Wearables company Withings returned from the grave last month with its first new product since Nokia ditched the brand it had acquired in a $192 million deal back in 2016.
It’s been a whirlwind year for Withings, with cofounder Éric Carreel entering the fray to buy his company back from Nokia in May. Fast-forward to September, when the French company unveiled the $200 Steel HR Sport smartwatch, ushering in a bunch of upgrades from its previous Steel-branded watches, including “connected GPS” functionality and a new VO2 max fitness assessment feature.
After spending the past few weeks with the device, we have an overview of what to expect if you decide to buy Steel HR Sport and our verdict on Withings’ reentry into the world of wearables.
In the box and setup
In the box is the Withings watch, a proprietary USB charging cable, and a user guide.
The watch slips easily and naturally into the cradle, and the little charging counter starts rolling up super fast — it seems to average around a 1 percent increase in battery every 25 seconds, meaning that in theory it should be more or less fully charged in well under an hour (though in truth, I didn’t physically time how long it took to charge from flat).
Once your watch is fully charged, the next step will be to set it up with your phone. The Nokia Health Mate app, available for Android and iOS, is basically the command center for the device — you’ll need to sync your watch with your phone to get any real value from this. But that is typical for pretty much any smartwatch.
Launch the app, choose your Withings product — in this case the Steel HR Sport — and then you’ll be invited to connect your phone to the watch over Bluetooth.
What it does
Priced at $200, the Steel HR Sport continues on a similar trajectory as its predecessor, the Steel HR, which launched two years ago, shortly after Nokia bought the company. Visually, it’s pretty much identical, and it offers many of the same features that were firsts the last time around, including a heart-rate monitor. It’s also available with different bands, and the watch face comes in black and white incarnations.
The watch is water-resistant up to 165 feet (50m, 5ATM) and promises 25 days of battery life under normal usage, 5 days in workout mode, plus 20 additional days in a lower state of power that gives you time and activity tracking only.
The watch face has three distinct elements. First, the analog hands tell the time. Second, there is a circular digital screen that displays various metrics. In normal non-activity mode, the digital display is off by default — but one click on the little button on the right-hand side of the watch reveals the date/time in digital mode, another click reveals your most recent heart rate, and one more press shows your steps for the day. Additional clicks take you to your estimated distance traveled that dday, your alarm (which can only be set through the Health Mate app), and remaining battery.
You can also personalize these options through the Health Mate app, adding calories to the list and removing steps and distance, for example.
A long press on the button takes you into activity mode, at which point you are presented with a choice of several activities, such as running, swimming, cycling, walking, and “other.” Again, these options can be personalized with all manner of activities, such as boxing, badminton, basketball, weights, and even kitesurfing.
The watch can automatically detect activities — for example, it will pretty accurately tell you that you’ve been out for a 50 minute run. But entering into official activity mode brings additional functions, such as continuous heart-rate monitoring and an always-on digital display. Outside of activity mode, the little digital display turns off after about 20 seconds.
It’s also worth noting here that the digital display serves up smartphone notifications, such as alerting you when you receive a message in WhatsApp or Slack. From my experiences, this is useful for telling you that you have an alert on your phone, and the gentle wrist vibration helps with this, but the screen is really too small to let you read a message — sentences scroll horizontally across the display, so anything more than a “see you later” just takes too long. And you can forget about GIFs.
The third facet of the watch face is the little analog sub-dial, which shows you how close you are to achieving your daily activity goal, as a percentage. Through the profile section of the Health Mate app, you can set yourself a daily goal in terms of number of steps — and get alerts on your watch and your phone when you hit your goal.
Another particularly useful feature if you really dig the whole quantified self thing is the sleep-tracking feature. This is a pretty common part of many smartwatches these days, but we can report here that the one in the Steel HR Sport is more or less accurate to the minute. It also tells you which parts of the night were given to deep or light sleep and allocates an overall score.
