Fitbit Versa – 2 months later

The Fitbit Versa is the latest smartwatch from the American fitness wearable player and I’ve been wearing it for some weeks now. The device has an optical heart rate monitor on its underside that employs the same PurePulse heart rate tracking technology as the Charge 2 and the Versa’s (slightly) older brother, the Ionic. It’s water resistant to 50 metres, so you can track swimming alongside more than a dozen other exercises automatically picked up by the Versa.

You can store a few hundred songs on the Versa, which can be paired with Bluetooth earphones for a phone-free workout. Unfortunately, you cannot transfer audio files directly from your phone to the device – you’d need to download the Fitbit program on a PC to move the files. In terms of other apps, the Versa doesn’t have a rich library of news sources in the way that Apple Watch does, although you can load the New York Times app, which provides a short summary of top stories from the paper’s website. There’s also a Strava app, Deezer, Starbucks and Wallet, which I never used.

Fitbit Versa: Design notes

At first glance, the Versa lacks the sharp edges of the Ionic. A rounded square outline makes the Versa more reminiscent of an Apple Watch – something that may have been a tactical decision on Fitbit’s part to broaden the device’s appeal.

Fitbit Versa
Rounded corners give the Versa an Apple Watch-like aesthetic

The supplied band is a simpler black matte rubber material than the Ionic’s. What this has meant, however, is that the Versa is a bit cheaper than its predecessor.

The Fitbit website says the Versa has a four-day battery life, but I found I needed to charge it within three. A wired charging dock is provided with the device. It takes less than 90 minutes to reach full charge. You can use the device for tasks such as setting timers and alarms during this time.

Versa
The supplied charging dock will refill the Versa’s battery in about 90 minutes. You can use the device while it’s charging

Battery life is a bit better in the Versa than the Ionic, possibly because the display is a tad smaller. The official website suggests you can use, but in practice I found it was more like three days. I leave the charger in the office and if the battery’s full when I leave for home on a Thursday evening, it’s usually down to about 15-18 per cent by the time I’m back in on Sunday morning (assuming I’ve done at least one workout and one long walk over the weekend).

Past usage and history

I’ve been a regular Fitbit user since I purchased my first, the Flex, in 2013. These trackers started out as a tiny device set in a simple rubber band on the wrist that tracked your steps. As technology progressed, the company was able to throw in basic visual interfaces – from dots representing milestones of steps to a mini digital display, which turned the device into a watch – as well as heart rate tracking. However, things were kept relatively simple as of 2016. The Charge 2 and Alta both offered a simple digital display that didn’t offer much by way of customisation.

Usage during workouts

The Versa is light on the wrist and it’s easy to forget you’re wearing it, which is a good thing. When I felt particularly winded during a game of football, I glanced at my wrist to see a heart rate of 168 – that’s around my peak – signalling to me that it was time to go in goal. When wearing the device while using a Life Fitness elliptical machine (cross trainer) at my gym, I noticed the heart rate on the Versa matched that of the elliptical, which detects heart rate through large metal sensors gripped by the user’s hands.

Versa
The heart rate tracked by the Versa matched that of the Life Fitness elliptical machine, which has significantly larger sensors

The readings were also identical on a treadmill and exercise cycle. Thanks to its waterproofing, it’s easy to wash and wipe sweat off the device.

The Versa tracked my workout during circuit training group classes, while playing football and squash, and when going on 20-minute walks.

You may have to wait a few minutes for the device to sync and digest all the data following a workout. Your smartphone will need to be online to sync as well.

Circuit training

I wore the Versa during a number of Fitball group circuit training sessions to see how it would measure the effort expended in performing ball burpees, press-ups, jumping squats and various punishing drills involving a football. As the workout is based on a high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

The peak training points visible on the above graph correspond to what I found the toughest part of this training session – jump squats.

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I reached my peak heart rate (183) around the jump squats midway through this circuit training session

We had to do leap-forward burpees, which add extra strain on the quads compared to the standard variety. Bear crawls into press-ups were next – here, you crawl forward 1.5 metres or so before doing three press-ups, then moving forward again.

The ape run also drove up the heart rate. It’s an unconventional movement that sees you running on hands and feet. It’s equally punishing on the triceps and hamstrings.

The session ended with a five-minute game of football.

Squash

The long rallies, bursts forward, frantic backpedalling and desperate lunges in this sport make it highly taxing on the heart. A friend and I play for an hour, taking a minute-long water break every two games or so. Standard games are of higher intensity than the more light-hearted left-hand matches we play (usually one in three games).

Versa
The peaks here correspond with tighter games where both my opponent and I racked up a lot of points. Dips match our water breaks. The average is lower during the slower-paced lefty games

I’m the weaker player, losing far more often than winning, but closer matches with longer rallies and hard-fought points correspond with peaks in the heart rate graph.

How does this compare to another sport that I play more frequently wearing the device – football?

