Fitbit Ionic review: Good fitness tracker, passable smartwatch

Fitbit’s first real smartwatch was the worst kept secret in tech. After months of rumors, leaks and the acquisition of smartwatch pioneer Pebble that all but revealed the company’s intentions, Fitbit presented the Ionic to the world. It was a promising debut, featuring a shiny new operating system built with Pebble’s expertise. The company also unveiled its own contactless payment system meant to make running or working out without a phone feel more feasible.

This is Fitbit’s most ambitious launch in years, which is timely given that 2017 marks the company’s tenth anniversary. But it’s also overdue. The Fitbit Ionic arrives at a time when the definition of a smartwatch is coalescing. The Ionic feels more like a fitness tracker with just enough smartwatch features to justify calling itself one, but doesn’t have the full functionality we’ve come to expect from the category. Still, the Ionic does make some sense, as long as you aren’t expecting a complete suite of smartwatch features.

Hardware

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The Fitbit Ionic looks a lot better in person than it does in pictures. That doesn’t mean it’s pretty, though. The Ionic’s geometric design and squarish face make it hard to dress up, even when I swapped out the default gray strap for Fitbit’s brown leather band. In fact, I find the leather band with “Cognac” finish uglier than the original — its coppery brown tone and perforated texture lack the class of a plain leather band and doesn’t match the gray face. At least it’s easy to switch the straps out for something more attractive.

That said, Fitbit designed the Ionic to fit aesthetically with the rest of its products, and there’s no mistaking this smartwatch for one from any other brand. Like the company’s previous Blaze and Surge watches, the Ionic is a fitness tracker masquerading as a smartwatch, and I’m not just talking about looks. But more on that later.

First, I have to give Fitbit props for improving the Ionic’s overall fit. While the Charge 2, Alta and Flex 2 have cylindrical modules with straight surfaces, the Ionic’s body and screen are subtly curved. Because of this, the watch hugs my wrist better than the company’s other trackers, which helps keep the heart rate sensor in place during workouts and during sleep.

My favorite thing about the Ionic’s hardware, though, is its brilliant display. Like I said before, the 1.42-inch, 348 x 250 screen is sharp, colorful and bright enough to read in direct sunlight, which makes up for my disappointment in the fact that it’s not round. The display is also responsive and doesn’t lag when I swipe through menus and lists of notifications. Overall, the latest Fitbit feels at once familiar and refreshing, thanks to its beautiful screen and premium build quality.

In use

There’s really not much more to go over that I haven’t already covered in my hands-on and 24-hour “first look” pieces. The biggest news is that since my last article was published, Fitbit Pay has gone live. It’s one of a few features Fitbit recently added to the Ionic to ease anxiety about leaving your phone at home while you’re working out.

Now that Pay is live, you can add your debit or credit card via the Fitbit app on your phone. (Visa, Mastercard, Amex and a growing number of major banks are supported.) Fitbit Pay is accepted anywhere that takes NFC transactions. For security, you’ll be asked to set a four-digit PIN that you’ll later use to verify each payment and unlock your watch if you’ve removed it from your wrist.

I loaded a debit card on the watch (you can save up to six and set one as the primary option) and used it to buy sheet protectors at the Staples across the street. It was as easy as using Apple Pay on my phone, except I had to enter the PIN before authorizing the transaction rather than authenticate with Touch ID. Still, that’s a minor inconvenience for the benefit of knowing I can leave my phone behind and not be stranded if I need to buy something.

Another useful addition is the ability to play music from the watch’s 4GB of onboard storage. There are two ways to do this: via the Pandora app (if you have a paid Premium account) or transferring files from your PC. Both methods have their drawbacks and aren’t easy to set up. The Pandora app on the watch takes forever to sync playlists that I select from the phone, causing me to wonder if it was successful. After it syncs, though, Pandora generally works well.

As I described in my preview, Fitbit’s system took an excruciatingly long time for my laptop and Ionic to find each other. You also had to manage your music by using Windows Media or iTunes playlists, which isn’t very intuitive. Since then, the company has updated its Windows app so users can manage individual tracks directly in the app. You can drag and drop music files into the Fitbit window or browse your computer’s storage to add songs. This was a welcome improvement that made it easier to transfer files. Kudos for making this change, Fitbit.

Like any smartwatch worth its salt, the Ionic delivers notifications to your wrist. But unlike many of its rivals, the Ionic doesn’t allow you to reply to them. That’s strange, considering Pebble watches managed to let you reply to messages (even with your voice in some cases) if you’re paired to an Android or an iPhone.

