Fitbit Ionic v Apple Watch Series 3: The fitness smartwatch brawl

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Which one wins the day?

We have finally seen and played with Fitbit’s long-rumoured smartwatch, the Ionic, and it was inevitable that comparisons would quickly be made with the current king of the smartwatch game, the Apple Watch. Now, with the Apple Watch Series 3 having just landed, how do the two compare?

The Blaze used to be Fitbit’s best bet against Apple’s smartwatch, though it couldn’t truly measure up in all categories. But now? Now Fitbit has NFC payments, built-in GPS, music and apps. It’s also waterproof and, well, is much more of a fully-featured smartwatch.

Fitbit Ionic v Apple Watch Series 3

As for Apple, it’s bringing LTE in its new smartwatch, something you won’t find in the Ionic – but does it matter? You can also pick up Apple’s latest without the cellular extra, which is, for the most part, just the Apple Watch Series 2.

So, which is the best one for you? Can Fitbit finally outmuscle Apple’s crown wearable? Our full Ionic review is yet to arrive, but here’s how the two stack up so far.

Fitbit Ionic v Apple Watch Series 3: Design

Fitbit Ionic v Apple Watch Series 2: The fitness smartwatch brawl

There’s no way to get around it – the Fitbit Ionic is ugly. It’s not absurdly ugly, it won’t burn your eyes off, but smartwatches have come a long way in design since the Blaze first debuted. The Ionic keeps the Blaze’s angular look, and while we found it grew on us during testing, it’s sure to put a lot of people off.

On the other hand, the Ionic is impressive in how it crams a whole bunch of technology into a slim, lightweight case. You’ve got GPS, NFC, enough battery for four days of life and multiple sensors in a 50m waterproof square. Like the Blaze, there are three buttons on display here. You can use the display to touch your way around Fitbit OS, but if your hands are wet or if you’re in the water you may have an easier way around with some tactility.

Oh yeah, speaking of that display – it’s pretty good, with excellent clarity in both low light and glaring sunshine. You’ll get the Ionic in three flavours: a silver watch case with a blue/gray band, a graphite gray case with a charcoal band and a “blue orange” case with a slate blue band. But in case you’re not down with stock bands, you’ll also be able to purchase some nice accessories. There are two-toned breathable sport bands for purchase in three colourways as well as handcrafted Horween leather bands in midnight blue and cognac.

However, in the looks department it probably doesn’t measure up to the Apple Watch. Despite a design that’s nearly three years old, the Watch is still easier on the eyes. It’s nowhere near as nice as some of the Android Wear smartwatches such as the Michael Kors Grayson, or hybrids like the Fossil Q Accomplice, but it still has less of a tech-on-the-wrist than the Ionic.

Variety is the spice of life with the Apple Watch, and nothing has changed with Series 3. You have two different case options (38mm and 42mm), four different materials (aluminum, stainless steel and ceramic) and a whole lot of different colours. With the Series 3, you can only get the LTE in the whole range, but non-LTE only comes in aluminium. There are also endless band options, from the low-end nylon and sport bands to high-end Milanese Loops and leather bands.

Both are using proprietary bands, so you’ll be stuck with limited options. Both watches also have special editions married to huge fitness brands. Apple has the Nike+ edition while Fitbit has teamed up with Adidas for a special Ionic coming in 2018.

Another place they both tie is the display, as Fitbit matches the Apple Watch’s 1,000-nit OLED display. It’s worth noting that Apple’s OLED display is sapphire crystal on the stainless steel and ceramic models, but slightly worse Ion-X on the aluminium. Underneath that display is also a 50m waterproof smartwatch that has both GPS and NFC enabled. As for the Ionic, you’ll be getting Gorilla Glass 3, which is pretty sturdy.

The major differentiator between these two is in the build. If you’re looking for something to complement every outfit in your wardrobe, and you have no problem with collecting an army of bands, the Apple Watch wins.

