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

Which one wins the day?
Fitbit Ionic v Apple Watch Series 3

Fitbit's long-rumored smartwatch, the Ionic, is out and about and on people's wrists. As is Apple's LTE-enabled Series 3 Watch. Naturally, comparisons between Fitbit's first official smartwatch and the current king of the smartwatch game, Apple Watch, are being drawn. So 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.

Rated: Fitbit Ionic review | Apple Watch Series 3 review

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?

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 flavors: a silver watch case with a blue/grey band, a graphite grey 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 colorways as well as handcrafted Horween leather bands in midnight blue and cognac.

However, in the looks department it still doesn't measure up to the Apple Watch. Despite a design that's nearly three years old, the Watch is 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 sizes (38mm and 42mm), three different materials (aluminum, stainless steel and ceramic) and a whole lot of different colors. With the Series 3, you can 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.

Read this: Why Fitbit built a smartwatch, and what comes next

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. Oh yeah, Fitbit also doesn't have a music partner outside of the US.

The Apple Watch has third-party music services like TuneIn Radio and Pandora, and you can also sync your favorite playlists to your Watch for later listening standalone-style. If you do want to sync over your music, you'll have 16GB of storage to do so, much more than that on the Ionic. Apple Watch gets a further upper hand 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. It's not just music either, there's a Radio app that lets you stream stations like Beats 1 and NPR.

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". You can link up to six payment cards to Fitbit Pay, while you have a limit of eight on Apple Pay.

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 utilize GPS, after the Surge, allowing it to match the Apple Watch in this regard. In our test we found the Ionic's GPS data to be pretty on the money, and it didn't take too long to actually lock on either.

While Fitbits' PurePulse technology has been hit or miss in the past, 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 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 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. You can also tap your Watch to gym equipment too, so you can get a more accurate reading of your activity from them, but that's incumbent on the gym equipment rolling out to gyms - which hasn't happened yet.

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 about potential. While it's not all working out of 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 into the 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 colors 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 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, including tracking things such as 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.


10 Comments

  • Tomasz says:

    It would be great if you compared their actual weight with the strap and other dimensions. Isn't Fitbit too big to wear it while sleeping? Also, does Fitbit enable HR tracking while swimming?

  • datalore says:

    I really think these are two different products for two different markets. Most people that plan to get an apple watch aren't looking at fitbit and most hardcore fitbit users prefer to stay in the fitbit ecosystem. I view the Ionic as a great fitness tracker with smartwatch functions. Garmin makes a better sports watch than fitbit and Apple makes a better smartwatch. The strength of Fitbit is that they do both of those things really well which allows them to inhabit a unique position. 

    • Pfalmer says:

      I think that you're mostly right, but that there's also a decent chunk of people (myself included) that overlap the two markets. I've personally never owned a Fitbit, and while I have both an iPhone and an iPad, I'm not a diehard Apple fanboy either. I'm looking to replace my aging Pebble Steel and both the Apple watch and Ionic somewhat fit what I'm looking for. I agree that if someone is looking for a smartphone they can wear on their wrist, then the Apple watch is the obvious choice over the Ionic. But personally the enormous feature list on the Apple watch is part of what turns me off from it (bad battery life, overly complicated, paying for things I don't need, etc). And on the flip side, I haven't been to the gym in months, so Fitbit's fitness pedigree isn't super enticing to me either. After reading the reviews and seeing the pics of the Ionic I've decided to pre-order the Fitbit. The deciding factors were that it's waterproof (both are, but not being waterproof kept me from buying a Blaze), the battery life, and the looks (I think the Apple watch is ugly, and the Ionic is much better looking). So long story short: Yes, people on either extreme will have already made up their minds and don't need this article, but lots of people (most?) live somewhere in the middle.

      • datalore says:

        I own all apple products with the exception of the Charge 2 which I will upgrade soon. I really like fitbit's app and the health features. I'm currently training for a long swim, so while I love the Charge 2 I need something to track swimming. I do think a good number of people live in the middle ground probably. I like to exercise and I like fitbits app, so I'm different in that regard. Most of my friends are Garmin users, but I just find the Garmin software approach to be lacking. The Ionic looks like the best of both worlds, and honestly if my Charge 2 was waterproof I would probably stick with it. I was getting to the stage where I was almost going to have to go with Garmin just for the waterproofing. I'm glad fitbit released this watch and can't wait to strap one on. 

        • Tomasz says:

          My thoughts exactly. Except for the fact that I really like sleep tracking and can't really imagine sleeping with this brick on my wrist :) Therefore I'm waiting for Charge 3 which should be waterproof.

          • datalore says:

            It looks like a monstrosity, but I'm hearing it looks better in real life and it's much lighter than it looks. I'll just have to wait and see one this October. I also like the sleep tracking and use it just about every night. I credit the sleep tracking and metrics with improving my athletic performance. The rumor is we'll see a Charge 3 and a Blaze 2 in Q1 2018. 

  • Pfalmer says:

    Whether the Apple watch or the Ionic is 'prettier' is all a matter of taste. I personally think that the Apple watch is quite ugly, and that the Ionic is pretty attractive. I'd rate the Apple a 3/10, and the Ionic 7/10. There's no accounting for taste :)

    • datalore says:

      Well said there really is no accounting for taste. I hate the fitbit stock bands, but absolutely love the sport bands. I'll order the sport bands with my ionic so I never have to use that stock band. It's just a taste thing; I find the stiff rubber to be uncomfortable. 

  • OnkelPer says:

    I think your missing out on

    Fitbit Ionic v Apple Watch Series 3: working with

    Fitbit Ionis is running with both Android, iOS and maybe Windows. Apple Watch is only running with iOS. So even though Apple Watch may sells a lot, it's still only interesting for a small part of a possible market. Fitbit Ionic wins because it interfaces with all major mobile phone systems.

  • OnkelPer says:

    I think your missing out on

    Fitbit Ionic v Apple Watch Series 3: working with

    Fitbit Ionis is running with both Android, iOS and maybe Windows. Apple Watch is only running with iOS. So even though Apple Watch may sells a lot, it's still only interesting for a small part of a possible market. Fitbit Ionic wins because it interfaces with all major mobile phone systems.

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