The preview of each alert that comes to your wrist is usually sufficiently long — I always saw all the contents of the tweets or texts I received. For emails, though, the alert is often truncated right after the subject line, which is useless at times.

Then there are the apps (or lack thereof). Fitbit pre-installs about a dozen to start you off, including alarms, weather, music, timers and Today (which shows you a snapshot of your progress toward daily step and calorie goals). Third-party apps available at launch include Pandora, Strava and Starbucks. These are useful, but the relatively sparse offerings makes me feel like I’m in a library where the shelves are mostly empty and all the books I want are missing. I’m still waiting on offerings from Yelp, Uber and Foursquare, which had apps for the Pebble watches back in the day, and were some of the earliest to get on board. Such apps would go a long way in making the Ionic feel more like a real smartwatch.

Smartwatch ambitions aside, the Fitbit Ionic is a capable fitness tracker. I used it to track 20-minute sessions on a stationary bike, during which I compared its readout with the heart rate data on the watch. The Ionic was usually within 2 bpm of the bike, unless I sped up and my pulse jumped drastically. Then, the Ionic would lag the bike in noting the increase. This delay is problematic for people who pay attention to the cardio zone they’re in while working out, since it affects the amount of time you record in each zone, but the Ionic does eventually catch up and the difference often evens out.

I still like the new Coach feature, which guides you through workouts on your wrist. During this round of testing, however, I was frequently interrupted by incoming message alerts. After each set, the Ionic buzzes to let you know that you can stop and move on to the next exercise. But notifications from my chatty friends caused similar buzzes, which led me to think that my set was over when I still had more reps to complete. Although you can turn notifications off manually, it’d be better if Fitbit disabled incoming alerts by default when a workout session was in progress.

The Ionic’s sleep tracking is more reliable than previous Fitbits, thanks to its snugger fit. The data gleaned and presented in the app remains as useful as it was before, which is — not very. What I’ve learned from my days of wearing the Ionic to bed is that I tend to spend more time in the REM stage than other women my age. It took me about an hour of Googling to realize that researchers still don’t necessarily know how much sleep in each stage is ideal. I found out through my own digging that REM sleep is thought to be when the brain heals and forms memories, so I decided (very unscientifically) that my higher-than-normal time in that stage meant I must remember more than others.

The point being, I really shouldn’t need to spend all that time on Google to find out what I did. Fitbit could have easily told me, inside the app, what REM sleep is thought to improve while cautioning that sleep-stage studies have been inconclusive. Instead, it shows me how I performed relative to my previous nights and others my age. That’s still more than the information you can get from competing trackers, though, which at the moment still don’t use the heart rate monitor to understand what stage of sleep you’re in.

Here’s my biggest problem with the Ionic. Trying to get any of the new features to work often involved a frustrating update process. It took hours to complete the firmware update with Fitbit Pay. When I tried to set it up, I was told my WiFi connection (to the watch) was broken so I had to use Bluetooth instead. After agreeing to that, I was warned the update could take up to 10 minutes.

Ten minutes later, I was running late for a meeting and according to the progress bar on the watch, the Ionic was only a third done. I decided to run out mid-update, hoping that the Bluetooth connection wouldn’t be interrupted as I made my commute. No such luck; the update stalled. Two hours later, I had to reset the connection between my phone and the watch to re-initiate the update. Fifteen minutes after that, the Ionic update as finally complete.

Delays like this are less of an issue if the updates are infrequent, but since some of the Ionic’s key features have yet to be released, users are likely to endure this time-consuming process again sometime soon. For example, the watch’s SpO2 blood oxygen monitor isn’t being used at the moment as Fitbit figures out how to implement it, but once that feature is activated, Ionic owners will presumably have to update their firmware.

Then in 2018, the company is launching the Guided Health programs, which will create customized workout and health programs for each user, as well as push audio exercise instructions through the watch to paired earbuds. These sound like compelling features that I’d like to make use of, but I’m already bracing myself for the potentially long wait time to get them working. Fitbit needs to figure out a way to make its device updates less painful if it’s going to keep launching products before all the features are ready.

Ultimately, what’s available now works well, and while Fitbit struggles to get the Ionic’s smartwatch functions right, the company continues to excel at fitness-tracking features. The Ionic’s long-lasting battery, which generally got through five or six days before needing a charge, is perhaps its best feature,and beats basically every other product in the category.

