Fitbit Versa 2 proves that less is more

Jason Cipriani, CNN Underscored
Updated Thu October 3, 2019

Imagine paying $200 for a smartwatch that can count your steps, run apps, stream notifications from your phone, and control your Spotify account, and only needs charging every five days or so.

That's the Fitbit Versa 2.

Announced at the end of August, the company's latest smartwatch is available in black, grey, or copper rose aluminum housing, with five different colors of bands.

For about $29 more you can pick from two special edition models. A woven watch band and a classic band, along with a 3-month trial of Fitbit Premium, are included for the extra $30. You can pick from the mist grey or copper rose housing.

I tested the Versa 2 for just over a week, splitting time between being paired to an iPhone XS Max and Galaxy Note 10+. During that time, I was reminded just how much I miss sleep tracking and how annoying it is to charge a watch every night. The experiences aren't wildly different between Android and iOS, save for the ability to reply to text messages from the watch when paired to an Android phone (it's a limitation imposed by Apple, not Fitbit's fault).

Fitbit has done a lot right with the Versa 2, but it's not perfect. Let's take a closer look.

New design, improved display

The Versa 2 looks and feels refined when compared to the original Versa. It's slightly larger, thanks to the bigger AMOLED display that's sharper, brighter, and easier on battery life. It's almost as if Fitbit upgraded the display from standard to high definition.

The display is easy to view in direct sunlight, but doing so makes it easy to see that the screen doesn't extend out to the edges of the housing. The black border around the screen blends in nicely, giving the impression that the front of the Versa 2 is all screen even though it's not. The larger display on the Versa 2 comes complete with larger text, buttons and app icons.

The Versa 2 has one button on the left side, ditching the three-button setup of the original Versa. Each of the three buttons on the original could be used as shortcuts to launch apps or open settings. On the Versa 2, those actions can be done with a tap and a swipe on the display, while the single remaining button acts as a back button when you're in an app and triggers Alexa or Fitbit Pay with a long-press.

On the back of the Versa 2 is the heart rate sensor and four contact points for the charging cradle. The housing is water-resistant up to 50 meters, so you can wear it in the shower or while swimming.

Fitbit Pay, the company's mobile payment platform, is now included. Previously, it was only included in the special edition version of the Versa.

Performance

The Versa 2 runs Fitbit OS 4.0 and has access to the Fitbit App and Clock Face store. Big-name apps from United, Spotify, Pandora and Walgreens are here. There's also a Starbucks app into which you enter your Starbucks card info to create a scannable barcode for use in-store.

The Spotify app lets premium subscribers control playback on a connected device, add songs to their account, and scroll through their Spotify music library.

All of the staple Fitbit features are included in the Versa 2. It counts your steps, logs exercise minutes, records your heart rate, and monitors your sleep. You can view your real-time stats on the watch or open the Fitbit app on your phone.

Navigating the watch is primarily done through taps and swipes on the display. A swipe to the left will display the app drawer. A swipe up will show the Today view, housing your day's step count, heart rate insights, hourly steps (Fitbit encourages you to take 250 steps each hour), and exercise minutes. You can customize what categories -- up to 7 -- are shown in the Today view if you want, for example, to monitor your water or food intake.

A swipe down on the screen shows notifications received from your paired smartphone. Overall, there's not much of a learning curve for getting around the Versa 2. Tap on an app to launch it, swipe through the various screens, press the button to go back. It's mostly straightforward and easy to use.

However, there is one area where on-screen gestures can use some refinement. Shortly after swiping down to view your notifications, another panel slides down from the top of the screen. The panel includes shortcuts to music controls, Fitbit Pay or Alexa, and access to quick settings. The automatic display of the relatively small panel partially covers up the notification I'm reading, and on more than one occasion I've intended to tap on the notification to expand it but instead tapped on one of the shortcut icons and opened a completely different screen. Frustrating.

I understand having to teach users how to access the extra settings by auto-revealing the panel, but that only needs to happen once, maybe twice. After that, leave the panel hidden and let the user swipe down on the screen to view it. Right now, it's disruptive.

Fitbit puts the Versa 2's battery life at "5+ days" which is exactly how long the Versa 2 lasted for me. It wasn't until the end of the sixth day that the battery was below 10% and I had to charge it. As someone who uses an Apple Watch for the majority of the year, not having to worry about the nightly charging of my watch (still feels weird to say that) was welcomed.

Also welcome was the ability to track my sleep. It was interesting to look at Fitbit's new Sleep Score each morning. Fitbit scores each night's sleep based on heart rate, time spent awake or restless, and your sleep stages. Over the week I've been testing the Versa 2, my sleep score average is 85. On a 100 point scale, scores over 90 are excellent, 80-89 are good, 70-79 are fair, and anything less than that is poor. Over time, Fitbit will offer advice on how to improve your sleep score.

There's a new always-on display feature that shows a black and white clock, the date, battery percentage, and icons for steps and active minutes. Fitbit warns that using this feature can reduce battery life, and indeed it does. I've had it enabled for almost 48 hours now, and the Versa 2 is using between 25 and 30 percent battery each day. Instead of over five days of battery life, it's looking more like three days of battery when using the always-on display.

Alexa, what's the weather?

To use Alexa on the Versa 2, you'll first need to link your Fitbit and Amazon accounts. The process is handled in the Fitbit app and takes just a few seconds. To make sure Alexa provides accurate weather forecasts and nearby results, make sure you grant the Fitbit app constant access to your location.

This was the first time I had Alexa built into a portable device that's not a phone, and I found it surprisingly useful. It feels very similar to using Siri on the Apple Watch. I asked for weather forecasts, set a timer, and even controlled my Alexa-connected Sonos speakers by talking to the Versa 2. Alexa doesn't talk back to you through the watch, instead, you read the responses right on your wrist.

Fitbit uses examples of asking Alexa for nearby gyms or cycling studios, but let's be honest, that's a task that's better reserved for your phone. When asked, Alexa will provide a list of addresses, but that's it. You can't get directions, you can't trigger Google or Apple Maps on your phone with the address already entered.

The entire Alexa experience on the Versa 2 is well done and easy to use. You hold in a button, give your command, and then wait for the answer. Some may take issue with not being able to use the Alexa wake command with the watch, but I'm perfectly fine with having to push a button on the watch. It saves on battery, and most of my Alexa use is at home where I'm already surrounded by Echo's and other Alexa-enabled devices.

Fitbit's approach is simple

The Versa 2 is the best smartwatch available under $200.

For years, Fitbit played word games with how it positioned the Ionic as a fitness-first smartwatch, then the Versa launched and the company fully embraced the smartwatch category. The Versa 2 continues that embrace.

What Fitbit has nailed on the Versa 2 is making a smartwatch experience less intimidating. Nearly all other smartwatches on the market can do more phone-like tasks than the Versa 2, and that can feel overwhelming to some. That's where the Versa 2 truly shines.

With the Versa 2, Fitbit is solidifying its position as a company that's using its strengths -- fitness stats and tracking -- and creating a compelling smartwatch that's affordably priced.

Fitbit Versa 2 ($199.95; amazon.com)

Note: The price above reflects the retailer's listed price at the time of publication.