Review: Fitbit Versa smartwatch (versus Pebble Time Steel)

fitbit versa reviewIn 2015 Pebble released what was to be their last smartwatch. Three years later, and after acquiring the Pebble IP and key staff in 2016, Fitbit have released the closest thing to a worthy successor. With Apple Watch decimating all others in the smart wearables sector, is there room for a new smartwatch, and is the Fitbit Versa actually any good?

The Pebble watch was one of crowd-funding website Kickstarter’s biggest successes, both for the original and the Time series. The Time 2 was due for launch late 2016, but after maintaining radio silence for a few weeks management dropped an overwhelmingly positive statement about the IP purchase, followed by the sucker punch that the Time 2 that many had again backed on Kickstarter would never ship, and also that support was ending immediately for all watches. June 2018 will see the servers supporting Pebble’s app eco-system pulled offline, rendering the watch capable only of basic notifications, supporting some existing installed apps and, of course, telling the time.

Many, including myself, were understandably upset that Fitbit cherry-picked the best of Pebble, cut the rest and discarded the existing customer base. A discount was offered on some of their watches, but it does not extend to the new Versa. Many thought 2017’s Ionic was Fitbit’s attempt at a ‘proper’ smartwatch, but it’s the Versa’s mimicry of the Pebble Time’s more softer, fashionable design that has got heads turning.

Fitbit had big shoes to fill with the Versa, after the lacklustre reception of the Ionic, so does it live up to expectations?

Fitbit Versa versus Pebble Time functionality 

The major selling points of the Pebble were the always-on colour e-ink display and the 10-day battery life. While the Versa is quoted at ‘4+’ days, that’s still more than twice that of the Apple watch. It also rocks an OLED display, which at 1.34 inches is bigger than the Pebble’s 1.26 inches. It’s a much higher resolution - 300x300 compared to 168x144. Its also touch, making it more user-friendly than its predecessor. It packed with a few more sensors - altimeter, heart rate, blood oxygen (for future use), WiFi and, on certain models, NFC - more on that later. However, it's missing a microphone, which the Pebble did have, so no more recording short messages... 

In the US the Versa is available in two versions, one without NFC and the Special Edition with NFC included, for around £20 more. The UK version includes NFC as standard. However, given that only a couple of banks have signed up to support Fitbit Pay, you're going to be hard-pressed to be able to make good use of it. Unless you particularly like the colours or straps of the higher-priced model you're better off saving your money.

As with the Pebble, the Versa includes vibration support, so you can still keep your phone on silent, safe in the knowledge that if you don't feel it vibrating in your pocket (as often happens with me), you will feel it on your wrist.

The Versa uses Bluetooth to connect to your smartphone, but, usefully, it also has room for around 300 mp3 tracks and can therefore be used as a standalone mp3 player. This means that you don't have to take your phone on a run - just hook your Bluetooth headphones up to your watch. If you want GPS tracking, however, you'll still need to cart your phone around, as the Versa uses 'connected GPS' e.g. piggybacks off your phone in order to track your location.

Design-wise, the Versa looks a little more svelte than the Pebble, with more chiselled sides. The underside is domed, so while the Pebble measured 10.5mm, the Versa is actually 0.7mm thicker, at 11.2mm, however you'd be hard-pushed to feel it. The flatter sides of the Pebble make it appear thicker, and the dome will simply make the watch look like it's sitting slightly looser on your wrist - no bad thing.It's light too, at 36g, which is almost half the Pebble's 62.3g.

What's in the box

Inside the box you'll see the watch at the top, with the screen covered by a cellophane plastic shield. Below that is a simple instruction guide which covers the charger. This is an entirely different design to the Pebble, which had a magnetic connector that would snap onto the back. 

fitbit versa box uk

The Versa now connects into a small docking station, with a USB cable attached. The sides cradle the watch left and right and pinching them at the bottom opens them up like a bulldog clip. I do have a couple of problems with the design. The dock itself is very light, and the curled strap does not sit flat on the table when the watch is placed in the cradle. Secondly, a simple magnetic cable would have been a much smaller travel companion than lugging around (yet another) bulky charging device - especially when travelling light. I could understand this design decision if the dock also worked for the Ionic, but that is also a different connector. Maybe an after-market solution will become available that offers this, as there are already some other, smaller docks available for only a few pounds on eBay.