GPS or not GPS
One of the core selling points of the Steel HR Sport over its predecessor is that it has connected GPS. Now, this isn’t nearly as good as built-in GPS, because you still need your mobile phone present to benefit from location-based features, but it’s better than nothing.
What this means is that you can now see not only your real-time heart rate and activity duration from your wrist, but also your pace — remember, you will need to carry your phone on those long runs to get that data.
Digging down into the nuts and bolts of the Steel HR Sport reveals a particularly interesting new feature that relies on the GPS. Withings now offers a fitness level assessment that works by assessing your VO2 max, which basically establishes how well your body uses oxygen when you’re putting it through its paces.
Withings provides a quick overview of how to determine your fitness level — you need to run for at least 10 minutes on flat terrain and you must have GPS enabled (which means you need to carry your phone with you). Other data required to figure out your fitness level is your age, gender, weight, and pace of activity.
Helpfully, Withings also tells you how fit you are compared to other people of a similar age.
While this is interesting, it absolutely won’t be as accurate as a VO2 max test carried out in a lab setting, but that involves some pretty high-tech equipment, such as an oxygen-capturing face mask, and is probably too much of a hassle — and too expensive — for most non-athletes to bother with.
Observations and verdict
The Withings Steel HR Sport is a slick, sexy watch aimed at a broad segment of the population, but it is worth highlighting a few areas that may have fallen slightly wide of the mark. Some of these are subjective and may be complete non-issues for many people.
The watch is evidently aimed at keep-fit fanatics, rather than those who like to casually monitor their steps — as indicated by the “Sport” in its name. But the lack of built-in GPS means having to carry your phone with you on a long run — which will be a problem for many. The reason millions of serious sporting aficionados buy watches from the likes of Garmin is so they can leave their phone at home, by which standard the Steel HR Sport feels like something of a regression.
While testing the Steel HR Sport, I found myself wearing my Garmin so I could continue to save data to my Garmin account, which also syncs across my various other fitness-focused accounts, such as Strava and Runtastic.
As a side point here, Withings doesn’t offer enough direct integrations with third-party apps for my liking. You can hook it up with Runkeeper, Google Fit, IFTTT, and MyFitnessPal — which have some options for indirect connections to other services, such as Strava — but this would require me to set up even more accounts.
Of course, this is not a scenario that will be typical for everyone — many people out there are looking for their first fitness watch and will be more than happy to carry their phone with them on long runs. But serious sports junkies who like to “run light” will probably struggle with this aspect of the watch.
It is worth briefly discussing why Withings elected not to go for built-in GPS on the Steel HR Sport. It all comes down to battery life — this watch is designed for daily use, not just for half-marathons, and built-in GPS would sap the juice out of this thing like there is no tomorrow.
“Our goal is to design products that people can integrate into their lives and use on a daily basis,” a company spokesperson told VentureBeat. “That can best be achieved by providing a long-lasting battery life and a slim design. Our users love the design of Steel and Steel HR. We wanted to provide a similar watch with even more advanced features. This would not be possible with built-in GPS.”
On the one hand, Withings seems to be appealing to serious fitness fanatics with features such as the VO2 max test, but the intense exercise needed for this kind of test is best done without having a huge smartphone in your pocket or strapped to your body. Plus, this is the kind of metric that only serious health geeks usually care about, and they are probably already heavily invested in the Garmin ecosystem.
Some feature omissions surprised me — there is no stopwatch, for example. I use a stopwatch on a daily basis for lots of things, such as when I’m cooking, and I only realized how much I missed a stopwatch when I no longer had one. Plus, you can’t tell the time in the dark without pressing a button — it would be nice to have an option to keep the little digital display on, or even have luminous hands on the watch face.
In summary, the Withings Steel HR Sport is an everyday watch — it’s elegant, but not too fancy, and it has great battery life while offering some very good activity-tracking smarts. But if you’re training for a marathon, you will probably want to stick to your Garmin.
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