Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Fitbit Ionic Review- All Day Useful, Animated, Colorful, Beautifully Crafted GPS/HR Watch with Deep Health and Wellness Tracking Features

Article by Sam Winebaum
Fitbit Ionic ($299.95) Available for Pre-Order from Amazon  here
First deliveries early to mid October 2017
The just launched Fitbit Ionic represents the brand's first true smart training watch. It has both GPS and wrist heart rate on board and of course the full compliment of Fitbit insights. More than a "tracker" the Ionic also includes:
  • on board coached Fitstar workouts such as abs and chest, the animated color screen shows you how to do then
  • a "wallet" for contactless payments for that after run coffee or beer
  • multiple sport modes including swim tracking with 50M water resistance so suitable for any swimming and the shower. 
  • a built in 300 song music player, including the ability to download Pandora Plus and Premium stations
  • smart phone notifications
  • a battery life spec. at 4 days all day use and 10 hours GPS/HR training mode that doubles its obvious Apple Watch and Android Wear competitors and approaches battery life of many dedicated GPS watches 
In my testing I found the Ionic to be a perfectly serviceable, very comfortable on the wrist run companion with the added benefit of Fitbit's excellent cardiac health and sleep monitoring. The screen sharpness and clarity is outstanding I really appreciated the longer battery life compared to my Apple Watch Series 2.

Weighing 44 grams with the optional Sport Band, Ionic is 16 grams lighter than the Apple Watch Series 2 Nike+Run Club and weighs about the same as the Garmin Forerunner 935. The fit and feel on the wrist is notably better than the Apple Watch for me, with no sense of anything on the wrist. Despite the light weight the Ionic feels and looks silky smooth and solid from its aerospace grade aluminum case to its slightly convex Corning Gorilla Glass 3 display protection.
The Ionic is thin, sits flat and secure (vital for reliable for wrist heart rate), is very comfortable and has an incredible crisp high definition color screen which allows the display of photography and the animations used in the guided Coach mode workouts.
The rear of the watch has an unusual design with 4 beveled sides leading] down and away from the sensor pod.  The small protrusions next to the case are the strap release. Press in and pull back to change straps, very easy.
One can see in the photo below, with Ionic in the center, how the design accentuates wrapping the wrist as the band is pre curved from its connection to the case. There are no hard edges, no interruption or "flat" surfaces to sit awkwardly and bite the wrist when cinched. As such I find it doesn't need to be as tightly cinched as the others to get a consistent heart rate while running and the comfort at all times is outstanding. There is no way to lay it flat as with the Apple Watch Series 2 on the left and Garmin 935 right.
Left to Right: view of Apple Watch Series 2, Fitbit Ionic, Garmin Forerunner 935
The Apple Watch's sensor pod is a round protrusion sticking out from a flat back with the case having rounded edges, The Garmin 935 has a gently curved back, slightly protruding sensor pod, and more rigid/sharper band hinges than the Ionic. The Ionic's back flows smoothly to the band down the bevels. The all important seal of the sensor pod to the wrist is obviously effective as we have had consistent HR results with only a few high spikes on our non dominant thin left wrist, often a problem area for wrist heart rate units when actually exercising particularly at the start of runs. We have not tested to see how it performs while clenching weights or handlebars or doing calisthenics often an area where wrist heart rate units struggle. 

App Based Fitbit OS for Future Enhancements and Features.
It is important to note that the Ionic software and Fitbit OS is based on Pebble, a smart watch pioneer Fitbit recently acquired. As such, and similar to Apple, Android Wear, and Garmin, it bases much of its functionality on "apps" loaded to the watch. A development environment is available to build new apps and expect to see many more. I will be looking for extensions of the run training functionality.

Beyond Fitbit's own apps the launch Ionic is loaded with a Starbucks app to pay for that coffee, Pandora app for off line playlists stored on the watch, and a connection to Strava from Fitbit's own run module, but not a Strava run app, as of yet anyway.

Run Mode
The launch version Run Exercise mode is adequate. It includes the following data choices you can configure on the watch: 
Average Pace, Heart Rate, Calories Burned, Steps, Time of Day, Lap Time, Lap Distance, Elapsed Time, Distance, and Pace (instant). The only key data element missing for me is Lap Average Pace.

In a clever single screen design you pick top and bottom data elements which remain fixed and scroll the middle field on the touch screen for any others you chose at set up in the watch's Run Customize Screen. So among others for the middle I chose Time of Day, Distance, and Elapsed Time. You can easily change top and bottom fixed and what you can swipe through before a run to suit needs,

You can also configure in run behavior including:
Fitbit Ionic User Manual https://staticcs.fitbit.com/content/assets/help/manuals/manual_ionic_en_US.pdf
Ionic does not, as of yet, include: an intervals mode beyond a time based "workout" mode for gym work,  manual lap marker that I could find, lap average pace (although it does include lap distance and lap time), alerting for targets of pace, time, or HR and strangely for Fitbit no heart rate zone based training although it does show you time in zones in the app post workout,. These are all features common of dedicated run watches.  I am not to worried as these should be easy to add to the Fitbit app, or maybe some will be included in the upcoming adidas Edition of the Ionic.

