more than a dozen Fitbit Versa smartwatches with different bands
Photo: Fitbit

At the bargain price of $200, the new Fitbit Versa smartwatch will catch lots of eyes when it reaches stores next month. Just by looking at it, you can tell that the manufacturer is aiming straight at Apple fans. The Versa is stylish and shiny and, if you want it to be, very feminine in its appeal.

On top of that, it costs significantly less than the latest $300-plus Apple Series 3 watches, not to mention top-performing models from other brands.

I recently got a chance to try out a press sample of the Versa, which CR rented from Fitbit for a few days. (Consumer Reports rents products for initial evaluations because we don't accept free samples.) As I counted my steps, tracked my heart rate, and slogged through my daily exercise routine, I also wore my Apple Watch Series 3 so I could compare the two.

The experiment served as a reminder that it’s what’s inside a smartwatch that really counts. While Fitbit has made strides in expanding its app offerings, developing fitness-related content that's sure to please weekend warriors, the manufacturer's selection still doesn’t come close to that of Apple or Samsung.

And at a time when people are more wary than ever about their data being collected by consumer electronics companies, internet providers, and social media sites, often for profit, it’s worth noting that Fitbit collects a lot of info about you.

The company says it doesn't sell any "personal" information. (More on that below.) But, like other companies that make wearable devices, it does pass along data collected by its products to other parties. That might be something to think about before you buy one of these watches.

We'll add formal test results to this article after the Versa goes on sale and we have a chance to buy a few for testing in our labs. (Consumer Reports pays for everything it tests.) In the meantime, here’s what I've learned after spending a few days with the watch.

Light and Beautiful

Even though it performed very well in our testing, Fitbit’s first smartwatch—the Ionic—seemed clunky and cheap, more like a prototype than a finished product.

It looked like a digital watch from the 1980s.

With the Versa, Fitbit has changed all that. It’s light without feeling chintzy, and has the same rounded, elegant corners as an Apple Watch. Heck, much like Apple's models, it even comes in a distinctive rose gold color.

And there’s no shortage of fashionable band choices.

While the Versa’s face is a little larger than that of a 38mm Apple Watch, the watch is also noticeably thinner and somehow conceals a battery that the company says can hold enough juice to last you four days. For some competitors, that figure is just one day. We'll be testing Fitbit's claim in our labs.

The Versa's face is a little large for my taste; it looks pretty big on my wrist. But that allows for a sharp, easy-to-read display that lets you keep an eye on all your fitness stats as well as text messages, news headlines, and other notifications. People who have trouble seeing close-up might need to put on their glasses to review those things, but others should be okay.

There's no option to add cellular service as with the Apple Watch Series 3—but that watch can cost more than twice as much this one.

a pair of Fitbit Versas with different bands and different watchfaces
The Versa's screen is large enough to display fitness apps, text messages, and news headlines.
Photo: Fitbit

Limited App Offerings

Beyond the fitness-related apps created by Fitbit, the Ionic’s early offerings were mostly confined to Pandora, Starbucks, and a mobile pay app. But the company's app store has since expanded to include options from The New York Times, ETrade, and Yelp.

You'll now find the usual apps for tracking the weather and using a calculator, too. And the company has signed a deal to offer the streaming music service Deezer. But social media apps such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, along with news apps from ESPN and The Associated Press, are not available.

Chances are you’re not buying this watch to play trivia games or read about your favorite sports team, though. You’re likely doing it because you appreciate Fitbit’s fitness-tracking capabilities. One reason I still wear my old Fitbit in addition to my Apple Watch (yes, it looks ridiculous) is because I still compete in step challenges against my co-workers and members of my family.

And while Apple’s fitness app does let me set daily and long-term goals, it doesn’t have the same social elements. In addition to those step competitions, Fitbit's app lets you send encouraging messages to friends or join online groups with similar fitness interests. In my view, those are among the biggest reasons Fitbit’s devices—smartwatches and basic trackers—are still relevant.  

It’s in Fitbit’s new and improved fitness apps that the Versa really shines. You can personalize your Versa to select seven of the nearly 20 available activities—such as biking, running, or swimming—you want included in your exercise app. I found this very easy to do, though I’m not sure how much these simple mini-workouts will appeal to serious fitness buffs.

The company is also pushing users to sign up for its paid Fitbit Coach subscription service, which will cost $8 per month or $40 per year. I gave that a try, too, and liked how Coach helped me customize workouts based on my fitness level and goals.

But I found the audio workouts to be a little cheesy. One interval-training walking workout featured Top 40 music and a super-happy personal trainer, who told me when to speed up and slow down while encouraging me to keep it up. And though the audio instructions were easy to follow and definitely kept me focused, the pep talk got a bit annoying. 

a Fitbit Versa with a pink band and a yoga app on the screen
Fitbit's mobile app store is still limited, but the new and improved fitness offerings are where the Versa really shines.
Photo: Fitbit

Privacy Matters

Smartwatches and fitness trackers know a lot about your personal life, in particular your health—everything from when you sleep to how much you exercise to even how fast your heart beats. And if you choose to enter such info into their apps, they also track what you’re eating, how many calories you’re burning, and how much weight you’ve put on.

That’s pretty intimate. And starting in May, as part of Fitbit’s effort to appeal more to women, people will be able to use the company’s app to track their monthly menstrual cycles and fertility spikes.

Fitbit says the data collected will be a boon to researchers. But it's worth noting that at least one app with similar tracking capabilities did not take good care of consumer data in the past.

Fitbit also says it doesn't share "personal" information with outside parties, but it's pretty vague about what information it actually considers to be personal. So some of what it defines as nonpersonal may still feel pretty personal to you. 

I'd recommend reading Fitbit’s privacy policy—which is actually fairly straightforward and easy to comprehend—before deciding to take advantage of certain data-tracking features.

In a statement, Fitbit says it's committed to protecting consumer privacy and keeping data safe, adding that it gives its users control over their information through account settings. "At Fitbit, our vision is to make the world healthier, and sharing nonpersonal data with health stakeholders such as researchers, employers, and insurance providers helps further that vision," the company says.

Fitbit adds that it properly secures all the data it collects and that any information that gets passed on is anonymized or aggregated to protect user privacy.