The competition

This is the year every major player in the fitness wearables industry decided to make a $ 300 smartwatch. Apple, Samsung and Garmin each launched fitness-minded smartwatches this year, and almost all of which support third-party apps, contactless payments and offline music playback.

Unlike the Ionic, the Samsung Gear Sport and Garmin Vivoactive 3 have round faces, while the Apple Watch 3 has a rounded-square shape. If you want something that looks more like a traditional timepiece, Samsung and Garmin’s offerings are better options. iPhone owners will understandably be tempted by the Apple Watch 3, even though it’s slightly more expensive at $ 329 (and that’s without LTE). The Apple wearable lets iOS users reply to messages, interact with Siri and offers an abundance of useful apps — all things that the Ionic lacks. But if you’re already heavily invested in the Fitbit ecosystem, perhaps from having used an older device, you might prefer the Ionic.

The Gear Sport, on the other hand, is a good option for those who own Samsung’s TVs, phones or a Smartthings hub, as the watch offers additional features when paired with those devices. The Sport is not only waterproof up to 50 meters, but will also withstand immersion in saltwater. It runs the company’s Tizen OS, which now boasts thousands of apps including Spotify, WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram.

Like the Ionic, the Gear Sport can also track your swims, but it goes one step further and measures your heart rate even when it’s underwater. Better yet, the Gear Sport works with Samsung’s assistant, Bixby, to answer your questions or help you compose messages, and you can reply to notifications from your wrist. From a brief hands-on in August, the Gear Sport’s screen appears just as bright and crisp as the Ionic’s, but we can’t totally vouch for the Gear Sport since we haven’t fully tested it.

SONY DSC

Runners might prefer the Garmin Vivoactive 3, which uses the company’s own basic smartwatch OS, and it supports more apps than the Ionic does at the moment. Garmin’s device can track more types of exercises and has an established reputation as a leader in GPS technology, so it’s likely to be best at mapping your runs. Plus, its estimated runtime of seven days makes the Garmin watch the only device on this list to outlast the Fitbit. But the Vivoactive 3’s transflective “memory-in-pixel” screen looks more like a color e-Ink display and is less impressive than the Ionic’s LCD panel. To be fair, we haven’t tested the the Vivoactive 3 and can’t vouch for its performance and battery life.

Each of the above options has its own strengths, but if you’re looking for something long-lasting with well-rounded fitness-tracking features, the Ionic is a good option.

Wrap-up

Ultimately, the Ionic is a respectable debut for Fitbit’s first serious attempt at a true smartwatch, and the company continues to excel at fitness-tracking features. But while its new operating system is intuitive and well-designed, overall the device still feels like a placeholder. Fitbit wanted to secure the Ionic’s spot on your wrist this holiday season before it was completely ready.

As it stands, the Ionic is a capable fitness tracker with some passable smartwatch features. It’s clear that Fitbit will continue to improve its software, but the magic it needs for the Ionic to seriously contend real smartwatches is faith. Faith from the app makers who were so enthusiastic about Pebble OS and developed hundreds of offerings that made the pioneer smartwatch not only useful, but a lot of fun. Until that happens, the Ionic is simply functional.

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Apple Watch Series 3 review: A good watch, a so-so phone replacement

With each generation, the Apple Watch’s purpose has seemed to shift. The first one demonstrated what Apple thought a wearable should be, and the second tried to be the perfect workout companion. When it came time to build the Series 3, though, Apple took everything it got right with the fitness-friendly Series 2, polished it up, and threw an LTE radio inside.

And lo, the $ 399 Apple Watch Series 3 became the first of a new breed of Apple devices — it straddles the line between smartwatch and phone, with a dash of iPod thrown in for good measure. For those who’d rather play it safe, Apple also built a $ 329 Series 3 with just GPS and no cellular connection. In fact, that safe bet will probably pay off for most people — the cellular Series 3 is a little too inconsistent for my taste.

Hardware and design

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Despite what some redesign rumors suggested ahead of the big event, this year’s Apple Watch looks… just like an Apple Watch. Shocking, I know. As ever, the Series 3 comes in 38mm and 42mm sizes, so earlier bands will continue to fit just fine. And, as with the Series 2, all versions feature a built-in GPS radio and 50-meter water resistance. Don’t let that classification fool you, though — you can take the Watch for a swim, but you almost certainly shouldn’t take it 50 meters underwater. (Why the watch industry continues to use such counterintuitive terminology is beyond me.)

