Following on the heels of yesterday’s iPhone 8 reviews, today the reviews for the Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE came out, and they were rather different in tone, in at least some cases. Whereas yesterday’s reviews were largely positive with some misgivings around the edges, today’s Watch reviews were bifurcated between those that were almost entirely positive and those that noted significant connectivity issues, notably those at the Wall Street Journal and The Verge (once again, I’m linking to the Techmeme roundup here). All seemed to agree that the faster processors and watchOS 4 combine for significantly better performance across multiple areas including fitness and heart rate tracking, app use, and music, but the differences occurred around LTE/WiFI connectivity.
It appears (there’s a good explainer here) that the Watch tends to try to hop onto so-called captive WiFi networks – those that allow devices to connect without a password but require going through an interstitial or popup before allowing internet access – but can’t progress beyond the interstitial, putting the Watch in an awkward in-between state where it’s connected to WiFi but can’t actually reach the internet. That, in turn, stops the Watch from trying to connect to LTE, which is what you really want it to do in that situation. That should be a relatively easy software fix for Apple, and it’s suggested that’s the case, but it’s baffling that this issue didn’t come up during all the testing that must have gone on over recent months, and as such is an embarrassing slip-up for Apple when the new connectivity options are the key selling point for this device.
It is notable that not all reviewers experienced the problem, which may be indicative of either their differing use during the review period or their differing earlier use, with some perhaps more prone to hop onto captive WiFi networks with their iPhones (and thereby inadvertently setting up their Watches for failure) than others. At any rate, many regular users likely won’t see those issues either, especially if using the Watch out in the wild rather than in busy urban areas, while those who do will hopefully see the problem fixed very quickly in a software update. Regardless, this clearly wasn’t what Apple was hoping for from these reviews, and it’s likely that the glitches will color perceptions of the Watch at least until Apple does issue a fix and that gets some decent coverage.
★ Apple Announces Upgraded Watch and TV Devices (Sep 12, 2017)
Fitbit has finally announced its second smartwatch, the Fitbit Ionic, following the launch of the Fitbit Blaze in May last year. At the time, Fitbit described the Blaze as a “smart fitness watch” but it seems to want everyone to forget that designation now as it launches the Ionic and wants to frame it as its first entry in this space. To be sure, when it launches, this device will have an app store, something the Blaze didn’t have, but it’s far from certain that there will be anything meaningful in it. One reason Fitbit is pre-announcing the device two months ahead of launch is to get developers going, while the other is surely to get out ahead of Apple’s third set of Watch hardware, which will be announced in a couple of weeks. Based on what we know so far, the Ionic looks very similar on paper to the Apple Watch in several respects: it has GPS, contactless payments, it’s swim proof, stores and plays music, provides personalized fitness coaching, and so on.
But on paper is about the only place it does look like the Apple Watch – the Ionic is very much in the design tradition of Fitbit’s other devices: angular and industrial looking, with garish colors an optional extra. It hasn’t published the dimensions of the device, but at least a couple of shots in its promotional video make it look enormous, especially for wearing in bed. That’s important, because multi-day battery life and eventual ability to track sleep apnea are among the very few differentiators here against the Apple Watch, and if it’s uncomfortable to wear at night, none of that really matters.
We’ll have to wait and see all the details in October, but based on what we’re seeing today, my guess is that the Fitbit Ionic will sell maybe a couple of million units, or roughly ten percent of Fitbit’s annual device sales, over the first year, maybe slightly more if the third party app ecosystem is stronger than I’m expecting. At those numbers, it’ll barely make a dent in the overall smartwatch market, which is dominated by Apple, with Samsung in second place and other Android devices in third, though it might provide a boost to Fitbit’s ASP, which is currently around a hundred dollars. I would guess it’ll mostly appeal to existing Fitbit users who admire its aesthetic, and will likely do better among Android users who have relatively few other compelling options than among iPhone owners. Fitbit today also announced wireless sports headphones called Flyer, which will retail for $130 and be available online right away: these are a sign that Fitbit recognizes its lack of an ecosystem is going to be an increasingly big challenge going forward given its lack of integration with either Android or iOS, and it therefore needs to build its own.