Review: Fitbit Ionic Smartwatch For Runners

By Mario Fraioli

Photo: Courtesy of Fitbit

While product reviews aren’t a regular part of the morning shakeout’s weekly offering (if you’d like them to be, please let me know), I do test out a lot of different shoes and various other pieces of gear and nutrition items that runners might be interested in and thinking about trying (or buying). Given that, I’m going to share my thoughts on the new Fitbit Ionic—the company’s first smartwatch, which retails for $299.95—that was sent to me for review purposes ahead of its release this month. I’ve been wearing (and running with) this GPS-enabled watch regularly for over a week now. Here’s a shakeout-style rundown of its key features, in order of relative importance to runners, with thoughts based on my own usage:

Built-in GPS: This isn’t the first Fitbit watch to have GPS built into it, but the new offering is much improved over the Surge from a few years ago. I measured the Ionic’s GPS against my trusty Garmin 220 as well as the Strava app on my phone and found it to be on par (within .02 of a mile on multiple 10+ mile runs) with both of those devices. Elevation gain and route maps were also on the money. The connectivity is excellent and far faster than my nearly 4-year-old Garmin.

Battery Life: The Ionic boasts “4+ days of battery life” or 10 hours of GPS use, which I found to be inaccurate. With all-day use, including three runs of 72 minutes, 55 minutes and 3-1/2 hours on three consecutive days, the watch needed to be recharged.

Live stats: While you’re running, a simple tap of the screen let’s you cycle through stats such as distance, duration, heart rate, steps, average pace, moving pace, calories burned, and time of day. Frustratingly—and this is one of my biggest beefs with the Apple Watch and other “smart” watches as well—you can not manually take individual lap splits on the Ionic. Translation: if you’re doing an interval workout, you better be good at doing math in your head. The absence of this simple (but key) feature can be a deal-breaker as to whether or not to buy a smartwatch or stick with a more traditional running watch. I know it is for me.

Display: The Ionic’s display is crystal clear and easy to read, even in harsh or low light. The one annoying issue, which plagues every “smartwatch” I’m aware of, is that you need to turn the watch face toward you to “wake up” the display. Start/pause/stop can via the touch screen and also by pressing a physical button on the bottom right side of the watch, which was a lifesaver for me. There is an auto start/pause feature—which you can turn off—that works pretty well most of the time (I eventually disabled it).

Strava Integration: The Ionic comes preloaded with the Strava app, which sounded awesome but ended up being a bit of a disappointment. The Strava app for Ionic is nothing more than a timeline of your activity history (including “matched” runs), meaning you can not record an activity with the Strava app and have it upload automatically to Strava directly from the Ionic (which you can do on the Apple Watch). Nor can you view other athletes’ workouts. To record a run on the Ionic, you must use the watch’s exercise app, which will send data to your Fitbit account when you’re done, which will then sync with Strava if you’ve connected the two. I don’t really see a need for the Strava app since I can scroll my activity history (and see more data) from the app on my phone.

Apps and Notifications: The watch comes pre-loaded with the aforementioned Strava app, as well as a weather app, Pandora (more on that below), a virtual wallet, and Starbucks card. It will have a bunch more available after the watch is released, including email clients and various social media platforms. I did enable text, call and calendar notifications from my phone for a few days (note: you can only view text notifications on the Ionic, not reply), and found those to work rather well, but eventually disabled them because who needs their wrist buzzing and barking at you every few minutes?

Wrist-Based Heart-Rate Tracking: This feature may be more important to some runners but it’s not a metric I previously tracked with any regularity, so I’ve bumped it down a few notches here. That said, my HR readings were fairly consistent on easy runs, ranging from 132-144 depending on the day.

Music: I don’t listen to music when I run but if I did, the Ionic would be worth considering for that feature. Of course, you’d need wireless bluetooth headphones, which Fitbit is offering but I haven’t tried yet. The Ionic comes preloaded with the Pandora app (note: you need to be a Plus or Premium user to enable it) and has 2.5 gigs of storage for music that you can download to the watch from your computer.

Bottom line: I’m not a regular watch wearer so it’s taken some getting used to having one on my wrist all the time—and with a Fitbit, you do feel like you should have it on all the time, which drove me a tiny bit mad. And as someone who isn’t big on getting constant notifications, I also wasn’t very keen on feeling a little buzz on my wrist every time I had a phone call, text message, calendar reminder, or hit a certain number of steps throughout the course of the day. But, I was interested in whether or not I could use the Ionic as viable GPS-enabled running watch, and for the most part, I could on most of my easy or long distance runs. It’s lightweight and sleek in its design, the GPS is accurate and the battery life isn’t all that bad. That said, the lack of a manual lap feature is a deal-breaker for me, and would require that I use a different watch for workouts and races, in which case I’ll just stick to my Garmin (which I only wear when I’m running, for what it’s worth). But for most non-performance minded runners who only want to own/wear one watch and are thinking about purchasing a smartwatch, the Ionic isn’t a bad option and provides decent value for the money. I am curious to see how well it’s received (in general, not just by runners), however, given that Apple just launched Series 3 of the Apple Watch, which has nearly all the same features as the Ionic, including some key ones it doesn’t such as a built-in microphone and speaker, and also comes in non-cellular and cellular options at $30 and $100 more, respectively.

Note: You can now buy the Fitbit Ionic on Amazon. Doing so via the preceding affiliate link helps support the morning shakeout and is very much appreciated.

A version of this post first appeared in the morning shakeout, my weekly email newsletter covering running, writing, media and other topics that interest me. If you’d like for it to land in your inbox first thing on Tuesday mornings, subscribe here.