Not much has changed with the display either — we’re still working with a tiny OLED screen running at 390 x 312, covered by a plate of Ion-X glass. (The stainless-steel and ceramic models instead use tougher sapphire crystal, but this Watch’s glass face was very good at resisting nicks as I accidentally banged my hands into walls and fixtures.) Max brightness still tops out at 1,000 nits, which is more than enough to keep notifications and apps readable under bright sunlight. More interesting is the way the screen doubles as the Watch’s wireless antenna; it’s a nifty feat of engineering that seems to get the job done well.

In any case, I’ve been wearing a 42mm Apple Watch on and off since the first version launched in 2015, and the fit and finish of my 42mm cellular review unit is first-rate, as always. It’s impossible to tell that the Series 3 is slightly thicker than the models that came before it, and thankfully, it’s just as hard to feel the difference when it’s strapped to your wrist. That’s because the Watch’s aluminum squircle of a body hasn’t changed — the ceramic hump around back housing the heart rate sensor is, according to Apple, two sheets of paper thicker than it was before. The 42mm body’s weight hasn’t changed either, which is pretty impressive considering the extra stuff needed to turn this wearable into a tiny, functional phone. Throw in an improved, dual-core S3 chipset and a slightly bigger battery, and we’ve got a remarkably snappy little package.

Until you start talking into your wrist, there’s only one way to tell if a Watch is LTE-enabled or not: You need to spot the red dot. This red highlight serves no technical purpose; it’s purely for looks, and if you’re the type who likes visual metaphors, you’ll notice a certain symmetry with the Watch’s red notification dot. I get the need for some sort of visual signifier, but fashionistas, beware: That red flourish clashes with a lot of Apple Watch bands out there.

As a traditional smartwatch

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The original Apple Watch gave shape to the company’s vision for wearable computing, but, man, it was frustratingly slow sometimes. Fast-forward two years, and we finally have an Apple Watch that feels as fast as it should. Swiping between watch faces is smoother than before, and launching apps seems to take considerably less time, all thanks to Apple’s updated S3 chipset. Series 1 and 2 owners might not find the difference that pronounced, since both devices have dual-core processors of their own, but the fractions of a second I’m saving every time an action works more smoothly becomes time I get to spend doing something else that matters to me.

One of the best ways to see all this power in action is by talking to Siri — and, for once, the experience won’t make you want to tear your hair out. Siri can finally speak to you on the Series 3, and it uses the same natural-sounding voice you’d hear it use on an iOS device running iOS 11. I never really used Siri on the Series 2, because it required me to glance down at my wrist all the time. This year, Siri’s audible responses and generally spot-on voice transcription meant I could ask it to send a message or email for me and not worry too much about what happened next. Yes, this eventually bit me in the ass, but never too badly. Beyond handling messages and tasks, Siri has also been helpful for navigating to hole-in-the-wall restaurants and answering various random questions.

As useful as Siri is now, it still has its limits. For one, you need to be careful with how you ask for things — “open News” does what you’d expect it to, but “show me the news” kicked me out to external search results. Oh, and don’t forget that the Watch’s screen has to be on to get Siri’s attention with a voice command. A version of Siri that constantly listens for commands would be ideal, but that’d probably wreak as much havoc on battery life as, well, a cellular radio would.

The Series 3’s new watch faces sure are… interesting.

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Beyond just Siri, Apple’s new watchOS 4 offers a few other new features as well. There are new customizable kaleidoscope watch faces, along with a handful of faces starring characters from Toy Story. The music app has been updated with a new look and slightly more seamless syncing — some playlists, like “New Music” and “Favorites,” are transferred over by default while the Watch charges for the first time. Individual tracks and playlists can be moved over easily enough too, but literally any support for podcasts would’ve been nice. To make the most of the Watch’s music player, though, you need to be an Apple Music subscriber; the Watch still offers media controls for whatever audio is playing on the iPhone, but you’re out of luck if you’d prefer to interact with Spotify’s superior playlists.

The Series 3 technically works as a standalone device, but let’s be real: We’re so attached to our phones that the Watch will spend most of its time connected to an iPhone anyway. I’m not complaining either, mostly because the Watch has very good battery life as a result. I usually pull my Watch off its charger at around 8AM, and I’ve routinely seen it chug along until midafternoon the next day if I didn’t make many voice calls on it. Over the weekend, when my phone was gloriously quiet, I got nearly two full days of screen-on time before needing to charge the Watch again. Apple bumped up the Series 3’s battery capacity to maximize cellular usage time, so while I’m pleased that tethered battery life has improved, I’m not surprised.

