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 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 own feature-rich fitness trackers. The Ionic leads the charge and has recently been joined by the Fitbit Versa, offering a softer, cheaper, slightly less well-equipped, take on this sporty smartwatch segment.

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

An evolved Ionic design?

  • Small/large wristband 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 first take on the 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 might look. 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, a step on from the wedge-like design of some of the older models.

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.

The straps on the Fitbit Ionic are also easy to change and there's a growing range of official and third-party accessories for Ionic, so you can customise it a little more.

What smartwatch features does the Fitbit Ionic have?

  • Now running Fitbit OS 2.0
  • 3-axis accelerometer, 3-axis gyroscope, altimeter
  • Fitbit Pay

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).

The Ionic was the company's first fully-fledged smartwatch, although now there's the Versa too. With the addition of app support through its software, Fitbit is now offering support for third-party developers to produce apps for the Ionic. However, we can't see the likes of Apple or Wear OS 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.

Some 6-months on, while there are some apps - you can install a Philips Hue app to control your lights, for example - there isn't a huge parity between apps you might have on your phone and those moving over to the watch. Fitbit isn't alone here, Apple and Google have both found that smartwatch apps, in some cases, don't really make sense. What we mean is: don't judge a smartwatch by its apps.

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Notification handling on the Ionic is a little basic (in smartwatch terms), but in the latest software version there's support for Android's quick replies, so you can do a little more from the watch than you could 6 months ago. iPhone users are less well served, especially compared to Apple Watch.

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). Like Garmin Pay, support in the UK is currently a little limited, so it's a feature you're really interested in, you might have to open an account which is compatible - but it's a feature that works well enough.

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. In recent times this has expanded to a deal with Deezer letting you sync playlists to your watch, which is a little more convenient than doing it via your PC.

Syncing can take some fiddling around, but we then found connection of wireless headphones was seamless.

How good is it at fitness tracking?

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

One thing that the older Blaze and newer Versa lacks is built-in GPS, meaning that the Ionic is very much the top offering from Fitbit. We found that the built-in GPS can take a good few minutes to connect, however, so be prepared to wait around for this to kick in before you go running - and there doesn't seem to be a hot fix from your phone to speed this up either. This is a little irritating if you're a regular runner and let's be honest - you're better served but one of Garmin's Forerunners if running is your primary activity.

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 auto pause feature, which means the Ionic is clever enough to know when you're taking a break, and automatically stops and starts tracking by sensing the status of your movement.

We're 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. We've found it to return averages in line with other wrist-based heart rate devices.

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A 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. When they have synced, they aren't too technically displayed compared to rival Garmin - again - if you're a stats geek, you might find that Garmin is better for handling your workout data.

Fitbit supports a range of different activity types and also offers to automatically recognise some types of activity, so you can just go out and get on with your day and know that it's all being taken care of. 

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.

Does the Fitbit Ionic have a genuine 5-day battery life?

The Ionic is said to have a 5-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 3 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 5 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.

How good is the Fitbit software?

  • iOS and Android compatible

The Fitbit platform remains mostly unchanged from our review of the Blaze, making it one of the most approachable 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.

We've tested the Ionic with the iOS app for iPhone and on Android and Fitbit is good at adding functions and updating various offerings so that the Ionic now offers more than it did on day one.

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Dashboard is the main display in the app, 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 tab is where Fitbit Coach (formerly FitStar) workouts are incorporated. Some of these elements you can access free, but some of the programmes will cost you money - so be advised.



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. Compared to the newer Versa, it also offers GPS for that more complete experience.

With a new and improved heart-rate monitor, smart notifications, mobile payments and all the features Fitbit users will have come to know and love, the Ionic is Fitbit's leading smartwatch.

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 or the growing range of Garmin devices remains to be seen.

Originally published October 2017.


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Alternatives to consider

Pocket-lintApple Watch Series 3 Review image 2

Apple Watch Series 3

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.