Back in May I reviewed the Withings Smart Body Analyzer and found it to be an excellent, nay essential tool for tracking weight, body composition and general wellbeing. A large part of the appeal of the Smart Body Analyzer was its ability to send data wirelessly to your Withings account, which could then be viewed and analysed via the Withings Health Mate app. Now Withings is expanding its ecosystem of health and fitness technology with the Pulse – a daily activity tracker that’s stuffed with more features than a Swiss Army Knife.
The concept behind the Withings Pulse is nothing new, and anyone who’s been using a Nike+ FuelBand or Fitbit One for a while will appreciate the benefit of tracking your daily activity. But what Withings has done is move the game on and create a device that integrates seamlessly into its existing ecosystem. Although the Pulse can be used as a standalone device, it really comes into its own when you partner it with other Withings kit, such as the Smart Body Analyzer.
The Pulse itself is very small and light – measuring 43 x 22 x 8mm (WxHxD) and weighing a truly incredible 8g! That’s exactly what you want from a device that you’ll be carrying around with you all day, every day. You can carry the Pulse in your pocket, or use the bundled rubber belt clip, which will raise the overall weight to a still barely noticeable 18g.
Once you start to explore the functionality of the Pulse, it’s clear that Withings has examined the other activity trackers on the market and designed a device that does everything they do, and more. At its heart (pun intended), the Pulse is a pedometer. It essentially tracks your footsteps and extrapolates other data from that baseline. But even though the Pulse uses the same basic premise as other activity trackers, it just does it better.
One of my biggest gripes about pedometer based activity trackers is that they don’t differentiate between whether you’re taking a leisurely stroll, or whether you’re sprinting for the finish line in a 100m final. A step is just a step, and the same amount of calorie burn will be associated to each one, regardless of the speed and physical effort put into it.
However, the Pulse does differentiate between walking and running. Withings has developed some very clever algorithms for its accelerometer so that the device knows when you’re running. The Pulse will then track the duration of your run, and adjust your calorie burn accordingly.
If you’ve been for a run it will be highlighted within the Withings Health Mate app, allowing you to analyse the time spent running, and the distance that you travelled. Your running data will also be viewable as a separate screen on the Pulse itself, although that functionality is coming in a future firmware update. I have, however seen it working on a prototype device, and it’s a very well implemented and useful tool.
It’s this kind of attention to detail that makes Withings’ products so interesting. Even though the Health Mate app is well presented, comprehensive and easy to navigate, Withings doesn’t feel you should need to get your phone out every time you want to check something. Consequently the Pulse has been designed to tell you pretty much everything you need to know directly.
The running aspect of the Pulse may be the highlight for me, but there’s no shortage of other features. The Pulse has a single button that will cycle through all its screens. The first press will display the time of day, the name of the user and the current state of the battery charge.
The next screen shows the number of steps you’ve taken so far that day – Withings assumes that 10,000 steps is a daily average, so that’s the target you’ll be judged on. And if you want to see how well you did yesterday, you can swipe the screen sideways to reveal the previous day’s total, and even swipe it a second time to see how you did two days ago.
Being able to view previous days on the device is particularly useful when you try to check your daily total at just past midnight and realise that your tracker has rolled over to the new day. If you’re a FuelBand user, you’ve probably encountered this issue, and had to grab your phone and sync before you can find out your daily total.
The Pulse also tracks elevation, which encourages you to take the stairs when you otherwise might jump in the lift – and yes, I can confirm that you can’t cheat by riding up in the lift or escalator, you have to be walking for the altimeter to track any activity.
The next screen will display the distance you’ve travelled throughout the day, while the following screen shows the amount of calories you’ve burned. And just like steps screen, the elevation, distance and calories screens can all be swiped to show you your data from the past couple of days.
As with all pedometer based activity trackers, the Pulse isn’t completely accurate when it comes to distance – without measuring your stride and calibrating the device accordingly, it’s really just making a best guess. However, the Pulse is clearly using a decent accelerometer coupled with some pretty good algorithms, because its distance readings are pretty close to the real world when measured against a GPS device.
