Review: Withings Pulse jumps into the connected activity tracker market
Look on the belt or wrist of just about any well-equipped geek these days and chances are good that you'll see some sort of activity tracker. Whether it's a Fitbit (US$60 - 100), Nike+ FuelBand ($150) , Jawbone UP ($130), or even just a cheesy USB-equipped pedometer, these devices are becoming ubiquitous among those who want to try to keep track of their fitness. The latest entry comes from a pioneer in the connected health market, Withings. The Pulse (US$99.99) joins a line of connected health devices from the company, including the Smart Body Analyzer, Wireless Scale WS-30, and Blood Pressure Monitor. Coming from a strong family line and competing against a variety of established activity trackers, how does the Pulse stack up?
The Pulse is a small (1.69" x .87" x .31" -- 43 mm x 22 mm x 8 mm) rectangle with rounded ends and weighing just .28 oz (8 grams). The front surface of the flat black device is a 128 x 32 pixel OLED touch screen, and there's a single button on the top of the unit. On the back of the device is a small grouping of LEDs that are used to measure pulse rate.
There's no clip built onto the Pulse; instead, Withings includes a silicone clip case for daytime use and a very comfortable orange and black wrist strap for nighttime use (sleep tracking). Push the Pulse into the clip case and snap it onto a belt or bra strap, and you're ready to roll. I personally wonder how durable the clip case will be, and there's no word from Withings on whether or not they'll sell replacements -- hopefully in colors other than black.
The touch screen is primarily used to look at up to ten days of activity history. For example, while looking at the current day's step total, you can use a finger to swipe back and forth through a history of step readings. The touch screen is also used to enter a pulse reading mode or begin sleep monitoring.
Withings packed a lot of functionality into a small package with the Pulse. As noted on the company's website, the Pulse measures:
- Steps taken
- Elevation climbed actively
- Distance travelled: based on user's profile for high precision
- Calories burned:
- Pulse displays active calories
- App widget displays metabolic + total calories
- Run: daily recap of duration and distance
- Instant heart rate
- Sleep duration
- Sleep quality
- Light vs. deep sleep
- Sleep interruptions
While reviewing the device, I compared it to my previous activity tracker -- a Fitbit Ultra -- and a free activity tracker iPhone app that I use to validate the wearable trackers -- Moves. The Fitbit Ultra recently died after two years of usage, and measured steps taken, distance traveled, provided sleep readings (if used with the included wrist strap), and synced via RF to a USB-attached charging dock. Moves uses the accelerometers built into the iPhone to mimic the functionality of the standalone activity trackers, and does a good job of defining not only how many steps you've taken while walking, but also how distance traveled while running or cycling.
Setting up the Pulse was easy, although I had a bit of scare at first: the device displayed a "HW Failure 1" message when I started it up for the first time. A quick look at the Withings Pulse support web page showed that the most likely cause was an inadequate battery charge. The Pulse comes with a short stubby USB to micro-USB charging cable, and after two hours it was charged enough that I could set it up.
The Pulse can be set up via a tablet or smartphone; I chose to set it up with my iPhone since it's already running the free Withings Health Mate app. I bought a Withings Connected Scale several years ago and one of the Withings Blood Pressure Monitors last year, and the app is a great way to keep track of the peaks and valleys of my weight as well as the smooth plateau of my blood pressure.
The setup basically uses Bluetooth 4 to pair the iPhone with the Pulse; it's quick and painless. The Pulse is a Made For iPhone (MFi) device, which makes it extremely easy to set up and sync with any iOS product. The Pulse also works with Android devices.
Once set up and linked to my iPhone, several new "widgets" appeared in the Health Mate app showing activity, sleep, and heart rate. Syncing the Pulse and the Withings app happens automatically about every six hours, as several times I've noticed that it has updated without any need for me to initiate the sync. It is also possible to force a sync by pressing the top button for three seconds. An animated graphic appears on the screen showing the entire process, and the Withings app does not need to be open for the data to pass between the two devices. The video below shows how a forced sync is accomplished by pressing the top button for three seconds.
Taking your pulse rate is quite easy to do, too. The top button, when depressed more than once, cycles through a set of screens that display the number of steps taken so far, the "elevation climbed actively," the total distance walked or run in miles or kilometers, and the number of calories burned. Pressing once more displays a screen with two icons, one of a heart and one of the Moon and some stars. To take your pulse, you tap the heart icon and then place a finger on top of the pulse sensor on the back of the Pulse. An animation shows that your pulse is being read, and then the device either displays an X (meaning you're dead or it couldn't read your pulse) or the pulse rate.
