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Excellent fitness tracker, mediocre smartwatch

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Really comfortable • Super light • Very bright screen • Superb fitness tracking • Long battery life

No built-in GPS • Bands are difficult to swap • Fitbit OS is still weak • NFC costs extra • Takes forever to change watch faces via app

Fitbit’s new Versa is a cheaper, more comfortable, fitness-focused smartwatch than its model for athletes, the Ionic, but it still can’t compare to the Apple Watch.

I think it’s fair to say few people liked Fitbit’s Ionic smartwatch released last fall. It was expensive at $300 and its retro-looking design was a tad too boxy for many (especially women). 

All of Fitbit’s well-known tracking features were present, but Fitbit OS left a lot to be desired. The Apple Watch was simply the better buy.

Fitbit’s new Versa smartwatch still isn’t on par with an Apple Watch. Apple’s wearable is already way ahead of the competition and it’s the best choice if you want myriad fitness-tracking and smartwatch features.

However, if you’re fine with a smartwatch that doesn’t have every bell and whistle, but can still track all your fitness needs, the Versa is a good-looking, comfortable, long-lasting, and cheaper alternative that starts at $200.

Comfiest Fitbit ever

Swapping watch faces on the Versa requires the Fitbit smartphone app. It's a pain in the ass and takes forever.

Swapping watch faces on the Versa requires the Fitbit smartphone app. It’s a pain in the ass and takes forever.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Right out of the box, the Versa is a much better-looking smartwatch than the Ionic. Though I didn’t dislike the Ionic’s retro-ish design, I know plenty of friends and colleagues who thought it looked ugly on the wrist.

With such criticism, it’s no surprise Fitbit went back to the drawing board to produce a more aesthetically pleasing design that’s more unisex. The case resembles an iOS app icon and now has rounded corners, a thinner profile that’s slimmer than an Apple Watch, and comes in several colors (black, silver, and rose gold).

I’ve been trying out the black aluminum Versa with matching black silicone band for the last few weeks and several things jumped out to me.

The Fitbit Versa is thin and light and you hardly ever notice it on your wrist.

The Fitbit Versa is thin and light and you hardly ever notice it on your wrist.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

It’s really comfortable. I can confidently say the Versa is the most comfortable Fitbit wearable — smartwatch or fitness tracker — I’ve ever used. Even on my bony wrists, the Versa feels good. It’s light enough that I hardly ever noticed I had it on, and it didn’t bother me at all when I wore it to bed.

The screen is really bright. The Ionic had a great display that worked brilliantly in direct sunlight and the Versa does too. The display’s a little smaller (1.35 inches with 300 x 300 resolution) than the Ionic’s 1.45-inch screen and the 38mm Apple Watch’s 1.5-inch display, but it never was an issue.

The bezels are huge. Our TVs and phones have slim bezels, so why not our smartwatches? I was quick to voice my worries for the Versa’s thick bezels (so thick Fitbit had room to slap its name on the bottom one), but they’re not as offensive in person. A larger screen with slimmer bezels would have been welcome, but maybe that’ll come in the next model.

Swapping bands is clunky. Like the Apple Watch, you can buy different bands to mix and match with your Versa: classic silicone bands ($30), Horween leather bands ($60), and metal links ($100). Versa bands use a spring mechanism, but unlike swapping bands on an Apple Watch or Wear OS smartwatch, doing so on the Fitbit is pretty cumbersome. It took me several minutes (yes, really) to swap the band on the Versa and when I finally managed to complete the overly cumbersome task, I vowed never to swap the band again.

All-star fitness tracking

No surprise: The Fitbit Versa is great at tracking your fitness stuff.

No surprise: The Fitbit Versa is great at tracking your fitness stuff.

Image: raymond wong/mashable

Like the Ionic, the Versa puts fitness and health tracking front and center. Everything else is secondary.

As you’d expect, the Versa is very good at counting your steps, distance, calories burned, amount of activity (all of that good stuff) you’ve done and then presenting it all on the redesigned and more intuitive Fitbit OS interface and Fitbit smartphone app.

The Versa has pretty much every fitness and health-tracking feature found on the Ionic. It’s constantly recording your heart rate, it tracks your different sleep cycles, and it has a handful of automatic activity tracking modes for running, biking, swimming (the Versa is waterproof up to 50 meters), and weightlifting (to name a few).

The heart-rate monitor on the Fitbit Versa constantly tracks your BPMs throughout the day.

The heart-rate monitor on the Fitbit Versa constantly tracks your BPMs throughout the day.

Image: raymond wong/mashable

You can also get a couple of free workouts on the Versa through the Fitbit Coach app, but if you want to unlock more you’ll have to pony up for a $40 per year subscription, which of course also gives you access to video workouts on your phone or tablet. Basically, if you’re a big fitness buff, you’ll probably find Fitbit Coach useful.

All your tracked data is organized neatly in the Fitbit app.

All your tracked data is organized neatly in the Fitbit app.

Image: screenshot: raymond wong/mashable

The Versa has a few neat features worth highlighting. One of them is a “Relax” app that helps you de-stress with a timed breathing session. Breathing sessions are set to five minutes by default (a bit long), but luckily you can change that to a shorter two-minute session in the settings. The Relax app works almost exactly like the the built-in Breathe app on the Apple Watch (Apple Watch lets you set the breathing session between 1-5 minutes, though).

