Tech Guide

The latest Fitbit can't match up to the Apple Watch

Fitbit Ionic smartwatch hands-on review
Key Points
  • The Fitbit Ionic is a smartwatch that doubles as a fitness device.
  • We tried two test units, and on both the sofware was pretty buggy and didn't live up to our expectations.
  • Most folks who use an iPhone should consider an Apple Watch instead.

The Fitbit Ionic smartwatch and fitness band hybrid is a disappointment.

CNBC tested two different units over the course of a week and walked away relatively unimpressed with what it offers for $299, compared to an entry-level Apple Watch that costs just $30 more.

There are features you'll like — Fitbit's smartphone software is the best in the biz — but most experiences didn't live up to our expectations.

The hardware is nice

The Fitbit Ionic looks great and is comfortable to wear
Erin Black | CNBC

I like the Ionic hardware a lot. The screen is bright and sharp and easy to read outdoors, which isn't always the case for fitness wearables. It's also pretty comfortable to wear 24-7, which is key if you're going to try to collect your health data on what you do all day long.

Erin Black | CNBC

The Ionic also packs all of the latest sensors, such as a constant heart rate monitor, GPS for keeping maps of your runs or bike rides and even Wi-Fi so you can sync Pandora playlists. All of this should technically boil down to a pretty darn good wearable.

So what went wrong?

Buggy software killed the experience

The Fitbit Ionic has a few apps, with more to come
Erin Black | CNBC

As most companies do for reviewers, Fitbit sent me a loaner watch to test ahead of the release date. The software on the watch was so buggy, they had to send me another -- and that wasn't great either.

With the first one, every time I tried to install a watch face it started to crash. It eventually became unusable so I sent it back.

The Fitbit Ionic's display is great indoors and out
Erin Black | CNBC

The second one didn't have these problems. (Fitbit told us it had updated the software.) Even still, swiping from screen-to-screen while browsing apps was sometimes slow and clunky, which is the opposite of what the experience is like on an Apple Watch.

Fitbit's sleep tracking was way off... I try to sleep twice as much most nights
Todd Haselton | CNBC

There were other oddities, too. The watch said I'd sleep under four or five hours a night, which just wasn't true. (Fitbit told us this wasn't a bug it has seen anywhere else and is going to analyze additional sleep data I send along.) I'm in bed most nights by 9 p.m. and up around 5:45 a.m.

One day, while sitting in traffic, the Fitbit software on my iPhone told me I was hitting my goals, since it was calculating my slow-moving car as steps.

I hit goals sitting in traffic. Fitbit says it fixed this bug.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Fitbit claimed a software update would fix these bugs. Nonetheless, sending a watch out to reviewers with software this buggy does not inspire a lot of confidence.

I loved other aspects of the user experience. Fitbit makes it easy to pick and begin a workout, for example, and there are coached workouts for things like 10 minute abs or a 7-minute workout, which I really liked.

Fitbit's smartphone app is full of data
Erin Black | CNBC

On the other hand, the Fitbit software on the phone (as opposed to the watch) is great. It provides a good overview of the steps you've taken in a day and plenty of historic data on your heart rate, weight changes, workouts and more. There are even challenges and leaderboards to participate in, though none of this is limited just to the Ionic.

Should you buy one?

I love some of the pre-installed workouts
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Not now.

I was happy to jump right back to my new Apple Watch Series 3, which does almost everything the Fitbit Ionic can do and more.

The only catch is that the Apple Watch Series 3 doesn't work with Android devices. Even then, I think Android users should consider saving money and buying one of the more affordable Fitbit devices.

The Fitbit Charge 2, for example, offers many similar functions but lacks the colorful display, support for payments or an embedded GPS chip. The Fitbit Ionic's problems — most of them bugs — can probably be worked out, so perhaps just wait a few months until it has received software updates.