Fitbit Ionic v Apple Watch Series 3: Notifications

Fitbit Ionic v Apple Watch Series 2: The fitness smartwatch brawl

Fitness might be top of the agenda for both these devices, but notifications are a big part of what makes a watch smart. The Apple Watch has a wide aperture here, receiving all kinds of notifications from all sorts of third-party apps. Even better, a good deal of them are actionable – you can reply, like, etc directly from your wrist. The Series 3 introduces a cellular connection and therefore a way to get notifications when away from your phone. Responding to notifications on the Watch, while doable, isn’t the best experience. A less-than-brilliant Siri means dictation too often gets it wrong, and scribbling out letters isn’t enjoyable when you’re on the move. You have the option of custom responses, but that lacks a personal touch.

The Ionic does a lot of the basics. There’s support for third-party notifications here, so you’ll get all your Slack messages and presidential tweets and what have you, but it’s not quite the third party free-for-all that the Apple Watch is. These notifications are only for apps with built-in Fitbit support, and though that list is growing the ecosystem still isn’t as vibrant as Apple’s. You also can’t respond to messages from the Ionic, though you’re able to read all your notifications in full – unlike some wearables out there that prefer to truncate messages, pushing you to your smartphone almost every time.

Overall, Apple Watch handles notifications best – for now. We expect the Ionic to get better support as third-party developers start building apps, although we don’t expect there to be any changes in dealing with those notifications when they arrive.

Fitbit Ionic v Apple Watch Series 3: Smart features

Fitbit Ionic v Apple Watch Series 2: The fitness smartwatch brawl

Speaking of ecosystems, the Ionic is Fitbit’s best go yet at creating one. There’s an app store here, which Fitbit refers to as a ‘Gallery’, that has a limited number of apps. Like, really limited for now. At the moment there’s just Pandora, Starbucks, Strava, and AccuWeather, though Fitbit promises more are on the way, including support from one of its new BFFs, Adidas.

There’s 2.5GB of space for you to either store offline music from Pandora or from your own library. However, since the Ionic doesn’t have cellular capabilities, you can’t stream music without your phone around.

The Apple Watch, has third-party music services like TuneIn Radio and Pandora, and you can also sync your favourite playlists to your Watch for later listening standalone-style. Where it will get the upper hand is with the introduction of Apple Music on the LTE model, letting you stream music on the go. That means you’ll need to be on Apple’s music platform to take advantage – no Spotify support in sight – but it will let you stream those beats without a phone.

Another thing you can do from your wrist is pay for things. Apple Pay has been around for a while now, and has steadily been building up its network of issuing banks and card providers all over the world. While it still doesn’t have global coverage, it’s getting there.

Fitbit Pay is that company’s foray into payments, thanks to its purchase of Coin. You can take your American Express, Visa or MasterCard and link it up to Fitbit Pay, as well as debit cards from “top issuing banks”. Fitbit still has to confirm details on this ahead of the Ionic’s 1 October launch.

While the Ionic plays some good catchup in the realm of music and NFC payments, the maturation of Apple’s ecosystem gives it a bit of a nudge here. But given a few more months to get more apps up and running, and Apple may have a serious competitor to worry about, LTE or not.

Fitbit Ionic v Apple Watch Series 3: Fitness

Fitbit Ionic v Apple Watch Series 3: The fitness smartwatch brawl

The story of fitness on both the Apple Watch Series 2 and Fitbit Ionic is one of transition – for now. Fitbit has always been up there at the top with fitness features, and at first blush it doesn’t look like the Ionic will be any different. Out of the box, you have running, cycling, swimming, treadmill, weights and interval training, with a more generic “workouts” for the rest of ’em. Fitbit started with fitness, it arguably knows it better than Apple does, so it should be no surprise that the Ionic is primed for tracking a wide range of workouts.

There are also the usual standard of Fitbit fitness features, like SmartTrack, VO2 Max and Sleep Stages. The Apple Watch, on the other hand, doesn’t officially recognize as many workout modes as the Ionic. For instance, it doesn’t have a mode for weights or interval training. The Apple Watch also doesn’t automatically track your workouts like the Fitbit does for running, and there’s no sleep tracking either unless you turn to a third-party app (and don’t mind charging your smartwatch the next day).