At the end of the day, the Versa is a Fitbit and it does all the things a Fitbit should do. I’d be really worried if the Versa’s fitness-tracking capabilities regressed.

No built-in GPS on the entry-level Versa. To get it you'll need to pay another $30 for the Special Edition.

No built-in GPS on the entry-level Versa. To get it you’ll need to pay another $30 for the Special Edition.

Image: raymond wong/mashable

Noticeably missing on the standard Versa is a built-in GPS like on the Ionic and Apple Watch Series 3. The regular Versa has Assisted GPS borrowed from a paired smartphone, which means you won’t get detailed mapping for your runs without it. 

Update: Health tracking for women

The other practical health-based feature in the Versa is menstrual cycle tracking. If you’ve used other period-tracking apps, then Fitbit’s version of the feature will look familiar. The feature is available by default to everyone who identifies as female on their Fitbit profile, but you can also add the feature manually if don’t identify as female.

Using the Fitbit app, you log when your period starts and ends, and the app will predict future periods based on your cycle. The more you log, the more accurate its predictions are. For each day, you can also log additional details about flow intensity and other symptoms, like cramps or headaches. 

The app also offers basic fertility tracking, so you can see when you’re most likely to become pregnant. (Notably, Fitbit shows you a “fertile window” spanning several days, not just the day you’re supposed to be ovulating, like some period-tracking apps.)

The Fitbit Versa lets you see where you are in your cycle from your wrist.

The Fitbit Versa lets you see where you are in your cycle from your wrist.

All information is logged in the Fitbit app, but you can see some basic details about where you are in your cycle on the Versa as well. 

The features are fairly basic for now. If all you’e looking for is an easy way to remember when you’re supposed to get your next period, then what’s available for Versa more than does the trick. If, however, you’re already using a dedicated period tracker app, Fitbit’s version may be too basic. 

One thing I do appreciate about Fitbit’s approach is that the company takes some steps to help you make sense of your data. Once you’ve been using the feature for a few months, the app is able to show you trends, which makes the feature feel a lot more personalized.

Where Fitbit has a significant potential advantage, though, is when you think about how menstrual cycle tracking can be incorporated into the rest of the service’s health and fitness tracking. Hormonal fluctuations can have a significant impact on how you sleep, eat, and exercise — all of which Fitbit is also tracking. Eventually, the company says, it incorporate all of this data together to give you a more holistic view of your health. 

But, even without that more advanced data, the addition of health tracking features specifically for women is a welcome addition. (section written by Karissa Bell)

Smartwatch is still afterthought 

Despite an overhauled design and robust fitness tracking, the Versa is still an average smartwatch.

Fitbit OS is slightly more intuitive this time around, but the Versa still drops the ball on many core smartwatch features.

Almost all of the shortcomings I had with the Ionic are still present on the Versa. Changing watch faces is tedious and a pain in the ass. You can only change them from the Fitbit mobile app, and the selection of watch faces are mediocre. Whether from Fitbit or not, the watch faces do the trick, but none of them are what I’d call classy. Most of them cram too much info onto the screen:

I'm not a fan of these watch faces.

I’m not a fan of these watch faces.

Image: screenshot: raymond wong/mashable

The Versa has local storage good for holding up to 300 songs and works with Pandora and Deezer (new), but that’s it. Where’s Spotify? Not to mention, getting MP3s onto the Versa also requires connecting it to a computer. 

Notifications haven’t been improved, either. The Versa works with both iOS and Android and you can see notifications pop up on its little screen, but you can’t interact with them. For example, my iMessages come through on the Versa, but there’s no way for me to respond to them because Apple doesn’t allow anything other than an Apple Watch that.

Anyone use Deezer for music?

Anyone use Deezer for music?

Image: raymond wong/mashable

Fitbit says quick replies, which will work with services like Facebook, Slack, and Messenger, are coming for Android users in a spring update later. The company is apparently figuring out “workarounds” for a similar feature on iOS, but I wouldn’t get my hopes up. Any workarounds are likely to be half-baked or in violation of Apple’s terms of service.

Furthermore, the standard Versa doesn’t come with NFC, which means there’s no Fitbit Pay. If you really want the feature, you can step up to the $230 Special Edition.

One key way the Versa bests the Apple Watch is battery life. Like the Ionic, the Versa is a battery champ and gets up to four days of battery life compared to the Apple Watch’s 1-2 days. I actually got up to 4.5 days.

Final word

The screen's really bright even outdoors.

The screen’s really bright even outdoors.

Image: raymond wong/mashable

Fitbit’s second stab at a smartwatch is much better than its first try. From the design to the improved software, there are clear influences taken from its Pebble acquisition that translate to a more polished smartwatch.

I’ve been comparing the Versa to the Apple Watch Series 3, which starts at $330, but a fairer comparison would be to the less powerful Apple Watch Series 1, which starts at $249. Both don’t come with built-in GPS. The Versa’s swim-proof whereas the Series 1 isn’t. Apple’s smartwatch beats the Versa for overall smartwatch capabilities, though. However, if you value long battery life, the Versa is the clear winner.

Without a doubt, the Versa is an affordable and attractive fitness wearable. It has all the fitness tracking a Fitbit should have. The smartwatch half, however, still has a ways to go.

This review originally published on Apr. 3, 2018, and was updated with the section on female health tracking on Oct. 11, 2018.

Correction: The original review incorrectly stated the Special Edition comes with built-in GPS.

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