Review: Fitbit Ionic smart watch

I’m only three quarters of the man I was at the start of this year. I attribute that in part to Fitbit. Specifically Fitbit tracking devices, which I’ve been wearing almost entirely without break since then, and the Fitbit Aria which I’ve been standing on daily to track my weight.

Now Fitbit has taken a step up, so to speak, on the tracking band front, releasing what it has dubbed its first “Smart Watch”. That’s the Fitbit Ionic.

Features

What’s the difference between a tracking band and smart watch? One word: emphasis. This year I’ve had wrapped around my left wrist almost continuously one of: a Fitbit Charge HR, a Fitbit Alta, or a Fitbit Charge 2. This last has been there for something like eight months. They could both tell the time and date. They could both receive notifications from my phone and display texts.

As can the Fitbit Ionic (you choose which ones). But it can do more because it is smart, because it does have a processor and significant storage, because it can hold and play music, because it can run apps.

Note, it uses Fitbit’s own proprietary Fitbit OS, not Android Wear, so it will be a “closed garden” as far as apps go.

It has a rectangle colour display screen, 1.5 inches in size, protected by Gorilla Glass 3. It’s a touch screen too, supporting swipes, not just the taps of devices like the Charge 2 and Alta. Resolution is not stated. Using my jeweller’s loupe I could make out the individual pixels. Using my strongest reading glasses I couldn’t. Let’s just say that resolution is sufficient.

The main body of the watch is 36mm wide by 48mm tall and 12.7mm thick and is constructed from 6000 series aluminium (aluminium leavened with a little magnesium and silicon, and traces of other stuff). The band is replaceable, and the watch is supplied with both small and large sizes in the box, along with a charge cable.

The display is adaptive, going as bright as required in prevailing conditions. The colour is bold and clear. You can choose watch faces so suit you, and some have large enough text to allow those who use reading glasses to get by without them. It switches on when you bring the watch up to a viewing position – it was very reliable at doing that – or when you press the left hand button. You can set it to manual on (or all the time on) if you decide that suits you better.

There are two buttons on the right, the functions of which depend upon what the watch is doing. Much of your interaction is through tapping options on the display or swiping.

The watch packs about 2.5GB of storage. No mention is made of the processor. It includes an altimeter, 3 axis accelerometers, heart rate monitor (there’s an optical sensor on the back), ambient light sensor, Bluetooth 4.0, WiFi and GPS.

Things like the accelerometers allow all the tracking goodness you expect from Fitbit, and that can be assisted by the GPS. The watch stores up to seven days worth of “detailed motion data – minute by minute”, and daily totals for thirty days. Your heart rate is tracked second by second when formally exercising, and otherwise every five seconds. When GPS is in use, location is determined also on a second by second basis.

Fitbit doesn’t seem to go for IP ratings, but no matter. It says that it’s water resistant up to fifty metres and “is sweat, rain and splash-proof.” It’s also altitude proof to 30,000 feet, so you can take it with you next time you summit Everest.

Pre-loaded are a number of apps. “Today” gives you a summary of your progress for the current day, “Coach” gives you instructions for exercise and activities, “Relax” does the same for the opposite, “Music”, well, plays music. There’s a stop watch and countdown time, alarms, a weather app and a Wallet. You’re going to be able to use the watch for tap and pay.

The Ionic watch has a rated battery life of up to five days, or ten hours with GPS running. I’ll return to that.

Setting Up

As received, there was just a little power in the watch’s battery, so I first charged it up.

The system for charging is easy to use. There’s an 860mm long charge cable. One end plugs into a standard USB socket. The other end has three contacts and two magnets. The latter gently grab the back of the Ionic and bring the contacts into the correct place for charging. No force required. No fiddling. Good stuff.

I expect that, over time, some grime could build up around the contacts. They are slightly recessed and are otherwise in contact with your wrist. They should be cleaned every so often to make sure they remain reliable.

The full extent of the packed instructions were how to change the band and to download the Fitbit app to my smart phone. I already had the Fitbit app running on my “home” smart phone: a Samsung Galaxy S7.

