Can these three gadgets help you sleep and wake better?

Hot nights, snoring partners, sluggish mornings, tiring travel; we settle down for a snooze with some gadgets that promise to get you better rest in difficult situations
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor

If you're looking to get some sleep on the move, or to make yourself more productive by power napping, Silentmode is a $199 combination face mask and headphones set that wraps around your face. It comes with a protective carry case, a braided headphone cable and a mini USB cable -- which delightfully, works either way up in any mini USB port -- to charge up with Bluetooth.

The padded mask that covers your eyes and ears is attached to the stiff outer mask with Velcro; pull it off and you can move the speakers (also attached with velcro) to sit right over your ears -- or move them out of the way if they're pressing uncomfortably against them; you can also adjust it up and down to stop it pressing down on your nose. The Bluetooth and port module sits at the back of your head and it's padded too, with a matching cushion on the other side where the mask wraps around your face.

man in Silentmode sleep mask sitting in a chair

The Silentmode mask wraps around your head completely

Source: Mary Branscombe

The deep hollows in the padding cushion your eyes and ears; they do a great job of blocking out light completely, but not so good at blocking sound; you're relying on the music you're playing to mask any ambient noise -- so this doesn't compare to in-ear buds or noise cancelling headphones. The Velcro strap at the back makes the Silentmode adjustable and it fits up to a fairly large head quite well. It's comfortable to lean back on, in a chair or a plane seat, but side sleepers will find it much less comfortable despite the padding, because the weight of your head can press the stiff outer mask into your face. The sound quality is reasonable, but we found it was a bit muffled by the padding.

The selling point of Silentmode is supposed to be the breathing and nap tutorials in the Breathonics app and the 'sleep soundscapes' to play you to sleep, which you can find on Apple Music. The app calls itself a personal recovery toolkit for high performance and offers you focus, relax and powernap modes; the nap training tools seem to still be in development. You can use those with any set of headphones and without setting up an account -- and the on-screen animations queuing you to inhale and exhale aren't going to be much use with the mask on, but the narrations of when to breathe didn't help us with relaxing.

Set up an account and you can set your usual times for waking up and falling asleep and track and rate your naps; if you have an Apple Watch, the sleep tracking will soon show up in the Silentmode app too and the app will suggest when you should take a nap. The Android version of the app is a little more basic.

Whether you find this helps you sleep better or be more alert will be very individual; it's quite a commitment to strap the Silentmode mask around your head and settle down, and while you get a travel bag to carry it in, it's quite bulky to take with you and a little too complicated to use. We'd pick a memory foam sleep mask and custom in-ear headphones that cut out ambient noise instead, but if you prefer over-ear headphones and you need some help switching off, this is an all-in one option.

Getting a quiet night's sleep

Regardless of gadgets, sleeping can be hard if your partner snores, and while you can poke them in the ribs to get them to turn over that doesn't always stop the snoring -- and you'd rather not be awake at all. That's where the Smart Nora device comes in, detecting snores and making them move.

A two-part system, Smart Nora uses a Bluetooth-connected sensor to trigger an inflatable bladder under your pillow. The idea is that the change in shape of the pillow encourages you to change position, and -- hopefully -- stop snoring. It then slowly deflates, so you're sleeping on your usual shaped pillow most of the time. A small bedside pump unit is linked to the sensor, and also handles charging duties. The pump and power supply are housed in an attractive grey felt case which also can be used as a carry case for the sensor and the pillow insert. Partners already putting up with snoring will be relieved that neither you nor they will be disturbed by the pump when it's operating; it's very quiet indeed.

The sensor can be mounted on the wall over the head of the snorer (or on the headboard), or sat on their bedside table. Once you turn it on, there's a 30 minute delay to allow you to hopefully get to sleep before it starts listening. The pillow insert is quite stiff, rather like a long blood-pressure cuff, but you won't feel it through your pillow. It slides into your pillowcase, under whatever kind of pillow you use, connected to the pump with a long tube. We tried it out with both foam and feather pillows, and while it worked best with a feather pillow it had no problems working through foam. It wasn't particularly uncomfortable, and it really did make the snorer move every time it inflated.

