Fitbit promised a family of smartwatches in 2018 and after launching its first – the Fitbit Ionic in late 2017 – we've only had to wait a few months to see what else it has to offer in the way of an Apple Watch, Samsung Gear, Android Wear and Garmin Vivoactive rival.
We knew it was coming and now we have a name and the all important details of Fitbit smartwatch number two. The Fitbit Versa is a health and fitness smartwatch that will live alongside the Ionic, which once again plays to Fitbit's strengths. But it also comes with a radically different look plus new features, and it aims to build on what the Ionic brought to the party.
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After Fitbit's debut smartwatch didn't exactly set the world on fire, a lot will be riding on the Versa (which stands for versatility) to prove that it does have something compelling to offer smartwatch fans. We've had a chance to get to know the ins and outs of Versa with a pre-production model, to find out what you should expect from Fitbit's second-generation smartwatch.
Fitbit Versa: Design
Fitbit Ionic the Versa is most definitely not. It's fair to say that the angular look of Fitbit's first smartwatch was not universally loved and the Versa is a massive departure from that sporty, more male-friendly look. You've already seen the renders and now we can tell you that having seen it up close this has Pebble Time written all over it. Even if Fitbit will probably never openly admit to that being the case.
It's significantly smaller than the Ionic and lighter too, with that blockiness replaced by a curvier, more attractive look. There's no doubting this is more of a looker than the Ionic. It's intended to be a smartwatch for both men and women but it definitely feels like a more female-focused smartwatch. With the right band and case colour combination though, there should be something to keep everyone happy. And there are a lot of bands. The standard Versa (priced at $199.95) comes in a range of silicon bands with small and large options in the box. There are also four Horween leather bands and five metal polished metal bands, one of which has a very Apple Watch Milanese feel about it.
There are also two special edition Versas ($229.95) that come with woven bands. They also come in small and large sizes in the box, along with equivalent sized silicon versions included as well for when you need to get sweaty or go for a swim with it. These woven bands are not available as standalone purchases, so if you want them you're going to have to pay extra for them.
Key hardware characteristics have been retained from the Ionic, so there are still three physical buttons, Fitbit's PurePulse heart rate and SpO2 sensors around the back and it's water resistant up to 50 metres with swim tracking support. You can expect more of the same in the display department as Fitbit promises 1,000 nits of brightness and it definitely still looks as sharp as the touchscreen display on the Ionic. There's no sacrificing battery life either, so you can expect about five days with the Versa too. One black spot on the specs front is the omission of built-in GPS. We had expected it, but that doesn't mean we're happy with the decision. I guess you can't have everything for less money.
Fitbit invited us to play a couple games of dodgeball with the Versa on the wrist and we found it perfectly comfortable for doing so. Under a sweatshirt's cuff it wasn't too noticeable. If Fitbit wants the Versa to be a smartwatch that gets out of your way while you work out, then it has succeeded here. It has a lightness that's more comparable with a fitness tracker than a smartwatch.
Fitbit Versa: More data on the wrist
All the fitness tracking features you'd expect to find on the Versa are present. Step tracking, sleep monitoring, heart rate monitoring, auto exercise tracking… they all make the cut and are displayed much like they are on the Ionic. This time Fitbit has decided to take some of the data you'd normally have to head into the app to see and made it viewable on the watch, with a new data dashboard. So in the case of the heart rate and step counts, when you swipe up from the main watch screen you'll be able to see seven-day step count and resting heart rate trends. It's not exactly a groundbreaking addition, but we can definitely appreciate having more data to pore over without reaching for our phones.
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There are other ways the watch experience will continue to evolve to keep you active as well, giving you words of encouragement, more data insights and even prompting you to go log water intake in the companion app. The idea is that the more you live with it, the more personal and insightful those interactions will become.
Fitbit Coach makes a return, but annoyingly still only offers three static programs on the watch itself with more dynamic programs available from the Fitbit app. There's still no word on the Coach programs that Fitbit promised us last year. It's clearly a piece of the Fitbit puzzle that has a lot of promise, but the watch support we expected isn't quite there yet.
