Review Healbe GoBe 2: putting the automatic calorie-tracker to the test

Healbe GoBe is most people’s favorite controversial wearable. The promise is enticing. “Tell it nothing, track everything”. That is the Holy Grail of health and fitness monitoring.

I have to admit, GoBe was one of the first devices that really got me interested in fitness trackers. It appeared on Indiegogo back in 2014 as the only wearable that automatically measures the calories you consume and burn. The device captured the public’s imagination and managed to raise more than $1 million dollars via the crowdfunding platform. Some thought it was a scam, some disputed the technology, some asked for their money back but to Healbe’s credit the Russian outfit did deliver a product.

Fast forward three years and Healbe is back with a new and improved GoBe. Just like the first generation, GoBe 2 monitors your calorie intake and hydration along with some basic fitness stats. Unlike the earlier generation, you don’t need to let the wearable know when you have eaten. Everything is tracked automatically for you. It also comes with design improvements and some additional sensors.

Essential reading: Top fitness trackers and health gadgets

Fitness trackers are a dime a dozen these days but they pretty much track the same things. Healbe’s competitors can only count steps and measure heart rate, but none of them can count calories or assess hydration levels.

Imagine never having to manually log your calorie intake, the device on your wrist does it all for you. A game changer, if it works. And that’s what I set out to determine by wearing this unusual fitness band for a month.

Design
Features
Overview

View technical specs


Design

In the box, GoBe 2 arrives with the fitness band, charging dock, charging cable and little instruction booklet. While slightly more elegant than the original, the wearable and its flexible and adjustable wristband is still rather retro-looking.

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Measuring some 5.8cm across and 3.8cm wide, GoBe is very noticeable. Its also about 1.6cm thick. Onlookers definitely won’t mistake it for a watch so you are bound to answer some questions from curious bystanders. I wore it on my right wrist, so as to compare its results with my Forerunner 935 smartwatch which I simultaneously wore on my left.

The device is definitely not going to win any awards in the looks department. Considering this is something you need to have on your wrist 24/7, I really hope Healbe comes up with a more stylish form-factor next time around. A smaller and thinner face would be nice. Having said that, I did find the tracker comfortable to wear as it is very light thanks to its plastic casing.

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The top of GoBe is a bright blue dot-matrix display. Off by default to conserve battery, it springs to life when you press the physical button on the right. Repeatedly pressing the button cycles through time, battery level, current heart rate, calorie balance, steps, hydration and more. The screen is not easy to read and for the most part I found myself referring to the app when I wanted to review daily stats. There is also web dashboard for a more detailed overview. Both the app and website dashboard do a great job in reporting your vitals.

In order to ensure correct readings, the gold sensor on the underside of the tracker needs to be in snug contact with your skin. If there is a problem GoBe will alert you by vibrating and showing NO CONTACT on the display. You can also use the app to check whether you are wearing it correctly.

Under the hood, you won’t find the typical list of sensors. Instead, the wearable houses an accelerometer for measuring body movement and activity; a Piezo pressure sensor for measuring blood flow and heart rate; and an impendance sensor which uses different frequencies to measure fluid levels in tissues. There is also a galvanic skin response sensor for measuring stress, a gyroscope and a magnetometer.

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I’ll try to keep the science lesson short. When it comes to the calorie-tracking bit, the most important of the lot is the bio-impendance sensor. GoBe 2 combines its readings with patented FLOW Technology to analyze changes in your body’s glucose concentration. As glucose concentrations rise, cells absorb glucose and release water. The impedance sensor sends high and low-frequency signals through your tissue to measure the fluid moving in and out of your cells. The system then applies some fancy algorithms to analyze this data and determine the calorie intake. At least that’s the theory.

Non-invasive glucose monitoring is the dream for most diabetics patients. Many companies have spent years trying to crack the problem with no real-world success. Apple is said to be working on a solution but sources close to the project say its still years off from making it into a commercial product. The Cupertino outfit has even hired a team of around 200 PhDs as part of its effort on this front. The obvious question is why Healbe simply doesn’t sell this technology.

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The company says this is because GoBe is not intended for medical use and it doesn’t meet medical accuracy requirements. This is also why the device does not display glucose concentrations to the user. But that GoBe’s accuracy is quite enough for assessing calorie intake.

