Fitbit Ionic vs. Vivo Active 3: Best Smartwatch for Your Budget

updated.jpg

I want to start off by saying that my review of these smartwatches comes from a completely uninfluenced position of incentives or benefits from either of these brands. My goal was to simply find the best watch for my budget ($300) and have something that is fully functional, useful, and convenient for my lifestyle of cycling and running. With that in mind, here are my thoughts about each smartwatch; the good and the bad. I hope it helps you make a decision that has been eating away at me for the past couple weeks...

How I Boarded the FitBit Train

At first, I was gifted a Samsung Gear S3 to track my workouts, take phone calls, and reply to messages while I was out riding. It was a great watch with awesome features, but sadly, it's software is highly catered to Samsung brand phones, which I've always steered away from (pun intended). So after talking with a few of my friends about what they use, I decided to switch to the Fitbit Blaze. For a while, the watch was excellent. It looked great, was easy to use, and it gave me insight into my commutes. However, as time passed, the connected GPS became a nuisance. I was forced to take my phone with me on every outing if I wanted accurate results, and that imprisonment is exactly what we athletes are trying to break away from.

ionic box.jpg

Fast-forward to a year later, and a mechanic at a local bike shop mentioned to me that I should try to use the warranty to switch my blaze out for another model; No &$#!, why didn't think of that sooner?! An hour later, I was at Best Buy with the watch, told them I was unhappy with it, and before I knew it, I walked out with a Fitbit Ionic and only paid an extra $28 for the upgrade. When I got home, I synced everything together and got ready for my first ride. Here's what I experienced:

Fitbit Ionic: A Major Step Up

My frist impression of the Ionic was that the body and wristband felt durable and comfortable for a smartwatch. Many brands today make devices that are too bulky or rigid with heavy bezels, but the Ionic was super clean and sleek. Not to mention, getting everything set up with the laptop, mobile app, and watch itself only took about 30 minutes after unboxing. When you buy new electronics, the ease-of-use factor is huge because it sets the tone for your future experiences; setting up the ionic was like unveiling a new iPhone; always an exciting moment. 

Lots of watch faces to choose from with digital and analog designs.

Lots of watch faces to choose from with digital and analog designs.

And much like how the Apple Watch attracts you with its fluid applications, the Ionic held its own when navigating different screens and app functionality. Pre-installed on the Ionic are apps for your different exercises, music playlists (you can store up to 300 songs on the device), alarms, Fitbit Coaching sessions, weather, mobile pay features, previous workouts on Strava, Pandora music capabilities, and even an app to buy your coffee at Starbucks. Fitbit is still trying to gain more apps to its arsenal, but what it already has is pretty impressive. Not to mention, there are tons of unique watch faces to choose from that are easy to upload through the mobile Fitbit app.

Good graphics and quick process time between screen swipes and app loading.

Good graphics and quick process time between screen swipes and app loading.

When it came to my actual workout, the Ionic performed exactly like I hoped it would. I synced my bluetooth headphones to the watch, started up my playlist, left my phone in the apartment, and cruised around the city for a while. In "Bike" mode, the watch effortlessly connected to GPS within seconds, it tracked my speed, heart rate, calories burned, time, distance, the overall impact the workout had on my day, and when I was finished, it all synced wirelessly to the Fitbit app for me to review. Once I authorized my Strava account, the same info was available to view there and share with others. On the downside, I will say that the Fitbit doesn't offer too many other stats or sensors like cadence, barometric altimeter, compass, or Vo2 Max (like the Vivoactive 3 does), but for establishing a foundation, the Ionic is pretty solid. 

Great specs that are understandable and to the point. 

Great specs that are understandable and to the point. 

I would also like to point out that the mobile app for Fitbit is by far the best fitness app i've ever encountered. The interface is stylish and engaging, the metrics are easy to read, and the community involved is highly supportive. Fitbit has done an incredible job of brining people together, and the app is certainly one of the reasons why I'm impressed with the brand. On the down side, the challenges section of the app is limited to only step battles with friends throughout the week or weekend. Since i'm more of a cyclist, it would be better to have challenges  geared toward biking, but that's why Strava is included to make up for the absence. 

Alive with bright colors, simple navigation, and thriving community.

Alive with bright colors, simple navigation, and thriving community.

Finally, my last thought about the ionic is the the waterproof capabilities are unreal. Usually, I'm pretty leery about allowing my electronics to get wet (even they are able to) because companies always have flaws in this department. However, after my bike ride, I jumped in the pool with it on and tested the swim feature; I have must admit, I was shocked (in a good way)! The touchscreen worked flawlessly even with water bubbling over it, the tracker captured my laps and meters, and there was no water or moisture stuck within any crevices (or the band) after I was done. It truly made me feel good about my purchase, and it was hard to think that something better could be out there for the price. 