Football

Because I like to stretch a lot before playing, I usually start matches in goal. Depending on the state of the defence and my vigour in stretching, there’s a small upward climb in my heart rate chart.

It’s usually not long after this, when I’ve left goal and am running on the pitch, that the Fitbit starts vibrating to signal my daily step target – a modest 8,000 steps – has been reached. In terms of intensity, I find that playing around the middle of the pitch is most physically taxing.

Versa
My calories burnt per minute were highest when playing midfield, as this involves short bursts forward and backward

The calories-per-minute burn is highest after someone on my team has cut out an opposition attack in or around our box and is looking to send the ball forward on a counter-attack. Sprinting ahead in support of a player can be quite demanding. The same applies in the opposite situation, where you need to track back to try and disrupt an opponent’s run at your goal.

The graph’s dips indicate points at which I returned to goal (we always rotate keeper).

Fitbit Versa: Coach

One feature the Versa’s colour LCD touchscreen allows that older devices – Ionic aside – could not is a visual coaching interface.

The device comes with three workouts included, ranging from nine to 29 minutes. Tap one and you’re shown a GIF example of an exercise for a few seconds before the screen shows a countdown timer. These exercises are simple movements – basic squats, burpees and press-ups being a few moves in the nine-minute Muscle Focus workout.

The workout is recorded with a star icon alongside others. Subscribing to the Premium tier in Fitbit’s Coach app unlocks dozens of new workouts at a price of $39 (Dh143) per year. It’s a great option for those who might not have the time or means for a pricey gym subscription or the need to use weights and other specialised equipment to meet their fitness goals.

Fitbit Versa: Clock faces

There are more than 350 clock faces to choose from on the Versa. Some are stat-heavy, with heart rate, step count, a percentage graph towards fulfilling daily goals, calories burnt, distance covered and floors climbed among the possible metrics you can have displayed on your watch face. There’s some meme-themed content, like This is Fine.

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This is Fine

Viking on a Unicorn is pretty hilarious, too.

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Viking on a Unicorn. Because, why not?

If you’re looking for more, um, useful content, the New Parent face has small timers for milk, nappy changes and your baby’s sleep time. There’s a library of weather-based faces, although they aren’t of much use in the UAE, where the weather is fairly predictable 90 per cent of the time.

Versa
A genuinely useful watch face, New Parent will help mums and dads keep track of feeding time, nappy change intervals and sleep

I personally prefer using heart rate-oriented faces. The rate at which this vital organ is supplying blood to the rest of your system can say a lot about your stress levels, exercise efficacy and overall health – particularly if you look at resting heart rate (how hard your heart works while your body’s at rest).

Some faces are interactive – my personal favourite at the moment is Smarty. Not only does it clearly display day, date, steps, calories, heart rate and seconds on the base setting but also has a mini stopwatch.

Fitbit Versa: Sleep tracking

One benefit of its unobtrusive profile is that the Versa is easy to fall asleep with. Sync your device upon waking and you can see your sleep broken down into light, REM and deep stages in percentage terms, as well as the time the Versa says you were awake (“Because some of these moments are so short, you may not remember them,” says the app, which I agree with).

Versa
You can see how much time your body spent in various stages of sleep, and adjust habits accordingly to find ways to maximise your night’s rest

You can compare the results to averages from other users of your age and gender, as well as your own 30-day average. It took a couple of days for this more detailed sleep breakdown data, the first few only offering basic data on time spent asleep, awake and restless. If you take a long nap, you’ll get the same basic metrics.

People often ask me what the point of sleep tracking is. I’ve found that making adjustments to my pre-bedtime diet and habits has helped me endure less restless nights.

It’s a shame that you can’t check your quality of sleep on the Versa after waking up. As with workouts, you need to sync the device first. However, this sync takes less time than the exercise one.

Fitbit Versa: Relax function

Like the Charge 2, the Versa comes with a built-in Relax app. Sessions may be two or five minutes in length, and I’ve found them quite helpful in the midst of heavy deadlines at work.

Doing this daily is supposed to help lower your resting heart rate, though I haven’t been using the Relax function as often as I should.

Fitbit Versa: Verdict

Although it’s not the most original form factor, the Versa has a design and price that make it more palatable to wider audiences than the Ionic. If you’re someone who is looking to get more out of your workouts – and sports in particular – this device could be very useful. Fitbit’s platform is easy to use, and your data carries over when switching devices.

The device’s lightweight build, coaching GIFs, accurate heart rate tracking and ability to automatically follow a broad range of workouts make it ideal for those who engage in varied exercise routines as well as gymmers who follow an extensive cardiovascular workout set. The Fitbit Versa allows you to see how much effort you expended and think about ways in which to push yourself harder and achieve better results over time. The Dh899 you’ll need to shell out for the device is far cheaper than hiring a personal trainer for a year.