I bought a Fitbit Versa smartwatch and I like some aspects of it a lot. Unlike the hybrid analog/smart watches I’ve been trying recently, this one is a pure smartwatch with an LED display and no physical hands. I’m still evaluating.

This is the first device from Fitbit I’ve seriously considered. I’ve always admired their biometrics functionality, but abhorred their styling. The Versa isn’t ugly, so I bought it as soon as it was released! It looks quite similar to an Apple Watch, by which I mean it’s unoffensive despite the fact that it’s a computer strapped to my wrist.

Fitbit Versa

If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know that I want a beautiful analog watch that’s also a biometrics tracker (sleep, heart rate, activity), and acts as an extension of my iPhone so I can leave the phone out of sight more of the time. In buying the Versa, I compromised for a smartwatch with better biometrics and iPhone notifications, that can be made to look attractive with a customized face.

Initial Impressions

I bought the Versa direct from Fitbit. It took almost a week to ship and was delayed an extra day because FedEx gave it to the post office for the final delivery. This was a missed opportunity to delight. Fitbit should have rushed me the watch for no extra fee. When I finally got it, I had to wait some more: it needed a firmware update, which took about an hour. After that, it still felt like there were a lot of steps to complete before I could start using the watch.

The watch is lightweight and comfortable to wear on my wrist, with a well-designed band. It’s not bulky and doesn’t protrude, nor has it gotten in my way at all.

It feels good-quality, and although the design is simple, it doesn’t feel cheap. It’s a huge upgrade over the last couple of watch designs from Fitbit (the Blaze and Ionic). And I’m glad Fitbit is producing a watch-looking device; I’d never strap one of their thick plastic handcuffs to my arm.

In terms of functionality, it’s halfway between the Garmin Forerunner 35 and the Apple Watch. From the reviews I’ve read, the Garmin Forerunner 35 is a better device in some respects such as battery life and GPS tracking, but the Fitbit Versa has its strengths too: a better display, more built-in functionality…

User Interface

The Versa has a digital display that is bright and very sharp. It’s easy to see even in direct sunlight. It is touch-enabled, so you can use gestures like touch, swipe, and long-press to interact with it. Gestures feel responsive and accurate, and the watch seems high-performance.

The watch face stays dark most of the time, but lights up when you raise your arm to look at it. This works okay for me, much better than the similar feature on the Garmin Vivomove HR watch I tried out recently. I have about a 90% success rate. The 10% failure rate is enough to be annoying, and the watch lights up sometimes when I’m not trying to look at it too.

The big shortcoming is that the display doesn’t turn on automatically when there’s a notification, such as an incoming phone call. I have to interact with the watch to see why it’s vibrating on my wrist. This reduces usability when I want it most, especially in situations such as driving.

There are three physical buttons on the sides of the watch: one on the left and two on the right. It took me several days to figure out what the buttons do. They’re not well explained, and they’re overloaded with multiple functions. I learned the buttons through trial-and-error, and now I can do what I want without trouble.

In addition to the buttons, some of the watch’s functions can also be accessed in multiple ways from the touch screen. As a result, it feels like there wasn’t a need for three buttons; just one or two would have been enough.

Fitbit Versa

A lot of the Versa’s functionality feels incomplete, unsupported, undocumented, or magical (in a bad way). For example, there are various settings that mention a GPS, but the Versa doesn’t have a GPS. It turns out this means the watch will use your phone’s GPS in certain modes, but that took me a while to understand.

Another example is the music controls: when you activate that feature on the watch face, it instructs you to start playing music on your phone, but when I tried playing Apple Music or Spotify on my phone, nothing happened. Update, 20 days in: I accidentally figured out how to use the music controls. Again, poorly documented, with defaults that assume a non-default usage scenario. Bad product and interaction design.

There are many more examples like those. One more: you can activate the apps on the Versa using the rightmost two buttons on the watch. The buttons start the apps that are in the first two positions on the screen; you can long-press and drag to reorder apps. I discovered these features accidentally.

The Versa has a little more functionality than I want, and most things are enabled by default. For example, by default it nags you to move every hour. I don’t want that, but I was in meetings and wasn’t going to play with my watch or phone to try to disable it, so I put up with the distraction for a half day or so until I got a chance to fix it.