As a standalone device

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The connection between the Apple Watch and an iPhone is the core of Apple’s wearable experience, and for the first time, the company gave the Watch the tools to function independently. Seeing the Watch hop onto an LTE network and use your same phone number is undeniably neat, but honestly, it’s not something I’d want to do very often.

First off, yes, you’re going to have to pay your carrier $ 10 a month for the privilege, not to mention an activation fee once this first wave of promotions dies down. Setting up the Watch with my AT&T phone plan was mostly a breeze, but some reviewers have experienced issues getting everything squared away, especially when older rate plans were involved. Your mileage may vary, but I suspect most of you won’t need to worry much.

Actually using the phone is easier than expected — you can either punch in a number or select one of your contacts — and call quality was generally very good. In a majority of conversations I had, the people on the other end couldn’t even tell I was talking into a watch. That can change suddenly, though. Earlier this week, I parked myself outside the office to take a few phone calls, and the signal indicator bounced between two and four dots of coverage while I was just sitting there.

As a result, call quality got really strange — I could hear the other party just fine, but I sounded like a mess to them. This happened only one other time, in a completely different location, and I’m at a loss as to why. In any case, if you’re interested in taking calls on a Series 3, a Bluetooth headset is a must. It’ll also help in situations where the Watch’s speaker just isn’t loud enough, which is most of the time, frankly.

Messages rolled in quickly too, but here’s the thing: Not all messages are treated equally. As long as you have some kind of wireless signal, iMessages will be delivered just fine. Text messages are usually subject to a delay, since they’re routed through your iPhone, but this also means that SMSes won’t come through at all if your iPhone is dead. Emails running through Apple’s Mail app worked fine but took longer than usual to pop up on my wrist, so I wouldn’t advise going watch-only when urgent business is in the offing. And most of the Watch apps I installed worked normally, though a few — like Slack and Twitter — either did nothing or force-quit when I tried to use them.

Early review models also seemed prone to connectivity issues stemming from a Wi-Fi bug — in a bid to conserve battery life, the Series 3 tries to latch onto wireless networks your other Apple devices have flagged as being suitable for use. The problem was, not every network was flagged correctly, so captive portals (like those used at, say, Starbucks) would get the OK and the Watch would try to connect, with no way of getting past whatever interstitial screen popped up. It’s not that the Watch was going out of its way to jump onto unfamiliar networks — it’s that some of the networks it thinks are kosher actually aren’t.

This is a major goof, but I can see why it might have escaped detection — I have had precisely zero issues with my Series 3 attempting to latch onto bum networks. Then again, I’m one person, and I find it hard to believe that not a single engineer testing the Series 3 prior to launch ran into this. I’m fairly sure you won’t run into this very specific kind of trouble, but it remains a risk; Apple promised a fix after catching some well-deserved flak, but it still hadn’t materialized when we published this review.

Really, my biggest concern is much more mundane: Going completely iPhone-free means the Watch’s battery life will take a huge hit. After an early-morning run while listening to music and using the GPS, followed by a couple of test calls, the Series 3 was on its last legs by early afternoon. Apple has always been clear that the Series 3 is more of a temporary phone substitute than an actual replacement, so this probably won’t seem shocking to you. Still, if this morning routine sounds like your idea of a good time, remember to have a charger handy.

I don’t mean to make the Series 3 sound terrible at this stuff — when everything works properly, it makes for an adequate untethered companion. It’s just too bad that those moments weren’t as common as I expected.

As a fitness tracker

Chris Velazco/Engadget

With the Series 2, Apple decided the Watch should be a serious fitness wearable, and its focus on getting people out of their chairs clearly isn’t going away. Thankfully, the Series 3’s blend of capable hardware and thoughtful software make it a great choice for people who take their workouts seriously, but not that seriously.

The Series 3’s step counts were in line with other wearables I tested it against, though accuracy is a weird thing to look for in cases like these. Every fitness tracker I’ve ever worn seemed to interpret my steps a little differently, but the Series 3 was consistently within +/- 10 steps of my own counts (in my head, up to 250). Strangely, I guess I define “a flight of stairs” differently from how the Watch’s new barometer does, since it consistently underestimated me on days when I decided to avoid the office’s elevators. Meanwhile, the updated Workout app packs support for new workout types (perfect for you crazy high-intensity interval people) and easier controls for setting time or calorie burn goals for your swim, walk or run.