Basic Operations
From the time screen and there are multiple available watch faces to choose from.
  • Press the top right button to get your steps, distance, steps per hour, current heart rate, etc.. summary
  • Press the bottom right button to go directly to Exercise selection screen. Note Ionic can also auto detect the start of runs.
  • Press the left center button to turn off the screen and when in a screen other than time to go back.
  • Swipe right to see battery status, a switch to turn on display on wrist turn and a switch to receive or not notifications from phone. I generally turn notifications off during runs.
  • Swipe left to see icons for various options. You will touch Exercise to start a run, cycle, swim, intervals, etc.. You will touch Coach to chose guided workouts. Touch Starbucks to bring up a bar code to pay for that latte and Wallet to pay where contactless payments are available, or touch access music to access loaded to the watch via WiFi. playlists in Music and Pandora stations you loaded in the Pandora app.
  • Swipe down from the top to access music you have loaded to the watch.
  • Swipe up to access messages and any app notifications you have enabled.
See our YouTube Overview of Ionic's Basic Operations and the Run Mode in Action
You will see me touching the right button frequently during the demo to wake the screen. While running and at all times any twist of the wrist towards you will reliably and quickly wake the screen.

On the Run
After GPS acquisition, which we generally found to be fast and between 10 and 30 seconds, you are ready to run. You can also use Fitbit's SmartTrack to automatically have the watch start tracking. Smart Track "recognizes activities with continuous or high movement." While we dd not try it for runs it certainly recognized our evening walk.
The stats you set as fixed for the top and bottom fields are always in view. The big middle stat stays fixed until you swipe it. To start and stop a run press the right bottom button or touch the double bar icon in the bottom right of the screen.

Laps appear and hold on screen for a decent amount of time showing lap pace, lap heart rate, and average run pace is far.
We also tested the Pandora Plus/Premium playlists downloaded to the watch and played to Bluetooth earphones. The download process via wifi was simple and fast. The sound quality was outstanding with no breakups as sometimes seen with streaming services in our weak cell phone reception area.

After the Run
A complete run down of the run or any activity stats is on screen and of course over at the app.

Update: Heart Rate Accuracy in Race Conditions
I recently ran a half marathon in chilly conditions (40F/5C) with the Ionic on my non dominant thinner left wrist. The Ionic struggled to find and display an accurate heart rate. First it had abnormally high readings well above 180 then for many miles, found a correct heart rate for a mile or two then for 6 or 7 miles displayed abnormally low readings around 120 and then in the last miles displaying accurately. Heart rate on a Garmin 935 on the other wrist was around 160-163 after several minutes at the start capturing abnormally low.

This is the first time I have seen the Ionic struggle beyond a few minutes and assume it is due to the colder weather, wearing short sleeves and lower blood flow, often the case with wrist heart rate sensors, but in this case it never found a correct heart rate for any length of time which is unusual for such monitors,

Everyday Use
The Ionic is a very comfortable, good looking watch suitable, at least for me, for day in day out, all occasions and sleep time wear.  I had no issues with it "biting" when sleeping with weight on my arm as is often the case with  GPS watches due to smooth bevel from center of the back to the integrated band.

In addition to Blue Gray/Silver Gray (right below), mine has an optional Sport Band (429.95), 2 other colors are available along with mix and match accessory bands including Perforated Leather and Classic Bands in all three colors below. Changing bands is super easy. Just press in a back button and pull back, snap back in. No sliding into a one way slot as wth the Apple Watch
Source: Fitbit.com
Battery Life
In my test I got 56 hours of battery life before recharging with  light every day usage, sleep tracking and 24/7 PurePulse heart rate tracking. During the period I had settings for no app notifications beyond messages and phone calls.
During a56 hour period I ran for 2.8 hours with GPS and HR both going. I did not have music loaded on the watch and streaming to bluetooth headphones which would reduce battery life.
I conducted several other tests on the same 5.2 mile course to judge on the run battery life:

