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Apple vs. Fitbit: which smartwatch is the smarter choice for fitness fans?

Craig Wilson pits the latest Apple Watch against the new Fitbit Ionic

30 October 2017 - 10:56 By Craig Wilson
The Fitbit Ionic has great fitness credentials, a slim body and long battery life.
The Fitbit Ionic has great fitness credentials, a slim body and long battery life.
Image: Supplied

In typical Apple fashion, it was late to the party when it came to smartwatches, but its combination of impressive design, seamless integration with its iPhones and aggressive marketing means it now dominates not just the smartwatch market, but if the California-based company's claims are to be believed, the watch market generally. It's no wonder rivals Samsung, LG, Huawei and now Fitbit want a piece of the very lucrative action.

The Fitbit Ionic, which went on sale in South Africa for R5,500 earlier this month, is the US company's first proper attempt at a smartwatch. Part of the impetus for broadening its horizons from fitness tracking devices and wearables is its acquisition of Pebble, a smartwatch company that started life as a crowd-funded project to make platform agnostic smartwatches.

All the fitness-tracking chops that have made Fitbit's wrist-hugging devices so popular appear in the Ionic, too. It'll track your steps, estimate calories burned, constantly monitor your heart rate (using an optical sensor on the rear of the device that measures the speed of the blood in capillaries beneath the surface of the skin on the wearer's wrist) and analyse your sleep.

But it also adds GPS tracking, on-board storage for audio files and Bluetooth - the idea being you can connect a pair of wireless headphones and go for a run, cycle or other outdoor, sweat-inducing activity without lugging your smartphone along. And, if you're the over-achieving sort who deems triathlons a pleasant way to spend a weekend, you can take it swimming, too.

Apple's latest Watch Series 3 can do most of these things, too, though. Where it falls short is in heart-rate tracking (it monitors heart rate only when you tell it you're working out) and sleep monitoring (it needs daily charging, while the Ionic can last more than four days between visits to the wall plug). The Apple Watch is also more expensive. For fitness fans, then, the Ionic might seem the obvious winner.

But Apple still wins on numerous fronts. First, part of its runaway success lies in how heavily it can be customised. Buyers can choose from two sizes (38mm or 42mm), a range of half a dozen materials - ranging in price from a few thousand rand to tens of thousands - and innumerable straps both from Apple and from third parties.

And it positively trounces the Ionic when it comes to smarts. Myriad apps are available for the Watch, while Fitbit's are at launch limited to a weather app and Strava, a popular third-party exercise-tracking service. The Ionic lets you see you've got a message or an incoming call, the Watch lets you respond to them. Where the Watch is a wrist-size smartphone, the Ionic remains a fitness tracker with smartwatch aspirations.

In South Africa the primary purveyor of the Apple Watch is medical aid and insurer Discovery, which subsidises the device for users of its Vitality programme who meet their weekly fitness goals. Considering all smartwatches remain niche and luxury items, that sort of advantage is going to be tough for Fitbit to meaningfully challenge, even though its data can be used for Discovery rewards, too.

With support for both Android and Apple devices, superior fitness credentials and battery life, and a slimmer body, the Fitbit Ionic is arguably the better choice. But the Apple Watch is the more flexible, better supported, and - perhaps most importantly for most people - the hipper and more instantly recognisable device in a sector where style trumps substance for many buyers. And, in terms of smarts, the Ionic isn't even playing the same sport, let alone in the same league. Apple needn't worry. At least, not yet.

Craig Wilson is the editor of consumer technology publication Stuff magazine and a speaker and industry commentator.