It’s tough being a fitness-tracker maker. Nike, Jawbone, and Microsoft all abandoned the market entirely. Fitbit soldiers on, but it hasn’t been easy.
It’s not that people have stopped caring about their health. It’s that little by little, smartwatches have been eating fitness bands’ lunch. So Fitbit Inc. (FIT) figured: “Well, we better make a smartwatch then!”
The first attempt, last year’s Fitbit Ionic, was a dud. (Here’s my review.) It was huge. It looked like you were wearing a car door on your wrist. And it cost $300, almost as much as an Apple Watch did at the time.
Well, good news all around: Fitbit has brought forth a second smartwatch. It’s called the Versa, and it takes a sledgehammer to everything that was wrong with the Ionic.
Size and shape
The Versa costs $200 instead of $300. Nicely done, Fitbit. (The two-year-old Apple Watch Series 1 starts at $250. The newer Apple Watch 3 starts at $330 and goes up to $1,400.)
And instead of being big, homely, angular and wrapping halfway around your wrist, the Versa is small, sweet and unbelievably light (eight-tenths of an ounce), even though it’s made of metal (aluminum).
The Versa is smaller and thinner than the Apple Watch. It’s slightly wider, but that’s fine — it makes much more sense to expand along the direction that your arm goes, rather than trying to be a flat object on your curved wrist.
Small is huge. Small means less obtrusive. Small means better suited for many women.
And small means stylish. You can get the Versa in black, silver, or peach aluminum; a “special edition” costs $30 more and comes in dark gray or rose gold. All of them look great, and you can make them look even greater by replacing the included silicone band with a leather, cloth, metal-mesh, or metal-links band.
You can swap bands without tools, but it takes practice. Even after 20 minutes, I never could get the leather band to go on.
And here’s the truly great part: Fitibt says it goes “four-plus days” on a charge, but it always under-advertises battery life. My review unit is happily ticking away on Day Six. Take that, Apple Watch, which you have to charge every single night (and therefore can’t use to track your sleep)!
You do, however, sacrifice something for the cheaper price and smaller size: built-in GPS. The Ionic has it, the Versa doesn’t. If you want to map your runs or rides, you have to take your phone with you; the Versa’s software grabs its GPS information from the phone itself.
On the U.S. base model, you also lose Fitbit Pay, which lets you pay for things with your wrist at wireless terminals. Alas, the list of recognizable participating banks are still limited — American Express, Bank of America, Capital One, Wells Fargo, and U.S. Bank. Chase is coming soon. If your credit card comes from one of those banks, and you care about this feature, it’s available for an additional $30 on the Special Edition.
The Versa’s features are mostly identical to the Ionic watch’s, although the new operating system (also available for the Ionic) greatly simplifies navigation.
The Versa has water resistance down to 50 meters, swim tracking and lap counting, 2.5 gigabytes for storing music to play (over wireless earbuds), and auto-recognition of seven different exercises. It offers guided breathing sessions when you need to relax, and optional hourly reminders to get up and move around. It can wake you silently with a vibration alarm.
When it comes to tracking your health, the Versa is a champ. It tallies your steps, calories, and distance; flights of stairs you’ve taken; minutes of exertion; continuous heart rate; and your stages of sleep, which is remarkably accurate and informative.
Underneath, the heart-rate sensor has a third LED light, capable of detecting how much blood oxygen you’ve got (your relative SPO2). Someday, that statistic could provide early detection for conditions like atrial fibrillation or sleep apnea, which would be a huge deal for millions of people.
(Personal sob story: My favorite Fitbit is the incredibly slim, small Fitbit Alta. It does a great job of tracking my stats, including heart rate, during the day and night. But when a foot injury drove me to switch from jogging to stationary biking, I discovered, like many others, that the Alta wouldn’t record my heart rate during exercise! It either dramatically under-reported my pulse rate, or didn’t pick up a pulse at all.
Online, many people with that problem solved it by switching to the fatter Fitbit Charge 2 band (my review). For me, that band did much better — but still sometimes underreported compared to a Polar chest strap. I’m happy to report that the Versa’s heart-rate monitor is dead on during exercise —within a beat or two of the chest-strap’s measurement. Every time.)
Fitbit Coach guides you through three basic workouts (Warm Up, 7-Minute Workout, 10-Minute Abs) on the watch: a few seconds of a jerky animation illustrating each exercise, and then statistics and timing as you perform it. For $40 a year, you can get guided video workouts that play on the Fitbit website or on your smartphone. There’s a huge variety of duration and intensity, no equipment is required, and Fitbit says that the workouts adjust their intensity based on your own feedback.
Versa the smartwatch
Is the Versa, in fact, a smartwatch at all? I guess it depends on how you define that term. Smartwatches from companies like Apple and Samsung usually offer features like these:
- Choice of watch faces. Maybe you like digital, or analog, or elegant, or complicated. The Versa’s app store now offers dozens of faces. Unfortunately, you have to choose them from the phone app (not on the watch) — and making a new selection involves a very slow Bluetooth transfer.
- Notifications. Smartwatches can notify you on your wrist whenever one of your phone apps is trying to get your attention (you choose which apps). That’s especially useful when incoming calls and texts arrive. On the Versa, you can’t freely reply or take a call, as you can on the Apple Watch. In May, you’ll be able to respond with canned shortcut responses, but only on Android phones (not iPhones).
- Music. You can load about 300 songs onto the Versa, for playback through Bluetooth wireless earbuds when you’re working out. But you must load them from your computer using a crude Mac or Windows app called Fitbit Connect; it shows only playlists, not songs or albums. There are also Pandora and Deezer apps, but they require a paid subscription. There’s no Spotify.
- Voice assistants. On real smartwatches, you can speak to Siri or the Google Assistant, and hear spoken replies. The Versa has no speaker or microphone, so it can’t do any of that.
- An app store. Fitbit’s smartwatch app store has finally begun to pick up steam. There are now about 500 apps available to install on your Versa, including Starbucks, Strava, New York Times, Weather, and so on. They’re all fairly slow and very simple.
Still to come
Fitbit is working hard to make the Versa attractive to women. Starting in May, you’ll be able to record every detail of your menstrual cycle in the Fitbit app — intensity, symptoms, and, of course, dates. Thereafter, it will display a calendar depicting your predicted period week in pink, and fertility window in blue.
Plenty of phone apps do exactly this, but having it part of the Fitbit app makes a lot of sense, because it’s tied in to all your other health stats. Eventually, the company plans to incorporate this other data (heart rate, for example) into its calculations, for even better accuracy.
To be clear, the Versa is not a smartwatch in the Apple Watch or Samsung Gear sense. It’s not a premium piece of jewelry that runs incredibly fast, runs thousands of apps, has a voice assistant, lets you respond to calls and texts, offers magnetic charging, have its own cellular connection, and so on.
But the Versa’s specs — five-day battery life, a $200 price tag, and small, sweet looks — define a worthy category unto itself. You’ll really like this thing.
David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, welcomes non-toxic comments in the Comments below. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s firstname.lastname@example.org. You can sign up to get his stuff by email, here.
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