A visitor uses a Fitbit Ionic watch at the IFA Electronics Show in Berlin, Germany. Picture:  REUTERS
A visitor uses a Fitbit Ionic watch at the IFA Electronics Show in Berlin, Germany. Picture: REUTERS

Among the high-achieving, mostly urban-dwelling professionals who spend a lot of time, money and psychic energy on endurance races, athletic ambitions are worn on the wrist.

That’s why investment bankers and executives helped make the Timex Ironman one of the best-selling watches in the world. A Rolex communicates wealth, but that $100 digital watch says you’re serious about training in and out of the office.

I consider myself part of this demographic, not so much for my performance level as for my willingness to spend troubling amounts of money on workout clothes, event fees and the airline tickets to get to races.

And gear. Especially gear. I’ve had a Fitbit since the company introduced the Flex (an early model that looked like a bracelet) in 2007.

I then early-adopted the Charge (a bit bulkier but with a larger screen) and, finally, the Blaze, Fitbit’s first real smartwatch, in January 2016.

So far, I’ve resisted the Apple Watch. The hype is a turn-off, but the bigger issue is its battery life — 18 hours, compared with almost five days for the Fitbit.

Health watch: An employee holds Fitbit Surge smartwatches during the IFA International Consumer Electronics Show in Berlin, Germany. Picture: BLOOMBERG
Health watch: An employee holds Fitbit Surge smartwatches during the IFA International Consumer Electronics Show in Berlin, Germany. Picture: BLOOMBERG

The San Francisco-based brand recently released its most ambitious gadget to date: the Ionic, a sleek watch meant to replace the bulky GPS-enabled devices marathoners use.

I was especially intrigued by the notion of ditching the Garmin I’ve worn in tandem with my Fitbit for several years. The Fitbit was my daily watch, dutifully tracking my steps and calories and sleep, but it lacked Garmin’s GPS and heart-rate monitor. As a practical matter, that meant I wore one on each wrist when I was running, a look that signalled I was trying a little too hard.

A more robust smartwatch would be a nice-to-have for me, but it’s a must-have for Fitbit. Since the initial public offering in 2015, the stock price has plummeted from $47 a share to about $6. Investors remain worried about competition from Apple and Samsung Electronics, which Bloomberg Intelligence analysts describe as "dominant players with accompanying mobile ecosystems".

But they all take solace in a fast-growing market. According to market intelligence firm International Data, sales of wearables may reach $34bn by 2020, up from $20bn in 2017.

That cautious optimism also describes how I came away from the Ionic after spending a month running, swimming and sleeping the smartwatch through its paces. This version has potential: it’s far less reliant on the app than previous models, allowing more functionality directly on your wrist. I can set an alarm on the watch rather than choose my wake-up time on the app and wait for it to sync. The look is more distinctive than that of its predecessor, which had a similarly square shape but required you to pop it out of the casing to charge it.

Rolex. Picture: BLOOMBERG
Rolex. Picture: BLOOMBERG
That cautious optimism also describes how I came away from the Ionic after spending a month running, swimming and sleeping the smartwatch through its paces. This version has potential

Notably, the Ionic caters to the fickle habits of today’s daily athlete, with a menu of exercise-tracking measurements that start with running, biking and swimming. It’s also waterproof and counts laps automatically. And there are options for treadmills and weights, helpful for keeping track of your timing and heart rate when you’re travelling and relegated to a hotel gym.

An improved holdover from previous versions is the Coach app, which leads you through a series of short, high-intensity workouts including seven-and 14-minute ones designed to get your heart rate up and kick out the rust. It even shows clips that demonstrate various exercises, which is good because I didn’t know what a "typewriter push-up" was.

That feature, says Fitbit’s product marketing director, Michael Polin, is where the possibilities for this device become clear. An update will give the watch the ability to learn your strengths and steadily increase the challenges in a workout.

At $299, the Ionic is less expensive — but only slightly — than the Apple Watch Series 3, suggesting a coming arms race to develop the best apps. It’s hard to bet against Apple when it comes to design and ease of use. The Ionic’s download times for music are still long. And Strava, the workout-tracking social network, comes preloaded, but an even richer interface that gives more data about runs and rides would be welcome.

Polin says users should think of the watch as a platform that’s easy to build on.

"The idea is that it’s better for you a year in than it was when you first got it," he says.

"I think of the hardware as being an enabler."

As if fitness addicts like me need another.

Bloomberg

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