  • I ran for ran with GPS, HR, and Pandora music playing from the watch to Bluetooth wireless earphones. The 57 minute run consumed 15% of the battery. This indicates you should be able to get 6.3 hours of running or other GPS  based activities with GPS/HR/Music all going.
  • A similar distance run on two occasions, without music but with GPS and heart rate tracking indicates approximately 7.6  hours of battery life
  • Finally, with GPS tracking alone and heart rate tracking turned off, one should see approximately 8.3 hours of battery life
The spec is 48 hours of all day use, so at a minimum, but depending on usage, most should see the 4 plus days as advertised.
It has significantly longer all day use battery life than the Apple Watch makes the Ionic feasible as a sleep monitoring device as while my Apple Watch did exceed its 18 hour battery rating it more often than not needed a charge at bed time,

GPS Accuracy & Wrist HR Accuracy
GPS and wrist heart rate accuracy was comparable to a Garmin Forerunner 935 worn on the other wrist. I wore the Ionic on my non dominant left wrist and saw occasional high spikes early in runs, common with most wrist HR units on my thin wrist. However, it appears in calculating overall average HR  for the run that Fitbit may somehow smooth these short spikes out. It is recommended to wear all wrist heart rate monitoring watches on your dominant wrist for more consistent results.

Activity, Sleep Tracking and Cardio Fitness
The run and any activity detail is adequate and clearly presented.

The Fitbit app provides excellent, easy to understand sleep data.

Resting heart rate is tracked over time.

The Cardio Fitness score approximates V02 max and is calculated from resting heart rate, gender, age, weight, and other personal information. I had relatively few days with the Ionic to gather data and the score bellow is higher than what I expected. With previous Fitbit trackers such as the Alta HR it approximates more closely what I see on the Garmin 935, currently 50 on the 935, and usually around 52.  I expect the scores to get closer to each other over time and will update the review when I have more data.

Conclusions and Recommendations
Fitbit has done a great job with its first true GPS training watch. It is more than adequate as a running GPS watch, if light on run training features such as intervals module or heavy duty tri oriented multi sport features.

Post run as an all day smarter watch it competes well with similar GPS watches but lags the Apple Watch and Android Wear somewhat in phone connected features such as dictating replies, phone calls made and taken on the wrist, and of course the multitude of watch apps available with the others. Its 24/7 health and sleep tracking insights are outstanding as one expects from Fitbit.

Battery life with the colorful high definition screen, 24/7 heart rate monitoring, and GPS is commendably high sitting well above Apple Watch and Android Wear watches, and while not quite as high as some GPS training watches, in the hunt or should I say you won't be hunting for your charger all the time.

The aerospace grade aluminum case, Corning Gorilla Glass 3 slightly convex display cover, nano molded frame holding the 8 sensors and 50 meter water resistance had made the Ionic a no compromises high quality time piece, so far for me. It is available in several colors and with interchangeable bands to keep one "stylish" sweating and after.

The Run mode is more than decent, highly visible on the run, accurate, and with enough data for most,  but currently may be not the most hard core of runners. We hope and expect that the Ionic's app based platform will allow more sophisticated in run features such as an intervals mode,  lap pace as well as pace and HR alerts in the future as well as deeper detection and calculation of heart rate variability and other recovery metrics.

We are intrigued by how Fitbit plans to use the oxygen saturation sensor. According to The Verge to potentially track sleep apnea and also as it counts steps and thus elevation how the included  altimeter might be used in the future for apps focused on vertical sports.

The combination of simplicity and sophistication of the Fitbit app make it useful for all types of users as it gathers run, other activity, sleep, steps, and cardio fitness data in one easy to follow and navigate place.

While I am a bit of a gadget "snob", having access to just about everything on the market including all the most sophisticated training watches and tech, the visual clarity and color, accuracy and completeness of the Ionic and with the Fitbit app giving me a 360 degree view of my training, sleep, and cardio stats has me increasingly favoring it, despite it being a bit lighter weight than some in run and training tech and phone connected capablities capabilities at this time... or maybe it is in fact that  light weight of 43 grams, comfort on the wrist, and sleek looks that has me favoring it!

For our initial impressions of 3 the new 2017 Holidays  GPS/HR Watches: Fitbit IonicSuunto Spartan Trainer and Garmin Vivosport GPS watches click here

For Sam's Bio see our Reviewers Bio Page here

The Ionic was provided at no cost.The opinions herein are entirely the authors's.

Comments and Questions Welcome Below!
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Brennan said...

Thanks for the detailed review! Regarding manual laps, you can enable this by changing the "Show Cues" setting from "Automatically" to "Manually" — then you'll see a lap icon in the upper right during exercise, which you can trigger with the upper-right button on the watch. Cheers!

almandelli said...

Which GPS chip? Sirfstar, MEdiatek or whatever?

Sam Winebaum said...

Thanks Brennan! Useful but would ideally prefer a combination of automatic and on demand Laps. With Auto set if I recall that top right buttton is disabled so technically available for manual laps use. Sam

Sam Winebaum said...

Almandelli, don't know which chip is used. Sam, Editor

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