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It all sounds very nice, but in practice we found the sensor to be too sensitive for modern urban life. In summer, with the bedroom windows open, the first passing trains and early-morning flights into a nearby airport were apt to set the Smart Nora off. And as it was triggered with each passing train or plane, it would inflate and deflate non-stop, leading to a rude awakening and a stiff neck. Somewhere quieter probably wouldn't have that problem, so be warned.

A timer that turned off the Smart Nora at a set time of day would be useful, so you could avoid it triggering on the first flight or first train of the day. We'd like to see that be an option in the app that's in development; you don't need it for setup but being able to see how many times the pillow inflated to make you stop could settle a few bedroom arguments.

Another issue was discrimination, or the lack of it. Imagine that one person falls asleep quickly and snores, keeping their partner -- who takes longer to fall asleep -- awake, but when they do drop off, they snore as well but they don't wake the first snorer with their snores. Smart Nora's sensor wasn't smart enough to differentiate between snores coming from either side of the bed and in fact it would trigger on any noise in the bedroom, not just snoring from the person with the pad under their pillow.

The pillow movement wasn't enough to wake our snorer when they were the one snoring, but the pillow movement combined with the snoring from the other side of the bed did wake them. We tried reducing the sensitivity to the lowest setting and placing the sensor on the bedside table rather than on the headboard, but that didn't help. We'd like to see a model with a better sensor or better detection algorithms, that only detects snores and only in a specific zone. Otherwise you're going to be annoyed by getting woken up to hear your partner snoring away, even if you can usually sleep through it.

There are many reasons why someone might be snoring, and Smart Nora is only designed to handle the simplest, position-related causes. This isn't a medical device, and if you're concerned about sleep apnea or other sleep disorders it's far better to see a doctor. We're back to the elbow in the ribs option, at least until the windows are shut for the winter.

Sniffing out the opportunity for a rest

Third of our sleep-related gadgets is the Sensorwake, a neat little cube of an alarm clock that aims to wake you with a gentle waft of scent; if that doesn't work, the light around the face of the clock flashes gently and shines for a minute, and if you're still not awake your choice of five melodies should do the trick.

As soon as you plug the clock in it prompts you to step through setting the time. Setting the alarm is fairly simple, once you've got the hang of how long to press the touch buttons on the top to switch in to settings mode. You can preview the five melodies (all of which sound a little like the music from a French film) and pick the one you want, and pick the volume. And crucially for those of us who like to sleep in a dark bedroom, you can switch it into night mode so the display turns off; tap lightly on the touchpad if you want to check the time in the night.

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The blast of scent comes from a clever little cartridge that you press into place. You can chose from 'natural' scents like mint, summer melon, citrus zest and cherry blossom, more perfume-like combinations like seaside, edge of the forest, cut grass and tea tree, and some out-and-out breakfast smells like orange juice, cappuccino, chocolate, apple cinnamon (requested by US customers) and cookies (which smell very buttery). They're all created by French perfume company Givaudan -- but don't go hoping for bacon; founder and inventor Guillaume Rolland told us that's not the type of scent he's planning to make available.

You can get 30 wakeups from a single cartridge, and as it's a solid perfume with a dry diffusion system rather than a gel or liquid that needs to be heated, you can pop a cartridge back in its Ziploc-style bag to stay fresh while you try out another scent, and the case doesn't retain the smell of the previous cartridge. It's not like getting a blast of perfume in the face and the fan in the clock isn't noisy; if you hold your hand in front of the face you can only just feel the slow air flow.

As a heavy sleeper, the problem with this lovely little idea was that even with the clock at eye level next to the bed neither the scent not the light woke me at all, in a full week of testing. The alarm chime did, and there was still a faint scent in the air. If you tap the top of the cube, that snoozes the alarm for a few minutes, but you don't get the scent again -- just the chime. Although the fragrances are non allergenic, my asthmatic husband found he was coughing more with the clock in the bedroom.

At €99 (and €4.95 per cartridge), the Sensorwake Trio is a little pricey if you're going to sleep through the scent and the light, but you can return it after a 15-day trial if it doesn't wake you up any better than it did me. It's still a lovely idea and the team is working on other products like a diffuser with scents to help you drop off to sleep.


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