The Withings Steel HR looks deceptively like an ordinary wristwatch rather than shouting its 'wearable' credentials, and brings heart rate monitoring and notifications to (Nokia-owned) Withings' Steel range. There are two sizes to choose from: 36mm (£169.95/€189.95/$179.95) or 40mm (£179.95/€199.95/$199.95) diameter -- I had the 36mm version for review and found it a convenient size to wear.
The rubbery silicone wrist strap is comfortable too, and while I'm not convinced about its longevity, quick-release springs make it easier than many to replace if need be.
The analogue watch face is punctuated by two smaller circles. The upper of these is blank until the single side button is pressed, whereupon the display cycles through date, time, heart rate, steps, distance, silent alarm status, battery life and calories. These can be reordered and any unwanted metrics removed in the Withings app (of which more later). I rashly removed the time notification before realising that this made it impossible to check the time on waking during the night. If notifications are enabled, this circle also shows caller ID info and calendar items.
This window is very small. Activity monitoring info fits in well enough, but calendar items scroll along at a snail's pace. I got bored of waiting to see entire notifications and switched this function off. As I'm not a big fan of notifications on wearables this wasn't an issue for me, but people who want to use this feature may feel it's poorly implemented.
The lower circle contains a single dial and looks like a second-hand counter. It gives a visual representation of progress towards the daily step goal, with a 100% marker at the top. It's a handy reminder of progress, but once the hand has completed one revolution you'll need to remember whether it's on its second, third or further rotation.
The Withings app is essential. It needs to be installed as part of the setup routine, and is then used to manage the watch and view all user data.
Information is presented across visually rich screens showing steps taken, distance covered, heart rate, sleep tracking (total time, awake, light sleep, deep sleep) and the like. It provides information about exercise intensity thanks to the heart rate monitoring, which moves from taking intermittent readings to being continuous once the watch detects an activity has been started.
Automatically detected activities are walking, swimming and running. I haven't used the Steel HR while kayaking yet, but anticipate that it might make the same mistake other wearables do of recording strokes as steps, and thus completely misunderstanding calories and distance measures.
The app can bring in data from other Withings kit so, anyone who is a user of Withings scales can add their weight and other metrics to the app, for example.
The app is also where the silent alarm gets set. The alarm feature isn't as flexible as I'd like, nor as easy to work with. For a start, you can only set one alarm; I'm used to the multiple-alarm flexibility that Fitbit gives me and hope to see this added in a firmware update. What I did get via a firmware update is smart wake-up, which uses the watch's sleep monitoring features to choose the optimum wake-up time.
The app does its job, but screens are rather busy while not making the most of the relatively small amount of space available to them. It's irritating that I needed to manually find out if a firmware update was available rather than being told one was ready to be downloaded. Does Withings really think users are going to check for firmware updates manually?
According to Withings, the Steel HR delivers up to 25 days of battery life with a further 20 in 'power reserve' mode, where it will continue to track activity but closes down other functions. The device has been sitting on my wrist for about three weeks and during that time I've charged it once. I even took it away on a week's holiday without the charger.
The long battery life is welcome, not least because charging is a hassle. The USB cable means I can charge direct from my laptop or mains USB multicharger, which is a plus, but the inductive plate is very difficult to get into the right position on the underside of the watch. This is such a basic problem that it's difficult to forgive.
In terms of accuracy, heart rate measurement is pretty good, but distance measurement rather poor. Withings calculates stride length based on height, weight, age and gender, and uses this to calculate distance. My stride length is a bit longer than Withings thinks it is, so I travelled further than it thought.
Accuracy is a real bugbear for all fitness wearables: the closest to a fix would be to allow users to calibrate step distance like Fitbit does. This could be provided via a firmware update, so there's hope that Withings will cater for it. There's not much to be done about the awkward charger, though.
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|Product type||Hybrid smartwatch|