DC Rainmaker

Fitbit Ionic GPS Smartwatch In-Depth Review

Last month Fitbit announced their latest device – the Fitbit Ionic.  This would be a significant step forward for the company, as it would represent them stepping into a slightly different (and higher end) market.  While it was previously difficult to say they competed head to head against the Apple Watch and mid-range Garmin units, it’s now clear that’s the market here.  The Ionic packs in things like music playback, GPS, and an app store.

All of which I’ve been testing over the last month since before it was announced.  Thus I’ve got a pretty good idea of what works…and what still needs some work.  I’ve got two loaner Fitbit Ionic’s that I’ll send back to them shortly once I’m done (as usual), but in the meantime, here’s my full in-depth review!

What’s New:

It probably goes without saying that the Ionic is Fitbit’s most complex and feature-packed device ever.  It’s somewhat a blend of the Fitbit Blaze, the Fitbit Surge, and then a bunch of new stuff atop it all.  To get you quickly up to speed, I wanted to bulletize all the major new stuff in one tidy section.  Fear not, I’ll be diving into all this stuff in detail throughout this review, but this is a good way to quickly digest all the key points:

– Ionic includes GPS internally
– Includes revamped optical heart rate sensor
– Finally totally waterproofed to 50m
– Includes 2.5GB of music storage
– Can Connect to Bluetooth headphones for music
– Also has Pandora app for music streaming (offline)
– Added 3rd party app platform/support
– Added WiFi (plus of course Bluetooth Smart)
– Has battery life of 4 days
– Added Fitbit Pay (contactless/NFC payments) to device
– New guided coaching programs for body weight workouts
– New audio coaching programs for walking & running
– New guided health programs for things like getting rid of sugar habits or couch to 5K
– Plus of course a smattering of new accessory straps

Also, while they were at it back in August, they released two other new products:

– Fitbit Flyer headphones: Bluetooth headphones designed for Fitbit Ionic
– Fitbit Aria 2 Scale: An updated version of their original WiFi scale

Phew – got all that?  Good. Let’s dive into things more deeply now.

Unboxing:

Now we’ll start off with a full-on unboxing video.  It’s like unboxing photos, but with way more detail:

I might do a secondary unboxing down the road once my purchased units arrive, so I’ll have photos and text from those.  In this case though, I used up all my unboxing glory within the video above.

Sizes & Weight:

If we start off with the weight of the Fitbit Ionic, it sits at 47g with the large band, and 45g with the small band.

For comparison, here’s a few others.  We’ve got the Apple Watch Series 3 (42mm) at 62g:

Then there’s the Garmin Vivoactive 3 at 43g:

And finally, a pile of past watches and their weights:

TomTom Spark 3/Runner 3: 48g
Apple Watch Series 2: 51g
Polar M600: 63g
Polar V800: 82g
Garmin FR35: 37g
Garmin FR25: 39g

And…the gallery of those!

  
  

Finally, comparing the size/thickness of the units, here’s a look at the core three (Fitbit Ionic, Apple Watch Series 3, Garmin Vivoactive 3) when placed side by side:

And the front:

As you can see, when it comes to thickness of the watches, these core competitors of the Garmin Vivoactive 3 and Apple Watch Series 3 are actually really similar.  Obviously, they all have slightly different external designs, but none are totally unlike the others.

The Hardware & Models:

If you were to look at a Fitbit marketing campaign of the Fitbit Ionic you’d probably assume there were approximately 48 different models/colors.  But in reality there are simply three color variants with a crap-ton of accessory bands with different styles.  All three model colors are $299USD, and all have the exact same features.

The three colors are as follows: Silver (aka Blue Grey), Dark Grey (aka Charcoal), and Gold/Copper (aka Burnt Orange)

Oh, there’s actually a secret fourth unit: An Adidas ‘special edition’ variant coming in Q1 2018.  This is part of Adidas and Fitbit hooking up in a fitness partnership.  Their love shack roughly mirrors that of Apple and Nike (who also made a special Apple Watch Nike+ unit).  Like Apple, Fitbit’s Adidas variant will have a few special app-focused items, though the company isn’t ready to detail those yet.  Ironically, you’ll remember that Adidas has also recently pulled out of sports tech devices…just like Nike did a few years back.

When it comes to accessory bands, they roughly fall into three camps:

A) Stock ones included in the box (either small, or medium/large) – $29
B) Sport bands – $29
C) Swanky bands – $59

Here’s one from each camp side by side:

The stock band is probably the least comfortable band I’ve seen/worn on a fitness wearable.  I wouldn’t go as far as saying it sucks, but I’d certainly prefer not to wear it.  The rubber is stiff and unforgiving, and it doesn’t breath.  Though, there’s zero chance it’ll ever fall off.

The sport band is far better and more flexible, it’s also much more breathable:

And then you’ve got swanky bands, like these in leather.  Here’s the brown leather variant:

In case you wanted it, here’s all the bands you can currently find, courtesy of the gigantic share of Fitbit stock photos (everything else in the photos I’ve taken):

Looking more closely at the unit itself, the shell is a single molded element made out of aerospace-grade aluminum.

