Fitbit Ionic v Apple Watch Series 2: The fitness smartwatch brawl

Let's see which one wins the day
Fitbit Ionic v Apple Watch Series 2

We have finally seen and played with Fitbit's long-rumoured smartwatch, the Ionic, and it was inevitable that comparisons would quickly be made with the current king of the smartwatch game, the Apple Watch Series 2. Well, at least until the Series 3 is available.

The Blaze used to be Fitbit's best bet against Apple's smartwatch, though it couldn't truly measure up against the Apple Watch 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.

Hands on: Fitbit Ionic review

So, how does it stack up against the Apple Watch? Can Fitbit finally outmuscle Apple's crown wearable? Our full Ionic review is yet to arrive, but here's how the two stack up so far.

Fitbit Ionic v Apple Watch Series 2: 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 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 smartwatch. You've got GPS, NFC, enough battery for four days of life and multiple sensors in a 50m waterproof casing. 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 flavours: a silver watch case with a blue/gray band, a graphite gray 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 colourways as well as handcrafted Horween leather bands in midnight blue and cognac.

However, in the looks department it probably doesn't measure up to the Apple Watch. Despite a design that's nearly three years old, the Watch is still easier on the eyes. Its rounded case can both blend in to any wardrobe you have and stand out without being distracting – even if the square face still isn't to everyone's taste.

Variety is the spice of life with the Apple Watch. You have two different case options (38mm and 42mm), three different materials (aluminum, stainless steel and ceramic) and a whole lot of different colours. 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 watches 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 Gorilla Glass 3 and can be upgraded to stronger materials depending on which model you choose. The standard Apple Watch has a strengthened ION-X display, while the more expensive versions have Sapphire crystal glass for even more protection. Underneath that display is also a 50m waterproof smartwatch that has both GPS and NFC enabled.

The major differentiator between these two, however, is the variety of fashion. 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 is your choice here.

Fitbit Ionic v Apple Watch Series 2: 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 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.

Fitbit Ionic v Apple Watch Series 2: 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. Since the Ionic doesn't have cellular capabilities, you can't stream music without your phone around. Then there's Apple, which has third-party music services like TuneIn Radio, Pandora and more, but also lacks cellular. You can also sync your favourite playlists to your Watch for later listening standalone-style. Or, you can use the Music app on the Watch to control Apple Music and Beats1 Radio from your wrist. Neither have a dedicated Spotify app right now.

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".

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. Though the Apple Watch might also leap ahead once watchOS 4 begins rolling out in a couple of weeks, bringing a much better music experience to Apple's smartwatch.

Fitbit Ionic v Apple Watch Series 2: Fitness

Fitbit Ionic v Apple Watch Series 2: 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.

There's 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 recognise as many workout modes as the Fitbit. 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.

The Ionic is only the second Fitbit to utilise GPS, after the Surge, allowing it to match the Apple Watch in this regard. Fitbit says its GPS is better than anything else on the market, but we can't confidently verify that until our full review. In our limited hands-on time, we found it to be pretty spot-on, but Fitbit also says another software update is on the way to smooth things out first.

Similarly, we can't yet speak to the heart-rate sensor on the Fitbit Ionic. While Fitbits' PurePulse technology has been hit or miss in the pass, it's always struggled at high intensities. Fitbit says this will change with the Ionic, and in our limited time it has managed to prove itself to be good, but until our unit is review-ready we can't make any conclusive comments.

For the Apple Watch, there's watchOS 4 looming in the corner. It'll add support for VO2 Max and interval training, as well as support for more workouts. There's also a new feature that'll let you tap your Watch to gym equipment so you get a more accurate reading of activity from them.

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 sleep apnea or other conditions like sleep apnea. The Apple Watch Series 2 – watchOS 4 or not – is not able to do either thing.

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.

The question of fitness for both the Ionic and Apple Watch Series 2 is all in potential. And on that front, the Fitbit has more legs. The Ionic is obviously a newer device, and the technology inside 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 2 is about to be overtaken by a Series 3, which may be better suited to future-focused fitness abilities. For now, Fitbit's the winner in this category.

Fitbit Ionic v Apple Watch Series 2: Battery

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.

The Ionic, on the other hand, will net you about four 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 2: Price

The Apple Watch Series 2 has a wide range of prices, starting as low as $369 and climbing all the way up to $1,499 when you start looking at the Ceramic edition. 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 to hundreds.

The Ionic, on the other hand, goes on sale for $299.99 this October. You'll also be able to purchase some bands for $29.99 to $59.99.

Fitbit Ionic v Apple Watch Series 2: Verdict

There's a richness to the design and features of the Apple Watch Series 2 that's difficult to top. It has a mature ecosystem that's growing, it's got a plethora of colours and accessories, and Apple continues to support even older models until they're far too long in the tooth.

However, the Fitbit feels like a fitness device built for the future of fitness. If the company can actually deliver on its ambitions, which include tracking things like 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.


8 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. 

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