Still the one to get

The Fitbit Versa 3 launched earlier this year alongside Fitbit’s flagship tracker, the Sense. That device is packed with features, including heart rate monitoring, sleep tracking, what have you — but it can also do ECG scans, and even purportedly measure your stress levels. In his review, our own Ryan found that the usefulness of some of the Sense’s features was questionable. He also said it’s too expensive at $329.

The Versa 3 is extremely similar to the Sense, with a few key differences: it drops ECG and electrodermal activity (EDA) monitoring, trades stainless steel casing for aluminum, and slashes $100 off the price tag. At that price, it’s unquestionably a better deal for most people, but it also inherits a lot of the Sense’s problems, like rough-around-the-edges software and wonky activity detection.

Design, hardware, what’s in the box

The Versa 3 looks just like the Sense: it’s the same size and shape, it’s got the same screen, and it even uses the same bands. The Sense’s case is made of stainless steel rather than the Versa 3’s aluminum and there are different color options available, but outside of those differences, it’s hard to tell them apart at a glance. The rounded square shape of both devices shares some visual DNA with the Apple Watch, although the Fitbits are squarer and (sadly) lack a rotating crown.

The screen is bright enough to see outdoors, even in direct sunlight. Its bezels are a little chunky, but most of Fitbit’s clock faces have black backgrounds, which hides them well.

I think the design is low-key and pretty handsome. It doesn’t try to imitate a regular watch the way a lot of WearOS devices do; it’s clearly a fitness tracker first, but it doesn’t grab attention, either. It’d look as at home with a suit and tie as it does workout gear.

Like the Sense, there are no buttons on the Versa 3. Instead, the left edge has a “solid-state button” — that is to say, it’s pressure sensitive. It seems like an over-engineered solution, but I’m not as down on it as a lot of folks are. Once you get used to it, it works more or less like a regular button would. You can set it to launch the app of your choice with a long press, and to open quick access to four additional apps with a double press. My one complaint about it is that when doing some things — push-ups, for example — the watch can get pressed between the back of your hand and your forearm, which registers as a press.

Left: The ‘solid-state button.’ Right: The default silicone strap.

The included (very nice) silicone band is held in place with a clever clip mechanism. To remove a band, you just squeeze the clip and pull, and adding another is as simple as slotting it into place. Fitbit has a wide variety of bands available, and Versa 3 and Sense bands are interchangeable — although those are the only bands you’ll be able to use, since the connector is proprietary.

There’s a microphone, that, until recently, could only be used for Alexa functionality. But Fitbit pushed a software update last month that added both Google Assistant functionality and the ability to use the watch to take phone calls hands-free using its mic and speaker.

On the bottom of the watch are sensors for heart rate and blood oxygen saturation, as well as connectors for the included magnetic charging cable. That cable is proprietary and a little finicky — the Versa 3 will only latch on in one orientation, and there’s no visual indication of which. But once you memorize how to dock it, it works fine. In addition to that charger and the expected paperwork, the box also contains two sizes of silicone band.

Software, battery, and features

My biggest problem with the Versa 3 is a persistent software bug that makes it impossible to change the clock face. The on-device Clocks app is supposed to be able to save up to five different faces to choose between without futzing with your phone, but it’s straight-up broken. It’s equal parts baffling and frustrating: I can open the app and scroll through the clock faces that are (theoretically) saved to my watch. Tapping one is supposed to select it as the active clock face, but it just… doesn’t. Ever. I’ve tried restarting the watch and even hard resetting it to set up from scratch, and I can’t for the life of me get it to work.

The only way I’ve been able to reliably change my watch’s clock face is by using the Fitbit app, but that’s hardly a reasonable workaround: Rather than a button press and two taps on the watch itself, changing the face from the mobile app requires unlocking your phone, opening the app, then five additional taps’ worth of navigation. What’s worse, it only seems to work on some phones: On my Pixel 5, I can change faces with this method without much trouble (usually). But on others, like the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE, using the mobile app fails almost as often as trying to change faces from the watch itself.

For me, that’s mostly fine; of all the clock faces I’ve seen, I like the default best. It’s reasonably attractive and shows the information I care about. But if you do ever want to change the look of the device, it’s an unnecessary pain.

It was once an even bigger hassle: For some reason, at launch, Fitbit locked blood oxygen saturation tracking to a corresponding clock face. The only time the watch would check your SpO2 levels was while you were asleep with the SpO2 face applied. That face is still available (if you can apply the damn thing), but following the same update that added the Google Assistant, SpO2 is now tracked during your sleep regardless of which face you’ve applied. There’s still no easy way to access the data in the Fitbit app, though; it’s squirreled away under “Health Metrics,” and all that shows you is a graph of your average nightly level over the past week. Still, it’s an improvement.

