Fitbit Ionic, Garmin Vivoactive 3, and Garmin Fenix 3 Review

Bottom Line Up Front: I have been wearing the Fitbit Ionic for more than 30 days and highly recommend it. Prior, I sold my Garmin Fenix 3 which I had for a few years as well as purchased and returned a Garmin Vivoactive 3 after two weeks. I will review the Ionic, Vivoactive 3, and Fenix 3 in this post and offer recommendations on alternative options.

Fitbit Ionic, Garmin Vivoactive 3, and Garmin Fenix 3 Review

What Do I Want from My Watch?

I have been wearing some kind of fitness tracking device since 2013 every day and have used a Garmin device for specific endurance events (running and rucking mostly) since 2004. So I know what I want now:

  • One device. Not a regular watch plus a fitness tracker (steps, sleep, etc.) or a regular watch plus a performance watch (only to wear when doing actual exercise). The watches now are good enough that they all do everything. I understand some people want to wear a regular watch for fashion reasons or potentially because they don’t want to recharge their watch, but I don’t.
  • Basic fitness/health tracking. Sleep & steps at a minimum. I care about how much I move and how much I sleep and want a device to track this for me.
  • Advanced performance metrics. I want a device that can use GPS to give me pace, distance, interval times.
  • Notifications. Texts, calls, calendar, etc.
  • Heart rate. I thought this was silly until I got a watch with it and now I like it. This is my least-required requirement to be honest, but it’s so common and the tech is good enough (it isn’t far off from a chest-based monitor on accuracy) it’s worth it.

Fenix 3 Review

I decided to wanted to step up my watch game in 2015 as I was preparing to go on an elk hunt in Colorado. I had been wearing a G-shock “regular” watch plus a Fitbit for fitness tracking (sleep & steps). I also decided I wanted to track my performance events (rucking and running), which I hadn’t done for a while. Finally, I wanted to get a watch with barometric pressure, a compass, and some survival tools in it for the elk hunt but also for general outdoors use. This puts you in the high-end Garmin or Suunto world. Bit the bullet and got the Garmin Fenix 3, which at the time was $500 for the basic model. This was a big jump for mentally, but, hey, I love new tech, and I needed this, so it was justifiable, right? Right.

So here is the bottom line on the Fenix 3: it’s a beast and I love it. I wore it every day for 2 years and it served me well. It was definitely worth its price tag if you can put its capabilities to use. My biggest complaint was the size. Initially it was kind of cool to have this giant, rugged, military-inspired watch but then it got to be annoying when my shirt cuffs would always get stuck on it and I’d have to readjust it all the time. So when the Fenix 5 came out, I had to take a look at it to see what was better because maybe I needed those things too! In short it was a non-drastic improvement over the Fenix 3 but definitely an improvement in a lot of ways. I noticed that over time though, I was using the outdoor features of the Fenix 3 a lot less and would didn’t really need them. It was cool to put in a waypoint and navigate to it from my watch but it was easier and more effective to just use my phone. So all the above and beyond things the Fenix series does kind of didn’t justify the price tag for me. Plus I was truly sick of the size. Garmin did come out with 3 versions of the Fenix 5 to address this somewhat, but the model I would have bought was still much larger than a normal watch, only slightly smaller than the Fenix 3. So I started evaluating my options. As I always do when I am in the fitness device category, I start with DC Rainmaker. See link in additional research section below. His reviews are the standard by which all reviews will be measured against.

Garmin Vivoactive 3 Review

Right at this time, Garmin had come out with the Vivoactive 3, which when I read about it seemed to be like they made a watch for me. It was a new version of the the Fenix 3 but half the weight, with a touchscreen (which I wanted), and with all the basic software upgrades of the Fenix 5. And by some stroke of luck they had one at my local military exchange, on sale and tax free. It’s like a sign. So I sold my Fenix 3 on Ebay (you are welcome whoever got it because I underpriced it) and I only had to spend basically $100 for the new watch, which was $249.

