With their Activité line of fitness trackers, Withings has taken a very different sort of approach toward wrist-worn wearables. Rather than rely on LCD or e paper displays, Withings has instead built regular, stylish analog watches first, adding light fitness tracker functionality on top of that. The result is, in theory, ideal for anyone concerned with style when it comes to wearables — you get the same functionality on a much slimmer, more comfortable watch that can be worn confidently in any setting.
Look and Feel
The idea that a wrist-worn device should be built as a watch first, gadget second has some value to it. Both the Apple Watch and the milieu of Android Wear (or Samsung) smartwatches are hit or miss when it comes to stylishness, but all of them suffer from the bright LCD displays that give them away as gadgets instantly. They also tend to be very thick, making them difficult sells as fashion accessories that can be worn on nights out. That’s a bit of a problem because fitness trackers have become 24/7 devices — otherwise, you’re not getting a full picture of your health, and the whole exercise becomes questionably useful (unless you’re only tracking specific activities, like running).
In this sense, the Activité Steel is one of the best wearables on the market. It’s much slimmer than anything else except perhaps the e paper devices, like the Pebble Time, and the Steel’s understated analog black and white face set in a stainless steel case is something that will pair well with many outfits. The only glaring problem here is that the straps use a unique sliding pin release, and Withings is only selling silicone bands. For a watch marketed to be fashionable, it would have been nice to have a silicone strap for exercising and leather options for more formal settings — link bands likely wouldn’t have been feasible for a watch face this small.
The other great thing about a tracker this small and thin is that it’s light, making it far more comfortable to wear than a smartwatch. If you don’t need the extra functionality of smartwatches, but you want something more fashionable than a Fitbit Flex or something similar, the Activité Steel strikes the ideal balance. The lack of buttons and charging ports also helps give the Steel a sleek all-around appearance.
Despite the more upscale looks, the Activité Steel is waterproof, meaning that you can swim with it — something the Steel can automatically differentiate. That also means it’s safe to wear in the shower and in the rain, if you’re a true believer in 24/7 tracking.
It’s a nice gadget to start using, too. Pairing requires the Withings Health Mate app, and there’s a simple tutorial on how to use the app to pair the Steel to your phone. There are no buttons on the Steel aside from a small recessed button on the underside of the case, which needs to be prodded five times to activate the watch and start the Bluetooth pairing process. Once phone and watch are paired, the watch will automatically sync its time to what’s on your phone, meaning that if you travel across time zones, the watch will adjust accordingly — a pretty cool feature for what is still, on the outside, an analog watch.
The other great feature about the Activité Steel is that it does not have a rechargeable battery. The battery inside is said to last for up to eight months, at which time you would have to take it in to a watch repair shop to have a new battery put in. Given that in 2016 having to charge an extra device has become a legitimate complaint (outlet and port space is at a premium), this marks another great design decision that helps set the Activité Steel apart.
The Activité Steel claims to be able to track walking, running, and swimming separately, while also tracking hours slept and sleep cycles. For activity tracking, I frequently noticed that steps were being accrued while I was sitting and eating. Fortunately, the inaccuracy tends to be consistent, so even if you’re not getting a precise picture of how many steps you’re taking (or calories you’re burning), you can at least get a sense of your personal fitness trends. While this isn’t ideal, when compared to other smartwatches and fitness trackers, the Activité Steel is not significantly more or less accurate. The Steel does particularly well in differentiating activities, detecting changes from walking to running to swimming reliably.
Because the Activité Steel is an analog watch, most of the data has to be viewed on the app. There is a second dial on the watch that tells you how much progress you’ve made toward your daily step goal, but anything else is on the app. The Health Mate app is pretty bare bones as fitness apps go — you can look at activity by day and by week, and there are cards that separate your activity into walks, runs, and swims, along with at-a-glance stats for distance traveled and calories burned. The app has fields for weight, pulse, and blood pressure tracking, but those will need to be manual inputs and can’t be recorded using the watch — or, as luck would have it, Withings has a full suite of connected devices that will take those measurements and upload them to the app. A leaderboard helps you see how you stack up with friends, but that’s predicated on having friends that also use the Health Mate app. If you’re already invested in another fitness tracking app, the Health Mate app does let you link your profile to your account on a number of other fitness apps, which will port over your activity recorded by the Activité Steel. You can also use the app to set a morning alarm, which will make the watch give you a little vibration when it’s time to wake up. In the same section of the app, you can also view hours slept and, in theory, how you progressed through sleep cycles on any given night.
In reality, sleep tracking is disappointing. In general, I’m suspicious of any gadget that claims to track sleep (and especially sleep cycles), and this device hasn’t helped. Nights when I would wake up multiple times in the middle of the night would be registered as a solid block of sleep, and the watch tended to underestimate how long it took me to actually fall asleep at the beginning of the night. As for sleep cycles, (going from light to deep, or REM, sleep) I have to wonder how accurate this really is — when I left the watch on a nightstand for a few hours, it recorded that time as time spent sleeping, which I expected. What was harder to explain were the fluctuations in sleep cycles that the watch recorded, despite the fact that it was laying motionless and had the same amount of input (zero) for that entire span. In other words, I wouldn’t buy the Activité Steel for the sleep tracking.