One problem with wearable fitness trackers: you may not want to wear one when you’ve also got a watch on. This may be especially the case if, like me, you have a tracker not to monitor an aggressive fitness regime, but simply to ensure you don’t spend the entire working day parked on your rear-end. And you’d like it to be discrete.
I wear a watch; I wear a Fitbit Flex. I’d rather like to combine the two. Withings – the well-known purveyor of Wi-Fi bathroom scales – launched just such a gadget last Autumn, the Activité. It drew some interest, but presumably didn’t sell so well, on account of its high price. So here comes the Consumer Electronics Show-announced Activité Pop, a much cheaper version that lacks the original’s Swiss mechanism and posher materials, but is in all other respects the same device.
What we have then is a watch with a stylish, modern look – think Swatch – and a built-in step counter. The face is entirely analogue: a large pair of hands for the time, and an offset secondary dial to display your movement. The case is stainless steel, the ‘glass’ plastic. At 36mm in diameter, it’s suitably unisex: not too large for a lady, not too narrow for a gent. Front to back, it’s a chunky sounding 10mm, but the curvature of the glass and the case ensure it looks svelte.
The back its tightly latched to the case; Withings claims it’s resistant to five atmospheres: good for splashes and perhaps the shower and surface swimming. The company bundles a coin-sized case opening tool which also sports a point, to be used to reset the watch.
The 18mm strap is rubbery plastic, which makes it sound more low-end than it actually is. I’m not usually keen on plastic straps: I don’t like a loose watch, and if the strap is tight it makes for a sweaty wrist and, if the wrist swells a bit, an uncomfortable fit. Withings’ offering is sufficiently elastic to cope, so it expands with your wrist as temperature rises and doesn’t bite. I found it pleasant to wear.
Alternative 18mm straps aren’t hard to come by, however, so you can always swap out of the bundled band. A word of caution, though: the Pop’s strap pins aren’t exposed through a pinhole in the watch’s case. Instead, they have a catch on the pin itself mounted perpendicular to it. Withings’ straps are cut to accommodate this catch; third-party straps may not be.
The Pop may lack the first Activité’s Swiss mechanism but it keeps time well enough. It has no crown; adjustments are made using the companion app, which I’ll cover in a moment. You turn a virtual dial on the phone’s screen to align first the minutes hand and the hour with 12 O’Clock, and then zero the step counter. A good, accurate approach, though you don’t want to jog the watch while you’re doing so, as the hands are loose at this point and can easily be knocked out of kilter, forcing you to restart the calibration process. Once you’ve done in the app, the hands automatically move to display the correct time – assuming your phone is showing it, of course.
Withings says the watch will automatically adjust to different time zones, once your phone adjusts itself, presumably. Being Blighty-bound at the moment, I couldn’t test this, but I have my doubts. Not, I hasten to add, because Withings is over-selling the Pop, but because of the problems I experienced getting app and watch to communicate.
The Pop works with Withings’ cross-product app, Health Mate, which can be viewed either as a smart piece of integration or an opportunity to persuade you to buy more of the company’s products. Run first time, it encourages you to enter height, weight, blood pressure and heart rate information, much of which will be easier, natch, if you own more Withings kit.
This emphasis on broader health rather than, as is the case with, say, Fitbit’s app means Health Mate is less useful than rival offerings if you’re only interested in one activity. But you are supposed to be able to simply list your steps and chart them over time to make sure you’re achieving the World Heath Organisation’s recommended 10,000 a day or not.
I say ‘supposed’ because I was unable to get the app and watch to do so. Yes, the watch does track steps and does so as accurately as the Fitbit Flex I wore alongside it for comparison. The Flex has five LEDs so you can only measure your progress to 10,000 steps in intervals of 2000. If the second light is lit, you can’t really say whether you’ve done 2001 steps or 3999, though the faster the third light flashes, the closer you are to the next milestone.
The Pop, on the other hand, shows you exactly how far you’ve got: the dial is marked in 1000-step intervals, but you can estimate in-between values at a glance. At midnight, the dial automatically zeroes. Unfortunately, you can’t set an alternative steps goal: 10,000 is the only target you’re allowed to have, but Withings is promising a software update to track swimming strokes “by end of Q1 2015”.
No the problem is not the dial but another part of the hardware: the Bluetooth 4.0 LE sub-system. After initially binding the watch to the Withings account you are forced to set up – I hate that, but everyone does it, alas – calibrated the hands and set an alarm, I couldn’t ever get Pop talking to app without a watch reset. My iPhone 5C’s Bluetooth icon flashes on as I’d expect, but no data appears on the screen. A bug for sure, but disappointing when the Activité has been around for months, and the Pop is using the same software. Do I blame the app or the watch? Both – when app and hardware are both part of the ‘product’ a weakness in one is a fault in the other. Another flaw: no Android support yet.
Now, because the Pop itself shows my steps clearly, I’m not too bothered about recording the stats – I’m not out to take ‘quantified selfies’. But I can’t turn off the irritating alarm, which vibrates the watch 12 times to stir the heaviest of sleepers. It’s fierce: leave it on table and it’ll wake anyone else in the room too, typically after the first or second buzz. Unfortunately, with Bluetooth and/or app not working smoothly, I can’t disable it permanently, and Withings provides no way to turn it off when it’s sounding. Though a double-tap on the watch itself causes the hands to briefly move and display the current alarm time.
Likewise, I couldn’t test the Pop’s sleep monitoring because the watch can’t show the results, only the app can. And the app wasn’t grabbing the data. That said, I’m not sure I really want to wear a watch to bed, especially since the hands are not luminous so are invisible in the dark.
One of the strengths of the Pop is the use of a coin cell rather than a rechargeable battery. Yes that’s wasteful and costs more long-term, but it means you don’t have to root around for a charge every week, and Withings didn’t have to bulk up the Pop with a charging mechanism. Maintaining an alarm you can’t turn off will counter the battery life – which Withings puts at eight months – as will synch’ing your watch and app too frequently.
Withings’ Activité Pop is a nice product let down, for me, by poor Bluetooth. It’s not as attractive as the original Activité but a good deal cheaper (£120, compared to £320) and not much more pricey than most dedicated activity trackers, especially given that it’s a good-looking watch too. Its styling won’t be to everyone’s taste, of course, but it does mean you only need one wearable for time and tracking if you’re the sort who wants both functions. I like the very granular step counter. I like the use of a coin cell power source. I don’t like the flakey connectivity.
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An edited version of this review first appeared on The Register