[dropcap size=small]R[/dropcap]emember Fitbit’s first “true” smartwatch, the Ionic? The 2017 release was panned for not holding a candle to its contemporaries in areas outside of health tracking. After all, the number one wearables company had acquired members of the legendary Pebble team (who famously crowdsourced millions of dollars to produce the world’s first modern smartwatches), and that had to count for something.
The new Fitbit Versa, a far cry from the boxy, dated form of its predecessor.
Alas, though the Ionic was a solid tool for fitness enthusiasts, the refusal to go on the ubiquitous Android Wear ecosystem presented issues that would plague San Fran-based firm’s first foray into crowded smartwatch territory (the Fitbit Blaze doesn’t count). Ionic ran on the in-house, bare bones OS, which underperformed at times. Early adopters were starved of app choices in the nascent app marketplace. Music transfer and connectivity issues were absolute bugbears. It didn’t help that the watch looked like it came right off the set of Back to the Future – they were boxy, cold and unapologetically big.
Forgive the long intro – the Ionic’s shortfalls are why Fitbit is taking this second swing barely half a year later with the Fitbit Versa. It’s an attempt to capture a rapidly maturing market that’s looking to make wearables part of their lives. And it’s a promising one, too. We got our mitts on a unit right after its Singapore release, and we’ll admit, first impressions are great.
Most noticeable is the improved form factor of the Versa – it’s ditched the huge rectangle and opted for the tried-and-true rounded square face that looks much more modern and compact. The weight of the device is still astoundingly negligible (we’ll find some scales and give you a final figure in our full review). The OS feels far more fluid, and app choices have sprouted now that more developers have had time with the new software.
Hard to ignore, too, is the significant reduction in price. The Versa costs two-thirds of what you had to shell out for an Ionic and retails in Singapore for $318 (down from $458). The only notable function dropped between the two is the on-board GPS. Ignore reviews from the U.S. that say NFC payment has been nixed from the base model; that applies to only the States, where Fitbit Pay has been tied to the Special Edition. Ours is working perfectly well with an OCBC credit card; Fitbit is working to bring more banks into the fold.
The Versa’s attempted to shore up the music front by partnering up with music service Deezer. That’s not quite Spotify, but it gets the job done, and each Versa comes with a generous three-month Deezer trial . Sadly, the transfer of music files to the watch’s impressive 2.5GB storage must still be done by wi-fi, a tedious process that’ll haunt those that change their playlists with any regularity. Do remember that playing your soundtracks requires a wireless Bluetooth audio device.
Comparisons drawn between the Versa and other smartwatches are inevitable, but prospective buyers should note that the value-add of a Fitbit comes from its proprietary health-centric apps, and the crunching of some millions of hours of user data to make sense of the readings. Harsh as it may sound, as long as they’re on Fitbit OS, Fitbit gear will never go toe-to-toe with the functionality of full smartwatches and their huge app developer bases. Conversely, those examples haven’t been able to rival what Fitbits bring to the table in superior health and wellness tracking.
Some highly-touted functions such as the ability to finally issue brief replies via the watch (Android only, for now), and a dedicated menstrual cycle tracker – handy for the ladies – are slated for a May implementation. For our assessment of those new features, stay tuned for our in-depth review in the weeks to come.