The bottom line on this one is I returned it after two weeks. Here are some pros and cons:

  • The touchscreen was responsive and better than I expected. Plus there are a lot of cool watch faces you can select from.
  • I enjoyed the wrist-based heart rate monitoring. This being the first watch I had with it, once I got used to it, it got me interested more in using it and having it on a watch.
  • The watch has Garmin Pay which is a way to make tap & pay payments with your watch where it is accepted, like you can with a phone. I thought this was silly until I started using it. I was easier than using my credit card but not than the phone. The selling point is that you can go on a run without your wallet and buy something not that it’s supposed to be fast. It definitely works at the payment terminals.
  • The size was too small. The watch face was OK but the bands were so thin I felt like I was wearing a women’s watch. It was nice though to not even realize I was wearing it which never happens with a Fenix.
  • The battery life is good for this category but not as compared with the Fenix. You can struggle to get a week out of the Vivoactive 3, more like 3-5 days. The Fenix would go 20-30 days easy. I don’t use the GPS a lot which saves battery. But this watch competes more with an Apple watch, which pretty much has to be charged every day, so some would say the Vivoactive has solid battery life.
  • The software wasn’t quite right and a little weird. Some of the menus I didn’t love. I had to reset it every 3-5 days because for some reason the notifications stopped working. Then it wasn’t tracking my sleep at all for a few days.

The size and these software glitches put me over the edge. Plus I was thinking maybe I actually re-needed those things I gave up on the Fenix. As I neared the end of the no-questions-asked-returns-window, I decided that if I was debating it, I wasn’t happy with the Vivoactive 3, so I returned it.

Fitbit Ionic Review

As I was prepping to return, I hit the internet searching again for a new option. I was pretty into the Garmin ecosystem, so I wasn’t really looking elsewhere until I saw the new Ionic, which was just about the same category as the Vivoactive 3. In fact, it had all the things I wanted from the Vivoactive and none of the extra stuff from the Fenix series. And, I mean, come on…they had them on sale at $279 at the same store where I was bringing the Vivoactive back to! Sign from above.

I have worn this for a solid month and highly recommend it. Here are the reasons:

  • The Fitbit ecosystem is better than Garmin’s. The watch software, phone app, and web site are easier to use, better-presented, and more intuitive.
  • The Ionic has legitimate performance capability – advanced heart rate, splits times, GPS & GLONASS, etc. It doesn’t have the ultra-crazy things like a high end Garmin running watch like ground contact time or step cadence, but this is useless for most people (even “runners” probably). I quote “runners” to demonstrate my distaste for “running” being what someone is versus something they do. This is largely because “runners” are usually weak, frail, and unhealthy in my experience (and sometimes paradoxically fat). And…scene. Back to the review.
  • Fitbit pay! It’s actually better than Garmin Pay. I use it every time I am at a place with tap and pay. Works the same but it only requires touching one button to engage it, then tap and pay. With Garmin you have to put in the pass code each time but the Ionic is smarter. When you take your watch off your wrist and put it back on, it asks for the pass code once to allow you to use the watch. As long as you keep it on, it assumes you have positive control and doesn’t require a pass code again until it senses it has been removed.
  • It has a touchscreen but also buttons. Vivoactive sort of went all touchscreen and it was too much. Ionic is the right amount. I didn’t test the screen resilience much as I put an IQ shield screen protector on it immediately (as I use for my phone as well).
  • The weight and size are perfect. So light compared to the Fenix series. Even after months of not wearing the Fenix, I am pleased and actually notice how light my watch feels.
  • Battery life is good (5-7 days average). I now only use GPS for running or when I do long, timed rucks where I really care about precise pace and distance. Due to that I get a good week of battery life which is more than enough for me. If you GPS a lot, it will drive it down way faster.
  • The watch face library is pretty impressive and the screen is much nicer than the Garmin watches.
  • The stock band it came with is OK but I replaced it with the sport band for about $25, which was totally worth it. I wish this was standard. The upgrade made it even more comfortable.
  • It does a good job with the notifications, but I have turned them off. I decided to be less distracted, so I have my phone and watch on do not disturb. I check my phone periodically and don’t let it inform me in real-time anymore. It’s a sanity/efficiency decision. I recommend you do it too.
  • It has a flashlight feature where the whole screen turns to white and it lights up a room. Vivoactive had this too. I use it way more than I thought. There is even a way to make it a shortcut so with two quick button taps it comes on. Awesome for late-night peeing standing up.
  • Heart rate tracking is accurate and I refer to it regularly. This is really the gold-standard for defining how hard you are working and without having to put on a chest strap and have a phone to connect it to, I like the ease of the wrist-based heart rate metrics.
  • Vibration motor for alarms and notifications. It isn’t as strong as the Fenix but I feel the vibrations enough.
  • Auto-recognize exercise. You can go into the watch menu and start an exercise session, say running, manually. But the Ionic (and other Fitbits) will recognize you have been running for a few minutes and then turn it on automatically. It does this for walking and “sports” too, which are basically periods of heightened activity above normal levels that you may want to track. Basketball would do it, probably tennis. Mine turned on when I was shoveling my driveway (for an hour) for example. But almost all the time now, I don’t actively active “walk” mode when I ruck and it tracks it exactly as if I had so I can review it as an event when I am done. Garmin doesn’t do this.
  • Built-in music. You can upload music to the watch and connect a bluetooth headset to it to listen without the need for a phone or music player. I actually have thousands of physical MP3 files because I am an OG and downloaded music when it first came out. But since a lot of people now don’t buy downloadable files, Fitbit partnered with Pandora and Deezer to let you pay a premium fee to be able to sync music to the watch without buying the actual songs. I don’t use this a lot but I did set it up and threw some downloaded Hardcore History podcasts on there. Worked perfectly. It was cool not to have to have a phone to listen to something. I will load it up with some playlists so I can go run to music without a phone, which is terribly annoying to run with.
  • You can use the Fitbit app to track calories, water intake, and weight too. Garmin has this, but Fitbit does it better. I use it for my weight only.

