Posted by Jim Martin 26 July 2013
Withings Pulse review: an activity tracker with a heart-rate monitor
Activity trackers and ‘lifelogging’ have exploded in popularity over the last year or so, and the latest company to wade in is Withings. The company already has a history in health-related gadgets, such as its Wi-Fi scales (Smart Body Analyzer), so the Pulse makes a lot of sense.
It’s a small device – slightly wider than the Fitbit One – but weighs just 8g and has a soft-feel plastic body. It isn’t waterproof, but it should withstand a bit of sweat.
As you’d expect, it plays nicely with the scales, so your weight can be tracked in the app along with everything the Pulse itself measures.
And that’s quite a lot. As well as the basics – steps, distance and calories – it also has an altimeter like the Fitbit One so can tell you how many feet you’ve climbed that day.
Uniquely, it can also measure your pulse (hence the name). You press your finger against the LEDs on the back, wait a few seconds and see the readout on the front. The Pulse takes readings on-demand, not continuously, so it isn’t a ‘true’ heart rate monitor.
Another first for an activity tracker is a touchscreen. Pressing the sole button cycles between the various measurements, but swiping the screen allows you to see the previous couple of days’ activity.
The Pulse also measures your sleep. You wear it in a pouch on your wrist, just like the Fitbit One, and tap the sleep icon on the screen to tell it you’re going to bed. When you wake up, you press the button so it knows you’re up.
Another similarity with the Fitbit One is the rubber clip that’s also included in the box. You can clip it to a belt or somewhere else on your clothes, but the Pulse works just as well dropped into your pocket.
One extra feature is a running monitor. The Pulse detects when you’re running (as opposed to walking) and automatically records how long and how far you’ve run. It will also more accurately estimate how many calories you’ve burned. Other trackers use a much more basic approach where every step burns the same number of calories.
It’s worth noting that the calorie estimation works like the Nike Fuelband: only calories from detected activity are counted, not those you burn from merely existing.
The Pulse’s OLED display glows through the black casing, much like the Nike Fuelband’s. Unfortunately it isn’t nearly as bright and is very difficult to read outdoors, especially when it’s sunny.
The touchscreen isn’t all that sensitive, either, and you have to press hard to trigger the heart-rate measurement or sleep mode.
See also: Fitbit Flex review
Withings Pulse: sync and Health Mate app
It’s easier to see your stats using the free Health Mate app, which is available for iPhone (iPad version coming soon) and Android.
Strangely, it isn’t possible to sync the Pulse with a PC or Mac: the included micro USB cable is just for charging. That means the Pulse is only for those with a supported smartphone. Fortunately, you don’t need Bluetooth 4 as many trackers do, so the Pulse will sync with an iPhone 3GS or newer (with iOS 5 or 6), an iPod touch 3rd gen or later and any iPad. If you have an Android device, you’ll need Android 2.3.3 or later with Bluetooth.
Anyway, the app itself is fairly nice to use given how many stats are recorded. As well as browsing your activity you can set a goal for losing a certain amount of weight.
What you can’t do is change your target number of steps per day (10,000 is the WHO recommended number), nor compete with friends who have a Pulse. You can only share your stats via Facebook and Twitter.
I like the butterfly graphic, which has four segments: sleep, activity, weight and heart. These ‘grow’ as you reach your goals, although the heart segment simply requires you to take readings regularly.
As well as being able to see how long you slept, you can also see when you were awake, in light sleep and in deep sleep. This seems more accurate than Fitbit’s implementation, and I also like that the Pulse itself displays a percentage showing how much of the nominal eight hours of sleep you got.
It’s good to see integration with MyFitnessPal and RunKeeper. In fact, unlike Fitbit, Withings doesn’t even bother with its own food-tracking system, it sensibly allows you to link a MyFitnessPal account and do it that way.
Withings Pulse: verdict
I had a few teething troubles with the first Pulse sample Withings sent for review. It refused to pair with my iPhone 5, so I couldn’t even begin to use it (setting up the sync connection is one of the requirements before you can use the device).
The second sample had a somewhat faltering start – again with Bluetooth connection problems – but then seemed to settle down and sync whenever we pressed the button for three seconds (just as it should do).
We’ve also heard of several Pulse users having problems with the tracker detecting a run and not properly logging it as one.
Hopefully these early issues will be fixed by firmware updates, of which there have already been a couple.
Battery life is impressive, though. I saw almost two weeks between charges, which is pretty much what Withings claims. And that’s about double the Fitbit One and Nike Fuelband’s battery life. Plus, the micro USB port means there’s no proprietary cable to lose (Fitbit take note).
If Withings can sort out the niggles, perhaps increase screen brightness and add the ability to compete with friends, the Pulse will be one of the best activity trackers out there, especially as it doesn’t need the latest smartphones to sync.
The Nike Fuelband remains the most convenient tracker in my mind – you never forget to swap it over when you change your clothes), but the Pulse is considerably cheaper and offers many more features.
Withings Pulse, £90 inc VAT