These new smartwatches build on a pretty familiar package. Both are powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100 processor and run on Wear OS. Both also get GPS, NFC for Google Pay, and heart rate sensors as well. The Venture is the smaller of the two, measuring in at 40mm with an 18mm band. The Explorist, on the other hand, is a 45mm watch with a 22mm band.
The Fitbit Versa is nearly a full smartwatch, but the way it handles notifications prevents it from being a pick. Fitbit’s sleep, step, and workout tracking features beat our current picks’, and in our testing the Versa regularly lasted for four or more days between full charges. It lacks GPS, which the Ionic has, but it has a lower price as a result. You can choose from a decent variety of band types, although the bands are an odd 23 mm size (rather than a standard 22 mm), and slot in at an angle, making it hard to know if an unofficial band will fit. You can cache Deezer or Pandora radio stations to the Versa’s 2.5 GB of reserved space, control the music on your phone (after reconnecting your watch in “classic mode”), or transfer your own music to the watch, though it’s a tedious process involving a computer and cable. Where the Versa falls short is in working with notifications from your phone. The notifications pile up, and it can be a hassle to clear them; most notifications don’t expand to show more text; and though a software update has given you quick replies to select from, you’re limited to five of them. Like the Ionic, it’s more of a smartened-up fitness tracker than a fitness-savvy smartwatch.
The Fitbit Ionic works fine as a Fitbit tracker, but despite being more expensive than our picks or the Apple Watch Series 1, it lacks many smartwatch functions you’d hope to have. It passes notifications from your phone to the watch, but you can only respond to some of them (with only five quick reply lines); and dismissing them (either one by one or as a group) involves annoyingly hard presses and long scrolls. Syncing music files and offline Pandora playlists requires you to use a desktop app, which is laborious. Two Wirecutter writers who tested the Ionic also had trouble setting it up to work with their Android phones (a 2015 Moto X Pure and a 2016 Samsung Galaxy S7) and had to perform significant troubleshooting to get their data to sync. The Ionic’s battery life, even while using GPS for outdoor exercise tracking, is its most impressive feature, lasting at least five days in one test and nearly seven days in another. The Ionic is most useful to Fitbit enthusiasts who want to track outdoor exercise without bringing a phone; it’s not a good option if you’re looking to deal with incoming information.
Our top pick for most people is the Apple Watch Series 4 with GPS (starting at $399), which has a huge display, ultra-fast processor, Raise to Speak Siri, fall detection and a built-in electrical heart rate sensor for taking on-the-go electrocardiograms. It also runs watchOS 5, which makes the watch even more useful with automatic workout-tracking, offline podcast playback and a Walkie-Talkie voice chat feature.