The Pulse has another killer trick up its sleeve, although its name gives the game away somewhat – it can also measure your heart rate. On the rear of the device is a finger sensor, which can measure your pulse. Simply tap the heart icon on the display and then place your fingertip on the sensor – after a few moments your current heart rate will be displayed and recorded.
Of course the Pulse isn’t a heart rate monitor in the true sense of the word, since it can’t give you a dynamic reading. However, it’s still useful to be able to check your resting pulse throughout your day, and also to see how high your heart rate is post training, or even when you’ve walked up a few flights of stairs.
The Pulse has yet more strings to its bow, though. Withings understands that it’s not just your level of activity that’s important, but also your rest periods. As such, the Pulse can also measure and track your sleep. Inside the box there’s a fabric wristband that allows you to comfortably wear the Pulse while you’re sleeping.
When you go to bed, you strap the Pulse to your wrist, and select sleep mode. Once sleep mode is selected, the Pulse will track how long you take to fall asleep, how long you spend in “light sleep” and how long you spend in “deep sleep.” The Pulse will also log when you wake up during the night, giving you a clear picture of just how good a night’s sleep you’ve had.
Anyone who’s serious about their fitness and wellbeing will tell you how important sleep is, but it’s all too easy to fall into a routine of going to bed late and getting up early if your life is as hectic as mine. Having the facts presented to you each morning – how long you slept and how much of that time was actually deep sleep – does encourage you to dedicate a bit more time to resting as well as training.
The Pulse has an in-built Lithium Polymer battery, which Withings claims is good for two weeks of use between charges. In daily use I found that the battery life was closer to a week or so, which is still a lot better than I can get from my FuelBand.
Another nice touch is that the Pulse has a power-save mode, so that if the battery runs particularly low, the device will shut off its screen and limit its functionality to tracking only for its final 24 hours of juice. That means that if you’ve forgotten to charge the Pulse, you won’t end up losing any data since you’ll have a day to get it plugged in. And because the Pulse uses a standard micro-USB port for charging, it won’t be too hard to find a cable even if you’re away from home.
The Pulse isn’t quite perfect, though. Holding the button on the Pulse for three seconds will initiate its synch with your iPhone. The synchronisation is done via Bluetooth 4.0 to keep power usage to a minimum, but the process itself is very slow. You’re often left waiting a good while before the sync even starts, then the data itself is relatively slow to transfer to your iPhone.
That said, there is often a lot of data being synced, and it’s also being synchronised and merged with other data that’s already logged in the Health Mate app. Also, because you can look at so much data on the Pulse itself, the need to sync throughout the day isn’t as great as it is on other activity trackers.
I also found that the run tracking didn’t always work – some days it would track my runs with reasonable accuracy, while on others it would recognise that my intensity level was high, but didn’t log it as a run.
It’s worth remembering, though, that the Pulse is a brand new product and has already had a couple of firmware updates in the few weeks I’ve been testing it. So I’m fully expecting these small niggles to be dealt with over the coming weeks.
One final plus point for the Pulse is its price. At £89.99 it’s usefully cheaper than the Nike+ FuelBand and not much more than the Fitbit One, despite offering more features than both.
The Withings Pulse is probably the best activity tracker on the market, with a feature list that’s hard to beat. It’s also small and light enough to carry around with you everywhere, and there’s so much viewable data directly on the device that you rarely have to sync more than once per day.
The ability to measure your heart rate, and the fact that the Pulse can recognise when you’re running instead of walking are great features. And even the price seems incredibly reasonable given the functionality.
Withings has certainly raised the bar with the Pulse, and I fully expect Nike to respond accordingly with the FuelBand 2 when it arrives. For now, however, if you’re looking for the ultimate daily activity tracker, the Pulse is it.
- It can tell when you’re running
- Heart rate measurement built-in
- Sleep tracking
- Incredibly small and light
- Belt clip and wrist band bundled
- Multiple days viewable on device
- Excellent app integration
- Slips seamlessly into Withings’ ecosystem
- Reasonable price
- Built-in altimeter
- Decent battery life
- Battery life not as long as quoted
- Can take a long time to sync
- Run tracking doesn’t always work