The display is then layered in, and the entire thing is properly waterproofed to 50 meters.

Curious what it looks like on the inside? Me too.  So I dissected one for you:

Actually, I didn’t dissect it, the Fitbit folks had one taken apart already and I just pressed the shutter button on my camera.  For those that want to chipset peep, I focused on taking some really clear pictures of the key parts.

As we’ll talk about in the other sections, the Fitbit Ionic supports NFC contactless payments, as well as music via Bluetooth, such as wireless headphones (like the new wireless earphones Fitbit themselves have made).  From a GPS standpoint, the unit includes GPS with GLONASS support, which records at 1-second intervals (more on that in my GPS accuracy section below).

The optical HR sensor is totally new on the Fitbit Ionic, with the company shifting to a tricolor sensor platform (green, red, and infrared).  They showed during a presentation some of the numerous designs they tested prior to finalizing the design of the Ionic, including a number of different sensor positions and patterns such as moving photo diodes and LED’s in different patterns and how many of each.  They settled on three photo diodes and one LED set in the center.  I cover HR accuracy in a later section below.

They also talked about how the flatter/smoother the sensors got, the better the quality of data (assuming light wasn’t coming in).

Like past Fitbits for many years, the optical HR sensor records your HR 24×7, as well as in exercise.  The company says they’ve spent significant resources on bettering the algorithms (and hardware) specifically for high-intensity activities, including intervals.  Of note though is that the company is now positioned to measure sleep apnea, with an update slated in the ‘near term’.  The company says they can determine if someone has sleep apnea with 90% certainty, at which point they’d reach out to their doctor for more testing, etc…  The vast majority of people don’t know they have it.

Note that there’s some discrepancy in what I’m hearing from Fitbit on sleep apnea work and whether or not it’d be in the Ionic down the road.  For example, in their investor call they stated this research would be applicable to current devices (asked as part of a Q&A), whereas after the event they reached out to say it’s something they’re exploring/researching and may not come to the Ionic. So we’ll see.

The Ionic Basics:

So let’s start off with using the watch in a day to day setting, including what the Fitbit app provides as well.  First up is that the watch is touchscreen, along with three physical buttons.  Two on the right side, and one on the left side.  The display is off, unless you raise your wrist or tap the buttons, at which point it turns on and brings you to the home watch face seen above.

At this point you’ve got the date/time, as well as progress towards your goals for steps and calories, and an icon for your current heart rate.  You can tap any of these to get details about it – such as total steps for the day:

If you swipe from the upper edge downwards, you’ll get to the music screen.  This allows you to start/pause/skip music tracks.  Of course, this requires you be connected to a Bluetooth audio device, like a pair of Bluetooth headphones.

Meanwhile, if you swipe up, you’ll get your recent notifications (text messages basically).

You can also enable 3rd party notifications on a per app basis, which, depending on your preference, is either annoying or great.  This means they bypass the standard iOS/Android control centers and use a middle-man to allow/disallow notifications.  This can be handy if you only want certain notifications to show up, whereas it also can be a pain if you don’t want to deal with white-listing all the apps you might want.

Meanwhile, if you swipe from the left you’ll dive into exactly two of the settings: Display (gestures on/off), and notifications (on/off).

The real goods though are swiping to the right and getting into the various apps.  Like most watch platforms that supports apps, even native functions like going for a run are considered an app.  You can see some of these apps here.

 

This includes the ‘Today’ screen, which is a summary of your activity that day:

Exercise, coaching, and music are all things I’ll cover in the next section.  The relaxation timer though walks you through breathing exercises designed to get you to relax.  This includes a two-minute breathing session, though you can change that length if you want to.

Additionally, you’ve got the wallet (Fitbit Pay, see later section), as well as timers, alarms, and settings.  This settings section is definitely deeper and covers everything from vibration intensity to brightness intensity.  Alongside more details for whether or not notifications are enabled in workouts or not.

From here on out you’re into 3rd party apps that are pre-loaded on the Ionic.  For example we’ve got both the Pandora and Strava apps.  The Pandora app allows you to stream music, while the Strava app allows you to see runs and rides from Strava at a very basic level.

These don’t have to be recorded by the Fitbit Ionic, which is nice.  On the flipside, the app doesn’t provide any functionality beyond reviewing historical workouts.  For example, you don’t get Strava Live Segments on it.

Finally, there’s the Starbucks app, which allows you to associate your Starbucks card with the device and then pay for your coffee goodness at Starbucks.

Now, to slide back slightly to overall steps and such for the day, the Fitbit is, of course, tracking that as any past Fitbit would do.  This includes steps, distance, calories, floors (stairs), active minutes, all alongside your resting heart rate.  All of this is viewable in that ‘Today’ app I mentioned above, or also in the Fitbit app on your smartphone (iOS/Android/Windows).

Each of these sections can be dug into more deeply, such as steps, where you can look at various graphs of your steps over various time frames.