The settings are a bit scattered: some things can be changed from the watch face, some from the Fitbit mobile app, some from tapping the small picture of the Versa within the app, which accesses a whole section of the app that is otherwise impossible to discover. Once you discover this, you can configure anything you want, but until you do, you’re missing most of the functionality to customize your Versa, and you don’t even know it.

I found a lot more information by searching the community forums and reading what Fitbit’s employees wrote. This sometimes involved following an external link to other sources of information, such as an employee’s personal blog.

Notifications

When I bought my Nokia (then Withings) hybrid smartwatch about 16 months ago, I didn’t think I wanted my watch to send me smartphone notifications at all. Now it’s the killer feature for me. It lets me keep my phone silenced and out of sight more of the time.

The Nokia Steel HR’s notifications are spartan but useful: call, text, and calendar, with only the minimal information such as who’s texting, but not what they wrote. The Fitbit Versa’s notifications are more full-featured, and I like this a lot.

By default, the Versa is configured to display call, text, and calendar notifications just like the Nokia, but with the added bonus that you can see the full notification, and you can dismiss it. This clears it from the iPhone too, so you don’t see notifications on your phone’s lock screen after reading them on the watch.

Notifications that have the magic settings1 in the iPhone’s Settings > Notifications app get sent to the Versa too. But the Versa doesn’t show them on the watch right away. Instead, the apps in question appear in a configuration menu inside the Fitbit iPhone app. Here you can toggle on and off individual apps. This opt-in functionality is a great design choice.

Notifications only get a B+ grade from me because the watch stays dark by default when a notification arrives, and the UI to view and dismiss them leaves a little to be desired.

Biometrics and Activity Tracking

Fitbit’s biometrics (heart rate, sleep tracking, step counting, etc) is good. It has accurately detected when I go to bed and wake up, and seems to track accurately when I wake up briefly in the night. The pulse tracking also seems to be pretty good, though it seems to be time-averaged and lags changes in my pulse a bit. (I think Garmin has a slight edge in that regard). During one period I noticed the Fitbit Versa wasn’t able to measure my pulse, but otherwise it’s been reliable.

In the brief time that I used the Garmin Vivomove HR, I really appreciated the stress calculation, and I wish Fitbit offered that. From my perspective, that’s one of the most valuable things I can learn about myself.

Workout tracking is easy and useful enough that I’m actually using it to track my workouts. I’ve never done this with other watches. The Nokia watch’s workout detection has never worked well for me. The Fitbit’s tracking is manually enabled, or at least I’m not using any automatic tracking; and it’s simple and just does what I want.

I am a little surprised that Fitbit doesn’t seem to sync its data to the Apple Health app. Every other smartwatch I’ve tried has done this, and with all the watches I’m trying, it’d be nice to have all their data in one place. Maybe it’s possible, but I don’t know how.

I don’t use the community/competitive features of Fitbit’s service. I heard this is a big part of their superiority over other health-tracking companies, but I’m not into that.

The smartphone app’s display of my health and fitness data is okay, but the design and attention to details leaves something to be desired. After disabling the goal-tracking features I don’t want, there’s not much left, and I can’t reorder it in the priority order I want. And the features I want (analysis of sleep and heart-rate data) are shown only as high-level summaries that take a lot of taps and swipes to inspect, and are hard to read. For example, tapping in to view detailed heart rate minute-by-minute actually zooms out the data, because the default vertical axis is fixed-range from 0-240 BPM instead of adapting to the data it displays. (Does anyone get their heart rate up to 240BPM? Really?)

Watch Faces

Ah, the watch faces. If I have to have a watch with an LED screen, can it at least look good, like an imitation analog watch? The answer is sort of, but it took me a solid week to figure out how.

Fitbit’s iPhone app has a watch face store, with hundreds of faces from Fitbit and third-party developers. But most of them are terrible, and they’re super slow to browse and install—the first time I accessed the store I had to wait about 15 minutes for thumbnail previews to load. And important details such as features, configurability, and price are only possible to learn by navigating to each face’s individual details view, and some things are only possible to learn by installing them.

