Review: Withings Steel HR, a smart classic looking watch with heart

Withings Steel HR

Withings Steel HR
8

Design

9/10

    Ease of use

    9/10

      Use of information

      8/10

        Motivation

        7/10

          Pros

          • Beautiful design
          • Seamlessly integrates into your life
          • Great stamina (25 day battery life)
          • Excellent, simple to use app
          • Accurate heart rate data

          Cons

          • Price is a bit high
          • Limited fitness features
          • Small OLED screen makes notifications hard to read

          Not everyone wants a sporty looking fitness tracker strapped to their wrist. Many people prefer a device that combines the look and feel of a traditional watch, with abilities that are evident in today’s smartwatches. A new crop of wearables is showing that you no longer have to pick between activity tracking and good looks.

          Now owned by Nokia, Withings is becoming a master of the hybrid watch space. Late last year, the company launched the world’s first analog timepiece with built-in heart rate monitoring. The French company is pushing the boundaries of what is possible, and showing that you can go beyond the basic step and sleep tracking we’ve seen on so many other hybrid watches. I caught a glimpse of the sleek looking timepiece at IFA 2016 in Germany, and walked away very impressed.

          Essential reading: Top hybrid watches of 2017, the best of both worlds

          Like its predecessors the wearable looks like a classic analogue watch. The stainless steel device, however, takes much of what was great about the Activite range and upgrades it with new features including an optical heart rate monitor and a small digital display for smartphone notifications. With these upgrades, the Steel HR is designed to provide another level of experience, and function as a more useful day-to-day fitness tracker.

          Digital smarts, meet analogue style. Did Withings manage to give us the best of both worlds? Here is what I made of the Steel HR.

          Design
          Features and software
          Overview

          View technical specs


          Design

          The first thing that strikes you when you see the Steel HR, is just how much it comes across as a classic watch. Wearing the device means no-one will know this is a fitness tracker. With its exquisite and polished looks, it is clear Withings has paid attention to every single detail.

          There are two sizes to choose from, a 36mm case for slimmer wrists and a larger 40mm version. Both are available in black and the smaller model is also sold in a white option. Made of stainless steel, chrome hands and mineral glass the timepiece is surprisingly light. With the 40mm coming in at 49 grams, it is only slightly heavier than the Steel and the Pop.

          Quick-release pins mean you can easily switch between several different colours of the soft silicone band. The larger watch takes 20mm bands, while the smaller one takes 18mm ones. Withings also sells a leather band for a more formal occasion. I tried out the silicon one and found that it was supremely comfortable. It doesn’t get dirty when you are out and about or leave marks on your wrist.

          The large dials show the time, while the sub-dial shows how close you are to achieving your personal daily activity goal. It defaults to 10,000 steps, which means the small dial will show 50% when you hit 5,000. It’s a nice visual reminder without being too obvious. If you meet your goal, the dial will continue on its journey. Your daily activity goal can, of course, be customised in the app.

          An important improvement over past Withings smartwatches, Steel HR boasts a new dynamic OLED screen complication at the top of the watch face. This is used to display health data and for phone calls, text messages and calendar notifications. There is also an accompanying vibration to get your attention.

          Because there is very little space on the screen, it not possible to display messages in full. Instead, Withings has opted to provide you with an icon and the name of the sender, which in fairness gives you enough info to decide whether or not its worth reaching for your smartphone.

          There is only one button to interact with the tracker, disguised as a crown. Located on the right side of the watch, pressing the button will wake up the notification screen. You can then use it to scroll through the data (date, heart rate, steps, distance, alarms, battery life), and manually start a workout session (long press of the button). The info flashes on the monochrome screen only for a few seconds before shutting off to conserve power, but its easy and clear to read.

          Taking a bath or washing dishes? No sweat. Steel HR is water-resistant down to 50 metres (5 ATM), which means you can wear it all day and night without worrying about about water damage. The water resistance and internal smarts mean it will automatically recognise and track your swim session. However, the optical heart rate monitor embedded into the underside won’t work underwater.

          Another big selling point of the watch is its battery life. Fully rechargeable in just two hours, it will keep going for up to 25 days, the best battery life for a heart monitoring activity tracker available. After that, it will keep plodding along for another 20 days with limited functionality in power save mode. Rather impressively, just 1 hour of charging time is all it takes to top it up to 80% capacity.

          It is worth noting, by default the device will not measure your heart rate 24/7. It does this every few minutes. This is obviously a compromise, as the reduced frequency of readings allows the battery to run for longer. Switching to continuous HR mode reduces the battery life to four days. Which is still pretty good and gives the Apple Watch something to aim for.

          Charging is done via a proprietary magnetic charging cable. It takes a bit of fiddling around to get the watch to slot on top of the pins, but you eventually get the hang of it. Its good, though, that you don’t have to do this too often.