There are some cons to all those pros above though.

  • It looks like a fitness watch. If you wore a suit to work every day, this may be too casual for you.
  • The screen isn’t always on. The Vivoactive 3 and Apple watch are the same, so it’s par for the category, but I don’t like it. The display comes on when you hit a button or when you raise your wrist. This works really well, but I would rather be able to look at it without having to do the raise and rotate movement. You can turn on always-on display for specific exercise modes which is a good hybrid. I have mine to be on always when I run so I can look at it without having to actively initiate it. Minor battery hit.

Recommendations & Final Thoughts

For me, an advanced triathlon watch or high end running watch wasn’t necessary. I wanted a fitness watch not a performance watch. The Ionic fits this bill perfectly. All I would like to see is better battery life and always-on display really.

If you are in the market, I recommend you try the Ionic. It is a little large for an average female wrist, which is probably why they came out with the Versa a few weeks ago. From what I can tell, it’s a more female-focused, “prettier” Ionic. Almost identical in performance except for lack of GPS. The Versa looks really nice.

But if you have a normal watch you need to/want to wear, you can get a lot of the Fitbit fitness stuff with their non-watch bands such as the Flex 2 or Alta. You can wear it on your non-watch hand. No GPS but it would tracks sleep and steps, and you could use the app for weight, water, food, etc. There is also a fairly interesting ring call the Oura that tracks a lot of things that you could try if wrist bands aren’t your thing. I kind of want to buy one to check it out but have restrained myself.

If you like the look of the Fenix 5 and can put some of the stuff to use, try it. It’s a great watch. I would get the 5 not the 5x unless you are into the additional mapping feature (which seems like a phone would do much better). They have the sapphire model which has a scratch-proof face, but I had the regular Fenix 3 screen and scratches aren’t an issue. You can get small screen protectors too, which work really well. IQ shield makes good ones as I said above. You could also get the Fenix 3 or Fenix 3 HR (heart rate) if you want much of the same experience at a reduced price.

If you like the Fenix 5 but want something lighter and slightly cheaper, try the Garmin Forerunner 935. I may have gotten this and never looked at the Ionic had it been a little cheaper and if I could find one in a store versus online only.

Garmin did come out with the 645 Music which has on-watch music and Garmin Pay too, so if the Fitbit Ionic was appealing but you want to stick with Garmin, take a look. It’s almost double the price of the Ionic but has some of those triathlon/advanced metric capabilities.

I think Garmin will come out with a new Fenix in the next year and it will have a lot of the things the Vivoactive had but do them better. We shall see.

Use the links below to get super-educated and then it comes down to price/availability/minor variations, etc.

References & Additional Research

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