  

One of the biggest draws for folks into the Fitbit platform is their community aspects.  Meaning that if you’ve got friends on Fitbit, then it’s more compelling to also be on a Fitbit, as you can challenge them or otherwise taunt them.  No really, you can actually taunt them:

  

Like other Fitbit devices, the Ionic also tracks sleep.  You don’t need to do anything aside from wear the device, and it’ll record the time you fell asleep and woke up each day. It’ll also record any times you were awake:

 

In general, these numbers have been pretty close, especially in the last week.  You can dive into a given day and look at totals for each night in terms of sleep stages, as well as compare that to your 30-day average.  You can also compare it to people your age/gender.  I haven’t decided if I’m better or lesser than them.

  

Lastly, we’ve got the ability to track your heart rate 24×7 using the Ionic optical HR sensor.  The Ionic will constantly monitor and record HR data points, which are in turn transmitted to the Fitbit app/platform.  It’s here that you can look at your 24×7 HR status over time.

 

The most interesting aspect of this data is resting heart rate (RHR), which can generally be used to spot excessive fatigue or incoming sickness.  For example, I know that my daily low resting HR is generally below 50bpm, but if I see it spiking to 61bpm, then that tells I’m probably incredibly tired or about to get sick.

 

That said, Fitbit has long overestimated resting HR values compared to every other device I have.  They’re usually on the order of 5-7bpm higher than most other devices, sometimes more.  I’ve gone back and forth with Fitbit about this in the past, and how they define resting HR values, and ultimately I don’t think we’ll see a lot of progress there.  They did one major shift about a year ago in their calculations, but looking at the Ionic, it seems to have regressed a bit in this specific area.

Sport & Fitness:

To start a workout you’ll swipe over to the apps screen, and select ‘Exercise’.  At this juncture you’ll be able to select from half a dozen sports that are on the watch.  These include running, cycling, indoor swimming, and so on.  However, these default sports can be customized using the mobile app.  Here’s the full list:

 

Note that openwater swimming is not supported this time from a GPS accuracy standpoint.  Further, in the regular pool swimming option, heart rate isn’t supported either.  It does count laps though.

In addition to swiping through the sports, you can tap on the little gear icon to configure settings for that particular sport.  This includes things like auto-lap settings (confusingly called ‘Automatic cue settings’), customizing the data metrics shown, and auto-pause.  When it comes to data metrics, you get three ‘chunks’ you can customize: Top, middle, bottom.

 

The top and bottom metrics will remain static, while the middle metric will rotate through when you tap it.  So while it’s technically just one page, by tapping you get a bunch of metrics.  It’s certainly not as flexible as most other watches from a fitness standpoint, but it also kinda fits the bill for the Fitbit brand.

While you’re doing all that, the unit is acquiring GPS signal.  Once it has this, it’ll say ‘Connected’.  Before that point it’ll say confusingly “Let’s Go!”.  I don’t really understand the logic here, as telling people to go before GPS is acquired is about the worst possible thing you can do from a GPS signal standpoint.  Not only will they get inaccurate data, but it prolongs the acquisition of GPS versus just standing there a few more seconds.

Thankfully, most times it does find GPS in a matter of seconds, so by the time you decide to press start, it’s ready to roll.  Once started it’ll show your stats on the screen when you raise your wrist or press a button.  Otherwise, the screen is off.

As you pass through each lap (per your settings), you’ll get automatic lap banners.  Somewhat interestingly, on my most recent run I had accidentally left the automatic laps at .50 miles (seen above in photos), yet it actually alerted me at each 1.00 miles.

Speaking of bugs, during this same run the watch crashed mid-run for no apparent reason.  I had crossed the three-mile marker a short distance before, and then I happened to glance down and found it back on the ‘Run’ start screen (to start a new run).  I was able to start a new run, but obviously that’s less than ideal – especially since it totally lost the first half of the run (gone).  This is the first time it’s done this for me, but it’s also the first time in a long time (years?) I’ve had a GPS watch crash on me mid-workout (non-beta).

In any case, as I run along I can tap the screen to change metrics:

All of this works fine and dandy, but is essentially the same across all sports.  For example, even if you choose Tennis, there’s not really anything specific to tennis here.  It still lists data fields like laps and distance.  It’s unlikely that you’d use ‘laps’ for anything tangible in tennis.

Once you’ve completed your workout you can press the physical pause button in the lower right corner.  This is something I much appreciate over the Apple Watch, which requires swiping.  For sports with sweat and possibly rain or gloves, a physical button is always better.

At which point you’ll get your workout summary (or, half my summary in tonight’s runs case):

All of this is then sync’d to the Fitbit app.  Note that there isn’t any way to access your workout data on the watch again after you’ve completed the workout.  Meaning, there’s no ‘history’ page.  Though, if you sync to Strava, then you can pull it up that way using the Strava app on the watch.

You can also look on Fitbit’s site and see the runs there as well:

Switching gears a little bit, Fitbit also includes some default workouts via the Fitbit Coach app.  This is different than the premium coaching options that are coming online soon.  The Fitbit Coach app guides you through three different body-weight focused workouts:

After selecting a given workout you can either start it, or look at the steps:

 

During the workout, it’ll give you a little animated GIF of the specific moves/positions you’re supposed to do, along with count-down timers for each section.

