When you look at the Fitbit Ionic and the Versa smartwatches side by side, it's the Ionic that really screams out, "I'm built for sports tracking". It's got the bigger, more robust looking design, a sporty band, and crucially it has that all important built-in GPS that makes it better equipped for tracking outdoor activities like running and cycling.
But the Versa can still harness the GPS packed into your smartphone if you want more accurate route and distance tracking. Elsewhere it has pretty much all of the same features as the Ionic, packed into a smaller, slimmer design.
So is the Versa that much worse off for tracking sports, especially when it costs less than the Ionic?
Essential reading: Best Fitbit Versa faces to download
It's something I wanted to find out, so I decided to use the Fitbit Versa in a race. Much like my race test with the Apple Watch last year, I wanted to get a feel for just what the Versa was made of as a running watch.
And it wasn't just simply about how accurately it tracked data (with or without GPS) or the performance of the heart rate sensor. I also wanted to know what it was like to glance at your data during the run, how fiddly it would be to get set up at the start line, and generally what it was like to run with when you're chasing a PB.
Fortunately I had the perfect opportunity (well, opportunities) to put this all to the test. Thanks to Fitbit, I had entry places for the Adidas City Runs in Clapham and Shoreditch, London. Two 10k road races that would let me see if the Versa was up to the task. Here's how I got on swapping a sports watch for Fitbit's second smartwatch.
As all runners know too well, there's a fair bit of nervous prep that occurs the day (usually the night) before a race. Whether you're getting set to tackle a full marathon or a 10k, there's the laying out of the kit, pinning on that race number and counting the number of energy gels you're going to consume around the course.
If you're running with a wearable too, that also becomes part of the prepping. Charging is obviously the first thing to sort. Like the Ionic, the Versa is one of the best performing smartwatches for battery life.
Based on my previous experiences living with the Versa I knew that this was a smartwatch that holds its charge well. I felt pretty confident that if I had at least 70% battery, that would be enough to get me comfortably through the race and what was left of the day.
Had it been a longer distance, I might not have been so confident. But for an hour of running, I was sure it would be enough. I found that the battery life took a hit of around 15-20% – nearer the 20% mark when tethering GPS and using the heart rate monitor.
Read this: Best Fitbit Versa bands to try out
Getting the right stats on display is another part of that wearable prep ritual and in the case of the Versa there wasn't a great deal of tinkering necessary. There's enough room on that dinky display to show three different pieces of run data.
You've got your choice of elapsed time, distance, pace, average pace, heart rate, calories burned, steps, time of day, lap time and lap distance. There's a lot here but I opted for the basics. I wanted to know time elapsed, pace and distance.
One thing I did need to make sure I had set up was the Strava app. As we've already mentioned in our roundup of essential Fitbit Ionic apps, the very same app exists for the Versa. Much like that version though you can't track workouts via the app.
It exists to let you view activities that have been uploaded to Strava (once you've authorised the Fitbit app to do so). Linking the services is done via the Fitbit smartphone app and is at least a seamless process, but it's a real shame you can't directly record workouts to Strava from Fitbit's smartwatches.
The last piece of Versa prep I needed to do was pick out a suitable strap to run with. Right now I'm a big fan of the new PH5 collection bands, which are by far the most comfortable Versa bands I've worn. Is it the best suited to running? Probably not. Fitbit does have a whole bunch of silicone bands that are no doubt better suited to getting sweaty with. Opting for a knitted band wasn't the wisest move in hindsight, but I actually had no problems with the PH5 band during race time.
When you are ready to focus on running a good race, faffing around with a watch on the start line is the last thing you want to be thinking about. It's certainly happened to me before with other watches (looking at you, Samsung Galaxy Watch). Fortunately that just isn't the case with the Versa – if you've done your settings tinkering already. Just hit that button in the top right hand corner, get to the Run screen, tap and then tap the bottom right button to go. That's it.
The only other aspect you really need worry about is GPS. The Versa doesn't include GPS, but if you are running with your phone (which I pretty much always do), then you can tether from the GPS on your phone to map out your routes. As long as your Versa is paired to the companion app on your smartphone, all you need to do is toggle Connected GPS to On in the run settings menu on the watch and you're good to go. Establishing that connection is quick as well, so there shouldn't be any panicking about the lack of a GPS signal.
And then it's time to get going. Right away the first thing I noticed with the Versa was that it's certainly a better fit than the Ionic for my slim wrists. But when it comes to running and needing to glance and absorb data I actually yearned for a bigger display. The screen brightness and visibility is perfectly fine and it's not that I ever needed to squint to see the data. But I also know what a little extra screen estate would do to improve the visibility.
