Fitbit’s Ionic to take on Apple smart watch

Fitbit in a bid to expand beyond the fitness band category has announced its first smart watch – ‘Ionic’. It will compete with brands such as Apple and Xiaomi.

Fitbit’s Ionic will come with something special: an enhanced heart rate reader that includes a relative SpO2 sensor capable of tracking the amount of oxygen in the blood over time. Fitbit hopes this technology will eventually allow it to detect conditions such as sleep apnea, a serious disorder in which someone’s breathing is interrupted while they slumber.

Fitbit says the Ionic is more about improving the quality of the data its devices gather, than just growing its slice of the wearables market. “We’ve seen the need for more and more advanced sensors while still maintaining long battery life,” Fitbit CEO James Park had told TIME. “The only way we felt we could do that was with a larger form factor device. So that drove the thinking behind developing a smartwatch.”

Fitbit’s Ionic also includes built-in GPS tracking, unlike the Blaze which depends on the signal from a nearby smartphone. It’s water resistance up to 50 meters, too, brings it on a par with the Apple Watch. As such, Fitbit has added a swim mode that can detect calories burned, time elapsed and laps if you’re up for a pool workout. It can also pause a workout when it detects the wearer has stopped running, though that’s another feature the Apple Watch has had for some time. Of course the Ionic includes many of the things prior Fitbit products could do, like automatically knowing when you’re exercising or keeping tabs on your stages of sleep.

While Fitbit considers its products health-focused, it wants buyers to use the Ionic for more than just activity or exercise. The smartwatch will support NFC (near field communication) for making wireless mobile payments, can display app notifications and has its own selection of apps accessed through a new App Gallery — the company’s equivalent of Apple’s App Store.

Fitbit will also launch partnerships with a few third-party apps, notably Starbucks, AccuWeather, Pandora Music and fitness social network Strava. It has 2.5 gigabytes of storage, which can be used for offline music listening, either by adding music users have previously purchased (roughly 300 songs), or through Pandora Premium via downloadable playlists.

Apple and Xiaomi have been pushing their own health and fitness agendas through smart devices. The two companies were neck and neck for most wearable devices shipped worldwide, pushing Fitbit to third place in June.

Apple has improved hardware and software of its watches, adding features like built-in GPS, swim tracking and a way to share data with friends, it’s become a formidable opponent in the fitness tracker space. Apple’s presence in the smartphone market has also given it a huge app ecosystem lead. Xiaomi’s appeal by contrast is in its value — the company’s Mi Band fitness tracker costs just $15.

The Ionic’s challenge at this point is both to distinguish itself from and stay ahead of rivals Apple and front runner Xiaomi. Both firms have distinct advantages over Fitbit.

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