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This $39 water bottle can hack your taste buds: Is it worth it?

Review: The Air Up water bottle has been trending for its unique ability to flavor water simply by harnessing your sense of smell. Does it live up to Kim Kardashian's endorsement?
Written by Sabrina Ortiz, Associate Editor on
Pros
  • Flavors your water without additives
  • Comes in a variety of bottle colors and scented pods for different palates
  • Can bottle up to 32 ounces of fluid
Cons
  • Leaking problem is inconvenient
  • Plastic bottle doesn't keep water cold
  • Pods are only available on the company website

Experts recommend that the average human should drink about half a gallon of water a day. Despite all of the health benefits that water has, I can't bring myself to drink nearly as much as I should for one simple reason -- I really don't like the blandness of water. That's what makes the Air Up bottle so intriguing. Without the addition of sugar and calories, the bottle can make water taste flavorful. It literally sounds too good to be true.

Here's the process: You fill up the bottle with water, drop one of the scented pods on top of the bottle snout, and drink from it as usual. Simple, right?

You may be wondering then why I didn't give the Air Up a perfect 10 out of 10. In short, there are some design flaws that proved troublesome during testing (or drinking), especially at a $40 price and a cost of $7.99 to $12.99 for a pack of three pods. To find out if this system is worth investing in, read on. 

The science behind Air Up

I'll start by explaining the bottle's flavorful magic trick. From the scented pods you place on the bottle snout, the flavors are transported through your olfactory receptors and into your brain, so you perceive the scent as a taste when you're really just drinking water. The concept of tasting what you smell is called "retronasal smell." Have you ever been congested and unable to taste the flavor of your food? It's the same concept here but reversed. As the name of the bottle implies, air is necessary for this system to work. Flavored air is combined with water, and released to give you the taste you are looking for.

More: Dehydrated? Sip better from the best smart water bottles

Person holding the Air Up bottle by its strap

The bottle cap comes with a sturdy carrying strap.

June Wan/ZDNET

Flavor test: Which ones to get, and which ones to avoid 

I found how effective the scent pods were depended entirely on the flavor I put in. The first pod I tested in the bottle was the Cucumber flavor and I was beyond disappointed when I took my first sip. The water tasted like... water and nothing more. Even when I sniffed the pod before placing it on a bottle, it hardly had a smell -- let alone of cucumber. However, when I put the Orangeade pod in, I had an entirely different experience.

Air Up water bottle with pod pouches scattered on a desk

Air Up water bottle with the watermelon and mango-passionfruit scented pods.

Sabrina Ortiz/ZDNET

The Orangeade pod has such a strong scent that, after applying it to the bottle, my hand smelled as if I had just peeled an orange. With this pod in, the water tasted citrusy and refreshing, similar to the taste of water that's been infused with actual fruit. 

My recommendation when choosing pod flavors would be to get ones that have stronger, sweeter scents so that the taste is more discernible when drinking. Otherwise, you're left with the same problem that you had before starting the Air Up journey: bland hydration. For what it's worth, Air Up has an extensive variety of flavors to choose from on its website. 

Also: This device recycles plastic water bottles into 3D printing filament

Air Up bottle snout and pod close up

Orangeade pod on the Air Up bottle snout. 

Sabrina Ortiz/ZDNET

Another important factor when discussing flavor is how long the pods can be used. Unsurprisingly, you will get the strongest taste when the pod is first put in, and it will fade with time. According to Air Up, each pod is designed to flavor approximately 1.3 gallons of water. If you drink a gallon of water a week, you can expect to sip up the majority of a pod's flavor by the end of it. In my experience, the company's estimate is true. One week is the ideal time for you to get the optimal flavor per pod.

Bottle design leaves much to be desired

Here is where the problem with the Air Up begins. The plastic-made water bottle is not effective for keeping your water cold and, most importantly, it leaks when it's tilted more than a certain degree. Of course, if you don't mind drinking flavored water that's room temperature, you can ignore the first call-out.

Again, the Air Up bottle works by letting air into the water so that you can experience the scented pod's taste. It does this through a hole in the straw and a pressure equalization valve. This means that the fit of the mouthpiece will never be flush with the bottle, as pictured below. Notice how the rubberized seal lifts up slightly.

More: Five best exercise bikes that beat Peloton

Air Up bottle lip leak

The rubberized bumper leaves a small gap for water to leak out.

Sabrina Ortiz/ZDNET

This also means that every time the bottle tips over, water leaks out of the bottle. Thankfully, it's just water, right? Air Up acknowledges this in a video that explains why the bottle design contributes to the leaks. The only real solution is using the detachable bottle cap and twisting it on very tightly.

Although this method does prevent leakage, it is not the most efficient solution because every time you want to take a sip of water, you'll need to go through the hassle of taking the cap off and then twisting it back on securely. Another issue with this system is that if you don't screw the cap on enough, the bottle will continue to leak, especially if it's rolling around in your bag.

To Air Up's credit, it does warn on its website, "Please note that water can leak through the pressure equalization valve, so please always put a Pod on the mouthpiece and close the lid tightly."

Air Up bottle held up straight

The only way you should drink out of the Air Up bottle.

June Wan/ZDNET

Lastly, there is only one way that you can drink the Air Up bottle and be sure it won't spill over you: holding the bottle upright and sipping from the straw. You'll look like you're playing a musical instrument (see image below), but trust me, it's the only and best way to drink up.

More: Best cheap tech gifts under $75

Bottom line 

Ultimately, yes, the Air Up has motivated me to drink more water, even if it's at the expense of needing to remove and reseal the cap every time or being at the risk of spills here and there.

If you're in the market for a flavorful alternative to water without the added sugars or calories, the Air Up system could be a great option for you. However, if you live life on the go, find yourself dropping things more than you should, or simply don't have the patience to screw and unscrew the cap from the water bottle, then I'd suggest looking elsewhere.

Alternatives to consider

If you struggle with drinking enough water each day, the Opard Sports bottle should help. It has time marks and motivational messages on the bottle to make sure you are getting ideal water intake and, in addition, has a fruit infuser to give your water some extra flavor. The best part is it's nearly one-quarter of the cost of Air Up's system.  

This $25 stainless-steel bottle will keep water at your desired temperature for hours and you can still get the perks of enhanced taste thanks to the fruit infuser kit.

The HidrateSpark Tap is a smart water bottle that lights up every time you should drink water. It works in conjunction with an app that tracks how much water you are drinking and sets daily hydration goals. 

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