“That’s a nice watch,” said my colleague, about an hour after I strapped the Fitbit Versa to my person. The new fitness tracker, the company’s third pass at a smartwatch you can wear for days at a time, is a welcome update to its butt-ugly predecessor. The £200 Versa will more than likely satisfy any fitness enthusiast, casual athlete, or health nut looking for an exercise-centric (and long-lasting) wearable, but the dearth of available apps combined with the closeness in price to other, more capable wearables make it a tough sell for nerds who need more.
At least it’s cuter than the last one!
Where the Fitbit Ionic fell flat on its face from a design perspective, the Versa attempts to rectify with a more staid and unassuming look. Say goodbye to the angular, science-fiction look found on the Ionic and the equally gauche Fitbit Blaze, and say hello to the Versa’s aluminium construction, black-on-black color scheme, and smoothed corners that scream “my first smartwatch” more than anything. In addition to black, it’s available in rose gold or silver, with the NFC-equipped Versa Special Edition available in rose gold or graphite.
Even with the changes in design, the Fitbit Versa looks rather bland. It’s “squircle” shape is similar to the equally boring Apple Watch, but it’s less polished, and has a larger bezel making it wider than its squircle-shaped competitor, even if it is thinner.
Neither can match the style found in the round smartwatches running Google’s Wear OS, but even computers can’t escape the fact that fashion is pain. Those name brand and pricey haute couture devices suffer from god-awful battery life and underpowered hardware, giving the Versa the opening it needs to be an alternative device for people looking for something to track their runs as well as their rest without drawing attention like some gaudy fitness band.
The saving grace of the Ionic was its incredible battery life, which meant going a day or two (or six) without a recharge didn’t turn your smartwatch into a wrist-mounted paperweight. The Versa’s estimated battery life of over four days, while a step back, is still impressive compared to the similarly priced Apple Watch Series 1 and its “up to 18 hours” of battery life. Those extra days mean more time spent actually using your watch for gathering information like sleep data and average heart rate information, and less time inserting it into a charging cradle.
Speaking of charging cradles! The Versa’s, which uses a proprietary clasp-like mechanism to lock the smartwatch in place, is pretty damn annoying. The cradle’s unweighted base means you’ll be fiddling with its cable to keep it flat on your table. In contrast, the Ionic’s simpler (and proprietary) charging cable connects to the device’s underside.
Both charging methods are inferior compared to wearables like Nokia’s Steel HR or the Apple Watch, two devices that have simple charging bases that require no fiddling, futzing, clasping, or grasping. In addition, the Fitbit faithful will be happy to know the three-prong charging cable on the Ionic is incompatible with the Versa’s four-prong charging contacts. Lovely.
If I had to charge this thing every night, you better believe I’d be looking for some knockoff charging dock that needed a lot less gripping and clicking, but that long battery life means I seldom interact with the annoyance. Small miracles, I suppose.
Where the Versa excels is in its interface. All relevant health data (along with the time) can be seen on the customisable clock face. Swiping at the screen’s edges will reveal your notifications, and let you browse the day’s health data so you can keep tabs on your step count, heart rate, and burned calories. You can also swipe and tap to rearrange and use apps installed on the Versa via Fitbit’s smartphone app. And if you have a uterus, the update coming soon will add period tracking to the watch’s list of features as well.
The Versa supports notifications like texts, calendar alerts, phone calls, along with notifications from messaging services like Slack, but replying is out of the question, at least for iOS users. The quick reply feature, making text responses a one tap solution, is on the way for Android users.
Lag was hardly an issue, even after receiving a blast of thirty-eight text messages from a group chat about an upcoming Dungeons & Dragons campaign. In that respect it trounces its main competition, the Apple Watch Series 1, which is slow as molasses when it comes to opening apps or interacting with smart home functions. The Versa also does a bang-up job displaying the information you actually care about: your fitness data.
The smartphone companion app makes it equally simple to take anywhere from a glance to a deep dive on your fitness data. You can easily edit the dashboard and rearrange it to highlight the data you care about most. In my case, that meant sticking my heart rate and sleep data above the fold, and throwing elements like caloric intake and water consumption at the bottom.
Fitbit claims it has, combined, over 550 clock faces and apps available for both the Ionic and the Versa, but the latter’s app selection is slim pickings as of this writing. Right now, the most recognisable app is from Starbucks, and lets you pay for your iced crappuccino by scanning the Starbucks Card barcode on your Versa’s screen.
Those 550 designs and apps are largely thanks to Fitbit’s acquisition of Pebble and its app platform. Fitbit told Gizmodo the apps available on the Ionic would also run on the Versa after some developer-side updates. There are other apps, like Strava, Flipboard, and, for some reason The New York Times, but those are the biggest names currently in the store, and that’s a real bummer.
With no Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play Music, or Tidal support, the only music you’ll be able to listen to with the Versa are the songs you sideload into the device (up to 300 songs) or the ones you listen to in Pandora or Deezer, the only music services the Versa currently supports. Does a smartwatch lacking support for proper and intuitive music playback really count as a smartwatch?
You’d think third time’s the charm, and in a way it is. The Versa is a marked improvement over the company’s previous offerings. It’s slick enough to not be garish, has a battery that lasts long enough to get through (most of) a work week, tracks everything from heart rate to sleep with and lets you bring your own tunes on a run if you decide to leave your phone behind. But it’s no smartwatch, at least not without an influx of apps to take advantage of its delightful user interface. Also, you’ll need that phone if you want location data during your runs.
The super stylish smartwatch worth flaunting doesn’t quite exist for under £300, but the Versa gets closer. At the very least it will let you review how you slept before telling you you’re late for a meeting. If you, like me, want a wearable that gathers stuff you can use to make informed and beneficial decisions about your health while providing enough smarts you keep you abreast of who’s hittin’ you up and when your next appointment is, get the Versa.
Also, it doesn’t make me look like the total square I am, so that’s a plus.
- The Value Meal™ of both fitness trackers and smartwatches.
- Interchangeable bands useful for immediately ditching the standard black rubber look.
- Good wearable for Android users who don’t have a Samsung phone.
- Poor music controls unless you take the hour to transfer your playlists.
- Shit app selection makes it useful for fitness and, uh, time...telling.
- Svelte enough to be an Apple Watch alternative for your Pixel-loving cousin’s birthday present if you guys all decide to chip in.
- The Timer and Hue Lights are basically the only useful apps.