Fitbit needs a win. For several years, it was the clear leader in wearables, but its transition to smartwatches has been bumpy: the Fitbit Ionic didn’t sell as well as expected, and Apple has now slid back into the top spot in the global wearables market. Fitbit has insisted that more advanced health tracking is coming — stuff that could potentially track sleep apnea or glucose levels — but in the meantime, it just needs something to sell.
That’s where the Fitbit Versa comes in. It’s a simplified, GPS-free, less expensive version of the Ionic watch, one that’s supposed to have mass-market appeal. It also looks nicer than the Ionic, and as I sit here wearing a rose gold Versa with a watermelon pink band, it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that this is the Fitbit smartwatch for women. But Fitbit has avoided explicitly marketing it this way, similar to the way Garmin describes the Fenix 5S as a fitness watch for smaller wrists.
The Versa also has a battery life of four days on one charge, something that must feel like a thumb in Apple’s eye.
Let’s just say this: I think the $200 Versa has a good chance of appealing to lots of people — but it’s still not perfect.
I’m going to get the bad stuff out of the way to save time for people who really care about smartwatch notifications. The way the Fitbit Versa handles notifications is bad, same as it was on the Ionic. Text message notifications from iOS, in particular, are frustrating. They’re not remotely actionable on the watch, meaning there’s no way to respond to them. (The Versa doesn’t have a speaker or microphone.) Fitbit says that eventually it will roll out quick replies for Android phone users, but that won’t happen until May.
But even if or when shortcut responses for Android roll out, there’s still the way message notifications are displayed on the watch. They roll down from the top, rather than briefly taking priority over the whole screen, and the actual text is tiny. Swiping left on any notification will expand it a bit, but the text size remains the same. Multimedia message notifications don’t display the actual media. I also found there was an annoying lag between when I first felt a notification vibration on my wrist, and when the notification would appear on the display; more times than not, I ended up having to tap the watchface just to see what the alert was.
Phone call notifications were more fluid. I could at least accept and reject phone calls from the watch. The Versa shows calendar notifications, too. But the overall notification experience on the Versa does make you wonder what smartwatches are actually for: are they for health and fitness? Are they supposed to do the things a phone does? Or are they notification devices? The Versa is, perhaps unsurprisingly, more of the former, and not so much the latter.
Another gripe I have about the Versa is that switching watch bands is unnecessarily complicated. Score one for the Apple Watch and any other watch with quick-release straps.
That brings me to the physical build of the watch. The Fitbit Ionic smartwatch was hard-angled and severe looking. The Fitbit Versa is still square-shaped, but with rounded edges and a touchscreen display that slopes into the watch’s anodized aluminum casing. You could even say — and many have already said it — that it looks like an Apple Watch. From afar, it really does.
If you peer at it, you’ll see differences, of course. The watch casing has a beveled edge. The Versa has three physical buttons on it; there’s no “digital crown.” And the LCD display is actually a square cutout, which means you can see bezels if you look closely enough. (That also means Fitbit had enough space to cram the word “fitbit” onto the watchface, a questionable design choice.) The watch comes in black, silver, and rose gold.
One of the nicest aspects of the Versa’s design is how light it is and how flat it lies against the wrist. There’s no bulging underside, no aggressive lugs. In fact, the watch bands taper downward specifically to avoid wider-than-necessary dimensions. This is one of the reasons I think it will appeal to so many people. It’s really easy to wear the Versa 24/7 and forget that you’re wearing it, except for when you need it.
One of Fitbit’s selling points has always been that its devices are compatible with different operating systems, and the same is true with the Versa. It pairs with iPhones, Android phones, even Windows phones. (Those still exist!) It will sync across Windows desktops, too.
Another nice thing about Fitbits is that they’re easy to use. With the Versa, the watch’s UI has been redesigned a little bit to give wearers even easier access to their daily step count, heart rate data, and exercise logs.
