Not everyone wants a fully fledged smartwatch or sporty fitness band. Some prefer something that resembles a traditional timepiece. Luckily, you no longer need to pick between activity tracking and good looks. Hybrid or analogue watches provide you with the best of both worlds.
Essential reading: Top hybrid watches of 2018, the best of both worlds
Back in 2016, Withings launched the world’s first analog timepiece with a built-in heart rate sensor. Shortly after, the French outfit was snapped up by Nokia. It wasn’t long, though, before the tech giant found the health and fitness industry is a pretty hard nut to crack. Nokia wanted out, so earlier this year Éric Carreel co-founder and former chairman of Withings took the company back under his wing. The launch of Steel HR Sport marks the comeback of the original brand.
Its predecessor, Steel HR, is still one of the best hybrid options on the market. The upgraded device comes with Connected GPS, a Fitness Level assessment via VO2 Max estimation and better watch straps. And yes, you still get the stonking 25-day battery life. With these upgrades, the Steel HR Sport is designed to provide another level of experience, and function as a more useful multisport tracker.
I’ve been wearing the new hybrid for the past few weeks. Here’s what I made of it.
Features and software
Steel HR Sport doesn’t look all too dissimilar from its predecessor. With its stainless steel case featuring engraved bezel, matte metallic hands with color accent and mineral glass, it looks and feels like an ordinary watch. Albeit, a very good looking one.
It does have a sportier feel, though. This is due to the silicone band which now has ventilation holes designed for comfort during workouts. Quick-release pins mean the 20mm band is interchangeable and you can swap it around for other colors, including a leather band for more formal occasions. I tried out the black/gray silicon band and found it to be supremely, soft and comfortable.
Whereas the original watch came in two sizes, Steel HR Sport is a one size fits all affair. It comes in a single 40mm diameter version with either a white or black watch face. The timepiece is 13mm thick and weights just under 50 grams, making it quite light and usable for both men and women.
As before, the large dials show the time, while the small red sub-dial shows progress towards your daily step goal. This makes it very easy to know at a glance where you stand. For example, if you set your goal to be 8,000 steps, the small dial at 6 o’clock means you’ve covered 50% or 4,000 steps. Surpass your goal, and the little dial will simply continue for another round-trip journey.
There’s also a tiny, monochrome, OLED display at the top of the watch-face which shows more information including the date, time, heart rate, steps (actual number), distance, calories, alarms and battery level. It is off by default by you wake it up by pressing the button disguised as a watch crown. Navigation is very intuitive and simple to learn. Repeatedly pressing the physical button scrolls through the stats. A long press is all it takes to start and stop an exercise.
The dynamic screen is also used to show info on phone calls, text messages, calendar, plus smart notifications from your favorite apps. An accompanying vibration is there to ensure your attention. Its worth noting, in order to preserve battery life the screen does not stay on for too long. Its also not that easy to read if you’re outside due to its small size. But if you want a large screen, you are not going to be in the market for a hybrid. A smartwatch or a sports-watch will be your better option.
Under the hood the hybrid has a day and night motion sensor, high precision MEMS 3-axis accelerometer and an photoplethysmography (PPG) heart rate sensor. So no change from its predecessor, although the software has been upgraded to allow for Connected GPS and Fitness Level assessment. We understand the older versions of Steel HR will get GPS smartphone connectivity as well. But they won’t get the performance metrics (VO2Max).
Once again, the gizmo is water-resistant down to 50 metres (5 ATM) and will automatically recognize and track your swim sessions. But as we’ve seen with other wearables, the optical heart rate monitor won’t work properly underwater so you’ll just get information on calories and duration. This is because the watch uses a series of green lights to detect your heart beat. Water makes this pretty difficult as it interrupts the ability for the lights to consistently and accurately flash against the skin.
Battery life is still very impressive and remains a big selling point. Steel HR will keep ticking for an incredible 25 days. After that, it will keep plodding along for another 20 days with limited functionality in power save mode. This performance leaves most of its competition in the dust.
A couple of hours on its proprietary magnetic charging cable is all it takes to get back to full capacity, and an hour to about 80%. During the three weeks of testing, I didn’t need to reach for the charger even once. The only danger I can see is that you might lose the charger seeing how rarely you’ll be using it!
The original device tracks steps, distance, calories, all day heart rate (resting and zone information), sleep (deep and light sleep phases, sleep interruptions) and multiple sports (30 to be exact). It also features automatic exercise recognition. You’ll get all this and more with the Steel HR Sport.
The smart timepiece pairs via Bluetooth with the revamped Withings Health Mate companion app, which you use to set up the watch. This is a simple process that is quick and painless.
Steel HR Sport provides pretty solid basic fitness tracking. This is especially impressive as it comes in the form of something that doesn’t look like it counts your steps and calories. You can start an activity manually or leave it to the company’s Connected Movement Technology to figure out when your exercising. The watch will retain about a week’s worth of data so you do not need to sync it to the app every day.
