Is heart rate-reading watch set to defy wearables slowdown?

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The excitement is fizzling out of the much-hyped wearable technology market.

Fitbit warned before Christmas that its holiday sales would be lower than expected.

Jawbone, whose UP wristbands were once seen as a market leader, is pivoting towards medical-grade devices as it looks to new investors for lifeline funds. While Apple Watch has been more successful than most, its start was slower than many had expected.

Against this backdrop, it is a brave company that chooses this moment to launch a wearable device. Perhaps the trick is to come in by stealth with a fitness tracker that does not look like a piece of technology at all.

Enter Withings — a French electronics company that was bought by Nokia last year — with its Steel HR watch.

Withings received a lot of attention at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas for its $200 “smart hairbrush” which tracks the quality of your hair and says if you are brushing properly. It looks like a regular hairbrush, wearing its artificial intelligence lightly.

The Steel HR, whose design is based on Withings’ two-year-old Activité range, takes a similar approach. At first glance it looks like an analogue wristwatch. Yet hidden behind its minimalist face is a heart-rate monitor and activity tracker, similar to those found in a gadget like a Fitbit.

Withings’ watch does not monitor heart rate constantly, as Fitbit’s Charge HR does: you have to push a button to tell it you are doing a workout.

The lack of constant tracking may mean it is less accurate than some monitors but battery life is a lot longer. Withings says the Steel HR can last up to 25 days; I have been wearing one for a week and battery life is still at 90 per cent.

The circular screen embedded in the watch face shows the most recent heart-rate reading and other metrics. Pressing the button cycles the monochrome display through date, heart rate, steps, distance and alarms.

For an at-a-glance update on your progress, a small analogue dial behind the watch hands shows progress towards your daily step goal.

The tiny screen also lights up when you receive a text message, phone call or calendar reminder, although it is too small to show anything more than basic information.

Also, notifications are only shown from regular text messages, including iMessage on iPhone, but not chat apps such as Snapchat, Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. These limitations make the Steel HR less useful as a notifier than it is as a fitness tracker.

My other complaint with Withings’ system is that while its hardware is beautiful, its accompanying app is somewhat lacking. The dashboard of the Health Mate app shows a daily snapshot of average heart rate, steps and any workouts but the information and recommendations are more basic than Fitbit.

I signed up for its January weight-loss programme but many of the recommendations to log food intake, increase my step target or go for a walk at lunchtime seemed pretty generic. I also found that the app sometimes failed to sync in the background, instead requiring me to open the app to transfer data from watch to iPhone — but Bluetooth can be temperamental like that.

The bigger question is whether a fitness tracker that resembles a traditional smartwatch is more likely to catch on with consumers than Fitbit-style rubbery wristbands.

Withings is not alone in pushing this idea. Misfit’s Phase is a similar watch-style tracker while Fossil, the watchmaking giant, has a range of traditional timepieces with activity monitoring built in, sold under fashion brands such as Michael Kors, Kate Spade and Diesel.

Verdict

Even without the sensors and smart functions, the Steel HR is a stylish wristwatch and Withings has done a great job of cramming in heart-rate monitoring without making it too chunky.

However, I worry that the problem with wearable tech is not just design but utility — not enough consumers see the value in constantly tracking basic activity metrics to keep wearing these devices.

Users are less likely to abandon their wristbands if the tracker looks as good as the Steel HR does, and the long battery life is also a plus.

Yet without a step up in the health recommendations made by the companion app, Withings’ elegant innovation seems unlikely to revive this flagging category single-handed.

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