          Features and software

          In addition to telling the time, the primary purpose of the Steel HR is to track activity. The watch keeps tabs on your steps, distance, running, workouts, heart rate, calories and sleep. A quick glance at the activity dial lets you know exactly how active your day has been.

          The smart timepiece pairs via Bluetooth with the Withings Health Mate companion app, which you use to set up the watch. This is a simple process that is quick and intuitive.

          Steel HR does a fairly good job at monitoring your activity. There are no buttons to push and everything is tracked via the company’s patented Connected Movement Technology. The device automatically syncs the info to the accompanying app to give you metrics, personal coaching and more. The watch will recognise walking, swimming, running and a bunch of other sports such as tennis. The automatic recognition works very well, and I found it was surprisingly good at recognising what type of activity I was up to.

          Essential reading: Which Withings tracker is right for me?

          The main novelty for an analogue type device is the addition of heart rate monitoring. Withings has accomplished this impressive feat through a technology called photoplethysmography (PPG), which monitors heart rate using green LED lights to detect variation in the level of blood in the wrist. Turn the device over, and you will see the new heart rate sensor.

          In normal mode, the watch will take a reading every 10 minutes, but you can get an on-demand reading by skipping through the digital display. When it comes to exercise, the Steel HR will automatically switch over to continuous mode. The watch will also keep tabs on your resting heart rate, one of the most important metrics to assess overall health over time.

          For detailed info on activity, sleep and heart rate, head over to the Health Mate app. I paired the watch with my iPhone, but you can pair to any Android device as well. The timeline shows a detailed picture of your days and nights via clear color-coded graphs that show all your moves – from sleep cycle analysis to calories burned. Now you can also see additional metrics including maximum heart rate and which heart rate zones you’ve been training in the most.

          Furthermore, the comprehensive app rewards achievements, offers advice, lets you challenge friends and connects with over 100 health and fitness partner apps. And if you have one of the company’s scales or blood pressure monitors, you can track all your health and fitness information in one place.

          In terms of activity tracking, you will not get very detailed data. So if you are a fan of lots of statistics and disecting your performance into minute detail, you may want to look elsewhere. But you do get the basics which is more than enough for the average person.

          As mentioned, Steel HR will automatically initiate the continuous heart rate function when you start running. You can also jump-start a session simply by pushing the multifunctional crown. Real-time heart rate info is displayed on the watch complication, and more detailed info including time spent in heart rate zones can be seen in the app after your workout session.

          The screen-shots below show the type of info you can expect to find after your run.

          I compared the results with a Vivoactive HR and the Polar’s new H10 chest strap and they came in fairly close. For example, one of the runs yielded 102 calories burned, average heart rate 132 bpm and maximum heart rate 138 bpm on the Steel HR.

          For the same run, the Polar H10 yielded 117 calories burned, average heart rate 130 and maximum heart rate 140. The Vivoactive HR dished out 110 calories burned, average heart rate 133 bpm and maximum heart rate 143 bpm. Not too shabby for a wrist-based wearable that looks more suited for the boardroom than the running track.

          There is limited info on distance, simply because the watch does not have built-in GPS. Perhaps in one of the future firmware updates, Withings will enable the watch to tap into smartphone GPS readings, similar to what Fitbit have done. For now, the Steel HR has to estimate distance using the accelerometer inside. I would therefore hesitate to call it a runners watch, but the device is much more enjoyable to wear beyond doing physical activity.

          For swimming, you will only get calories and duration. I did leave the continuous heart rate mode on for the swim sessions, but its clear the function does not work well in the pool.

          Like its predecessor, the Steel HR automatically detects when you’re asleep and delivers a full breakdown of your nights and naps including info on deep and light sleep, wake ups, and sleep duration. The silent alarm feature is also there to wake you with gentle vibration.


          Overview

          Summary

          After wearing it for a few days you will start to realise what the Steel HR is about. Strap it to your wrist and with minimal interaction from you it will quietly go about its business, recording all your daily and nightly activity. As shown in the picture above, the watch is built to seamlessly fit into any environment.

          Combining style and functionality in a way few other smartwatches manage, the Steel HR is a great all-round wearable that succeeds in keeping things simple. It is clearly not the most powerful fitness tracker out there, so the fitness fanatics who are after lots of statistics may want to pass, but it strikes a balance of features, aesthetics and comfort that will appeal to many. In terms of information provided, the highlight for me was its accurate heart rate data, and detailed sleep metrics.

          Withings Steel HR
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          With slick looks, automatics tracking, a healthy selection of fitness features, and almost a month-long battery life, it is hard to find much not to like. The French company has done a great job of combining an analogue timepiece with the smarts of an activity tracker. For the average person who is after a classic watch with discreet activity features, we can safely say this is as good as it gets right now.

          This is probably one of the best-looking timepieces I’ve worn in a while. It might be on the slightly expensive side, but the Steel HR has a gorgeous design and is a great choice if you don’t want a normal fitness tracker.

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