Test Drive Gadget Reviews with Bill and Phil

Test Driving the Fitbit Ionic Smartwatch

We have been wearing activity tracking devices for some time now. Many of us been involved in those one-on-one competitions with coworkers or family members to see who can log more steps on their tracking device for a day, week or month. (Currently Phil has the Bill and Phil record with more than 21,000 steps in one day at the Consumer Electronics Show exhibit hall in Vegas.)

Bill & Phil

We have heard of law firms issuing fitness tracking devices to all employees and initiating firm-wide activity competitions — in exchange perhaps for some discounts on health insurance. Whatever the motivation, however, tracking your daily activity with the devices and maintaining a historical record of your progress via a web-enabled dashboard is popular with techies and non-techies alike.

Fitbit has been a leader in the tracking device market, and they have created an array of products from simple step-counting devices to more full-featured devices that increasingly blur the lines between activity trackers and smartwatches. The Fitbit Ionic is their latest release, and it definitely can be classified as a “smartwatch,” comparable to the Apple Watch, Samsung Gear and other popular models. We have purchased a number of Fitbit products through the years, so when the Ionic was announced, we decided we had to give it a try — especially since it was the most advanced device yet from the folks at Fitbit.

We definitely felt that Fitbit had moved into the smartwatch category with the Ionic when we saw the price. The Ionic set us back $299, so we were expecting something that would do much more than say “have a nice day” and tell us how many steps we had walked. The price point puts the Ionic on the same level as the Apple Watch, and so we expected similar features. We were very pleased.


First of all, the watch face is large enough to be readable, but still not too heavy on your wrist. You can change out the wristband, but the band it came with is perfect for both casual wear and workouts. The second observation of the Ionic — once we turned it on — was the bright, colorful screen that showed up quite nicely even in the sunlight.

Setup was a breeze as we downloaded the Fitbit app on our phone and followed the step-by-step instructions. Unlike the Apple Watch, the Ionic will work both with iPhone and Android phones. But the Ionic does not have built-in LTE connectivity like the new Apple Watch 3. As a result, you must have the phone in close proximity to the watch in order to be able to get notifications and answer calls.

Unlike the Apple Watch, the Ionic will work both with iPhone and Android phones. But the Ionic does not have built-in LTE connectivity like the new Apple Watch 3.

However, one of Ionic’s key features that was a selling point for us, was the ability to store music on the watch so you could stream music directly without having your phone nearby. The Ionic will let you download up to two Pandora stations for offline play and will also allow you to upload songs that you may have on your PC or phone directly to the watch. This feature allowed us to take a run along the Nashville greenway and play music from the Ionic without having to tote our phone along with us.

Of course, to hear the music streaming from the watch, you must have some sort of wireless headset to pair with the Ionic. Fitbit has introduced its own wireless earbuds, called Fitbit Flyer, selling for an extra $129. We were really holding out to purchase Google’s upcoming wireless earbuds, called Pixel Buds, but sadly, they were not out yet at the time we picked up the Ionic. So, of course, we bought the Fitbit Flyer earbuds, too. (We are sure we will buy the Pixel Buds later as well.) And those wireless earbuds worked great with our Ionic. We were able to listen to our favorite Pandora station on the wireless earbuds as we ran around the city with just our smartwatch on our wrist (and without our phone).

Fitbit is developing a number of apps you can download to use on the Ionic. One that was preloaded for us was Fitbit Pay. We tried it out, and it worked great. Via the app you simply add one of the supported credit or debit cards to the Fitbit wallet. You can then pay for a purchase at any payment station that accepts contactless payments by simply holding your watch face close to the payment device. We love this feature. We can go for a walk or run without taking our phone and listen to music, track our activity, and pay for a latte all by just using our new Ionic watch.

The Ionic still does everything one would expect from a regular activity tracker, including GPS tracking, step counting, sleep tracking, multi-exercise tracking, and heart rate monitoring. All the stats are synced to Fitbit's personal dashboard on the web where you can monitor your own progress or share your info to compete/compare with friends.

We think $300 is a pretty hefty price to pay for a smartwatch, but we like the Ionic as a credible alternative to the Apple Watch 3 — especially for those who want Apple Watch-like functionality, but use an Android as their primary phone.