Fitbit has been surviving in the world of wearables. The company that carried the banner for mainstream fitness tracking doesn’t have tired legs, but it is starting to see the wrong kind of separation from the more well-heeled (Apple) and the more tightly focused (Garmin). That led Fitbit to make a couple of surgical acquisitions over the past year or so, buying up parts of payments company Coin and fellow wearable company Pebble, taking in the technology while letting those companies’ hardware products go quietly. Today, Fitbit announced the fruits of those acquisitions in the Fitbit Ionic, a smartwatch running Fitbit’s own operating system.
The Fitbit Ionic looks like an evolution of the Fitbit Blaze, the company’s first attempt at a smartwatch (it has a similar shape, with two buttons on the right edge and one on the left). While the Blaze was content to do fitness tracking and notifications, the Ionic gets a bit closer to what the Apple Watch or an Android Wear watch is capable of. Thanks to the Coin acquisition, Fitbit has been able to add their own payment processing app called Fitbit Pay, using NFC like Apple Pay or Android Pay. That’ll be part of Fitbit OS, their new smartwatch OS. Having their own OS and a developer’s kit means that Fitbit will start getting third party apps, too — Pandora, Strava, Starbucks, and AccuWeather will all be ready at launch, while apps from Nest and Adidas, among others, are expected in the fall.
However, there are a couple of omissions that make the Ionic fall a bit short of joining the ranks of those other fully featured smartwatches. There’s no network connectivity, something many Android Wear watches have and something the next Apple Watch is rumored to have. Having LTE connectivity is nice for anyone who wants to use their smartwatch during workouts without their phone on them, but it can be a burdensome feature — it requires adding another device to your wireless plan.
More glaring is the lack of speakers or a microphone. That’s less a surprise than a reflection of Fitbit’s current state — they don’t have their own voice assistant, and neither Siri nor Google Assistant will be integrated with the watch. Still, not being able to interact with any voice assistant, even if it requires a connection to your phone, is a big feature to leave off a smartwatch. It’s less surprising when you consider Fitbit also just announced their own wireless Bluetooth earbuds, Fitbit Flyer, which work with Ionic and with all of those voice assistants. Fitbit appears to be positioning the two as complementary devices.
It’s not all bad. Leaving those features off has allowed Fitbit to make a smartwatch much thinner than most, although the boxy, wide case could still be too much for smaller wrists. And, despite having a color display and their own smartwatch OS, the Ionic is still projected to have great battery life at four days.
Used together, the Ionic and the Flyer should be enough to let you leave your phone at home during workouts. The Ionic has 2.5 GB worth of storage for music and has its own GPS chip, allowing it to track running and cycling routes by itself. Fitbit will also have guided workouts, providing regular updates about heart rate, pace, cadence, and the like. It’ll also be able to track the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream. The IPX7 rating ensures that the Ionic can be used for swimming, too.
Fitbit still isn’t quite going the Garmin route. While Garmin seems to be content making wearables purpose-built for performance runners and cyclists, Fitbit is looking to hold down the mainstream. Despite the strong set of workout features, Fitbit is still making bands for the 24/7 user — aside from the usual silicone bands, a Horween leather option will be available at launch.
That puts Fitbit in a difficult situation. They could easily find themselves caught between the enthusiast-friendly Garmin and the mainstream behemoth that is Apple. Things could get really bad in a couple weeks, when Apple is expected to announce a new version of the Apple Watch with some very impressive health and fitness features. It probably doesn’t help that the Fitbit Ionic is incredibly expensive at $300, with performance bands available for $30 and a Horween leather band available for $60. The Fitbit Ionic will arrive in stores in October, with preorders starting today.