I imagine a fresh install would automatically search for the device, but if you’ve already got the app running, it’s you who have to do the searching. The “Set up a Device” option in the app turns out to be in the “Account” section.

The app instructed on how to charge up the Ionic – already done – then it very quickly found the device and after entering a confirmatory four digit number, it wanted to connect the watch to WiFi. It searched for networks – 2.4GHz only – and asked for my password. It took maybe thirty or forty seconds, but it connected successfully, then told me to keep the watch charging while it updated the firmware. While it was doing that, it gave a list of the Ionic’s functions to read up about.

The update took a while, in large part due to download time for what must have been a substantial update file.

I had a little play with the watch faces. Of course you install these by selecting them via the app. The default one gave ready access to stats, but you had to tap instead of having one of them come up by default. I like at least one of the stats on the front “page” so I chose another.

That’s a bit scary

The installation needs work. Each time I tried to change it, the watch would show a big red “X” and the app would announce that the WiFi connection had failed. Then the “X” would go away and there’d be no watch face at all on the watch, just a message saying “Clock Error – Go to the Fitbit mobile app and try another clock”. Which had the same problem when I tried it. After a bit I gave up, and within a couple of minutes the most recently selected watch face appeared. It turned out that there must have been some delay, but it was happening. I imagine this kind of thing will be cleaned up in a future firmware update.

(Could this and the slow firmware install have just been very slow WiFi? See below for the very sluggish music installation.)

Getting Fit

After setting up, I wandered out of range from my phone for a while, and then the Ionic refused to reconnect to the app on my phone, or vice versa. I did some phone reboots and whatnot, to no avail, and nothing could get it back until, finally, I told the phone to forget the Fitbit Charge 2 I had been using. That done, re-connection proceeded.

And so’s that, but with patience all was right

By that time I was several hundred steps into a walk that I had wanted to record. But I hadn’t been able to start recording it because “Walk” wasn’t one of the available exercises on the Ionic. I could “Run”, “Bike”, “Swim”, “Exercise” and three other things, but not walk. Seven is the maximum number of choices on the watch, but you can use the app to change what those seven are. And having changed it you need to sync phone and app, which hadn’t been happening.

But once I did, I could start recording the “Walk”. It turned out to be much easier to use than the Charge 2, with a nice large display that allowed me to see what was going on, even without my reading glasses.

It took me a little bit of working out things to see how the tracking worked.

Basically, within each travelling type exercise you can hit the setup cog and choose whether or not to have GPS running. If it is, then it will chew up battery, running a full battery down in ten hours. But it only does that during the period in which you’re in exercise mode, so the rest of the day it appears to have no impact. When you start the exercise function when GPS is on, there’s a couple of seconds of a satellite dish styled icon “connecting” while it acquires satellite signals, and then it keeps very close track of your path.

Make sure GPS is on to track your travels

The Fitbit apps will later be able to display your path on a map, which I always find to be a lot of fun, especially when I’ve been wandering around weird places (did you know that if you properly follow the path through the Canberra Ikea, you’ll travel nearly 0.9km?)

The Fitbit Charge 2 could do that too, but without GPS built in. Instead it gathered GPS information from the phone, if it was connected and nearby. I wondered if the Ionic could do this too with GPS switched off. No. It uses its own GPS, or it guesses based on its other sensors.

Pretty good guesses. I walked the same route with it on and with it off. With GPS on the battery diminished by an indicated 2% and the 1135 steps took me 0.88 kilometres. With it off the battery retained the same indicated charge and the 1150 steps took me 0.91 kilometres. It also had me going up and down ten metres instead of the nine metres with GPS on.

I’ve never been convinced by the heart rate monitor. It showed 82bpm average on one circuit, 105 on the next, with no difference in effort by me as far as I could tell.

As for using the Fitbit Ionic without GPS, I would not quibble with the five day battery life claim. Just top it up every two or three days to be on the safe side.