The Versa tracks everything you’d expect a Fitbit to track, with built-in GPS being the main thing that’s missing. It measures steps, stairs climbed, calories burned, sleep, distance traveled throughout the day (relying on accelerometer data), heart rate, resting heart rate, cardio score (an approximation of VO2 max, based on cardio exercise data), and a variety of specific exercises. Right now on the loaner watch I’ve been wearing, I have my seven exercise shortcuts set to Run, Swim, Treadmill, Weights, Yoga, Spinning, and Bike. But there are more you can access in the mobile app.
Some of these metrics, like sleep tracking and heart rate tracking, require a leap of faith on the part of the user, which is to say you can expect a certain margin of error. It’s also difficult to say, as a reviewer, how well these work without comparing the Fitbit data to data that’s been rigorously recorded in testing labs.
I did notice that the heart rate readings during exercise sessions appeared to adjust a lot more quickly than it has in previous Fitbit versions. (So, if I wasn’t working out very hard but then suddenly sprinted during spin class, the heart rate reading would spike almost immediately. In the past, there’s been some latency there.) The Versa accurately tracked three distance workouts I did — one hike and two outdoor bike rides — though it was pulling GPS data from my phone for these.
Fitbit now claims it has more than 550 apps and watchfaces in its app gallery, which is what sets newer products like the Ionic and the Versa apart from the Blaze, the first touchscreen watch Fitbit ever made. There’s still something unsophisticated, something Pebble-y about the app gallery. Some of the apps are recognizable, like The New York Times app, Flipboard, Strava, or Surfline. Others are not especially useful (like a flashlight app). One of the watchfaces I installed eventually prompted me to pay for it, which would have been nice information to have before I downloaded it.
There are other features that come with the Versa that I either haven’t used much in the past week or don’t find as appealing. One is Fitbit Coach, a freemium workout app that includes some complimentary exercise guides and costs $7.99 per month after that. I’ve never particularly liked having to look down at my watch in between each workout set, so something like this just isn’t my jam, but some people might like it. Also, the Fitbit Versa and Ionic will soon let female wearers track their menstrual cycles, though that hasn’t rolled out yet.
Another feature is access to Deezer, a streaming music service that lets users download offline playlists to the Versa so you can “stream” music from it. Deezer, which is based in France, is well-known in Europe, but not here in the US. I’m already subscribed to Apple Music and Spotify, so I’m not looking for another $10-per-month service.
Speaking of other markets, the basic, $200 version of the Versa won’t have NFC in the US, which means you can’t pay for stuff with it (like you can with the Ionic). Fitbit cites relatively slow adoption rates in the US as the reason for this.
There’s a natural comparison to be made with the entry-level, Series 1 Apple Watch. The Versa is less expensive, first off. It works with Android phones as well as iPhones. And its feature list is uncannily close to the Apple Watch’s; it even has a “Relax” app that’s similar to the Apple Watch’s “Breathe” app. Neither of these watches have built-in GPS. And, with the brightness set to auto, the Versa’s battery lasted from a Monday afternoon to a Friday morning before I had to charge it again. (Even then, it had 21 percent left. I just didn’t want it to die during the day.)
The Series 1 Apple Watch does let you pay for things from your wrist, though. And if you’re an iPhone user, the notification and overall app experience on the Apple Watch is far better than the experience on the Fitbit Versa. There are little things to consider, too, like how you can unlock your MacBook with an Apple Watch. Fitbit also doesn’t share data to Apple Health, another drawback for iPhone users.
So it all comes down to how much you want to pay, how tied into the Apple ecosystem you are, and how much you care about battery life. Fitbit may have a hard time luring hardcore Apple fans away, especially since the Versa is coming to market years after the original Apple Watch. On the flip side, it may be appealing to Android users, as Google’s Wear OS smartwatch platform has stagnated at this point.
Ultimately, I think the Versa has a chance to appeal to everyone other than those hardcore Apple users — and that’s saying something for Fitbit right now.
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