Withings Steel HR: A perfect balance

I've been wearing fitness bands and watches for years now.  I started with the first Jawbone Up model (you know, the one that was recalled because it leaked).  I've always felt that selecting from the various bands or watches was an exercise in compromise.  Take the Apple Watch.  Gorgeous, does a TON of stuff.  However, you'd think for $269 (at minimum) the thing would track your sleep and last longer than one day on a charge.  Fitbit?  I'd love a watch, not a bracelet. 

I found myself migrating to the Withings Activité Pop.  I've worn one for over a year now.  It does everything pretty well, except track heart rate. It looks like a watch, albeit one a bit more suited for a teenager than a middle aged professional, and does a great job at tracking my activity and sleep.  But no heart rate.

A few months ago, Withings announced the Steel HR.  This is an updated version of the Steel, which is basically a dressed up Pop.  However, the HR comes with a few nifty and necessary features that make it the best all-around fitness watch for the money.  When they released it for pre-sale, I gladly plunked down my Visa.

 

Packaging:

It seems that everyone is going for that high quality, glossy cardboard packaging with the embedded magnets to hold the flap closed, a la Apple. The Steel HR comes ensconced in this same high-quality, but easy opening packaging.  The contents are sparse:  the watch, a charging adapter and a "getting started" manual.

Setup:

The manual directs you to first download the Withings software for your smart phone.  If, like me, you are already a Withings user, it directs you to add the watch to your devices.  After about a five minute process, the bulk of which was occupied by a software update for the Steel HR, you're ready to go.  The setup includes a quick tutorial on how to use your watch.

The Steel HR

The device itself is deceptively simple, yet elegant. Simply put, it is a classy looking watch that does not resemble a fitness tracker. The watch itself is metal with adequate heft and a very solid feel.  The crystal is made of scratch resistant glass.  Withings offers two models: a 36mm and a 40mm.  The larger 40 mm watch has a steel bezel engraved with the minutes, giving the watch a classic, upscale appearance.  Otherwise the watches are identical.  The face is available in either black or white and has analog watch hands and an analog activity display. New on this model is a small digital screen the watch uses to display different types of data (see below).  The band is a silicon band that is comfortable and attractive.  It'll withstand the rigors of exercise and swimming better than leather.  On the back of the watch are contacts for the charger and a small green LED the watch uses to measure heart rate. 

According to Withings, the watch is rated for water immersion up to 50 meters (about 150 feet).  I've also found it to be quite comfortable to wear, regardless of my activity. While the heart rate sensors mandate a thicker watch body, it isn't overly bulky like the first Basis Band was.  The thickness resembles most higher-end analogue watches and sits quite nicely on the wrist.

That small digital screen is super-cool

The small digital screen takes the Withings Steel HR from good to great.  While it is usually dark, (presumably to conserve battery life) presses of the large button on the side of the watch activate and change the display, showing all manner of useful data.  On the first push, the date is displayed (thanks Withings!) and then the time (now you can tell what time it is in a dark movie theater!).  Subsequent pushes display real-time heart rate, number of steps, distance walked and the alarm settings.  Furthermore, the Steel HR is a connected watch. It will display information on incoming calls, text messages and emails (alerts are configurable) providing the ability to glance at your watch and see who's trying to get in touch with you. When you get those notifications, the watch gently vibrates to let you know.  While it doesn't have the two-way abilities of the Apple Watch, this is a most welcome addition to the Withings line.

Activity Tracking:

Withings does a great job with activity tracking.  As with the Activité Pop, the Steel HR accurately tracks my steps and running.  The software lets you choose a daily step goal (default is 10,000) and, as with other Withings fitness watches, the small analogue dial in the lower part of the watch face shows the percentage complete towards your goal. Sleep tracking is pretty good, but I'm a napper and it doesn't seem to track any nap shorter than an hour very well.

Heart Rate Tracking:

My entire purpose for purchasing this watch was to track my heart rate.  I've found heart rate useful, especially overnight.  If my resting heart rate starts to climb, I generally am over training. The Steel HR samples your heart rate every 10 minutes but the user can activate an exercise tracking mode by pushing and holding in the watch button. When in this mode, the Steel HR continuously samples and displays your heart rate.  I typically run with a Garmin Forerunner 220 and found that the Steel HR correlated very closely with the Garmin.  However, the display on the Steel HR is small and crystal somewhat prone to glare.  I found the Garmin display much easier to read.  That said, the Steel HR does a very good job at tracking heart rate during exercise.

Pulling the data together:

The Withings Health Mate app (iOS or Android) is a very well done bit of software.  It's easy to navigate and displays your data for easy consumption and analysis.  The data captured by the Steel HR is displayed in an activity centric way, rather than a data centric way. When I first went looking for my heart rate data, I kept looking for a "heart rate" screen or button.  However, there isnt' one.  Rather, when viewing the detail data of your "Activity" or "Sleep" data, the app displays your data with an overlay of the activity.  This really allows you to understand how the data is related and is a rather elegant way to provide this information to the user. 

Withings also sends out weekly summaries of your activiity, sleep and other tracked metrics (like weight if you have a Withings scale) and provides you information on your personal trends. Likewise, the app allows you to look at your data long-term and follow your trends.

Charging, battery life, etc:

The watch comes with a USB charging cable. It uses small magnets to align charging contacts with the proper contacts on the back of the watch.  Withings claims about three weeks between charges, but I'm guessing your mileage will vary based on how you use the screen, heart rate monitoring modes and the like.  Still, this massively outperforms the daily charging requirement of the Apple Watch.  I've had the watch for a few days and pulled the battery down about 10 percent.  I obtained a full charge in about 20 minutes, so I'm guessing a full charge on an empty Steel HR will take less than 4 hours.  I love the fact that I can wear this watch nearly continuously and maybe need to charge it for an hour or so per week.  What good is an activity tracker if you have to charge it so frequently that it can't track a significant portion of your day?  I'm pleased to say Withings has a solid solution.

Summary:

The Withings Steel HR fitness tracker / watch is an attractive, well-built and highly functional fitness tracker that has found a quadruple-point balance.  It is something I'm happy to wear daily, even with a suit. It tracks my critical parameters: activity, sleep and heart rate, with reasonable accuracy.  Advertised battery life is excellent and my initial experience supports this claim.  Lastly, at only $199, the price is really hard to beat. 

If you're looking for a highly functional fitness tracker that actually looks and feels like an actual watch, without breaking the bank, take a look at the Withings Steel HR.  It'll be available for pre-order on December 7th.