Garmin Vivoactive 3: A major Let Down

I dread writing this section because my best pal is the one who convinced me to try the Garmin Vivoactive 3, but sadly, my experience was a complete let down. To give you a little bit of back story, I used the Ionic for a couple weeks and loved it, but my friend Josh and I kept discussing the idea of trying the VA3. It apparently has more functions geared toward athletes and training, better statistical readings, and a more accurate GPS and Heart rate sensor. So the other day, I packaged the Ionic back up, went to Best Buy again and swapped it for the VA3. At this point, the Best Buy employee (who was the same guy who swapped out my Blaze) was catching onto my indecisiveness. I came up with some excuse about the Ionic being just okay, and he was cool about it for the most part. Anyway, I got the watch, went home, and began the setup process, although this time, I didn't get the fuzzy feeling from before:

VA3 box.jpg

Why the VivoActive 3 was a DISAPPOINTMENT

The box itself was really lightweight, which isn't a huge cause for concern, but you want your electronics to have some substance when you wear them; this wasn't the case for the device itself. Immediately, the watch body is made from a hard plastic with a metal bezel. The band is surprisingly comfortable, and I preferred it to the Ionic stock band, but the overall feeling and weight of the VA3 felt cheap and toy-ish.

Lightweight, but only because of low-end materials. Plus, this screen brightness is set at 60% indoors...

Lightweight, but only because of low-end materials. Plus, this screen brightness is set at 60% indoors...

Still, I tried to be optimistic and see what the installation was like. Just like how Fitbit has their own software, Garmin hosts an app called Garmin Connect. Once I downloaded it, the interface was very impressive and engaging. It shows you a home screen with all your stats, challenges to join, a news feed for the community, and sidebar filled with your stored information (workouts, insights, courses, performance, etc.). It certainly rivals Fitbit's ease-of-use, but what really lost me was the desktop version and app store; Connect IQ.

Mobile app is fluid and simple to navigate.

Mobile app is fluid and simple to navigate.

On the computer, the software behaves like an old Windows startup-wizard. It did download fairly quickly, but the process of connecting the device via USB took around 15 minutes to initialize and become recognized. Afterwards, I explored the app store for new watch faces and any cool features. Garmin has a wide range of apps to choose from, but the amount is a bit overwhelming, which makes it hard to know if the apps are actually of good caliber. Regardless, I downloaded a few things to see how good the transfer speed was, and i'm sorry to say, doing so was a big mistake. To download and then upload the 2 watch faces and 2 apps consumed another 20 minutes, and I'm not sure if this was because of it being a new device, but my internet is pretty fast and the files weren't large. Either way, the process was frustrating and I just wanted to test the workout functions. 

Stuck in loading phase for a while now...

Stuck in loading phase for a while now...

Once I fiddled with the watches faces and selected one (none of them are particularly fancy or high-tech), I noticed that the watch screen was always left on. This can be a good thing for those who hate turning their wrist to trigger the time, but for me, it was annoying to have the backlight constantly changing on its own when entering different rooms or outside. Also, I could hardly see the screen when being indoors, and turning the brightness way up became a killer on battery life throughout the day. But enough about that, back to workout modes. I finally got ready to go for a run, and when I was searching for the mode, I saw that Garmin offers way more exercise features than Fitbit: golfing, yoga, paddle boarding, rowing, cardio, etc. It was intriguing to say the least, but I stuck with running to get the hang of it first. The watch felt great around my wrist, I had my iPod in my pocket ready to go (since VA3 cannot store music, unless you purchase newer model), and I started the workout; but wait, a screen came up saying "waiting for GPS." So I waited for a few minutes, and then another few minutes, and then it was 10 minutes, and I kid you not, the GPS couldn't locate me. I stood there for 15 minutes until I finally canceled it and ran with my old wrist watch timer instead. Instantly, I was turned off to the VA3 because of its slow process time, it's cheap body, and truly outdated watch interface (the graphics are subpar compared to Ionic or other mid-range fitness watches at the $300 price range). I truly wanted to enjoy the watch, but I couldn't even get to a point where the experience became a part of my lifestyle. In essence, that's why we buy electronics; we want to integrate them without issues into our routines as a way to enhance our lives. The VA3 became a hindrance for mine within the first few hours of using it, and I desperately missed the Ionic.

Fitbit Ionic is Well Worth the Money

Ionic body sideways.jpg

Once again, the VA3 boasts a more accurate HR monitor, a better GPS system with GLONASS (satellite GPS positioning), and loads of other stats to improve your workouts, but I didn't get to experience any of that. Frankly, at this point, I don't really care too either since the device itself was lacking in many qualities that are important to me. I would say that if Garmin is your brand of choice, spend a bit more dough on the Fenix 5 or even the older Fenix 3. Their specs seem worth the extra cash, but going with the lower-end Garmin models will most likely leave you unsatisfied. For myself, I will be heading back to Best Buy, hopefully a different employee is working the customer service counter, and I will trade the VA3 in for another Ionic; hopefully I can still find my receipt! 

What are your thoughts about the devices? Send us an email or post a comment below!