Most gadget reviews focus on all the cool things a new smartwatch, laptop, or phone can do. Oddly, for my review of the new Fitbit Versa Lite Edition smartwatch, I can’t stop thinking about what it can’t do.
That’s because the Lite edition is Fitbit’s second try at reducing the entry-level price for its smartwatches, partly by eliminating useful features. While rivals like Apple and Garmin add cellular connectivity and electrocardiography readings so they can raise prices, Fitbit is taking the opposite approach.
Fitbit’s first smartwatch, the Ionic, debuted in 2017 for $300 (it now sells for $270) as an answer to the Apple Watch. The Ionic came with many similar features to its rival, like GPS tracking, mobile payments, and music on the go.
Fitbit’s more popular second try, the Versa, premiered six months later for $200 to $230, but without built-in GPS tracking.
Now comes the Versa Lite Edition at just $160, available for pre-order and shipping later this month. It comes in four colors–white, lilac, mulberry, and marina blue—and has the same attractive outer appearance and bright touchscreen display as the original Versa. And it still lets users receive text alerts and other app notifications from the phone on their wrist, works underwater, and tracks sleep and heart rate—–all with a solid four days of battery life.
But the Versa Lite is difficult to recommend to anyone who can afford pricier watches, since it lacks GPS, guided workouts on the watch screen, the ability to store music, and make mobile payments. It only has one button for function controls instead of three on the regular Versa. There’s also no gyroscope or altimeter, meaning users can’t track how many flights of stairs they’ve climbed. And there is no Wi-Fi connectivity, so all apps must first be downloaded to a connected phone (and apps over 3 MB won’t transfer at all).
And with the Versa Lite, you’ll need to keep your phone nearby for many common tasks, like listening to music while running or biking, and getting live data about your speed and distance traveled. One great benefit of recent versions of the Apple Watch and Garmin’s (GRMN) upcoming vívoactive 3 Music on Verizon watch is that they can connect to cellphone networks on their own, freeing users from having to carry phones. I had the opposite experience using the Versa Lite because I had to carry my phone merely to get weather updates or change the clock face.
Still, the Versa Lite benefits from its big brothers’ growing ecosystem of smartwatch apps and colorful and stylish bands.
Like with the earlier Fitbit devices, users can get news headlines on their wrists from apps like the New York Times (NYT), order coffee with the Starbucks (SBUX) app, or call a car with the Uber app (all connecting to the Internet through a linked smartphone, of course). It’s still a far cry from well-stocked app marketplace for the Apple Watch, but it puts most other wearable competitors to shame.
Fitbit beats Apple (AAPL) in one department, with the choice of hundreds of different clock faces, most by third-party designers. Many have pretty designs like the cute “Mr Pug” face with its cartoon pooch or the “Rustic Analog” face with its antique-style pictures of old clocks. Others are packed with lots of stats, ranging from steps taken to resting heart rate to calories burned, displayed in useful configurations. Of course, clock faces and apps that require features removed from the Lite, like the gyroscope, aren’t compatible with the newest Fitbit watch.
It can feel a bit odd when adding third-party watch faces, however. Some require permission to access your Fitbit (FIT) data and redirect you from Fitbit’s phone app to Fitbit’s web site to complete the installation. Some cost $1 or more, but a couple of times my efforts to buy clock faces using PayPal failed to authorize the payments.
For bands, Fitbit is also catching up to Apple, with a few dozen options in materials from woven polyester to Horween leather to stainless steel links.
And, as I’ve said before, Fitbit may have the best features among smartwatch maker for just tracking activity and exercise. In addition to the basic step counts, there’s a heart rate graph, personal cardio fitness ratings, and sleep quality evaluation. I’ve also found many more friends and acquaintances active in the Fitbit community than on the Apple Watch, meaning there are more people I can share my goals and activity with to spur competition or receive words of encouragement.
Fitbit says the new low-end model helps round out its Versa smartwatch line up. The Lite model is for smartwatch consumers who want “an entry level device at a lower price point.”
But when it comes to value, the Versa Lite is in a tough spot. Fitbit sells a number of cheap trackers, including its new Inspire, if all you want to do is keep up on exercising and follow along with your pals in Fitbit’s online community.
For people who are on a limited budget, an Inspire with heart rate tracking costs $60 less than the Versa Lite at $100. Or for a little more money, you can spend an extra $40 to move up the regular Versa at $200, or even better $70 more to grab the special edition, which include mobile payments capability. Both avoid the limits on apps and other missing features. In the end, the Versa Lite may be too light for smartwatch fans and too heavy for pure exercise tracking devotees.