versa charger

Setup

Setting up a Versa from scratch is pretty easy, but expect it to take half an hour or so. Start by pressing the left button to power on the watch, connect it to the dock and then plug the USB cable into a computer. Download the App to your phone or computer. Once you create a Fitbit account you should then be able to find the watch within the app. You'll be prompted to enter a number on the watch, and then pair with Bluetooth. The process up till now will only take a couple of minutes. Next, you'll be prompted to connect to WiFi, and at this point it will download the latest firmware. Go make a cup of tea, drink it and then make another one. Once the firmware is installed the watch will restart and you're good to go.

Next, it's time to pimp your watch face! You can't change the watch face from your phone, so open the App, click on the Versa icon top left and then click on the Clock Faces icon. From here you can browse the rapidly expanding library of watch faces, and click on Install to transfer it to your watch. Many have additional configuration options, such as enabling/disabling of heart rate information, or showing battery status. The watch face installed in the picture below show steps, calories, heart rate, date, seconds and, if you look carefully, a horizontal bar at the top which shows remaining battery life.

pebble screen versus versa screenFitbit Versa daily usage

Pictured right you can see the Fitbit Versa in black alongside the Pebble Time Steel in Gold.The first thing you'll notice is the extremely vibrant screen, which is clearly visible in dalylight. The Pebble was also easy to see in daylight, but needs the backlight when inside. Conversely, the Versa's screen is off for most of the time, only powering on either when you press the left button or flick your wrist. I have sometimes found there to be a slightly annoying delay, that appears to vary in length, for the display to come on. Usually it's less than half a second, but it has taken up to a second, making me flick my wrist again just as it lights up. This is compounded by the narrower buttons not always registering button presses. It's a minor gripe, but a gripe nonetheless. 

The Versa benefits from a touch screen, whereas the Pebble relied on three buttons on the right for navigation and selection. Swiping up access fitness statistics, such as steps taken, calories burnt, floors walked and heart rate. Swipe down to access notifications and swipe left to access applications. The apps themselves tend to load in about 3 seconds.

After using it for a week it's been a bit of a mixed bag. Being a 'Version 1' device I suspect the next upgrade we will see will include a significant processor improvement, as right now the Versa can sometimes feel underpowered - a complaint that was echoed by many first edition Apple Watch users. I've experience one crash and a couple of 'unexplained behaviour' episodes, all of which resolved themselves but still left me not trusting the device's performance 100%.

Notifications

Here the Versa has a greater level of finesse than the Pebble, as within the app on your phone you are able to see a list of apps that have sent your phone notifications (since installing it). This means that you are able to choose to have notifications on your phone for an app that will not also repeat on your watch. The Pebble just replicated any and all notifications. However, if you received a notification on the Pebble and press the centre button it will mark the notification as 'read' on your phone - doing the same on the phone also clears it on the Pebble. Not so on the Versa, unfortunately. Clearing notifications on your phone still leaves them visible on the watch when you swipe down from the top of the screen, meaning that you have to effectively clear them twice. Notifications are only held on the watch for 24 hours though, so will drop off naturally after this period. One niggle is that, unlike the Pebble, you can't currently change the default text size. For those of us of a certain age where close-by objects lose their focus I can see this being an inconvenience for some, but this could be easily fixed in a future firmware update.

The Pebble used to allow the sending of canned responses to text messages. Fitbit started to roll this out for Android in May 2018, but no sight of that on iOS yet.

Fitness

fitbit versa on wrist in daylightFitbit have built their brand around devices to be used as activity trackers. As you would expect, the Versa is well-suited to this. It's waterproof to 5 atmospheres, and in-built functions can automatically track different types of activities such as running and swimming. The heart rate monitor can track your activity all day, with reminders to get moving if you've been sedentary for too long.

This watch is definitely aimed at providing women with some exclusive features. Aside from offering a decent array of watch colours and straps, the watch includes a 'female health' tracker, allowing you to log periods, record symptoms and compare your cycle against other stats such as sleep, activity and weight. Some of these features were not available at launch.