Fitbit’s strategy to create a third-party marketplace with monetization is a terrible decision. They have created the predictable “too many apps, can’t find any good ones” experience that every app store has, and made it worse with an appallingly bad app store experience. They should have just provided their own high-quality free watch faces. But they’re trying to monetize, so now they have an incentive not to fix this awful problem. I can’t find words to express how I feel about this.

I initially thought I’d have the most success with the Fitbit-provided watch faces, but it’s a pretty mediocre collection, presumably for the reasons I just mentioned. Only a few of them seem moderately attractive to me, they have no documentation, and they have frustratingly just-wrong combinations of missing or non-configurable features. So you have to try them, one at a time, and see how they work. Most don’t work well.

You could easily spend a few hours trying clock faces without finding a good one. The experience is miserable and reminds me of Linux window managers in 2005. Ultimately I found a third-party clock face called TH3 that has a clean look if you turn off the extra decorations. I wish it were the default.

Fitbit Versa

Battery

The battery life is borderline okay, but the charger turns battery life into a hassle.

During normal use (checking a few notifications an hour, doing a short workout) the Versa discharges 15%–20% per day; over a 4.5 day period it discharged until only 10% remained. The charging speed is about 1% per minute and it takes about 90 minutes to charge fully from empty, so it needs about 15-20 minutes of charging per day.

The charger is the real problem, though. It’s big and bulky, with a long nondetachable USB cable (so I can’t pull it out and use a shorter one). Because the watch won’t last through most trips I will take, I’m going to have to take this annoying charger and cable with me when I travel. And the charger is thoughtlessly designed. Fitbit’s watch bands attach at an angle, and both watch and charger are lightweight, so the Versa doesn’t sit flat when it’s in the charger. It wants to flip over and lie on its side, and the watch face doesn’t show charging progress unless you turn it on—but the buttons are concealed by the charger and tapping on the display doesn’t work reliably, so it’s tedious to figure out when the watch is charged fully.

Watch Apps

The Versa lets you install apps, but I seldom use them. The default ones are mostly useless, other than the workout tracker, timer, and alarm. It feels like someone said “we have to have apps” and that was the end of the discussion. So we got apps, but not good apps, nor a design that makes any app a good idea.

There’s a weather app, for example, but it doesn’t display current weather predictions. It just shows nothing and says I need to sync the watch with the iPhone app, even immediately after syncing. And if the weather forecast is only updated as of the last time I used my phone, what’s the point? If I’m going to have to pick up my phone to get updated weather information, I’d rather just look at the weather app on my phone instead!2

The single most useful app would be an agenda view of my calendar, but there isn’t one preinstalled. After the ordeal of trying to find a decent clock face, I took one look at all of the third-party calendar app offerings and found myself completely unwilling to even try the first one. The thought of searching, installing, trying, and who-knows-what-else—potentially worrying about having to grant and revoke permissions for example—was too much for me.

Conclusions

The Fitbit Versa is the best-looking piece of hardware Fitbit has ever built. Its highlights are the form factor, weight, screen quality, health tracking, and notifications. The mobile app, watch apps, battery life, and overall interaction design are just so-so. On the downside, the clock faces, clock face store, app store, and charger are actively negative experiences. Do the designers at Fitbit use their own products before they sell them?

I’m going to keep the Versa a little longer before I decide whether it’s my smartwatch of choice or whether I’ll keep searching.


  1. You have to configure notifications to show as banners, show on lock screen, and show in history. [return]
  2. Update: I later discovered through trial-and-error that the Versa’s weather app works if iPhone permissions for both the Fitbit and Weather apps allow location access “always,” even when not using the apps, which is not documented as far as I know. [return]

Done! Now Read These:

The Garmin Vivomove HR Smartwatch

I liked a lot about the Garmin Vivomove HR hybrid smartwatch, but I didn't find it completely satisfactory.

The Skagen Jorn Connected and Misfit Phase Hybrid Smart Watches

I tested the Skagen Jorn Connected and Misfit Phase to see if they could replace my Nokia Steel HR.

The Nokia-Withings Steel HR

After researching many smartwatches and activity trackers, I bought a Withings Steel HR. Here's why.