Ever since Fitbit picked over the corpse of smartwatch maker Pebble last year, Pebble owners have hoped for a new piece of hardware that matches the deceased watchmaker’s ideals. Namely long battery life, an open app store and – perhaps most importantly of all – cheap hardware. Is the newly announced Fitbit Ionic the smartwatch Pebble owners have been longing for?
First, let’s be clear. Fitbit didn’t buy Pebble, it merely bought some of the company’s intellectual property. It’s the corporate equivalent of turning up at someone’s wake, taking their gold watch and leaving a £50 note on top of the coffin. Fitbit didn’t want to be Pebble, and it’s unfair to expect its first smartwatch to be the device Pebble might have made – especially as Pebble suffocated under a huge pile of debt.
That said, the Fitbit Ionic does have several of the features that attracted buyers like me to Pebble in the first place.
Fitbit Ionic battery life
The feature that convinced me to part with £150 for a Pebble Time above all else was battery life. The promised week-long battery life turned out to be closer to four or five days, but that was still an order of magnitude greater than the overnight charge other smartwatches demanded.
Fitbit seems to have noticed this is something of a selling point. Despite the Ionic boasting a high-resolution touchscreen, compared to Pebble’s fairly low-res non-touch displays, Fitbit claims a battery life of four days. I’ve not had a chance to test an Ionic myself yet, but the folks from The Verge claim the battery “lasts multiple days” even “with a few runs thrown in” using the battery-sapping GPS. That sounds hugely promising.
One of the chief reasons Fitbit took a shine to Pebble’s software was its app store facility, and it’s good to see the Ionic will indeed offer both in-house and third-party apps. Apps will be housed in the device’s Fitbit App Gallery, and developers have been given the SDK to get on with creating their own software. It’s hard to say how much interest developers will show: my hunch is that smartwatch app development isn’t a licence to print money, even on the bigger platforms such as Apple Watch and Android Wear.
On the plus side, Fitbit can attack the lucrative fitness freaks in a way that the more generalist Apple and Android devices cannot, and it works with both iOS and Android smartphones, so there is potential for the store to turn a profit.
The Fitbit Ionic is priced at $300 in the US – $100 more than the Pebble Time 2, and twice the price of the Pebble Time. That said, it’s got a hell of a lot more hardware packed in than Pebble ever managed. The Ionic has GPS, an altimeter, a three-axis accelerometer, optical heart-rate monitor and an ambient light sensor. As I mentioned previously, the screen looks much higher resolution than anything Pebble ever managed, and it’s touch rather than button operated.
It also looks smart. I love my Pebble Time, but it does have a geeky dorkishness to it. You feel a bit of a plum wearing it with a smart suit. The Ionic is nakedly a fitness watch, but it looks more elegant, more slender, less like it fell off a Russian convoy. There’s a range of designs too, from the sporty, day-glo rubberised strap to the more suave leather look for those whose idea of exercise is walking to the pub instead of getting a cab.
Pebble owners may baulk at the price, but remember this: Pebble didn’t make any money. Quite the opposite, in fact. As it stands, nobody’s proved that a sustainable market for a $150 smartwatch exists. You can’t blame Fitbit for setting its sights – and its prices – higher.