It all works well enough, though with only three workouts in there, it’s pretty limited.  I think back to the Adidas Smart Run GPS watch that had boatloads of workouts.  Same goes for the Microsoft Band, which had tons of workouts too.  On the flip-side, both of those devices are now defunct…so maybe giving away free workouts wasn’t the recipe for success either.

Of course – Fitbit’s main goal in this area is to get you to pay for their premium coaching options.  Though those aren’t available quite yet.

Finally, note that at this time the Fitbit Ionic is somewhat astoundingly unable to connect to any external sensors, including heart rate straps.  It also doesn’t broadcast its heart rate outbound (such as over Bluetooth Smart).  The first piece in being unable to connect to heart rate straps makes it far less competitive for certain activities where optical HR may struggle (like I see with cycling).  Most other devices, including those from Apple, Garmin, Polar, Suunto, and well…everyone, allow connection to at least a heart rate sensor.  Hopefully Fitbit looks to change this.

Music:

The Ionic is able to play back music using it’s 2.5GB of internal storage, combined with any form of Bluetooth headphones or speakers.  You could just as easily pair it to the Fitbit Flyer headphones as some small Bluetooth Speaker.  Heck, it’d probably even work with your car just fine too.

At present Ionic supports two core music types: Files you transfer over, and the Pandora platform for streaming music. With Pandora, you’re caching specific playlists onto the device itself.  I’ll start with Pandora, and then cover other music.  To begin, you’ll go into the Ionic settings on the mobile Fitbit app and then select Pandora from the Music section:

 

It’s up there that you can auto-sync your top Pandora stations, or you can specify up to three stations from a small pile of stations.  Here’s a list of the ‘popular stations’ you can add onto the unit from the app.

Once that’s done you’ll go ahead and plug in your Ionic to a wall charger, and ensure that you’re on WiFi with the device itself.  After some time (a heck of a lot of time), it’ll start transferring music.  You can force it from the mobile app to start, but I find that doesn’t seem to speed things up.  I initially tried a few hours of waiting to get my first sync to complete/show anything, and that failed to do anything multiple times.  Eventually I gave up tracking my sleep for a night and let it sync overnight and it finally finished the sync process.  Once that’s done you can select which playlist you want to play:

And then from there it just starts playing it.  You can increase/decrease volume on the device, as well as skip the tracks and pause/play.  You can’t specify certain tracks, just skip ahead.

Then finally, anytime the unit is plugged in and charging it should also sync updates to the Pandora stations.  But since I don’t really track which songs are in there, I’ll have to take their word for that.

Next up we’ve got loading music onto the watch.  To do this you’ll need to configure your watch to use WiFi, and then you’ll need your computer (PC or Mac) to be on the same WiFi network as your watch.  You cannot load music from your phone.  Within the Fitbit app on your computer, dig into your Ionic settings and then choose Music > Personal Music.

As the text above notes, you’ll need to stick your Ionic into a music receiving mode.  Essentially, it has to catch the music football.  Also of note, you can’t do this on a hotel/Starbucks/etc WiFi as those all require logging in.

Once that’s all settled, you’ll be able to add folders for your music:

 

It’s at this juncture that I realized I don’t actually even bother to have stored music on my laptop anymore.  I just use Spotify 95% of the time, and occasionally Amazon Prime music the remainder of the time.  So I went off and grabbed an album and kerplunked it into a folder to sync over.

I also found out that it requires you use playlists, and not just folders of music.  You can add all the folders in the world, but it won’t do anything till there’s a playlist involved.

Somewhere along the way the Ionic disconnected from the music transfer bit, and I had to re-enable the music sync piece.  Still, eventually it got onto my Ionic.  It’s at this point that I could play the music from the Ionic to the headphones.  All of which is pretty straightforward.

From a connectivity standpoint, I haven’t had any issues with droppage of Bluetooth connectivity from the watch to the headphones.  I’ve tried both left and right wrists, and it seems fine.  It’s a common problem among watches to headphones to have one side that works better (since the receiver is usually on a given side), but in this case I’ve been good.

Finally, regarding Spotify – many have wondered about that.  So out of curiosity, I asked why they shifted from what was previously some relationship with Spotify to Pandora.  You’ll remember Pebble had tied the knot on a Spotify streaming deal for their planned Core device.  Once Pebble was acquired by Fitbit, they killed off the Core – but I had hoped we’d see the Spotify relationship surface down the road.

The very diplomatic answer from CEO James Park was that the music industry is ‘challenging’ at best.  Though his eyes said to me ‘I want to punch myself in the balls over the music industry’.  Hopefully though, we’ll see other streaming apps soon.

Fitbit Flyer Headphones:

In addition to launching the Fitbit Ionic smartwatch, the company also threw down a second product at the same time – the Fitbit Flyer headphones.  These Bluetooth wireless headphones are designed specifically with the Ionic in mind, though they do work with your phone or any other Bluetooth audio capable device.

