September is shaping up to be a big month for smartwatches. Fitbit on Wednesday announced its new Versa 2, which will arrive in stores on Sept. 15. Samsung has a new smartwatch arriving two days earlier on Sept. 13, and a new Apple Watch is likely around the corner, too. But, the $200 Fitbit Versa 2 has new features that could rise above the competition. The next generation of Fitbit’s most successful smartwatch adds Amazon Alexa connectivity, along with a better display, a faster processor and longer battery life.
Fitbit’s also launching a new coaching and fitness guidance subscription service called Fitbit Premium. It will cost $10 a month or $80 a year and is not exclusive to the Versa 2. Fitbit Premium will offer guided plans and workouts covering everything from exercise regimens to weight loss and calorie-counting guides, along with what Fitbit promises will be a customized mix of suggestions based on your collected fitness data.
Will Fitbit Premium be worth the subscription cost over Fitbit’s already robust and free app? I can’t tell yet because I haven’t tested it. But it sounds like it could offer more proactive lifestyle coaching in addition to just tracking your information, which is something that I’ve been looking for in a fitness tracker and still haven’t quite found.
Fitbit announced its new watch and service, along with a new $50 basic smart scale called the Fitbit Aria Air that measures weight and BMI, at an event in New York where I got to look at the Versa 2 and its accessories up close.
What Alexa can and can’t do
Fitbit’s never had a microphone or any voice assistant functions on any of its previous fitness trackers. You can activate Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant on the Versa 2 by pressing and holding the single side button. Give your command and wait for the action or answer to pop up on screen. You won’t hear Alexa’s voice, though: Because the watch lacks a speaker, answers are delivered via text responses.
Alexa will work on Android phones or iPhones (provided the Alexa app is also installed) and can search for general information, control smart home devices, find local businesses, start or stop timers and do other Alexa-like things. It can also transcribe voice responses to messages, but only on Android phones. It won’t control music on the Versa 2, though, and it won’t control fitness tracker controls until later in the year. I’ll know more about how Alexa works on the Versa 2 once I test it out in our full review.
Still, adding Alexa is a step up from previous Fitbits and it’s a fascinating new direction.
Spotify onboard, but not really
Fitbit’s had music support on its previous Ionic and Versa watches, but it could only side-load MP3s from a computer or work with Pandora premium and Deezer. Spotify Premium is a new app that will also come to Fitbit’s other Versa watches later in the year. But, while I initially thought it would allow Spotify downloads to the watch, much like you can on Samsung smartwatches and Garmin watches (Garmin recently added Amazon Music support to its watches, too), it turns out this is only a remote Spotify Connect app that enables control of songs from the Spotify phone app… which isn’t much of a feature. Fitbit Versa 2 can store music, but only via side-loads, Deezer and Pandora’s premium service.
Versa 2 adds some overdue upgrades, but no GPS or ECG
Battery life is another advantage the Versa 2 has over its predecessors: The battery now lasts five days instead of four. Its AMOLED display can work in a new always-on mode for a couple of days. Apps load faster and the watch is more responsive thanks to that new processor. It has the same 50-meter water resistance as previous models and works with the same Versa chargers and watch bands. Fitbit Pay, a contactless-payment competitor to Apple Pay and Samsung Pay, is also onboard — and not just on the premium edition like last time.
But the Versa 2 also lacks some features: It doesn’t have onboard GPS, making the aging Fitbit Ionic the only GPS-enabled Fitbit device. Fitbit didn’t add any FDA-cleared health features, either. Meanwhile the Apple Watch Series 4 and Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 both have electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) technology to sense atrial fibrillation, although Samsung’s isn’t FDA-cleared yet.
Fitbit’s newest health addition, Sleep Score, doesn’t need a new watch
Fitbit’s biggest new health features are sleep-related and could promise to make inroads to sleep tracking where the competition still hasn’t. A new Sleep Score function that was in beta earlier this year will provide more detailed sleep results and grades your night’s sleep based on your resting heart rate, REM and deep sleep measurements and time spent sleeping. (I tried the Sleep Score beta earlier this year and it was a decent upgrade.) The Sleep Score feature will work with any Fitbit that tracks heart rate, but more detailed results and guidance will need a Premium subscription. Fitbit’s also adding a “smart wake” function that will time an alarm to a window in a sleep cycle that will feel less disruptive, according to the company.
Fitbit Premium will eventually offer customized health care guidance
Fitbit’s subscription service will focus on exercises, weight loss and general wellness insights when it launches in September. It will prepare a Wellness Report you can show to a doctor, which plans to summarize key Fitbit-collected fitness data. What that amounts to sounds like a summarized chart of exercise, sleep, heart rate and weight over time.
Additional health reports are going to be added later on, with a focus on other chronic conditions. This looks to dovetail with an extra add-on service coming in 2020 and being pilot-tested in the US later this year. The new service will also add personalized health coaching, with one-on-one guidance that sounds like a digital trainer. It sounds like this will be a bigger push from Fitbit to become a digital health services provider, but the jury’s still out on how much these one-on-one services will help with challenges like weight loss or diabetes management, two of the conditions Fitbit mentions in its press release.
Will Fitbit Premium start to become a service that feels like an at-home trainer? Will its extras (which include some social fitness games and a limited launch selection of programs called things like Get More Zzz’s, Habits for Restful Sleep, Understand Calories and Kick Your Salt Habit) feel essential? Fitbit’s offering a 90-day trial period for its Premium service, but only with the $230 Special Edition of the Versa 2, which comes with an extra, good-looking woven nylon band. Otherwise, it will cost $10 a month, or $80 a year.
The Fitbit Versa 2 looks like it’s the best Fitbit device to date. But Fitbit’s subscription service points to a future where software might eventually be more important to the company than hardware.
Correction, 1:24 p.m. PT: The Spotify app doesn’t allow downloads, just remote control of phone app.