Speaking of running, I’ve had no issue with GPS accuracy either — I run the same route a few times a week, and the distance was basically bang-on every time. Granted, I don’t precisely know how long that makeshift course is, so hardcore runners (like Engadget marathoner-in-residence Dana Wollman) may be better served by more purpose-built wearables that can more accurately measure one’s pace. Now, once I get moving, I don’t have too much trouble powering through to the end; the real trouble comes in getting off my ass to start with. For better or worse, Apple’s three-ringed activity app now offers more proactive notifications, the most effective of which tells me roughly how much longer I’d need to walk to hit my goals at the end of the day. It’s just enough of a push to get me where I want to be, and I’m surprised Apple didn’t implement this sooner.

Your author really needs to chill out.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

Even though I’m not the exercise nut I used to be, I appreciated Apple’s enhanced focus on your heart. The Watch tries to get more accurate readings of your resting heart rate by checking it when it knows you haven’t been moving, and it plots your heart rate readings on handy graphs to show you changes over time.

It’s especially helpful for tracking your recovery after intense exercises, but that’s one of the few areas where the Watch offers a little more data than casual users are probably interested in. All told, this a wearable best suited for generalists. Good thing for Apple, then, that there are a lot of them out there. Hardcore athletes may get more mileage out of a wearable that measures even more, like blood oxygenation. (Curiously, the Apple Watch’s heart rate sensor works in such a way that it could also function as a pulse oximeter, but the feature has never been activated.) What’s more unfortunate is that two features that should be great for exercise buffs — Apple Music streaming over LTE and integration with gym equipment through GymKit — won’t be ready for a few more weeks.

The competition

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There haven’t been too many Android Wear 2.0 watches released this year, which leaves the LG Watch Sport at the top of the proverbial pack. Chatting with Google Assistant is mostly a pleasure, and it uses a rotating crown button for navigation, just like the Series 3. One of Android Wear’s biggest assets has always been its visual flexibility, and I’ve spent more time than I care to admit sifting through watch faces in the Play Store in hopes of finding the perfect look for my wrist. The Sport can also jump onto cellular networks, but LG’s approach is problematic: There’s an actual SIM card inside, so the watch’s body is huge, and the antennas extend into the watch’s unremovable bands. It’s a solid option if you’re a smartwatch shopper who doesn’t care for Apple, but beware of its compromises.

Samsung’s Gear S3 Frontier comes to mind too, since it also packs an eSIM and an LTE radio for truly phone-free use. It’s a bigger, more masculine-looking watch than the Series 3, and it’s a little less comfortable, but its rotating bezel remains one of the most inspired interaction methods I’ve ever used on a smartwatch. It’s effing excellent, and so is its Spotify streaming support. The Frontier can also tell when you’ve started to work out and will track your movements accordingly, an intelligent touch that (sadly) doesn’t always work as well as it should. The biggest knock against the S3 Frontier, however, is its Tizen OS. Who cares if you can install apps in the woods if they’re mostly apps no one cares about?

Wrap-up

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The Apple Watch Series 3 often feels like two devices in one. When it’s connected to a phone, it’s an improvement over its predecessors in just about every way that matters. More important, the tight integration of improved hardware and more thoughtful software give the Series 3 a very notable edge over its smartwatch competition. It’s that good. As a standalone device, though, the Series 3 can be maddeningly limited. Over time, I’m sure apps will grow to take advantage of persistent data connections, and still other kinks will be worked out entirely. For now, though, the kinks remain and the overall experience suffers as a result. Apple’s vision of a wearable that remains forever connected to the things that matter to you is an enticing one, and the Series 3 is an important first step down that path. Here’s hoping Apple’s next step is as consistently good on its own as it is when connected to a phone.

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Apple’s ‘Planet of the Apps’: lousy TV, good for developers

Ashley D’Arcy always dreamed of being on a reality TV show. But her job as a creative director for an app doesn’t frequently put her in front of a camera. D’Arcy’s dream was realized, however, when she and dozens of other app makers were thrown into the spotlight on Apple’s first original TV series, Planet of the Apps (POTA). It’s been widely (and accurately) described as a cross between Shark Tank and The Voice, and it’s a tepid take on the high-stakes world of… app funding.

You may have heard how boring the show is, especially to my fellow tech reporters, who receive dozens of similar pitches every day. POTA is disappointing to those who expect more from the company that’s basically responsible for today’s thriving app ecosystem. You would think that Apple would be able to create a show that’s unique, informative and entertaining, given its expertise on the subject matter and history of innovating (even if its latest projects have been bland).