Notifications

The notifications were very reliable, far more so than I’m used to with the Charge 2. There’d be a little vibration on my wrist and I’d bring up the watch and there it was. But do note that they keep on keeping on, even if you delete the emails or whatever on the phone, they’ll remain on the watch until you “Clear All”. But that is at the end of the list and if you leave it too long there may be quite a bit of scrolling involved.

You can choose which notifications you want. For example, you don’t have to receive email ones (you can’t actually read the emails). But you can enable SMS messages, What’sApp, Facebook Messenger and so on, and those you can read.

Connections

I’ve always been puzzled by how Fitbit devices connect to other things. For example, the apps have generally been able to find and sync to the devices, even though they haven’t appeared on the list of available Bluetooth devices. Were they using Bluetooth anyway? What else could it be?

And then, after a while – hours or days – they would appear in the Bluetooth list after all. Yet sometimes the app would lose the connection and re-establishing it sometimes meant a slow and creaky process, occasionally involving rebooting the phone.

For what it’s worth, the Fitbit Ionic seemed far more stable in its connection to the app on my phone. It was never lost. But still I remained puzzled.

Beautifully clear display

I wanted to load some music onto it. The online instructions said I had to do that from a computer connected to the same WiFi network as the Ionic. No problems there. I fired up the Microsoft Surface Pro 4, and the Windows Fitbit app that I’d long since installed. And there in the app’s Dashboard, within seconds, was my current step count obtained from the phone. I opened up the app in the phone to which the Ionic was normally connected, and it was hours behind. It synced after a few seconds so it was up to date too.

But how did the data get to the notebook? Via the WiFi connection, I supposed. It must hook back to Fitbit home base and upload data independently of the apps when within WiFi range. But when I followed the process to load in the music, the Windows app declared that it could not connect to the Ionic! Indeed, the only way I could make it connect in the end was to switch off my phone so it was no longer connected to it.

I think what was happening is that the Fitbit uses Bluetooth for control, and sometimes for data transfer, and WiFi only for data transfer.

Music

I had to check out the music functionality, of course. As you might have gathered from above, it’s a bit tricky getting audio onto the Ionic. It supports MP3, MP4 (iTunes style) and WMA music. And, well, the transfer process is clunky. Really, really clunky. It’s the kind of thing you’ll want to use to put a few of your favourite albums on the watch. It’s worth it for that. But you’ll be changing the selection only reluctantly.

Put aside my connection difficulties. Once connected you have to create Playlists – or perhaps it searches for existing ones and will use those. But I don’t use play lists normally. If I want to play an album, I just play the album. Why would I want to add a step in the middle?

Anyway, you can create Playlists within the app and drag music to them. By dragging music, I mean you have to drag the files over. If you drag a folder containing music, nothing will happen. You have to click through to its contents, select them and then drag in the MP3s or whatever. Then just click in the selection buttons for each playlist and the music starts to copy.

Stats displayed at the end of a walk

Slowly. I set up four playlists of MP3 music, each containing one album. I generally use VBR with an average bitrate of around 192kbps, so they may be around 50% bigger than what many people use. Clicked and waited. The transfer time was around fifteen minutes. That took me way, way back to when music players would connect to your computer with USB 1.1. Transfers were horribly slow.

Those four albums used about an eighth of the available space. So you can expect a good thirty albums of music to fit, likely a bit more.

Finally, in creating playlists you can rename them. But the first one, originally called “New Playlist #1” kept on reverting to that name no matter how many times I renamed it. I imagine that over time Fitbit will fix such wrinkles in what is new functionality for the app.

Meanwhile, the music sounded great. The player doesn’t show cover art, and it chews through the battery power a little faster – maybe a couple of per cent of battery capacity per hour – but I found it remarkably cool just being able to listen to music with very high quality (determined by the head gear) from a watch.

Conclusion

The Fitbit Ionic is a real smart watch, and a no-compromise tracker band that’s better than Fitbit’s previous models, especially in the ability to see what’s going on more easily than previously.