One of the key selling points of any activity tracker is just how accurate it is. During my testing, I found the Withings Pulse to be quite accurate. The steps tracked by the Pulse and by Moves on the iPhone were always within five percent of each other. I am not a runner, so I was unable to test the daily recap of duration and distance.
The pulse rate measurements were likewise very accurate, usually within several beats per minute of a manual reading (counting pulse beats against a clock) and a reading from the Withings Blood Pressure Monitor. On occasion I'd either see the "X" or a doubled heart rate (i.e., 108 bpm instead of the correct 54), but it's quite easy to remove the bad readings from the record using the Health Mate App.
The sleep measurements are quite interesting. What the Pulse is able to ascertain, probably from movement while you're in bed, is like Santa Claus -- it knows when you've been sleeping, it knows when your awake. When you remember to tap the "Moon and stars" icon on your phone to indicate that you're going to bed, and then do the same action when you wake up, the Health Mate App gives you a visual representation of your sleep pattern. It is charted in three colors designating when you're awake, in light sleep, or in deep sleep.
You also get a listing of how many hours you were in bed, how long it took you to fall asleep, and how many times you were awakened. The app compares your night against the "standard" 8 hours and then displays a percentage figure -- i.e., 8 hours and 20 minutes of mixed light and deep sleep is 104% of the recommended 8 hours.
The Health Mate app also makes comparisons with another standard: 10,000 steps is the recommendation from the World Health Organization for daily activity, and the app displays a percentage of your compliance with the standard.
The one measurement that really didn't make sense to me was the elevation. My office is upstairs and I'm constantly going up and down stairs, but after a full day of work the Pulse would only show a minor amount, like 37 feet. While writing this review, it occurred to me that Withings says that the Pulse measures "elevation climbed actively," not just the total number of stairs like the Fitbit did.
My interpretation of that is that the Pulse would respond to me running up the stairs with an accurate reading, while going downstairs or trudging upstairs slowly wouldn't register at all. Instead, running quickly up stairs -- a total of ten feet vertical elevation change -- only showed a 2 foot reading. Going slowly down the stairs added another 1 foot of elevation change, and plodding upstairs also showed a 1 foot addition to my total.
I asked the Withings support staff about this, wondering if my home elevation (about 5700 feet or over 1700 meters) could be affecting the readings. The response was as follows -- "While it's true that the Pulse wasn't tested very much at a high elevation such as yours that shouldn't cause any issue with the altimeter. The development team is working on a new firmware that should improve elevation algorithm and that will be released in this week." I will update this review to let readers know if the firmware update resolves the problem.
I'm also looking forward to seeing if the firmware update resolves another issue I've encountered twice where the device stops tracking steps. A reset (holding the button down for 15 seconds) brought tracking back online again, but in each case I "lost" steps.
Finally, Withings says that the Pulse has an estimated two-week battery life. Perhaps I didn't charge the device all the way to full capacity before starting to use it, but with only three days of usage the Pulse is already showing about a half-charge. I've charged it completely, and after about four hours of usage it has dropped about two percent. Extrapolating, that tells me that the battery should last about 200 hours, or only a bit over eight days.
Just before finishing my testing of the device for the review, it failed completely with an "Error 1" message. Repeated attempts at resetting the device have failed, and I'm attempting to get a new unit in order to provide additional information in a future post about the Pulse and integration with third-party apps.
While the Pulse is a latecomer to the connected activity tracker market, Withings has done an excellent job of creating a device that adds to its already robust ecosystem of connected health devices. The Pulse fills a gap in the Withings lineup, adding activity tracking directly to the Health Mate app at a reasonable price point. At this point, there's no other connected activity tracker that offers quite the range of functionality in such a small, unobtrusive and inexpensive package.
- OLED display is easy to read, even in direct sunlight
- Touchscreen is useful for viewing activity history and entering sleep or heart rate measurement modes
- Priced below devices with similar capabilities
- Integration with both the Withings Health Mate app and the rest of the Withings connected device ecosystem is excellent
- Accuracy appears to be spot-on
- Either the "elevation climbed actively" measurement makes no sense or the review Pulse is not measuring the changes in barometric pressure correctly
- Durability of the silicone clip case is questionable, particularly if the Pulse if removed nightly for sleep measurements
- Battery life may not be as long as advertised
- Early firmware appears a bit buggy
Who is it for?
- The iPhone owner who wants a small and powerful activity tracker that works seamlessly with Apple's smartphone and the other connected devices in the Withings family
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