In order to get you up to speed, I’ve got an entire video on just the Flyer headphones – including unboxing and how they work step by step:

The Fitbit Flyer comes in two different color variants, a gold/white color, and a silver/blue color.  Either version will set you back $129, which is slightly below the high-end premium wireless sport headphones.  When it comes to why Fitbit decided to enter the market, they noted that many existing sport headphones either weren’t designed to last very long – usually succumbing to a waterproof related death early (which is true).  So Fitbit aimed to solve that by internally waterproofing the headphones as well, in the event sweat/liquid does manage to get in.

If you crack open the package you’ll find a slew of different size ear tips, wings, and fins.  It’s like one of those Oscar Myer snack packages, but for headphones.

Now, aside from the hardware pieces, there are some interesting software aspects.  First is that it can actually concurrently connect to both the Fitbit Ionic and your phone concurrently.  This is actually unusual, and is notable because it allows you to be listening to music while running along from the Ionic, and then have your phone ring-in with a call. All of which is handled seamlessly.  Whereas with most other headphones you wouldn’t be able to take your phone call on the headphones as it only could pair to the watch (one item at once).

As part of taking that call the Flyer includes noise cancelling via its two microphones, allowing wind reduction to occur similar to what different action cameras are doing today.  The phone speaking portion carries through with the inclusion of various phone digital assistants (e.g. Siri).  On the listening side, it’s also got passive noise isolation, which will help reduce extra sounds in your environment.

From a battery life standpoint the unit clocks in at 6 hours of active time (and can quick charge for 15 minutes and get another hour).

Finally, the unit actually has two different sound profiles for listening.  There’s a regular sound profile and then a ‘PowerBoost’ sound profile, which increases the base and EQ.  That can be accessed by just touching the two buttons at once, and you’ll immediately hear the difference.  To control volume, you single tap up or down on the controls piece, and to skip/back on tracks you long hold.  Super simple.

Overall in doing a few workouts with them – things sound pretty good.  But I’m hardly one to judge various audio headphones – as I don’t tend to run with them very often (and certainly not cycle with them).  Still, the integration piece is really well done (especially the pairing, as you can see within the video).

Fitbit Pay:

As part of the Fitbit Ionic rollout, Fitbit is also spinning up Fitbit Pay, which is their contactless payment solution that allows you to pay for items at stores using just your Fitbit Ionic device.  This wireless payment system is handled via NFC, allowing you to just place your wrist close to the payment terminal at a store.

You’ll start by adding your credit cards into the Fitbit companion app.  The platform supports Visa, MasterCard, and American Express.  Because the platform won’t light up till October, I had to use a  demo card.  Fear not, you don’t need some Fitbit branded credit card or anything.

There are some limitations here though, namely on which banks are supported. See, every time one of these companies (Fitbit, Garmin, Apple, Samsung, etc…) starts a contactless payment platform they have to negotiate directly with every bank in the world that issues credit cards.  Yes, really, every…single…bank…individually.

For a company like Apple with tremendous market pull, that’s relatively ‘easy’ (relatively being the key word here).  They can ask any bank, and that bank will say ‘Yes sir, how fast?’.  Whereas for a company like Fitbit or Garmin, that process can take a bit longer.  As such, Fitbit is missing a number of major banks (so is Garmin).  In fact, none of either my US or French credit cards work with the platform (now or in October).  This notably includes Chase Bank cards, which is the largest credit card issuer in the US, 50% more than their nearest rival.

In any case, as part of the setup process you’ll also set a PIN code, which is used to lock/unlock the unit to ensure that if someone steals your watch that they can’t just go off on a shopping spree.  The Apple Watch works the same way.  The PIN code shows up on the unit when you first attempt to interact with it after placing it on your wrist.  If you remove the watch then you’ll need to re-enter the PIN code.

When it comes to using it for checkout, you’ll simply long-hold down the left button for about 2 seconds and it’ll bring up the payment screen:

At this point you can just tap your wrist on the payment reader.  Obviously the payment reader has to support NFC payments, which will vary quite a bit.

For example, in the US I find most major retailers support wireless payments, whereas a small ma & pa shop out in the countryside might not.  Yet at the same time at home in Paris almost all the payment pads actually do support contactless payments, but aren’t setup/enabled.

Once you’ve tapped the reader it’ll show as successful on your wrist. You can also go into the phone app to check/validate the payment stats.  Here’s the entire process at work at a gas station in a super short clip I filmed:

The main goal here is to be able to go out for a run or ride or whatever, and not take your wallet with you.  Simply take your Fitbit and be able to drop into that juice shack afterwards and grab something without needing a credit card or cash.  Of course, you’ll want to validate the shops you plan to visit do actually support contactless payments before showing up with just the watch one day.  But most of us end up back at the same places after our runs, and usually know those well enough.

In talking to the CEO of Fitbit, James Park, about where he envisions this technology going within the Fitbit product line – he noted that they want to see it as broadly supported as possible, noting:

“That’s [NFC] a technology we’re going to try and push across our entire line.”

