Fitbit Ionic v Garmin Vivoactive 3: The smart sports watches collide

Which sporty smartwatch is for you?
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Garmin and Fitbit have released their latest sports wearables, the Garmin Vivoactive 3 and Fitbit Ionic. They're both focused on fitness and wellbeing, they both feature mobile payments, and they both rock pretty good battery life.

If you're snooping around for a new, fitness-focused wearable this holiday season, both are very good options. But that begs the question: Which one of this sporty smartwatches is for you? Is Garmin's enough for your active lifestyle, or could Fitbit snatch that spot on your wrist?

Verdict: Garmin Vivoactive 3 | Fitbit Ionic

Luckily for you, we've compared both of them - right here, right now. Follow along, friends.

Fitbit Ionic v Garmin Vivoactive 3: Design

Fitbit Ionic v Garmin Vivoactive 3: The smart sports watches collide

The most obvious difference between the Vivoactive 3 and Ionic is that they're completely different shapes. The Garmin is circular while the Fitbit is square. Beyond that, this is a battle that feels a little lopsided.

The Ionic isn't the most attractive looking smartwatch in the world, and some people would probably call it ugly. The colors are inspired by science fiction films like The Martian, but it also looks a bit like a prop from the first Star Trek series. It's got large bezels that give way to large lugs where the band connects.

This is a watch that has gone for function over form, cramming a 1,000 nit display, GPS, long battery life, a tri-wavelength sensor, and a heart rate sensor in a fairly slim form factor. Of course, because it's slim it means Fitbit's engineering team has to make it a little wider and a little taller to spread out all that tech.

The Vivoactive 3 is a completely different shape to its predecessor, the Vivoactive HR. It ditches a square look for the design language of its older brothers, the Fenix series of smartwatches. It comes in slightly lighter than the Ionic, and while its 43mm face doesn't exactly make it "dainty", it's smaller and less rugged than the Fenix line.

Fitbit Ionic v Garmin Vivoactive 3: The smart sports watches collide

The Ionic adopts the button layout of the Blaze, with two buttons on the right side and one on the left. You can also swipe on the touch screen to move through apps and workouts. The Vivoactive, on the other hand, only has a single button and a little touch pad that you can use to scroll though menu options.

While the Ionic's interface works with its operating system fluently and nicely, the Vivoactive has this disconnect that's a little odd. It adopts a similar interface to the Fenix series, but the buttons have been simplified. The new button layout just makes it obvious that the software needs a bit of an upgrade.

The display on the Ionic is also superior to the one on the Vivoactive, which is not nearly as vibrant as the Ionic's. The Vivoactive does get the edge in having an always-on dimmed display. On the Ionic you need to jiggle your wrist to take a look at what you need to. The Vivoactive also supports 20mm quick-release bands, so you'll have plenty of options to fancy up your smartwatch; With the Ionic you can only use Fitbit's bands.

Overall, while the Vivoactive has some small design quibbles like a lower-res display, but it's the more attractive watch overall.

Fitbit Ionic v Garmin Vivoactive 3: Tracking

Fitbit Ionic v Garmin Vivoactive 3: The smart sports watches collide

The heart of these devices is fitness tracking. You're still getting your basics on both, like step tracking and heart rate. Actually, speaking of heart rate, we've it to be a bit uneven on the Ionic. Fitbit has improved its algorithms this time around, but it still struggles at those higher intensities. Garmin's also isn't perfect, but in our testing did a bit of a more even job.

The two are much more comparable on GPS. Fitbit has made a big deal about its GPS antennas on the Ionic, and for good reason - the performance is good. Garmin, being Garmin, is able to keep up with good GPS performance as well.

As for sport mode, you're getting your usual accompaniment of running, cycling and swimming. On the Garmin, however, you'll be able to use an established workout and customize it to your liking, with your own name and data sets and what have you. Additionally, you can download structured workouts from the Connect platform, which gives the Vivoactive more variety until the Ionic's app support matures.

Fitbit has its Fitstar program, which lets you sign up for structured workouts in a separate app and/or website. It's continually growing and the company is always adding new workouts and trainers to it. However, one problem is that the company plans to hide a good portion of it behind a paywall.

Garmin also ups Fitbit in wellbeing, tracking heart rate throughout the day to come up with a stress rating and ranking them. The Fitbit, of course, has its breathe meditation app to lower your stress levels, but it's not going to tell you how stressed you are during the day.

Fitbit Ionic v Garmin Vivoactive 3: The smart sports watches collide

Ionic scores a major blow in sleep tracking though. The company has invested in sleep technology for a couple of months now, and it's able to tell you how long you spend in deep, light and REM sleep. It's one of the best sleep trackers you can get, but the Garmin doesn't measure up. In our tests, it sporadically mistook us resting for sleeping (we're just lazy).

The thing about the Ionic is that it's built for the future. Its new tri-wavelength sensor will let Fitbit track oxygen in the blood, which it can use to help determine if you have sleep apnea. It'll also be able to use this sensor to get data that can detect atrial fibrillation and other heart conditions. The Vivoactive 3 can't do that, and won't be able to do that. We'll have to wait and see whether Fitbit's implementations work well, but the promise of potentially game-changing fitness features like that make it more interesting in the fitness realm.

