Fitbit's new Versa is a reliable smartwatch for the health consciousby Peter Griffin
The Versa is apparently Fitbit’s fastest selling health tracking device ever, with one million of them snapped up in its first month.
The Fitbit Versa is the latest in a long line of Fitbit models that have evolved radically from the Fitbit Flex I was using a few years ago to try and reach my 10,000 steps daily. That had no screen, a rubber strap and limited functionality. It looked more like a wristband than a watch.
Since then we’ve had the Alta, the Charge, the Surge, the Blaze, last year’s poorly-received Ionic and now the Versa, with each iteration more closely resembling a wrist watch and less a health tracker than the last. It means that Fitbit now offers much of the functionality of more expensive smartwatches, but with some notable limitations.
The Versa is at the same time modern and retro - understated and streamlined, yet resembling the type of Casio watch you could have been wearing circa 1989. It is lightweight (37g), inconspicuous with the charcoal grey strap my one came with and comfortable to wear. Straps are also available in black, rose gold, aluminium colours and numerous materials.
There’s a bright, full-colour screen, which Fitbit has made the most of by featuring photos for each activity - “weights”, “treadmill” or “swim”, instead of the typical icons and text combination. It has a touch-sensitive screen which offers quick navigation sideways or up and down and three physical buttons offer shortcuts, once you’ve figured out what they do.
The user interface isn’t as intuitive or easy to navigate as the Apple Watch, or indeed, the Samsung Gear, but serves its purpose once you’ve got used to it.
What it does well is lay out the key metrics you will be interested in tracking - time, steps walked, distance traveled, floors climbed and calories burned. You’ll want to switch to the smartphone to drill into these metrics more fully, especially for tracking your sleeping patterns - as you’d expect, the Versa is a 24/7 device monitoring your sleeping patterns - such as “minutes to fall asleep”, “time restless” and “minutes awake”.
The coach function works well - it lets you quickly set a goal, say for a quick session of bicycle kicks, and will buzz to let you know when you are done.
Attention gym bunnies
When it comes to hardware, Versa covers most of the bases - accelerometer to track your motion and an optical monitor on the rear to accurately track your heart rate. The big omission here is a GPS tracker, which will disappoint serious runners who want highly accurate location-tracking.
That’s a feature of the higher-priced Ionic. Its absence from the Versa suggest the health tracker is aimed less at the serious athlete and more at your typical gym bunny. You can use your phone’s GPS service when you have paired it with the Versa.
There’s Bluetooth connectivity to sync with your smartphone and wireless headphones as well as Wi-fi for updates. There’s near-field communications built into the Versa, which means you could use it to make payments - but Fitbit Pay isn’t supported here yet.
The Versa is waterproof so will suit swimmers looking to track their laps of the pool and its quite nice to not have to worry about wearing it in the shower or through a sweaty workout routine.
Like all Fitbits, the Versa syncs with your smartphone and the Fitbit app to store all of your health data, change watch faces, receive software updates and downloads from the Fitbit app store. As an aside, I had huge problems initially connecting my Fitbit to my home Wifi network, which I wasn’t alone in experiencing. Eventually, it made the connection and I’ve still no idea what caused the glitch.
The notifications on the Fitbit work reasonably well - your smartphone will push call, text and email alerts to the Versa as well as calendar alerts and app notifications. Quick replies are available for responding to messages from the Versa, if paired with an Android phone.
There are 2.5GB of storage on the Versa, which will let you hold hundreds of songs for playback to Bluetooth headphones while you are running. Fitbit’s app store is slowly adding more useful apps, but is still anaemic compared to Apple and Google. There’s the music streaming app Deezer, but no Spotify or Youtube Music.
Impressive health tracking
At its heart however, the Versa harnesses Fitibit’s attention to detail on health tracking and if you take this seriously, you will get a lot out of it. The psychology of effort and reward is built into the software, so setting yourself goals, getting the “Lighthouse badge” because you have climbed 50 floors and sharing your progress with other Fitbit users, is really what it is all about.
There’s a whole new section devoted to women’s health too, which will track things like a woman’s menstrual cycle - this involves her inputting the information into the app, there’s no sensor for that - yet.
Those features extend to the watch too: “Once you’ve gone through onboarding of the female health feature and have logged at least 1 period, you’ll be able to swipe up from the clock face on your Versa or Ionic and scroll down to see your female health information.” says Fitbit.
With that level of intimate information now being collected, you would hope that Fitbit is serious about data security.
Battery life is a solid four days between charges, unless you are using Bluetooth extensively. The biggest disappointment with the Versa is the ugly and badly designed charging cradle, which leaves much to be desired alongside the magnetic charger for the Apple Watch.
While I probably prefer the larger format and chunkier styling of the Ionic ($450), which let’s face it, is more likely to appeal to men anyway, the Versa is a big improvement overall and the omission of GPS doesn’t really bother me given the Versa sells for $350.
This will suit those who want a reliable, sturdy health tracker that looks good and has all the bells and whistles when it comes to tracking your health and exercise progress. It is less suitable as a productivity tool than fully-fledged smartwatches like the Apple Watch - but you’ll pay $529 for that - and $699 for the Samsung Gear S3.
The real competition however is from Garmin with its Vivisport ($349), Vivoactive 3 ($499) and Forerunner 645 ($599), the latter of which really does cater to those who want a fully-fledged smartwatch and health tracker in one.
This is a return to form for Fitbit after a slight stumble with the Ionic and quality issues with some previous Fitbit models. There is plenty of functionality here at a reasonable price. The biggest challenge now is making all those fancy metrics go in the right direction.
Decent battery life
Extensive health tracking options
Limited app line-up
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