In terms of motivation, the Versa includes 15+ exercise modes for tracking runs, bike rides, or weight sessions, and even includes on-screen video workouts to coach you through each move. Once you're done for the day it can offer guided breathing sessions, and when you finally crash out it'll track your light, deep and REM sleep stages. It'll also give you a gentle nudge 10 minutes before the hour (if you've set up an active period range), prompting you to move if you've not hit 250 steps. As someone that works from home and can be sedentary for long periods I've found this a useful wake-up call.

I mentioned that the Versa does not include GPS support, instead relying on your phone.  This is where it's big brother, the Ionic wins, but with the added functionality you'd compromise on battery. If you take your phone out on a run then that's not an issue, but if you are planning on leaving it at home you'll have to forego the benefit of GPS data. As mentioned earlier, you can still ditch the phone if all you were using it for was as an MP3 player, as you can side-load up to 300 tracks onto the watch.

Do Pebble Time Watch Straps fit on the Fitbit Versa?

Unfortunately, the answer to this appears to be a resounding 'no'. At first glance they appear similar, but the Versa has a more rounded end which fits snugly into the watch, placing the strap at the angle that it wraps around your wrist. Although both straps are the same width, the ball-shaped slider at the top is closer to the edge on the (gold) Pebble strap and as a result does not allow the strap to connect into the watch body without the ball getting in the way.

pebble strap versus fitbit versa strap

Battery Life

Although the 4+ days for the Versa is a far cry of the Pebble's quoted 10 days (which I never got close to - 7 was my max), I can confirm that 4 days is definitely realistic, especially given that I have the screen set to be on for 15 seconds after activating and have been using the Versa much more than its predecessor. Charging is pretty quick, at two hours, and you can still access the watch by double-tapping the screen whilst docked.

fitbit versa thicknessCompatibility and Apps

A major strength is that this watch is not locked to one eco-system. Whether you're on iOS, Android or Windows it'll work. That's a major plus if you are potentially considering to switch ecosystems (especially if you are on Windows phone, which Microsoft have discontinued). Fitbit does have its own App Store, but the number of apps can be counted in the dozens rather than the thousands, and almost all of them are fitness-related.

Fitbit's hiring of Pebble programmers and their Studio for app developers should ensure that a wider range of apps becomes available. That said, I do question the need for many of the apps that you might find on Apple Watch or Android Wear. Do you really need to be able to start your car from your watch? In almost every circumstance, performing the same task on a watch will be much easier and quicker on a phone.

Should you buy Fitbit Versa over Apple Watch?

This is the obvious question for many, but the answer depends on what's important to you. The lack of in-built GPS will be a show-stopper for the sportier user, but then this is what the Ionic is aimed at. For others the loss of potential functionality because of a lack of apps may be a factor, however do ask yourself what you really want from a smart watch. For me, pure and simple, it's notifications and fitness tracking on a good-looking watch. Several people have assumed that I was wearing an Apple watch, as at a quick glance they are similar. The Apple is a beautiful timepiece, but it's not cheap, and for me the battery life is simply not good enough. With the Pebble I used to forget the last time I'd charged it. The Versa is not far off, but with the Apple watch it'd be fighting for charger space with my phone every night.

Summary

I must confess that I didn't want to like this watch, after originally feeling let down by Fitbit's treatment of Pebble's loyal customer base, but the fact is that the Versa is everything that the Pebble Time 2 should have been, and more. It has a far superior screen, touch interface, excellent fitness tracking functionality and, more importantly, it simply looks good (probably because it looks just like a Pebble). I do miss the always-on display of the Pebble, but the 1000 nits display of the Versa is visible in any lighting conditions. The lack of GPS may be a show-stopper for some, but that'll only be for the few that want to unhook themselves from a phone for sporting activities. Although both the Versa and Ionic are light on apps right now, to my mind a smartwatch is about fitness tracking and being an extension of your phone for notifications. 

The Versa is not without issues, but I believe that most of these will be resolved with updates to both the app and the firmware of the watch itself. So, good-looking and just smart enough, with better than average battery life and, at £200, a third less than the Apple Watch. What more do you want in a smart watch?

fitbit versa watch straps