While many devices that I come across fall into the "nice, but you probably don't need one" category, anything that encourages you to get more exercise and do it well are must-have gadgets.
At $499 the Fitbit Ionic isn't cheap; the Apple Watch Series 3 starts at $529 and it too offers fitness tracking functionality, and on top of that, features such as navigation that the Ionic doesn't have.
The Ionic does have one feature that will endear it to any smartwatch users: long battery life. Fitbit rates the Ionic as lasting four to five days between charges. In my use, the Ionic would go for around four days before needing a battery top up.
Not having to take your fitness tracker/smartwatch off your wrist to charge very often means fewer gaps in the records of how you're doing.
This is great, and something I wish Apple would figure out for the Watch, which needs charging after a day and half the way I use it.
The design of the Fitbit Ionic is angular, big, and more functional than pretty. Three case colours are available, with my review specimen being light grey; you can get the Ionic with dark grey and orange/blue cases as well.
I would've liked a different, more breathable band than the one that came with the watch, for greater comfort because this is smartwatch that you'll wear lots, including while asleep.
It's waterproof to 50 metres depth, and has buttons too as the otherwise excellent and easy to read touch screen doesn't work in the wet.
You can get email and other notifications on the Ionic, and ASB customers can load up their Visa cards to the device for Paywave style payments, which is handy as you don't need to carry a card or cash while out exercising.
There's approximately 2.5 gigabytes of storage for music on the Ionic, and Fitbit has come out with the Flyer rechargeable wireless headphones that cost a wallet-smarting $230; I didn't try the Flyer.
Getting sweaty with the Ionic
The Ionic has several different activities it can track, including Running, Biking, Swimming, Treadmill, Weights, Interval Timer and Workout modes - I tried all apart from biking and swimming, and found them clear and simple to use, with plenty of information provided.
Overall, I found the software for the Fitbit good, both on the device and in the cloud-based service that's accessed via a web page. The summary that's sent via email of how much you've achieved is easy to read and a nice pat on the back for when you reach and exceed your exercise goals.
I ran and walked wearing both the Fitbit Ionic and the Apple Watch, and found that the former would give longer distances and more steps than the latter. The difference between the two wasn't much, and it's more important to get a general idea of how much you're doing rather than a totally accurate measurement, in my opinion.
Likewise, the heart rate monitoring figures varied between the two devices, but again, there wasn't that much of a difference.
There's also an app ecosystem building for the Ionic for third party developers but it's not as expansive as competing vendors' marketplaces.
One bug I encountered stopped the Fitbit from syncing the data it had collected with the associated iOS app. That was fixable by deleting the app from my iPhone and reinstalling it. No data was lost.
If you're deciding between the Fitbit Ionic and the Apple Watch, the former is more aimed at fitness tracking, and the latter a more complete smartwatch.
During the review period, the Fitbit Coach functionality arrived. It assembles a workout for you and guides you through it with audio guidance - and adapts the workout to your performance.
This is potentially a great feature that Fitbit added via the Fitstar company it bought last year, but it's a premium service that costs between either $12 a month or $60 a year to subscribe to and I didn't have time to check it out fully.
Physical activity is more than going as hard as you can, and like Apple Watch, the Fitbit Ionic will count the amount of steps you take every day. I liked the hourly steps goal reminder, as it helps you build up towards a larger total.
The Ionic can track your sleeping patterns as well, with a firmware upgrade that arrived after I got the device.
This was actually the feature I was most excited about, as I rate sleeping even higher than exercise. Well, the two go hand in hand as you'll definitely perform much better after a good night's sleep.
Sadly, the Fitbit Ionic was not able to make me achieve my goal of at least eight hours sleep at night; only a less busy and stressy life will do that.
The sleep tracking appears to be work in progress still, and recording your ZZzzs was a bit hit and miss. I hope Fitbit will continue to hone the sleep tracking, and improve on a really important feature.
Smarter fitness tracking please
One thing I found myself wanting was more smarts in the software and Ionic and other devices.
It should be that you wear the device, and do whatever you like; the wearable should work out what you're doing, and measure that activity.
Like the Apple Watch, the Ionic would stop the timer and interval meter when you've set it for running, and started to walk or stood still. That's great, but I accidentally set the Ionic to the Workout mode when I was running, and missed out on recording what was probably a personal best time that day (still pathetically slow, but anyway).
A fitness tracker that automatically and accurately detects activities so you don't have to set anything yourself must be the holy grail here surely?
During the review period, I wore the Fitbit Ionic lots, showered with it on and dunked it into a hot spa pool because that's the kind of crazy reviewer person I am.
The watch survived all that, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Fitbit as a brand is in Consumer's bad books for poor reliability.
Fitbit responded to my questions about the reliability doubts in the Consumer survey, saying: "The Ionic is our most advanced technology to date and follows a long line of innovative and popular Fitbit products that have redefined how we learn about and manage our health."
Also just wanted to reinforce that Fitbit Charge 2 and Flex 2 were available from October 2016 at major high street New Zealand retailers, and Alta HR was launched in March 2017.
So most of our current devices, including our latest Ionic, would not have been featured in that report."
That doesn't answer my query, but here's hoping Fitbit has lifted its game, and addressed the reliability concerns of the past.
Overall, devices like the Ionic are great for encouraging people to move around more. Even if $500 seems expensive, it's cheap if you become more fit and healthier by pushing you towards a more active mindset.
From that point of view, a Fitbit Ionic is a feature rich no-brainer investment in your health.