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Fitbit's new $200 watch does the basics, but feels way behind the Apple Watch

Key Points
  • The Fitbit Versa 2 is a nice-looking fitness wearable with a good screen, great battery solid and solid tracking features.
  • The software feels really outdated, though, and it's not clear how good its new premium plans will be.
I like the new bright screen.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The Versa 2 is Fitbit's new $200 smartwatch that includes all of the company's fitness-tracking features. It adds things like Amazon Alexa, which you can talk to after pressing a button on the watch, and a nice new screen.

Fitbit's business has been hurting as companies like Apple run away with the premium smartwatch market. It lowered guidance in its second quarter earnings by $95 million to $1.45 billion after sales of the $160 Versa Lite came in lower than expected. For the full fiscal year, it now expects a loss of 31 cents to 38 cents a share, significantly worse than the 15 cents per share previously expected.

Given poor Versa Lite sales, it's curious that Fitbit is launching a more expensive watch, since it seems the company's market is in lower-cost devices like the $70 Inspire.

I've been using the Versa 2 for a week, and here's what I think.

What's good: Attractive hardware, decent phone apps

The always-on-display on the Fitbit Versa 2.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Fitbit did a nice job with the hardware for the Fitbit Versa 2. It has a bright and colorful OLED screen that's easy to see inside and outside. It's light and didn't feel too bulky when I wore it to bed for sleep tracking. The screen is responsive, too, so it's easy to swipe around and open apps or to start a workout.

I like that you can compete with friends, like the Apple Watch.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

One of the unique new software features is Amazon Alexa. I was able to link the Fitbit Versa 2 with my Amazon account to use Alexa, which I programmed to the side power button. When I held it, I could ask Alexa to turn my lights on or off or check the weather.

It's convenient, but it can't do other stuff, like start playing music on the watch or tell me how well I slept last night. I wish Fitbit worked to tie Alexa in a bit better. Also, you don't hear Alexa's responses, you can only see them on the screen. Speaker support would have been good.

Alexa on the Fitbit Versa 2.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Fitbit's apps for Android and iPhone are still really good. I like that they show you your steps, workouts, how well you slept and more all in one place. But you get that with any Fitbit.

However, the Versa 2 can sync with an Android phone so that you can respond to text messages via voice from your watch, as long as your phone is nearby and connected to Bluetooth (only viewing is supported on iPhone). I was impressed at how well it picked up and understood what I was saying. It barely ever got anything wrong.

The battery life is pretty solid, too. Fitbit promises up to five days if you have the "always on display" option off. I left it on, since I liked being able to look down and see the time whenever I wanted, I got just over three days of battery life, wearing it nonstop and using it for phone notifications, sleep tracking and more.

There are guided workouts if you pay for premium plans.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I also like Fitbit Coach, which has a bunch of preset workouts you can follow along with by looking at your watch. It costs $7.99 per month and will soon be replaced by Fitbit Premium, which adds in more workouts and some coaching features. That's launching later this month, so I'll revisit it the feature when it's live.

The sleep app is detailed, but the scores don't mean much to me or reflect how well I feel.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Like other Fitbits, the Versa 2 can track your sleep. It seemed to work well, accurately showing when I woke up in the night, though the data didn't always reflect how I felt the next day. There's a new "Sleep Score" that you get after each night, for example. On a night I got eight hours of sleep, I received a score of 81. But I didn't feel rested that day. On a night Fitbit said I got five hours and three minutes of sleep (never enough for me!) I got a "poor" score of 55. But I felt great. So I'm not sure what it's trying to tell me.

I took it for a few quick walks, but you need your phone for GPS.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

There's a reason why it can last so long: There's no built-in GPS, a known battery hog. Instead, unlike the more expensive $250 Fitbit Ionic, the Fitbit Versa 2 relies on your phone's GPS to track you. That means you need to have your phone on you if you want to see exactly where you ran or walked.

What's bad: Outdated software

I like how slim the Versa 2 is.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The Fitbit app for phones is great. The software on the Versa 2 itself is not.

For one, the watch faces are boring. While there's an "app store," most of it is filled with really basic stuff like calculators, map apps that feel half-baked, lots of homemade watch faces and mini games. There are some decent apps, like Starbucks, which lets you pay in store, but the vast majority doesn't feel even close to as finished as what you find on an Apple Watch. The United Airlines app, for example, still doesn't see the flight I have coming up next week.

The United app can't find my upcoming flight.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Then there are the apps that Fitbit worked with partners on. Pandora, Deezer and Spotify all work on the Fitbit Versa 2, but they're not great. Pandora limits you to syncing just three playlists, for example. Deezer lets you sync a more robust selection, and was my music app of choice on the Fitbit Versa 2, but it took more than a half hour to sync my music. Not exactly what you want when you're about to head out to the gym. Also, you need to pay for those services to sync them.

While Spotify is technically available, it's severely limited -- all you can do is control the songs you're playing on other speakers or from your phone. You can't download and sync music from Spotify to the Fitbit Versa 2. You can sync MP3 files with the watch, but I don't even know where my MP3 library is at this point.

The Apple Watch and Samsung Galaxy Watch are just infinitely better when it comes to music.

The interface feels dated. And Spotify doesn't let you save music offline.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The watch software, in general, just feels super outdated. In fact, it just looks like a colorful and brighter version of what Pebble had before Fitbit bought that company in 2017.

I got a rash after wearing it for three days straight. It went away after I took off the Fitbit and loosened the band.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Finally, and this is a big one, beware of the Fitbit rash. Several Fitbit products over the years have given some people rashes, and the Fitbit Versa 2 gave me one after three days. When I talked to the company about it, I was told that someone on the communications team had something similar, and that the rash went away after she loosened the band a notch. I did that and so far haven't had any itchy redness, but keep it in mind. I haven't ever gotten a rash from an Apple Watch or smartwatches from Fossil and Samsung, so I'm not quite sure why Fitbit keeps having this problem.

In a statement, a Fitbit spokesperson said users should wear the watch loosely and keep it clean and dry to prevent skin irritation.

Should you buy it?

The Fitbit Versa 2 screen is bright and colorful.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I don't think you should rush out and buy it. Wait to see what Fitbit Premium, Fitbit's new $9.99/month subscription service offers, and if the workouts and coaching actually help it stand out against other devices.

Apple is expected to announce new watches on Tuesday as well, which means last year's Series 4 devices will come down in price. Or pick up an Apple Watch Series 3.

If you need sleep tracking or just walk to check your steps, consider a Fitbit Inspire HR, which costs half as much at $100. If you're on Android, check out the Galaxy Watch or wait until the Galaxy Active 2 launches later this month and see how that stacks up.

The hardware is fine, Alexa is neat but unnecessary and the battery life is great. But the watch's software is outdated, it lacks GPS and doesn't have as seamless a music or app experience as other wearables. For $200, you should expect that.

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