I followed up with asking whether that meant we’d see it down at the usual ~$120-$140 units that are in the Fitbit Charge/Alta/etc range in the future, and he confirmed that’s the goal:

“Yes, over time.”

Of course, that all takes new hardware – so it’s not something they can add to existing units today – but it sounds like that’s clearly the direction going forward.

3rd Party Apps:

The Fitbit Ionic is the first Fitbit device to support 3rd party apps.  Much of the work to make this happen came from the Pebble, which Fitbit acquired last December.  This acquisition was mainly for their engineering talent and work on a new JavaScript-based platform that was in beta for Pebble devices.  Fitbit didn’t push forward any of the Pebble devices.

The good news out of that though is that Fitbit’s app SDK and platform is generally more mature than that of a company just starting out with their first app platform.  The bad news though is that as of today there are basically no apps in the store.  Of course, that’ll change quickly.

Still, to show you how this works, to load apps you’d go into your Fitbit Ionic settings, and select ‘Apps’. It’s here that’ll show you two sets of info.  First you’ve got ‘My Apps’, which shows things you’ve loaded already.  You can select a given app to access any settings, for example, to add a Starbucks card:

 

Then if you tap up the ‘All Apps’ option, you’d be able to see other apps to load onto the device.  Except, at this time, there’s no other apps to load.  So…it’s a short list.

 

I’ll likely circle back on this later this year once the app store is a bit fuller and we can see what things look like.  I also expect we’ll see more apps launch as the Ionic starts shipping here on October 1st.

Switching briefly over to the developer side of apps (you can skip this part if you don’t want to geek-out for a second), the new SDK is entirely web-based and called Fitbit Studio.  The SDK will be available starting tomorrow, September 26th.

It allows you to create apps and watch faces using JavaScript and SVG, and doesn’t require you be tethered to iOS or Android to create apps.  As long as you have a web browser, you’re good to go.  Here’s the most stylish watch face in the entire collection – the DCR Face…Watch Face.  My Face, on a Watch Face.  Down the road (near term), you won’t need the SDK for this, but in the meantime, my awesomeness awaits:

The platform is super easy to use, and deploying to a watch is virtually instant – allowing quick testing (though unfortunately there isn’t an emulator available yet, albeit it sounds like that’s on the radar).

What’s more interesting is that folks can share apps and watch faces with others without going through an approval process.  For example, if you want to create a custom watch or app face for your team or family or whatever, you can share that via a private link.  That private app won’t show up in the app store for the world to see, as for that you’ll need the Fitbit approval (which they hope to keep quick).

The Fitbit App SDK has been released, but it’ll take some time for apps to show up.  Expect to see smaller apps in the near term (e.g. hobbyist apps), but then probably by the end of the year you’ll see larger companies diving into things.  Of course, like any app platform it’s likely that Fitbit is working closely with major companies to try and get apps completed for their platform.  So I wouldn’t expect things to be empty for long.

Heart Rate Accuracy:

Next up we’ve got heart rate accuracy.  This roughly falls into two buckets: 24×7 HR, and workout HR.  By and large, I see no tangible issues with 24×7 HR consistency, but I do see issues with it simply determining my RHR value as higher than it is.  This isn’t a measurement issue, but rather the algorithms they use on the backend to decide what ‘resting’ really is.

Said differently: It’s measuring and recording my 24×7 heart rate just fine, but then when it comes to deciding what constitutes the resting HR value, it seems to err on the high side. I talk about RHR values and 24×7 monitoring here and why it’s interesting.

Before we move on to the test results, note that optical HR sensor accuracy is rather varied from individual to individual.  Aspects such as skin color, hair density, and position can impact accuracy.  Position and how the band is worn are *the most important* pieces.  A unit with an optical HR sensor should be snug.  It doesn’t need to leave marks, but you shouldn’t be able to slide a finger under the band (at least during workouts).  You can wear it a tiny bit looser the rest of the day.

Ok, so in my testing, I simply use the watch throughout my normal workouts.  Those workouts include a wide variety of intensities and conditions, making them great for accuracy testing.  I’ve got steady runs, interval workouts on both bike and running, as well as tempo runs and rides.

For each test, I’m wearing additional devices, usually 3-4 in total, which capture data from other sensors.  Typically I’d wear a chest strap (usually the HRM-TRI or Wahoo TICKR X), as well as another optical HR sensor watch on the other wrist (many models during this testing period).  Note that the numbers you see in the upper right corner are *not* the averages, but rather just the exact point my mouse is sitting over.  Note all this data is analyzed using the DCR Analyzer, details here.

First up, a run in Amsterdam a weekend ago.  This was a relatively flat run, and a relatively even pace.  Here’s how things looked:

As you can see, things are really quite good.  There’s a very tiny bit of difference in the first 26 seconds, but nothing that I could really get too upset about.  The first few minutes of a run are often tricky as your body warms up – but in this case I’d say the Ionic actually did the best of all three sensors, even better than the chest strap.