Similarly, Fitbit is partnering up with Dexcom so that diabetics who use the company's trackers to monitor glucose will be able to beam that data right over to Fitbit. It's a good partnership, but it also makes the lack of being able to use third-party devices, like how the Vivoactive 3 can work with a chest-strap for heart rate, a little more obvious.

In the realm of fitness tracking, the Ionic and Vivoactive are really a litmus test of how forward-looking you want your sporty smartwatch. If you want something that's a little more well rounded now, the Vivoactive 3 is for you. It's got more customization options, it's got good GPS and heart rate performance, and the Connect platform is finally improving and getting better. However, you are losing out on sleep tracking. If you're more excited by future-facing abilities like sleep apnea and atrial fibrillation tracking and detection though, it's hard to pass on the pure potential of the Ionic.

Fitbit Ionic v Garmin Vivoactive 3: Features

Fitbit Ionic v Garmin Vivoactive 3: The smart sports watches collide

The big new smart feature on both the Vivoactive 3 and Ionic is payments. Fitbit has Fitbit Pay, which has launched and has a handful of banks so far. The one niggle here is that you have to enter a pin code on the display, which can be a little difficult, before tapping your wrist on a wireless payment terminal.

There's Garmin Pay, but that hasn't launched yet so we haven't been able to try it out and see how it stacks up. Either way, they both can do payments, which is nice.

Both the Vivoactive and Ionic do notifications, and they'll cover the gamut from your Facebook comments to tweet replies to calls and messages. You're not going to get very many actionable notifications. On the Ionic you can accept or reject calls, but that's pretty much it. On the Vivoactive, you can reply to messages with pre-set options, but that's only available on Android.

Elsewhere, the big advantage here is Fitbit's app store - sorry, "gallery." There are only four apps for now: Strava, AccuWeather, Pandora and Starbucks. Hopefully this improves in the future as more developers work on apps as the user base starts rounding out. However, for now it's less of an app store and more of a "selected partnerships" kind of thing.

Fitbit is also doing a better job here on music, as the Ionic has onboard storage for music plus Pandora streaming if you need it. The Garmin Vivoactive 3 allows you to control the music... on your phone.

The Ionic feels more like a smartwatch, it's got everything you expect in one, from apps to music to payments. The Garmin is definitely smart, but it feels barebones in the smart area comparatively.

Fitbit Ionic v Garmin Vivoactive 3: Battery

Fitbit Ionic v Garmin Vivoactive 3: The smart sports watches collide

Garmin says the Vivoactive will get you about seven days of use, 13 hours with continuous GPS use; Fitbit says the Ionic will get you about five days - 10 hours with continuous GPS.

In our testing, we found both claims to be true. The Garmin will give you more device time on a single charge. However, this isn't a completely level comparison because the Ionic is running a brighter, and better, display, which is the one technology that is sure to suck battery life. It's also able to do music streaming, which saps battery.

The Vivoactive 3 doesn't have either of those things, which means it isn't expending as much juice on either the display or controlling your phone's music. If the Vivoactive 3 had these things, then it would maybe level off near the Ionic, but it doesn't.

Fitbit Ionic v Garmin Vivoactive 3: Price

Price is only going to be a factor if you live in the UK. In the US, you're looking at minimal differences, with the Vivoactive 3 coming in at $299.99 and the Ionic coming in at $299.95. In the UK, however, you're looking at £279.99 for the Vivoactive 3 and £299.99 for the Ionic.

When you look at value, the UK pricing may feel a little more fair depending on your needs and interests. The Ionic has onboard storage and music streaming, while the Vivoactive 3 doesn't. The Ionic is also more future facing with that tri-wavelength sensor, making it impressive that Fitbit is able to cram in more advanced technology in a package around the same price as a lesser stocked rival.

Fitbit Ionic v Garmin Vivoactive 3: Verdict

Fitbit Ionic v Garmin Vivoactive 3: The smart sports watches collide

You'd think the Vivoactive 3 and Ionic would be more similar than they are, but they aren't. They've got different priorities, with the Ionic being a device better built for the future of wearables while the Vivoactive is better built for the fitness head now.

They also diverge when it comes to smart features, where the Ionic feels like a smarter, more well rounded smartwatch rather than a sports watch dabbling in the smartwatch game, as the Vivoactive 3 often feels like. And then there's the looks, with the Vivoactive 3 being the better looking device, and more customizable to boot.

When it comes down to it, if you're looking for a good sports watch now, the Vivoactive 3 is going to immediately fit your needs better. If you're looking to be on the edge of wearable technology, with a device that acts more like a smartwatch, go with the Ionic.

How we test

Husain Sumra


Husain joined Wareable in 2017 as a member of our San Fransisco based team. Husain is a movies expert, and runs his own blog, and contributes to MacRumors.

He has spent hours in the world of virtual reality, getting eyes on Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Samsung Gear VR. 

At Wareable, Husain's role is to investigate, report and write features and news about the wearable industry – from smartwatches and fitness trackers to health devices, virtual reality, augmented reality and more.

He writes buyers guides, how-to content, hardware reviews and more.

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