But the most interesting part of the show barely gets enough screen time. It’s a clever spin on the elevator pitch — a physical escalator that takes hopeful participants on a 60-second ride from the developer lounge while they describe their app. At the bottom, they face the celebrity judges: Jessica Alba, Gwyneth Paltrow, Garry Vaynberg and will.i.am. (I guess Jony Ive was too busy designing the next iPhone.) The judges swipe yes or no (green or red) on their iPads after the escalator pitch, and if at least one of them says yes, the developers get to explain their product in more detail. At the end of that, all four judges get to decide if they want to help out the app, and the participants pick the mentor they prefer. Sound familiar? That’s because it’s the basic format for The Voice.

After the escalator pitch, the rest of the show follows typical reality TV tropes. Over the course of about 50 minutes, you’ll watch the developers work with their mentors to refocus their apps and come up with a killer pitch that will convince Lightspeed Venture Partners to give them money. Basically, after snagging a mentor on The Voice for apps, they’ll be working to get funding from Shark Tank for apps. Yup. Way to repurpose existing formats, Apple.

For a show about developers, there is shockingly little coding or app design on-screen. What you do get is a pop-up label every time a barely jargony phrase is dropped, explaining what the term means. It’s strangely condescending and seems somewhat misguided. The show targets a mainstream audience that might not get terms like API, SDK or UX, and for these folks those labels make sense. The thing is, because of its subject matter, Planet is theoretically more likely to appeal to those in the tech industry who already know the majority of those words.

But POTA is not completely without merit. At the least, it helps the participating companies. On last week’s episode, I watched as three apps that I would normally have written off — Poncho, Cheddar and Stop, Breathe & Think (SBT) — refocused and gained serious potential and funding.

Participants agreed that pitching a venture capital fund in real life isn’t much different from the way it plays out in POTA, barring the cameras and production schedules. “The only difference is, the VCs made their decision within probably 10 to 15 minutes, versus the real world where they probably take weeks, months before they can commit,” Poncho’s founder Kuan Huang told Engadget. “I’m pretty sure Lightspeed did lots of homework before they even talked to us.” Otherwise, Huang noted that the back and forth over details like metrics and financials very much resembled a venture capital pitch meeting outside the show, except Lightspeed was better prepared.

Although there wasn’t a significant difference between being on the show and fund-raising in real life, the companies involved still benefited to varying degrees. Of the trio from last week’s episode, Poncho gained the most. It’s a messaging bot in the form of a Brooklyn cat that tells you the weather in a personable way. I was already aware of Poncho’s app and chatbots before the episode, and while I found the character’s friendly persona interesting, I wasn’t as convinced by the promise of yet another AI assistant.

After Poncho was picked by Paltrow, Huang and D’Arcy talked to Giphy founder Alex Chung during a six-week incubation period and refocused their objective with Chung’s perspective and input. They went to Lightspeed with a compelling pitch — Poncho would be a content platform that served up intelligent alerts, schedules, news and even buying suggestions to your phone’s lock screen. Because of the work by D’Arcy and her team, Poncho is humorous, charming and adorable, which Lightspeed believed would resonate with the vast market of millennials today.

As they went over the details of the pitch, Lightspeed also pointed out that Poncho’s user base had a significant portion of younger women, whom they said were tastemakers. In fact, they said, Snapchat had similar demographics before it blew up. Lightspeed would know too: It was one of the first investors in the ephemeral messaging app.

In just one episode (that took six months to produce), Poncho went from a simple chat service looking to monetize its product to a content platform that aspires to be as big as Snapchat. I sure am paying attention now.

Stop, Breathe & Think saw more-quantifiable improvements. CEO Julie Campistron told Engadget that since being featured in the app store after the show, downloads of the company’s app have doubled. Being on POTA also sped up the process of creating a child-friendly version of Stop, Breathe and Think’s meditation program, Campistron said. That made-for-kids app has seen a 60 percent increase in downloads since the episode aired. Thanks to the show, she was also able to conduct focus groups (set up by the production company) to learn how children respond to her app.

For Cheddar’s CEO Jon Steinberg, having to repeatedly describe his business in a short time made him better at it. “The challenge of pitching on the escalator made me have to refine the idea in a very specific and simple way,” he said. “It forced me to have to explain the company in 60 seconds.” Steinberg ended up securing $ 2.5 million from Lightspeed to revamp his app (it’s worth noting Lightspeed had already invested in Cheddar prior to the show). Plus, he got to spend time with his mentor will.i.am, who Steinberg said was his first choice even before filming started, and they remain in touch.