But that’s the thing about cooler and dry fall runs that aren’t yet super-cold, it’s where optical HR really shines compared to a chest strap that can often get tripped up with low moisture.

Next let’s look at a run with some intensity variability in it.  Oddly enough I’ve chosen the run from this evening where it crapped out half-way, so we’ve only got the second half of the run.  But that’s OK, that’s the part where I did fun stuff.  The first part of the run as I watched the HR it matched the HR strap.  You’ll see the Ionic line show-up mid-way through this (the red line):

Let’s zoom to the mini intervals I did.  These were about 30-60 seconds long each, with pushed paces and then back to my regular pace in between.  Thus it wasn’t complete recovery in between, so the peaks/valleys are less.  But you can see my HR is roughly going between 160BPM and 175-178BPM.

In any case, you see that on the first one the Wahoo TICKR completely missed the boat.  I adjusted it and it was fine.  Again – a beautiful example of a cool/dry fall evening run where there wasn’t a lot of sweat, but was a solid breeze drying things out.

You’ll see on the 2nd and 3rd intervals, all three units were very close.  Yet on the 4th and 5th bumps, the Spartan optical HR sensor clearly hit cadence lock.  That’s when it locks onto your running cadence instead of your HR.  This was likely because I picked up the pace a bit on those two.  Nonetheless, the Fitbit Ionic nailed all these.  Not sure how much more simply I can put it.

I will note that in my first look post at launch I saw some issues with the unit acquiring heart rate at the beginning of a run.  That was on beta software and I haven’t seen that on production software.

Lastly, let’s take a look at some cycling.  This was a nearly 5-hour ride (including a 45 minute beer stop of course) in the Swiss Alps.  You can read all about it here.

What’s interesting on this ride is looking at how it handled different conditions.  Take the first 2hr and 40 minutes.  Aside from some brief descents, this was almost exclusively climbing.  And within this section, things for the Ionic in yellow largely looked good (except the short descents where it strayed):

Now I make a habit of never stopping the watches when I ride/run, merely because it makes my life easier. So when atop the mountain we grabbed a drink for a bit, it kept recording.  But it really struggled here (2:40-3:20).  Don’t worry, the Vivosport also struggled.

However, the struggles continued as I started to descend.  This is very common for optical HR sensors, as the bumps (of which there were plenty) are tricky when combined with normally low heart rates.

Then, you see around the 4:20 marker that things come back together again.  This is climbing back up – and the intensity of the heart rate makes things match.  As soon as I crest the top though, it has troubles again.  This behavior matches what I saw on almost all rides.  Anything with consistent and sustained intensity was fine, but variable or low-intensity was tough.

Thus, overall I’d say that for most running conditions the optical HR sensor is generally pretty good, whereas for cycling outdoors it’s tough.  I can’t show you cycling indoors, because Fitbit doesn’t export the recorded HR data on non-GPS workouts.  But I can say that those data points, as I watched them live during the trainer workouts, were fine.

GPS Accuracy:

There’s likely no topic that stirs as much discussion and passion as GPS accuracy.  A watch could fall apart and give you dire electrical shocks while doing so, but if it shows you on the wrong side of the road?  Oh hell no, bring on the fury of the internet!

GPS accuracy can be looked at in a number of different ways, but I prefer to look at it using a number of devices in real-world scenarios across a vast number of activities.  I use 2-6 other devices at once, trying to get a clear picture of how a given set of devices handles conditions on a certain day.  Conditions include everything from tree/building cover to weather.

Over the years I’ve continued to tweak my GPS testing methodology.  For example, I try to not place two units next to each other on my wrists, as that can impact signal. If I do so, I’ll put a thin fabric spacer of about 1”/3cm between them (I didn’t do that on any of my Fitbit Ionic workouts).  But often I’ll simply carry other units by the straps, or attach them to my shoulder straps of a CamelBak.  Plus, wearing multiple watches on the same wrist is well known to impact optical HR accuracy too.

Next, as noted, I use just my daily training routes.  Using a single route over and over again isn’t really indicative of real-world conditions, it’s just indicative of one trail.  The workouts you see here are just my normal daily workouts.

I’ve had quite a bit of variety of terrain within the time period of Fitbit Ionic testing.  NYC, Amsterdam, Las Vegas, Paris, Reno, French Alps, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and more I’m probably forgetting.  Mountains, desert, woods, and cities.

We’ll take a look roughly the same activities as above, starting first with the run in Amsterdam.  Here’s how that looks at a high level:

You can see the FR935 and the Fitbit Ionic agree, whereas the Suunto unit doesn’t in certain sections, namely within the park.  This is where you want to use satellite view to look more closely and see if it matches the path/road in the park:

You can now easily see that the Suunto went swimming in the pond, while the Fitbit and Garmin tracked more closely.  But even within that context, I wouldn’t say the Fitbit was great either.  For example look at the sections I attempted to highlight below on the bottom portion, where the Fitbit was off in the woods:

Of course, the Garmin wasn’t perfect either, it’s offset a bit on the upper edge, but it’s degree of suck was less than the other two.

