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Withings Steel HR Hybrid Smartwatch Review

Withings adds continuous heart rate monitoring to their hybrid smartwatch.

We’ve talked a fair bit about Fossil’s hybrid smartwatches lately, but it was Withings that got the ball rolling in 2014 with the Activité, an analog watch with fitness tracking sensors and a Bluetooth module hidden inside. That watch demonstrated the value of hybrid smartwatches — smart features combined with months-long battery life. But, even with the release of the Activité Steel, Withings refrained from adding smartphone notifications of any kind, making it a difficult sell when compared to the rapidly increasing number of competitors.

With the new Steel HR, Withings is aiming to catch and surpass those other hybrid smartwatches. Not only has Withings added notifications in the form of vibrations and a small OLED display within the analog watch face, they’ve included continuous heart rate tracking. While that costs battery life, Withings has managed to keep it long-lasting at 25 days while, most importantly, keeping the watch thin and light enough to pass as an everyday timepiece. For a general use hybrid smartwatch, it’s tough to beat, although it lacks too many features to be the right choice for regular runners.

Like with most hybrid smartwatches, the Steel HR is much more stylish than a smartwatch. It’s much thinner, and the 36 mm and 40 mm watch case options are good choices that shouldn’t dominate anyone’s wrist. The design is plain, with a featureless stainless steel case and mineral glass on the face. Steel HR ships with a plain black silicone band, too, but Withings has alternate colors available. The whole thing is water resistant up to 50 meters, making it safe for swimming. There’s no design flair, but for an everyday device, there doesn’t need to be — Withings isn’t trying to make a fashion statement.

Like previous Withings hybrid smartwatches, there’s a main analog dial and a smaller subdial for tracking your daily fitness goal. Debuting on the Steel HR is a small OLED display set into the upper half of the face. Using the new side button, this display can cycle through date, current heart rate, steps taken, distance traveled, alarm, and battery status. Calories burned can be activated within the app. The info is shown in white on the black background, and it’s bright enough to be seen in the dark.

That OLED display is also used for notifications, which are new to the Steel HR. Using a Bluetooth connection, the watch can receive call, text, and calendar notifications. If you get one, you’ll get a buzz and the notification (the name of the contact or the title of the calendar event) will slowly scroll across the display. Notifications work well without being too intrusive — it probably helps that the watch doesn’t do social network or messaging notifications, although some may lament the complete lack of those notifications. If you don’t want any notifications, they can be turned off using the companion app.

We generally see two types of wrist-worn wearables — watches designed just for workouts, and watches designed for everyday use. Steel HR is one of the latter. It’s very comfortable to wear, thanks to the soft silicone band on the lightness of the case. You won’t constantly be aware of its presence on your wrist, which is a problem for full-on smartwatches.

But, everyday wearables tend to fall short for fitness enthusiasts because to get small and light, important features need to be cut. The best smartwatches for running now have GPS connectivity and sometimes storage for music — enough features to let runners leave their phones at home. The Steel HR isn’t that kind of device. There’s no sort of route tracking, and you won’t get information about pace or splits, either.

The watch can automatically detect when you’re running, which will activate continuous heart rate monitoring. After a run, you’ll be able to see total time spent running, steps taken, and distance traveled, along with a graph showing your heart rate. Compared to other heart rate devices I’ve used, the readouts seem to be accurate. While distance traveled isn’t measured as precisely as more advanced devices do, the Steel HR seems to be good enough — it got the length of my usual running route correct, at least.

The watch can detect a lot more activities, too — in theory. Dozens of activities are listed in the app, from basics like running and swimming to new additions like badminton and ping pong. Steel HR won’t identify most of them out of the box, though. First, you’ll have to manually start an activity using the app, then get busy. Over time, the watch will associate movement patterns with specific activities. The bad news is that the watch will make a lot of mistakes at first, but the idea is that if you stick with it, the watch’s detection skills will improve over time.

Sleep tracking has been improved. Compared to when I tried the original Steel, the Steel HR more accurately detects time spent sleeping and times I woke up in the middle of the night. The watch also tracks light and deep sleep cycles, although it’s tough to tell how accurate that really is (for any sleep tracking device).

Because of the new OLED display and, in particular, heart rate monitoring, the battery life is a lot shorter. Withings puts it at 25 days with mixed use and four days if you use continuous heart rate monitoring nonstop (which can be activated by holding down the side button). That’s a lot shorter than the months-long battery life of its predecessor and of other hybrid smartwatches, but those generally don’t have heart rate monitoring. Because of the shorter battery life, Withings has included a magnetic charger with the watch. The watch doesn’t sit on the charger as securely as some other watches we’ve tested, but it didn’t seem to make a difference in charging.

With Withings, the product you’re being sold on is really the Health Mate app. Health Mate isn’t just for the watch — it’s a general health and wellness app that loops in all of Withings’ devices, which include a scale and a blood pressure monitor, among several others. The caveat is that to get the most out of any one device, you should really commit to all of those Withings devices. That will give you a full picture of your health, but all of those devices together can get pricey.

When used with just Steel HR, the app is still pretty useful. You can easily see daily activity, specific workouts, time slept per night, and your daily heart rate from the dashboard, along with progress toward your daily goals. Tapping on any of those will bring up more charts, graphs, and data that you can sift through. It’s just more of a personal health app than a community-based app like Strava or MapMyFitness.

Read on for the verdict…

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