As for the workout experience, our sessions with Fitbit were more focused on fun fitness than putting the Versa through its paces. They included a couple of games of dodgeball, jump rope, hula hoop and medicine balls. The Versa's lightness certainly got out of the way during a workout, but we'll need to really stress test it to see what it's capable of.
Fitbit Versa: Female health tracking
If ever there was bigger indication that Fitbit is hoping to appeal to more women with the Versa, then the introduction of new female health tracking features should do it. We should mention that these features will also be available on the Ionic as well, at some point after they ship with the Versa.
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We've seen smaller startups explore the realms of female health tracking, but this the first example of one of the big wearable tech heavyweights embracing monitoring that Fitbit says goes beyond menstruation health and reproductive cycles. Fitbit tells us that female health tracking was one of the top five features asked for by women.
The features, which live inside the Fitbit app and can be accessed from the Versa (and the Ionic) are available to all female Fitbit users. The hope is that adding these features will help women to look after their bodies better and to make more informed decisions about their health, with the ability to correlate cycles with the impact of sleep, heart rate and stress data.
All users can choose to opt in and Fitbit hopes it can create a database of female health tracking data that could be used for a couple of things: first, by researchers for clinical health studies to help explore major health issues, and second, to be able to give female Fitbit users more specific guidance for their health.
Fitbit Versa: Smartwatch features
The Versa is a smartwatch and there are certain expectations that come with the territory in terms of what it should be able to do and be good at doing. One aspect of the Ionic that definitely left room for improvement was notifications. While you can expect the same kind of notification support on the Versa, there is one new feature worth highlighting and that's enhanced notifications – this means that you can now quick reply from the watch.
From the Fitbit app, you can define the messages that mean the most to you and pick the kind of quick replies you want to use. The good news is that it's going to be available in the spring for Android phone users and it will roll out for Ionic users at some point as well. Fitbit tells us it's working with partners to bring the feature to iOS and Windows-running smartphones as well. But to start off, this is something for the Android crew to enjoy.
Music support will also be on board, letting you store up to 300 of your own songs on the watch with the process of transferring music to the Versa the same as it is on the Ionic. One thing that has been missing, at least if you live outside of the US, is offline music support from a streaming music service. Last year, Fitbit announced a partnership with Deezer to match what it was offering with Pandora in the US for the rest of the world. Now it's ready to roll the Deezer support out with the Versa to give users access to the service's 53 million tracks. Fitbit will be offering a free three-month trial of Deezer for both Versa and Ionic users.
There'll be Fitbit Pay there as well, to let you make payments from the wrist, and since launching it now has 32 banks in 14 countries on board. Apparently there's a major UK partner coming soon that will be announced in the not too distant future.
Of course we also need to talk apps. The Versa will have access to Fitbit's Gallery so you can download your third-party apps and watch faces. According to Fitbit there are already 500 apps and watch faces in the store, although it does feel like the breakdown is heavily weighted towards watch faces. 5,000 developers are working on the OS and it's hoped that adding a simulator to the development SDK to allow devs to create apps and faces without owning a Fitbit smartwatch will help swell the Fitbit Gallery. All of the apps available on the Ionic will be present on the Versa as well, with apps from the likes of MySwimPro on the way.
There's no doubting that Fitbit Versa feels like the company is holding out an olive branch to the loyal and passionate Pebble community who still have a lot of hate in their heart for the company that killed off their beloved smartwatch. Whether a familiar design will be enough, only time will tell. A lot of the grievances are directed at the software, which will continue to evolve as Fitbit improves the tools that developers have at their disposal. Maybe things will start to get better. Maybe.
Putting aside the Pebble nostalgia and the Versa certainly makes a better first impression than the Ionic did on us. It's a more attractive watch and should have wider appeal, the pricing feels right (although we would have preferred $50 cheaper) and it plays to Fitbit's strengths. We have a feeling that this is the smartwatch that is going to help prove that Fitbit can make its mark on the smartwatch world.
Additional words by Husain Sumra