It’s somewhat interesting to me that the units had the most trouble within the park (which isn’t that dense in the grand scheme of things), compared to the building areas that they tended to do better on.

Next, let’s go to a mountain run.  While I’ve got other runs that are in more boring locales, I like to show this one, as it really shows how solid the GPS accuracy is.  For reference, this is what the terrain looked like that I was running alongside (a mountain cliff):

Here’s a look at the GPS track at a high level:

But let’s zoom in where the mountain is steepest, right along the lake edge:

It’s quite good here.  The Fitbit Ionic takes the cake as the best overall GPS track (note: The Vivoactive 3 was on much older beta firmware in his run, so while not bad, take that with a grain of salt).

Of course, there are some brief sections where the Fitbit struggles a tiny bit, as the path is slightly covered by a rock covering of sorts (where you see the fencing in the above pic).  Here you can see it lose the plot and go for a swim.  In this case the Vivoactive 3 nailed that few hundred meters better.

But overall on this challenging run, all three units did fairly well.

Lastly, we’ll check out that Swiss alps ride, and look at the accuracy there:

This route was amongst the huge cliffs of the alps, the dense forests, and generally incredibly tricky GPS terrain.  I had a boatload of units recording during this ride, so tons of data to compare against.

Skimming through things, everything looks very good, so I’m going to choose the most difficult section to zoom in on, which is in dense woods:

Everything looks reasonably good, save one little turn.  This is a really complex switch-back from a GPS standpoint, right against a cliff of sorts.

You can see all the units struggled a bit here maintaining the same path in both the up and down directions.  However, the Fitbit did struggle a tiny bit more in one direction – being further out.

Still, this is incredibly difficult conditions, and this section comprises all of a few hundred meters of the entire 60KM route.

Overall the GPS accuracy on the unit tends to be good in most circumstances.  However oddly, I found it tends to do better in tougher situations than easier ones.  Sometimes in the easier ones it ‘wanders’ a bit as you saw in the Amsterdam park example.

Note: All of the GPS and HR data sets are linked at the beginning of each set.  I use the DCR Analyzer to upload and analyze all the data.  You can click on the links and analyze the data as you see fit, or even download the original files.  Further, if you want to use the DCR Analyzer for your own comparisons, go forth!

Summary:

All in all the Fitbit Ionic is without question Fitbit’s most impressive offering to date.  And in doing so they’ve got a very legit competitor to certain variants of the Apple Watch, as well as Garmin, on the fitness side.  The addition/combination of music, GPS, and contactless payments manages to hit the sweet spot of what someone might want that heads out for a morning run and wants to grab breakfast at Starbucks afterwards a few blocks from home.

Of course, this combination isn’t new either. Apple’s had it for a while now, and quite successfully too.  But what Apple has lacked (and still does) is the fitness-focused backend platform.  Apple’s devices are in many ways still very isolated from a health/fitness standpoint (unless you use 3rd party apps).  Everything is more or less locked into Apple Health, which is specific to your phone.  There isn’t a website you can go to.

And certainly these offerings should absolutely be compared, as with Garmin’s units for the more sports-focused crowd.  Each has their own pros and cons.  Apple’s hardware is beautiful along with a massive app ecosystem, but the battery life less so.  Fitbit’s battery life is better, and their daily activity tracking platform is great.  Meanwhile, Garmin dominates the sports angle, in part due to much longer battery life.  I think a standalone post comparing the three major options is probably in order (Fitbit Ionic, Apple Watch Series 3, Garmin Vivoactive 3).

Until then – you won’t go wrong with any of them. I’ve got all of them, and all of them at their core work well. It’s just a matter of figuring out what exact features you want and how you prioritize them.

With that – thanks for reading!

Wanna Save 10%? Or found this review useful? Read on!

Hopefully you found this review useful.  At the end of the day, I’m an athlete just like you looking for the most detail possible on a new purchase – so my review is written from the standpoint of how I used the device.  The reviews generally take a lot of hours to put together, so it’s a fair bit of work (and labor of love).  As you probably noticed by looking below, I also take time to answer all the questions posted in the comments – and there’s quite a bit of detail in there as well.

I’ve partnered with Clever Training to offer all DC Rainmaker readers an exclusive 10% discount across the board on all products (except clearance items).  You can pick up the Fitbit Ionic (or any accessories) from Clever Training. Then receive 10% off of everything in your cart by adding code DCR10BTF at checkout.  By doing so, you not only support the site (and all the work I do here) – but you also get a sweet discount. And, since this item is more than $75, you get free US shipping as well.

Fitbit Ionic (select dropdown for size/style)

Additionally, you can also use Amazon to purchase the unit (all colors shown after clicking through to the left) or accessories (though, no discount on Amazon).  Or, anything else you pick up on Amazon helps support the site as well (socks, laundry detergent, cowbells).  If you’re outside the US, I’ve got links to all of the major individual country Amazon stores on the sidebar towards the top.  Though, Clever Training also ships there too and you get the 10% discount.

Thanks for reading!