The Versa 3 has most of the same sensors as the Sense.

I haven’t had the notification problems many users complain about in Fitbit products; I reliably get calls, texts, and notifications from other apps within a second or so of them hitting my phone. But other data that originates on my phone, like weather forecasts and water consumption logged in the Fitbit app, will often fail to update on the watch for hours at a time until the Fitbit app is opened again to sync it.

Similarly hit-or-miss is Fitbit’s automatic workout tracking. You can choose to have the Versa 3 automatically track and log a few different types of activity: running, walking, swimming, biking, and more. And while it works for me sometimes, others it won’t kick in at all, or it’ll classify an activity the wrong way. A walk I took with my dog a couple of weeks ago was counted as a “sport” session, presumably because of the way I was holding his leash as we walked. I can’t rightly say I care much about how well my fitness tracker automatically identifies what type of activity I’m doing; manually starting and stopping workouts only takes a couple seconds. But it’s an advertised feature, and it should work.

What does work is the newly-added Google Assistant integration. There’s no “OK Google” detection, but you can assign it to any of the solid-state button shortcuts, and it does the Assistant stuff you’re used to: answering questions, controlling smart home stuff, sending texts, all that jazz. It’s quick and reliable, too — it works better here than it does on WearOS. It’s a shame it didn’t come with Google Pay, though — Fitbit uses a proprietary contactless payments platform, and it currently doesn’t accept cards from my bank. That limits its usefulness pretty significantly for me.

The Versa 3’s music functionality, meanwhile, is utterly bizarre. You can use it to control music playback on your phone, but doing so requires establishing a second Bluetooth connection in the settings of both devices. You can also save music directly to the watch to listen without your phone — but only through Deezer and Pandora Plus. I defy you to name two less relevant music apps in 2020.

Aside from those (admittedly significant) issues, I haven’t had many problems with the Versa 3’s software. Ryan found the Sense to be generally laggy — and maybe it’s just that I’m used to Wear OS, but I don’t notice that with the Versa 3. Scrolling through menus, opening apps, and reviewing notifications all feels quick enough. I also haven’t experienced the random reboots he has.

Sleep tracking is pretty robust. (I know my schedule sucks, don’t judge.)

Step and always-on heart rate tracking seem accurate based on manually measuring both and comparing them to the Versa 3’s tallies. Sleep tracking feels fairly spot-on, too; on nights that I sleep poorly, my sleep report reflects that, and on days I wake up feeling refreshed, my score out of 100 is generally pretty high. But I’m not entirely sure what I’m supposed to do with data about my sleep quality. With SpO2 data, out-of-the-ordinary numbers could alert you to a potential health problem you’d otherwise be unaware of, like sleep apnea. But when I don’t get enough sleep, I’m already aware of it. It’d be nice if Fitbit could take your other data — how much exercise you got in a day, how much water you drank, when you went to bed — and provide insights about what tends to lead to a better night’s sleep for you. But it can’t; it just quantifies your experience. That information is neat to have, and you could probably use it to draw your own slightly-more-scientific conclusions about what helps you sleep better — but would you?

Sleep tracking is made possible by Fitbit’s excellent battery life: both the Sense and Versa 3 can last up to six days with the always-on display turned off, and a still-respectable three days with it on. Coming from Wear OS, not having to charge my watch every night feels like a revelation; I just pop it on the charger while I’m in the shower a couple of times a week and forget it otherwise. It’s great to know you could take this watch on a weekend trip (remember those?) and leave your charger at home.

Should you buy it?

With the right expectations, sure. While its flaws are grating if they get in the way of how you want to use the Versa 3, it’s entirely possible they won’t. If all you’re after is a fitness tracker with good battery life that reliably measures your heart rate, steps, and sleep, all while looking pretty nice and delivering notifications, the Versa 3 is a fine pick at $229 — all the better if you get it on sale. And unless you really need ECG or (questionably useful) EDA stress measurements, there’s no reason to pay $100 more for the Fitbit Sense.

But its flaws are still flaws. Automatic activity tracking is spotty and some data routinely fails to sync. Changing clock faces is also a huge pain. As it stands, the Versa 3 doesn’t quite deliver on its full potential, but a successful first major software update makes me hopeful that it might in the future.

Buy it if:

  • You’re eyeing a Fitbit Sense but don’t care about ECG or EDA sensing.
  • Using the Android app to switch watch faces is alright with you.

Don’t buy it if: 

  • You want to be able to rely on automatic activity logging.
  • You want to save music to your watch for phone-free workouts.

Where to buy:

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