Ultimately, POTA is a barely entertaining program that really only benefits its participants. The thing is, Apple had almost nothing to do with the improvements each company in the most recent episode saw, aside from download gains from being featured in the app store. It would have been nice to see the iPhone maker’s own developers weigh in on what makes an app successful or go full geek on the benefits of one programming language over another. If presented differently, maybe POTA would have a chance with app nerds and the TechCrunch crowd. But as it is, the show lacks punch and flavor — essential ingredients for drawing in a mainstream audience. If this is an indicator of what to expect from Apple’s upcoming lineup of original content, we may be in for more disappointment yet.

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LG G6’s dual cameras are good, but far from perfect

Dual cameras are now the standard option when it comes to flagship phones and LG has already put the setup to work in previous models. With the G6, the company opted for two 13-megapixel Sony cameras instead of one larger and one smaller like it did with the modular G5. The combination of the dual lenses, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon zoom technology and LG’s existing camera features help the G6 make a compelling case, especially in terms of imagery.

Sure, the main attraction on the G6 may be its unique 18:9 display, but the dual cameras and the ability to transition smoothly between regular and wide-angle shots is also a big selling point. As a refresher, the phone’s rear-facing cameras can capture 71-degree field of view photos while employing optical stabilization and f/1.8 aperture. Those wide-angle images bump to 125-degree field of view — an increase that works best when capturing things like landmarks and landscapes. The front-facing camera also features a similar wide-angle option capable of 100-degree field of view shots. For all three sensors, LG chose a 1.12um pixel size, the same used on both the G4 and G5.

While we’ve seen them before, LG brought back handy photography tools inside the stock camera app. These include a Food Mode with it’s own white balance slider so you can ensure that your colors are accurate. There are also skin tone, lighting and filters for the front-facing 5-megapixel f/2.2 camera to help you fine-tune those selfies. Meanwhile, a new app just for Square photos lends a hand to Instagramers for previews, compositions and collages. It’s useful, but we’re not convinced it will become a staple just yet.

In good lighting and outdoors during the day, the G6 performs on par with some of the best phone cameras we’ve seen. Overall, colors really pop and the images are crisp and clean. Performance does suffer in low-light situations, though, as the photos are noticeably grainy outside at night or in other environments where lighting isn’t stellar. Even though we were already familiar with the selfie features, those software tools help the front-facing camera capture images of your face that also crisp and feature vibrant colors.

One place LG where has improved camera performance from its previous phones is the transition between regular and wide-angle shots. There used to be a bit of a stutter when you switched back and forth, but that change is much smoother now. While the G6 doesn’t pack a Snapdragon 835, LG did work with Qualcomm to bring the chip’s camera zoom transition feature to the new flagship. It certainly makes a difference, and the switch between views doesn’t have a noticeable stutter like it does on the iPhone 7 Plus and other devices.

To take advantage of that extra screen real estate, LG has added a handy photo gallery along the side of the camera UI. It offers easy access to your last few shots and if you used a setting like Food Mode, the photo will be labeled with a tiny icon to remind you. Unfortunately, the G6 we tested wasn’t running final software, so tapping on that in-camera gallery sometimes caused the app to crash. That’s the only big issue we experienced and it’s one the company will likely remedy before final devices launch.

The LG G6’s dual cameras make a great first impression. Of course, we’ll need to spend more than a few hours with the handset before we can make a final call, but we’re planning to do just that during our full review. You can bet we’ll put the dual cameras through their paces in a full day’s worth of capturing photos in the near future.

Click here to catch up on the latest news from MWC 2017.

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New in our buyer’s guide: All the phones (just the good ones)

It took us a while, but now that we’ve reviewed the Moto Z, we think we’re done testing flagship phones until the iPhone 7 or next Galaxy Note come out (whichever arrives first). With that in mind, we can now confidently say that the following phones belong in our buyer’s guide: the Samsung Galaxy S7, the HTC 10 and the iPhone SE. (Sorry, LG, maybe next year.) While we were at it, we also inducted the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive VR headsets, since we likely them more or less equally. And, in the less-expensive realm, we added the Roku Streaming Stick in the A/V category. Head over to our buyer’s guide hub for all the details on these and many more. That’s it for now, but stay tuned — who knows what we’ll add after the next gadget-reviewing frenzy.

Source: Engadget Buyer’s Guide

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