The other mistake I made in that first race test was forgetting to switch to the always-on screen mode, which can be done from the run mode settings beforehand. It does have an impact on battery life, but raising my wrist to wake the screen up just wasn't sensitive enough. I certainly didn't make that mistake for the second race.
What I really wanted from the Versa for these two short-distance races was to glean my performance while keeping interactions with the watch to a minimum. The Cues (essentially milestones) are the best way to do this. Those Cues have since been renamed on the watch to Show Laps. It essentially lets you get alerts when you've hit a certain distance, number of calories or workout duration. A little vibrating buzz will let you know when you've hit those milestones and knowing I was clocking off the kilometres was really all the information I felt I needed.
Once you've crossed the finish line and you're not gasping for the nearest bottle of water or railing to lean on, you want to be able to stop the tracking on your watch while you're a flustering mess. It's certainly happened to me before when I've been frantically trying to end a workout session, while those minutes continue to get added. That's not the case on the Versa. Simply hit the top right button with the big pause sign next to it and hit the button with the big green flag alongside it.
It's easy to understate how important these little visual cues are to have on the screen. But when you're hurting inside and you're not 100% focused on anything aside from getting your breath back, they certainly do help.
Time to look at the data
So the racing is done, the medal is around the neck, the pictures for social have been taken and multiple layers of clothing are back on my body. What I want to happen next is to be able to quickly see my performance on the watch and have that data synced to the Fitbit app and to Strava.
A summary screen gives a nice quick breakdown of the key data including average pace, distance covered and heart rate. From the Today dashboard on the watch I can also scroll down to see the run that has just been logged. For more detailed insights though, I needed to grab my phone. While my step count was a beaming green circle along with the fitness tracking stats below it, my next stop was the exercise section to see my run in more detail.
What I got there, I saw a map of the route pinpointing the 1km marks of the course, splits, heart rate data, calories burned, impact of that workout on activity tracking for the day and comparison of past runs. The data I was primarily concerned with was mapping. In the first 10k race in Clapham, I decided to make use of piggybacking off my phone's GPS.
The resulting data showed that I had tracked 10.14km. I was also running with the Garmin Forerunner 935, a sports watch that does come packing built-in GPS. The Forerunner 935 recorded 10.18km and based on other runners logging the race on Strava the course was longer than 10km. So there was a difference of only 40 metres between the two watches – which is too close to ascertain any certainty over which is more accurate.
GPS accuracy: Fitbit Versa (left) and Garmin Forerunner 935 (right)
In the second race I decided to switch the Connected GPS support off to rely solely on the accelerometer based motion sensors to track distance. What I found was that it pays to make use of that GPS support, as this time the Versa recorded 9.61km, which was shy of the 10km distance of the course.
In terms of splits, things were a little more difficult to compare. While the Versa broke splits down by miles, the Forerunner 935 broke our splits down by every 1.61km. For average pace, there was a difference of about 8-9 seconds with the data that the Forerunner 935 and the race chip recorded, in comparison to the Versa.
HR accuracy: Fitbit Versa (above) and Polar H10 chest strap (below)
Another factor I inevitably wanted to explore was heart rate. I wasn't expecting amazing things from the Versa here; this is the kind of scenario where I'd expect the optical heart rate sensor to come unstuck.
My two races weren't governed by heart rate, but I was still keen to get a sense of what kind of data it would served up. So I strapped on a Polar H10 chest strap and found what I expected – that Fitbit's sensor reported a much higher average HR (175bpm in comparison to 165bpm on the Polar H10) and a graph that suggests I hit the 201bpm mark for maximum HR. Polar in comparison recorded 182bpm. So as suspected, the Versa is probably not the best if you heart rate based running is your bag.
The race verdict
So would I swap my current sports watch fave for the Fitbit Versa for my next race? Probably not. But that isn't really a reflection of the experience I had with Fitbit's smartwatch over these two races. More so my preference for the more advanced running metrics and bigger battery life that the Versa doesn't really deliver.
But I was pleasantly surprised by having the Versa as a race companion. While the Ionic is a better fit, the Versa pretty much offered me everything I needed – so long as I took my phone along for the run.
It was easy to set up, gave me the run data I needed during the race and synced data to third party apps like Strava. While it required the help of a phone to ensure tracking accuracy could be relied on, it did the job from start line to finish line with zero issues or hiccups.
Yes, the HR data didn't quite add up, but for me that data wasn't as vital to my race day, although I appreciate it will be for many. I definitely would welcome a slightly larger display, but it's a minor gripe for a smartwatch that does a pretty decent impression of a sports watch.