Review: Fitbit is getting into the smartwatch groove, with the Versa
After the basic Blaze and the angular Ionic, Fitbit has finally got the smartwatch formula right. The new Fitbit Versa works well, looks good, and is comfortable to wear for extended periods of time, though it's not without its problems. Here's our hands-on experience of using the wearable.
Perhaps most importantly when compared with previous smartwatches from the brand, the Fitbit Versa comes in an Apple Watch-esque design that manages to be lightweight and elegantly simple. It's not a watch that you're going to be embarrassed to have on your wrist, or one that's going to hinder you on a jog or even during a soccer match.
The 1.34-inch touchscreen is bright and clear, and while the software is basic – and notifications aren't handled particularly well – it does all the essential tasks well. Fitness stats, the time, and the date are all easy to read at a glance.
This is where Fitbit needed to get it right this time around, because we know its devices can do all the health and fitness tracking duties well enough. With a simple form factor and a respectable choice of watch strap colors and materials to choose from, all that tracking tech is finally in a Fitbit smartwatch that looks good.
The black silicone strap we used has a traditional watch-style clasp that's easy to open and close, and it's light and comfortable enough that we hardly noticed it was there. Like the Ionic, it's also waterproof to 50 meters (164 ft), so you can take it in the pool with you.
Three physical buttons make it easy to jump around menus and screens, though you might need a few goes to memorize what each one does, and Fitbit has kept everything suitably straightforward on the watch itself. As you would expect from Fitbit, setup is simple on either an Android phone or iPhone, and we were up and running in minutes.
Of course everyone comes to the question of buying a smartwatch from a different angle. Do you already wear any kind of watch? Are you upgrading from an existing smartwatch? Are you more used to wearing a simpler tracker? How much the Fitbit Versa appeals will depend in part on the answers to those questions.
When on your wrist, the Versa can track the usual Fitbit range of stats: steps, distance, calories, floors climbed, active minutes, heart rate, and more specific workout exercises. Sleep tracking and swim tracking are also included in the watch's capabilities, so you're able to measure just about every metric you like.
One notable omission is GPS, so logging the routes of runs or cycling adventures isn't possible without a phone nearby (for location tracking without a connected phone, maybe try the Fitbit Ionic). Note that menstrual cycle tracking is also on the way as part of a new suite of female health monitoring tools, although Fitbit hasn't pushed this particular update out yet.
The tracking on the smartwatch worked perfectly well during our time with the Versa, with step counts and heart rate stats updating in close to real-time. Of course the Fitbit apps for Android, iOS and the web have long been some of the best in the business, enabling you to dig deeper down into your records in whatever way you like.
Meanwhile, the four-day battery life quoted by Fitbit seems to be largely on the mark based on what we've seen so far. It makes more of a difference than you might think, not having to charge up the watch every night, but getting a good few days of use of out it before having to hunt for the charging block again.
That's all good – so what are the downsides? To begin with, you don't get a smartwatch that's as smart as something running Wear OS or watchOS. The apps aren't as comprehensive, the notifications aren't as interactive, and you're really stuck with some basic alerts as far as phone-to-watch communications go.
We gradually got to like the ability to read SMS texts on our wrists, which is handy if you just want to see if something's urgent or not – not being able to reply on a teeny tiny screen isn't much of a loss anyway. However, if your friends and family use WhatsApp or Facebook to reach you, you'll have to go back to your phone.
Meanwhile there are a decent selection of watch faces, but again the Versa lags behind rival smartwatches powered by software from Google or Apple.
We do like the Fitbit Coach app you can get on your wrist, with video tutorials available to guide you through a series of essential workouts: They seem well done, even for fitness novices who want to follow them. Aside from a few free samples though, this is a paid feature, so only the people who find it really useful are likely to sign up.
We're not fans of the charging block either, which seems awkward to use and isn't wireless. Plus, as with every Fitbit device, there's no sharing to Google Fit or Apple Health. If you invest in the Fitbit ecosystem, you're pretty much stuck there.
On top of that, some kind of always-on mode like Wear OS has would be very welcome, though presumably Fitbit didn't bother with it in order to save battery life. Having to firmly roll your wrist to get the time to show up is one of the remaining disadvantages when compared with traditional (the Fitbit Versa does a good job of recognizing when you want to look at it, but the mechanism isn't perfect).
That's quite a few points in the negative column, but really these are minor nuisances when compared with the broader picture of how the watch looks and works. As we've said, you can't go wrong with the Fitbit mobile apps, refined over many years – they excel at both at-a-glance summaries and much more detailed records going back weeks or years.
If you can live without GPS, and are happy to take just the basics as far as phone and notification interactions go, then the Fitbit Versa is a very good deal indeed – especially at that starting price of US$199.99. The wearable has its faults, but it gets a lot right, and actually looks the part too (maybe thanks to that Pebble acquisition).
It is worth considering something smaller and cheaper though, considering all of Fitbit's devices come with the same excellent software. The Fitbit Alta HR, for example, tells the time and tracks a lot of the same metrics for $50 less, though you don't get some of the extra smartwatch bells and whistles.
Product page: Fitbit Versa
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