Fitbit Versa Lite review: A smartwatch for the budget-conscious

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor

Fitbit (FIT) is working on a major business turnaround after years of declining fitness tracker sales. And to facilitate that 180-degree turn, the company is rolling out four new, low-cost devices: The Versa Lite smartwatch, the Inspire and Inspire HR fitness bands and the Ace 2 children's fitness tracker.

The $159 Versa Lite, though, is most important for Fitbit. The company reports that tracker sales will remain flat for the industry in the coming years. For smartwatches, though, there's nowhere to go but up. According to IDC, the smartwatch market grew 55% year-over-year in Q4 2018.

I've been using the Versa Lite for the last five days, and its battery life, looks, and detailed breakdown of my exercise and sleep make the smartwatch easily worth checking out. But its low cost means you'll have to make trade-offs compared to pricier wearables.

Lite changes

The Versa Lite is more or less a clone of the original Versa smartwatch, which came out last March. The main difference you'll notice between the two devices is that the Versa Lite only has one button, while the Versa and Versa Special Edition have three; one on their left side and two on their right. The missing buttons let you launch and interact with certain apps.

You're not actually losing any functionality, though, since you can perform the same actions using the Versa Lite's touch screen controls.

The Lite is available in four colors: white, lilac, blue, and purple. I do, however, wish Fitbit made the Lite available in black and rose gold like the standard Versa. When buying a smartwatch, you're likely hoping to be able to wear it to all manner of events, and I don't know if a blue watch will work with a tuxedo or evening gown as well as a black or rose gold watch would.

As with the original Versa, the Versa Lite has a very large bezel surrounding its display. It's not a deal-breaker for the watch, but it does make the screen feel cramped, and left me wishing the panel stretched out to the watch's edges like the Apple Watch Series 4. Of course, Apple's (AAPL) watch also costs $399, so you've got to pick your battles.

Seeing the Lite

The line between fitness trackers and smartwatches has been blurred to the point where the Versa Lite, and most modern smartwatches, offer the functionality of both devices. From a smartwatch perspective, the Versa Lite provides push notifications for things like text messages, Slack, Google Hangouts, email, and a host of other apps.

If you're using the watch with an Android device, you'll also get the ability to send quick replies to text messages. Apple's iOS-powered iPhone, however, isn't compatible with quick replies through the Versa Lite due to Apple's approach to third-party apps. I regularly use an Apple Watch, and the quick reply feature comes in pretty handy when I'm exercising or otherwise preoccupied and have to respond to a text in an instant and can't pull out my phone.

The Versa Lite line. (image: Daniel Howley)

Like most smartwatches, you can use the Versa to control music on your smartphone via the onboard music app. To get to it, you have to hold down the button on the left side of the Lite, which pulls up the playback controls.

To access your notifications on the Versa, you simply swipe down from the top of the screen. To check your daily fitness progress, you can swipe up from the bottom of the screen. There you'll find your total steps, miles walked, average heart rate, weekly exercise goal, and sleep tracking information.

Swiping right to left on the Versa's home screen gives you access to the watch's exercise, weather, relax, and alarm apps. Past that, you'll find the timer, help, settings, and Strava apps.

Working up a sweat

But the Versa Lite is a Fitbit, which means it's, first and foremost, a fitness-focused device. I wore the Versa during a number of workouts, and found its alerts and notifications for passing certain step and exercise goals as motivating as the incredibly addictive activity rings on the Apple Watch.

The Versa Lite is programmed to recognize more than 15 exercises including running, biking, interval training, and weights. I used the treadmill exercise for a quick jog on my treadmill at home, and while the distance I ran was slightly shorter on the watch than what the treadmill shows, it was still relatively accurate.

My one gripe with the exercises on the Fitbit is that I don't feel like the weightlifting program actually measures what I'm doing accurately. This is a problem I've run into with other fitness trackers, as well. I wish the Fitbit were able to recognize when I lifted a weight, but rather tracked my heart rate. It would be great if I could see how many reps and sets I did in one place, as it would make it easier to know when to move up in weight.

Fitbit's sleep tracking software showed that I actually get more sleep than I thought. It also shows when I get up to night eat.

I'm the type of person who hates wearing a tracker to bed. I always want to know more about my sleeping habits, but strapping something to my wrist and hitting the sack doesn't add up for me. But the Versa Lite's lightweight design made it easy to wear the smartwatch to bed. Despite the fact that I believe I never get enough sleep, the Versa showed me that I usually get between 5 hours and 30 minutes and more than 7 hours of sleep each night.

The enhanced breakdown of how much time I spent in REM sleep, light sleep, deep sleep, and awake at least made me feel a little better about my sleeping habits. It even seemed to pick up when I got up and walked into my kitchen to do some night eating.

Should you get it?

What makes Fitbit's products so compelling is the company's app, which provides you with a collection of stats and patterns related to your fitness, health, and activity. I'm not dedicated enough to input the types of food I ate or the drinks I had throughout the day, but if I did, Fitbit's apps would help me understand how many calories I put in my body and how many I spend on activities.

The Fitbit Versa Lite is a smartwatch that makes sense for those looking for a wearable that's affordable and will provide them with the essentials. You're not going to get mobile payments out of this, onboard music storage or swim lap tracking, but you will have a capable, and attractive smartwatch at an affordable price.

If you can't do without onboard music, then opt for the standard Versa for $199. And if you're looking for even more out of your smartwatch, then I'd suggest looking at the Apple Watch Series 4.

But for the price and its capabilities, the Fitbit Versa Lite is just what fitness fans are looking for.

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