When it comes to battery life, you will need to get used to charging it on a daily basis. I would typically throw it on the charger for an hour or so during the day to keep it topped up. On a full charge it will keep going up to 48 hours. You’ll need to put some thought into when you want to charge so you don’t miss tracking any important data. The dock uses magnets to attach to the bottom of the unit. The light on the back of the the charger goes from blue to red to indicate it is working and the tracker will vibrate when fully charged.

When you put it back on your wrist, you will need to remember to press the power button. Otherwise your GoBe will not track anything. More than once I’ve made the mistake of walking around for a few hours, not realizing it wasn’t recording any data.


Features

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This is a wearable that does all the normal things that most fitness trackers do such as keeping count of the number of steps and distance covered, heart rate, calories burned and sleep quality. But GoBe 2 goes much further in that it also keeps tabs on calories digested, hydration balance and emotional state. It even measures the composition and quantity of macro-nutrients from food and drinks (e.g. fats, carbohydrates). Previously, there was also an experimental blood pressure reading feature which was subsequently removed.

After taking the device out of the box and charging it, you’ll need to downloaded the iOS or Android app and add in your personal information such as weight and height. Keep in mind that it takes up to two weeks of wearing the tracker at least 12-18 hours per day for GoBe to collect enough information to get maximum accuracy. You will get readings right from the get-go, but these may be skewed. Hence, I pretty much ignored the data for the first couple of weeks and paid much closer attention in the period after.

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As mentioned, your current daily stats can be viewed on the device itself. However, you’ll probably find yourself referring to the app much more often as it shows off your vital statistics much more elegantly and with additional detail. In the end I only used the dot matrix display to check on the battery level.

The tabs along the bottom of the smartphone app allow you to switch between the daily overview, weight (which can be downloaded automatically by linking to a third party source), device status page and user profile. The daily overview is divided into five subsections: Energy Balance, Hydration Level, Heart Rate, Sleep and Stress Level. Tapping on each of these takes you through to a new screen with much more information.

Healbe says the calorie tracking feature is the most misunderstood point it gets from its customer support line. The GoBe2 tracks only digested calories, not consumed. This can’t be overemphasized enough as there is an important difference between the two.

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Food takes anywhere up to 72 hours to move through your digestive tract. The exact time depends on the amounts and types of foods you’ve eaten. The rate is also based on factors such as your gender, metabolism, and whether you have any digestive issues that slow down or speed up the process. The quickest foods to digest are processed, sugary junk foods such as candy bars. Your body tears through them in a matter of hours, quickly leaving you hungry again.

The Energy Balance screen combines activity tracking and calorie monitoring to provide you with a single figure showing whether you have burned more calories than you have digested on a particular day. To arrive at the calculation, the app tallies up your calories digested and subtracts your basal metabolic rate and calories burned through activity. The result will be a plus or minus figure. Plus means you are gaining weight, minus means you are losing weight. You’ll also get an estimate of the intake of nutrients, i.e. how much of the intake was fat, carbohydrates and protein.

Along the top is a continuous graph which does a nice job of showing your metabolic processes. This also takes into account other factors, as metabolic processes depend not only on the food consumed but also physical activity, stress, sleep and more.

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To arrive at estimates of calories absorbed GoBe looks at glucose concentrations in your cells. When you digest food your cells absorb glucose and release water. Fat and protein in your food influence the rate of glucose absorption—leading to different shapes and durations of the “glucose curve”. The device uses the impedance sensor to measure the fluid moving in and out of your cells—continuously, around the clock.

The million dollar question, of course, is whether GoBe2 can really figure out what and how much you’ve eaten?

Well… this is actually surprisingly difficult to answer.

I started off by writing the number of calories consumed on a daily basis but quickly came to the conclusion this was a futile task. The main difficulty is the above stated fact that it can take up to 3 days for the food that is consumed to be digested. So even if you try to do a fasting experiment, GoBe may show a calorie intake as the body is still operating in all functions using internal resources. And even for the sake of this review, I didn’t particularly want to go without eating for more than 3 days! It would be an interesting experiment though…

Carl Sagan popularized the term “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. This later came to be known as the Sagan standard. Healbe does provide evidence, but I’m not sure it equates to “extraordinary evidence”. It cites a third-party test which was done by the Saint Petersburg State Institute of Health, Medical and Sports Clinic, a leading institution in the field of sports medicine in St. Petersburg, Russia. Those interested can read the full findings on this link.