In terms of sports, Steel HR can recognize walking, swimming, running and a bunch of other activities such as tennis. The automatic recognition works pretty well. When I started using it there were a few false calls, but that’s easily rectified in the app. Presumably, the software learns as you use it more so in time becomes better at recognizing what you’re up to.
For detailed info on activity, sleep and heart rate, head over to the Health Mate app. You’ll quickly notice that its rather simple and doesn’t overload you with stats. Along the bottom there are five tabs. This includes a scrolling timeline of activity, a dashboard, a bunch of Withing’s designed Wellness Programs, Devices and Profile. Tapping into pretty much any metric takes you through to more detailed stats.
In normal mode, Steel HR Sport takes a heart rate reading every 10 minutes, but you can get on-demand measurements by skipping through the OLED display. When it comes to exercise, the watch will automatically switch over to continuous mode. It will also keep tabs on your resting heart rate, one of the most important indicators of health and fitness.
The stats can be shown on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. I particularly liked the sleep tracking. Like its predecessor, the Steel HR Sport automatically detects when you’re in bed and delivers a full breakdown of your sleep including info on deep and light stages, wake ups and duration.
You also get insights written in easy to understand language. How was your depth, regularity? The app will tell you. It will also assign a nightly sleep score, a single metric that quantifies the quality of your night’s rest.
The silent alarm feature is there to wake you with gentle vibration. You can also set multiple alarms, great for to make sure you get up in time for that important meeting.
Furthermore, the 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 stats in one central location.
One of the biggest upgrades this time around is the GPS Connectivity. This means the watch is able to piggyback on your smartphone’s satellite signal for readings, a feature that will no doubt be important to the runners and cyclists out there. I found the connection to be quick and stable. As far as the quality of GPS readings – well, this will depend entirely on the quality of your smartphone’s GPS signal.
In addition to dishing out more accurate data, the connected GPS also has the benefit of mapping your runs. This will all be clearly displayed in the smartphone app. If you have good eyesight, you’ll be able to see your pace, distance and heart rate on the watch’s OLED screen. Alternatively, you can use the Health Mate app to view your progress.
Post run, head over to the smartphone app for a summary of your performance. In addition to a map of your run, the app shows duration, distance, calories, pace, average pace, altitude gain, splits, heart rate (zones plus average heart rate) and more. For the average person who does the occasional run here and there, Steel HR sport will dish out quite enough data to sink your teeth into. But if you’re a hard-core runner it might leave you wanting more.
I compared the runs with a Garmin Forerunner 935 and found the accuracy to be pretty good. For example, on Steel HR Sport a recent 10 kilometer run yielded: average pace 5:47 min/km; altitude gain 6m; average heart rate 159 bmp; distance 10km; kcal 797. This was very similar to the stats on Garmin’s device: average pace 5:46 min/km; altitude gain 5m; average heart rate 157 bmp; distance 10km; kcal 811. Not bad.
The hybrid also now offers a VO2max assessment. This measures the heart and muscles ability to convert oxygen into energy during physical exercise. Put more simply, it tells you how fit you are. Rather impressively, all it took was one 10+ minute run for the first assessment. Steel HR told me my VO2 max was 44, exactly the same value my Garmin watch had me pegged on.
In subsequent runs the value on the Withings device fell to 43 while my Garmin stayed at 44. I suspect I was at the lower end of the 44, though.
As mentioned, you can use the small OLED display to show notifications. Everything is customizable via the smartphone app. This includes calendar, mail, SMS and phone alerts. The notifications will be accompanied by a small vibration.
The contents of messages will scroll in their entirety across the screen. They are not that easy to read as the small display can only show a limited amount of text at once. Its much more useful for catching notifications as they appear, and then reaching for your smartphone for a full readout.
This functionality extends to third-party apps. The notification settings section of the Health Mate app displays a list of compatible apps, and you can switch them on or off individually. This works quite well.
Steel HR Sport combines style and functionality in a way few other wearables manage. There isn’t a big change in design or feature set over its predecessor but the device does attempt to get you more fit this time around.
To this end, the French company has slapped on Connected GPS and VO2Max (your maximal oxygen consumption) assessment and they both work very well. Combine this with pretty solid basic fitness tracking and amazing nearly month-long battery life, and you’re sitting on a winner.
Withings Steel HR Sport
Steel HR Sport is all about keeping things simple. Simply strap it to your wrist and go about your day. It requires minimal interaction from you and will quietly go about its job of collecting activity stats.
The updates are a nice step up and make the timepiece an even better option for the average person looking for a discrete tracker. Its clearly not the most powerful fitness device out there, so hard-core runners may want to pass, but it does strike a great balance of features, aesthetics and comfort. With a design that doesn’t shout, “I’m a smartwatch,” I am sure it will appeal to many.
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