to customise the order of what you want to see. Each measured metric has a circular bar above it that moves in a clockwise direction as you gets close to a set goal, meaning it's easy to see if you need to move more. Tapping on each of these metrics will also present data in more detail.

The Account tab, which can be found at the top right in the app, is where you can change goals, setup another Fitbit tracker, or access other settings like adding a custom heart-rate zone. There is also a link to see which compatible apps there are within Fitbit, such as MyFitnessPal, which is great for tracking diet. And settings - such as clock face, silent alarms, main goal, and so forth - can also be accessed here.

The Challenges tab has a range challenges available which can be selected to keep you moving at the weekend, or to start a competition with a Fitbit friend.

The Guidance/Notifications tab is where FitStar workouts are incorporated. There tab also keeps a list of all your goal notifications, such as Fitbit badges.



Last but not least, the Friends tab allows you to add contacts who also use Fitbit and see where they are on the leaderboard in terms of steps taken. Clicking on a name within this section will allow users to "cheer", "taunt" or message them, as well as see which badges they have earned. It gamifies activity, which is fun, especially if you have some competitive friends.

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Last but not least, the Friends tab allows you to add contacts who also use Fitbit and see where they are on the leaderboard in terms of steps taken. Clicking on a name within this section will allow users to "cheer", "taunt" or message them, as well as see which badges they have earned. It gamifies activity, which is fun, especially if you have some competitive friends.

Verdict

The Fitbit Ionic not only brings a solid, lightweight design with a beautiful screen, it also adds built-in GPS and dedicated swim functionality that the earlier Blaze was lacking.

With a new and improved heart-rate monitor, smart notifications, future payment capability and all the features Fitbit users will have come to know and love, the Ionic is Fitbit's strongest smartwatch yet.

There might be a few annoyances - such as the inability to view past workouts on the watch itself, the slight lag when swiping between apps on the main menu, and the lack of advanced smartwatch features - but the Ionic successfully bridges the gap between fitness tracker and smartwatch.

However, priced at £299, the Ionic is a rather pricey bit of kit. Whether it can sway potential customers away from the Apple Watch Series 3 remains to be seen.

Pocket-lintApple Watch Series 3 Review image 1

It's a little pricier, but Apple's third-generation smartwatch has great software and smarter notifications than the Fitbit. It doesn't last nearly as long per charge, however.

Read the full article: Apple Watch 3 review