To cut a long story short, a total of 44 tests were conducted on five individuals over a period of 5 days. Researchers found that GoBe measured calorie intake to within +/- 15.6% and calorie burn to within +/- 6.6%. While not “extraordinary evidence”, I think this is a fair assessment as it broadly mirrors my impression. 15%-20% accuracy in measuring calorie intake sounds about right. While this may not seem that impressive, keep in mind that previous research has shown that manual calorie intake tracking is only 40-70% accurate.

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Its fair to say the wearable provides an estimate of calories digested rather than a precise calorie count. So don’t expect a 100% correct calorie intake count – the technology is not there yet. And it probably won’t be for a few more years. If you are interested in a ballpark figure, that’s fine. On the flip-side, if the tracker underestimates calories by 15-20% that can be close to 500 calories per day. If you leave off a bite or two, that pretty much equates to eating a Big Mac!

I do not hold any scientific degrees, so cannot vouch whether it is possible to track calories digested by measuring the fluid moving in and out of cells. But adding some more credence to the technology is the fact that Healbe has recently signed a five-year agreement with The University of California, Davis (UC Davis), Foods for Health Institute. The research will aim to determine whether advanced personal fitness trackers can be used to help bring precision-based health solutions to consumers. I will be following the research findings with keen interest.

I was also very curious about the hydration features of this fitness tracker. No other fitness tracker or smartwatch estimates your fluid intake. The crowdfunded LVL has been delayed by a year and we were promised a summer 2018 launch. After a few updates, its backers have now been hit with a wall of silence.

But back to GoBe 2. Similar to the calorie consumption, you can monitor your hydration balance continuously on a graph. Ultimately the device became obsessed with getting me to drink more water! Multiple times per day the fitness tracker would nag me to take in some more liquid. This can only be a good thing as I am the first to admit I do not drink enough water. On the flip side, its showed that my hydration was low 99% of the time – which I find hard to believe. Nevertheless, its provides a good reminder to drink.

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Stress monitoring is becoming more and more common. Most Garmin devices now tap into heart-rate variability readings to calculate and measure stress levels. This is done 24/7 so you have a timeline of your stress readings available in the smartphone app. GoBe 2 tracks stress through the moisture in your skin. The amount of moisture determines the degree of stress. The tracker does a pretty decent job on this count and flags up calm periods, low and moderate stress and emotional tension.

Apart from these metrics the wearable also dishes out your daily heart rate. It does a good job for your resting heart rate and low intensity activities, but like many other fitness trackers the accuracy does deteriorate at high intensity activity. GoBe also does a decent job in tracking your sleep, even if it under-reported my sleep duration as compared to the Forerunner 935. You’ll get info on sleep duration, the number of times you woke up and a percentage score for your sleep quality and efficiency.

Finally, there is also nifty web dashboard which shows your daily stats in great detail. You can also opt into a weekly email showing your progress over the past 7 days.

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Overview

Summary

I was hoping for a lot from GoBe 2, but at the same time not really expecting that much. In the end the result was somewhere in between.

While an improvement over the original, the device would definitely benefit from some more design upgrades. Wearing it under my shirt-sleeve was not a problem. But in the spring/summer weather it did look rather bulky on my wrist.

If you’ve ever tracked your calories with apps like My Fitness Pal you know how much of a hassle this can be. Most people give up after a few days or weeks. I attempted to do it, but gave up pretty much the same day. GoBe 2 is a heroic attempt at a wearable that does this job for you. And while I can’t vouch for the science, I would say the end result is right to about 80-85% accuracy. So if you’re looking for calorie counting with near perfect accuracy, forget about it.

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Healbe GoBe 2
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The GoBe 2 feature-set is definitely unique and I hope it continues to evolve going forward. I am sure we are only a handful of years away from a time when such metrics become the staple of any self-respecting fitness tracker and smartwatch. For now, though, GoBe 2 is the only wearable that attempts to provide these types of metrics. I will definitely keep an eye on future versions of this product.

The accuracy of its measurements might be enough for some, but not for others. I found that just wearing the device made me more cognizant of what I ate, which led to some better food decisions. It also made me more aware that I should take in more liquids. On the flip-side, the gizmo is rather pricey and sells for the price of a pretty feature packed fitness tracker or low cost smartwatch.

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