If you want a smartwatch that'll track your workouts and look as good with your street clothes as it does in the gym, your choices are pretty slim. You can pick up an Apple Watch, or you can get annoyed by all the shortcomings of whatever else you can find to put on your wrist.
But Fitbit isn't ready to throw in the towel just yet. Only a little over half a year after launching its first smartwatch, the Ionic, the activity tracking giant is back with another shot at Apple's crown. The resulting gadget, the Fitbit Versa, just dropped last week.
The new smartwatch is definitely an improvement over its predecessor—it looks better, fits better, and its cheaper at just $299.95—but some concessions keep it from being the true fit-tracking powerhouse it had the potential to become.
The Versatile Versa
I wore Fitbit's Ionic from its launch until I slipped the Versa on for testing—and I knew right at that moment why the company decided to give a smartwatch another shot. I liked the Ionic, but its boxy shape didn't always fit right on my wrist, let alone with everything I was wearing. Its buttons would sometimes get nudged while I was working out, pausing my fitness tracking, and the heart rate monitor could be thrown out of sync.
Not so with the Versa. Fitbit wisely rounded its corners and slimmed it down, making it feel much lighter on the wrist. Once I strapped it on, there were moments that I forgot I was even wearing it, which rarely happened with the Ionic. It bears more than just a passing resemblance to the Apple Watch, but I don't think that's a bad thing. Fitbit's compressed button layout sets it apart, maybe even making it a little sleeker than Apple's devices with their knobby Digital Crowns.
The major advantage Fitbit has over Apple—and just about every other smartwatch competitor I've tested—is its seriously impressive battery life. The first week I wore the watch, I got nearly seven full days of battery life. I was traveling, sick and couldn't work out, so I didn't have a chance push the watch through any activities, but its consistently lasted for five days at a time since I've started really using it. The charger is bigger and clunkier than I'd like, but at least it's not used that often.
The watch works on both iOS and Android, which makes the Versa instantly appealing to Android owners who've been shut out by Apple. Those Android users will also be happy to hear that Fitbit will roll out the ability to respond to text messages on the Versa soon after launch.
The Versa has access to apps via the Fitbit App Gallery, but there's not much worth your time unless you have a Deezer subscription (we haven't heard of it either) or a major Starbucks addiction. There are some cool watch faces available, but changing them is a clunky experience that requires you to use the Fitbit app on your phone.
You can add about 300 songs and connect Bluetooth headphones to the watch itself so you can break free of your smartphone in the gym or on a run, but you won't get GPS tracking on the device itself. That's a bummer if you want to track more than just your vitals.
Like other Fitbits, you can dress up the Versa with different bands to class it up and show the world you do more than just work out. There are multicolored Classic, Horween leather, metal mesh, and metal link options available for purchase separately, in case you want to upgrade to look more like a traditional watch.
Working It Out
Fitbit's main focus is on activity tracking, and the Versa puts fitness front and center. You can track six different types of exercise right on the watch (run, swim, bike, treadmill, weights, and workout) which are logged on the Fitbit app. You can also time your own intervals, which is handy if you're into HIIT training.
If you've used a Fitbit before, the Versa doesn't offer many new tracking wrinkles. You'll get your steps and heart rate on demand, but for most everything else you'll need to pull out your phone to check the app.
I spent most of my time using the weight training capability which is... fine. The Versa can't give me any in-depth insights for my actual workout beyond just my heart rate, which isn't a surprise since the Ionic couldn't either. The watch is more useful for running, but without GPS, I'd rather keep my phone on hand, too.
The heart rate monitor wasn't always consistent during my testing. I wore another device with a monitor, the WHOOP strap, and found that the Versa's readings were often 10 or more beats per minute (BPM) off the other device. You can expect for there to be some variation between two devices—but in other moments of my workout, readings from the two devices were within only a few beats of one another. Another colleague testing the Versa saw major swings in his heart rate during workouts, too. That's bad news if you're trying to maintain a specific threshold during cardio training.
Put The Coach On
Fitbit rolled out a new guided workout service, Coach, along with the Ionic, and I had a chance to give it a try while I tested the Versa. The service comes via a separate app and subscription.
It's a little awkward to get Coach working on the watch, but you can watch the programs on your smartphone screen and listen to pre-selected soundtracks while you get your workout in.
If you're a casual exerciser, you'll probably appreciate the app's video guidance to help master the moves, and the way it personalizes your workouts' difficulty as you use it more. You can enroll in programs to train multiple sessions per week, or select from a number of one off workouts.
If you're someone who knows your way around a weight room, Coach isn't for you. The app only has cardio-centric workouts, so forget about even picking up a dumbbell. You can work up a sweat, but there are precious few gains to go around here.
Overall, Fitbit made some good choices with the Versa. You won't find a smartwatch in its price tier with a battery that can keep up, and its fitness tracking is still top-notch, even with the heart rate monitor issues we experienced.
Importantly, Fitbit gives people who haven't drunk the proverbial Apple juice and pledged loyalty to the iPhone a shot at owning a decent smartwatch. The Versa can't compete head-to-head with Apple's LTE-connected, $500-plus gadgets—but at just $300, it doesn't have to.