The Ionic is only the second Fitbit to utilise GPS, after the Surge, allowing it to match the Apple Watch in this regard. Fitbit says its GPS is better than anything else on the market, but we can’t confidently verify that until our full review. In our limited hands-on time, we found it to be pretty spot-on, but Fitbit also says another software update is on the way to smooth things out first.

While Fitbits’ PurePulse technology has been hit or miss in the pass, it’s always struggled at high intensities. With the Ionic we’ve still found it to be a bit uneven at high intensities, but we hope Fitbit can tighten up its algorithms.

And oh yes, we can’t forget about the Ionic’s new red light and infrared sensors, which will allow the smartwatch to gauge SpO2, the amount of oxygen in your blood. While this won’t do anything immediately, Fitbit is hoping to use this data to track sleep apnea or other conditions like sleep apnea.

Finally, Fitbit is debuting Fitbit Coach on the Ionic. It’s basically a new version of Fitstar, giving you a curriculum of workouts the company says will tailor to your personal needs the more you use it. The Apple Watch will gain something similar thanks to watchOS 4, but it likely won’t be as involved.

For the Apple Watch, Series 3 adds elevation tracking, while the new watchOS 4 finally brings resting heart rate to the platform (unless you’re using an original model). The software update also adds support for VO2 Max and interval training, as well as support for more workouts. There’s a new feature that’ll let you tap your Watch to gym equipment too, so you get a more accurate reading of activity from them.

Biometrics aside, the addition of LTE might be one of the best “fitness” features Apple has added in Series 3, in that it now means you can head out for a run, cycle or swim and leave the phone behind, while still getting notifications, calls and messages. That’s one thing the Ionic can’t do.

The question of fitness for both the Ionic and Apple Watch Series 3 is all in potential. While it’s not all working out the gate, the technology inside the Ionic is built toward a long-term plan that includes things like sleep apnea and atrial fibrillation, while the Fitbit Coach platform is more in-depth than anything Apple has right now. The Apple Watch Series 3 is better suited to future-focused fitness abilities. For now, Fitbit’s the winner in this category.

Fitbit Ionic v Apple Watch Series 2: Battery

Fitbit Ionic v Apple Watch Series 3: The fitness smartwatch brawl

For as long as the Apple Watch has been around, it’s gotten about a day of battery life. Sometimes it’ll do less, but most of the time you get about a day – a day and a half to two days if you’re really frugal about features. With a mixture of using LTE and non-LTE features in the Series 3, you should still get around that, but using the call feature will cut it dramatically. In fact, Apple quotes only an hour of continuous talk time on the Watch.

The Ionic, on the other hand, will net you up to five days of battery life, or up to 10 hours when using GPS or playing music. That’s decent from such a slim device with as much power and many features as it has. If you have to make your decision based on battery life, the Fitbit is the clear winner here. Those extra days mean it’s much more viable as a sleep tracker too.

Fitbit Ionic v Apple Watch Series 3: Price

The Apple Watch Series 3 has a wide range of prices, starting as low as $329 without LTE, $399 with the cellular connection, and then climbing up further depending on your choice of materials. It really depends on what you’re looking for, and how chic you’re willing to go. Bands will cost you at least $50, but again climb up to hundreds.

The Ionic, on the other hand, goes on sale for $299.99 on 1 October. You’ll also be able to purchase some bands for $29.99 to $59.99.

Fitbit Ionic v Apple Watch Series 3: Verdict

There’s a richness to the design and features of the Apple Watch Series 3 that’s difficult to top. It has a mature ecosystem that’s growing, it’s got a plethora of colours and accessories, and Apple continues to support even older models until they’re far too long in the tooth. That said, the jump from Series 2 to Series 3 is primarily about LTE, so if you’re still wearing a Series 2, bear in mind that the additional gains aren’t massive.

However, the Fitbit Ionic feels like a fitness device built for the future of fitness. If the company can actually deliver on its ambitions, which include tracking things like sleep apnea and atrial fibrillation, along with its in-depth Fitbit Coach platform, it’s hard to look away from. If it comes down to health and fitness, Fitbit definitely takes the crown here for its feature set. If it’s a strong smartwatch platform overall you’re after, the Apple Watch is still to be beaten.




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