(Pocket-lint) - Withings' history is complicated, to say the least. Initially, it built something of a name for itself offering minimalist, useful and convenient smart health tracking accessories. Most notably, the Activité hybrid smart watch from back in 2015.
Having built the reputation, Withings sold to Nokia to help take it international. That didn't work out, and after selling again, it's now back to using the Withings name.
The Steel HR Sport brings things up to date for 2018, acting as a descendant of the Activité, combining an analogue watch with smart, fitness tracking capabilities in a sleek, inoffensive package. Is it any good?
- 40mm stainless steel design
- 20mm wristband
- 13mm thickness
- 49 grams
For years, the hybrid smartwatch has offered a sensible alternative for people who don't want to wear mini smartphones on their wrists. They look like regular analogue watches, but they're equipped with all the sensors required to connect to your smartphone and track your activities.
This particular one is the sporty version of the sleek, attractive Steel HR. That's to say, its case/bezel is thicker and chunkier; that extra width around the face means there's room for indexing, which takes the form of minute index numbers every five minutes engraved in the metal and a red triangle at the 12 o'clock position.
As you'd expect, the watch face is relatively simple and clean. There are two 'complications': one analogue hand showing your progress towards your daily fitness goal; and a small round monochrome OLED screen at the top, which can show basic notification information when you receive them on your phone, or via the single button on the watch's left can be used to show the time, date, battery level, distance moved, calories burned and heart rate.
The entire watch case is only 13mm thick, with the edges much thinner than that, and the underside curving towards the small heart-rate sensor on the base.
The only part of the design we aren't keen on is the strap. Having tested a number of different sports-focused fitness-tracking smartwatches, this one stood out. Its texture is almost sticky which – when combined with the overall floppy-nature – makes for a strap that's not especially easy to feed through the metal clasp.
That 'sticky' surface texture also means that it gathers small bits of fluff and dust over the weeks, which isn't easy to wipe off. What's more, there's only one loop to hold it in place, and we found that throughout the day, this would gradually work its way down towards the clasp and leave you with a piece of strap sticking out awkwardly.
On the plus side, it's a 20mm quick release strap, so it's easy enough to remove it, and not too expensive to replace it with a 20mm you might actually like. Withings sells its own leather ones too. The provided strap is comfortable, though, thanks to the stretchy, pliable nature of the silicone and down to the lightness of the watch as a whole.
Activity and Health tracking
- Tracks workouts, daily movement
- Uses smartphone GPS to plot map
- Steps, distance, HR, VO2 Max, calories and sleep
Despite looking like a regular analogue watch on the surface, the Steel HR Sport, coupled with a smartphone, is capable of tracking many of your favourite activities. To launch into one, you just long press on the single button, cycle through the five activity shortcuts by pressing repeatedly, then start the activity on the screen by long-pressing the button again.
To begin with there are five preset popular activities like running, walking and swimming. However, you can change these shortcuts by choosing your own list from within the app. There are more than 30 activities, ranging between general fitness through badminton, squash, basketball, yoga, soccer (football) and many others.
We mostly used it to test running, and during our runs it doesn't show any detailed information on the face (obviously it can't). But you can see the time elapsed since the start of the run in the little round screen at the top.
Press-and-hold the button to stop the run, and next time you open the app it shows you the activity in detail. In this regard, it's surprisingly well equipped. Like some more thoroughbred sports watches, it can measure your VO2 Max and give you an indication of your fitness.
In each run breakdown you'll see a map of the route as well as your run duration, distance, pace (min/km) and calories burned. There's even a performance chart that shows your pace over time (overlaying the elevation and breakdown of both the fastest split, average pace and elevation gain).
In other words, this Withings gets all the important stats in, without convoluting the interface with information that needs effort to understand. It's very user friendly. There's a heart-rate chart as well, showing both your heart rate over time in a graph and a breakdown of the time spent in each heart-rate zone.
Scroll further down the activity details and you'll see the option to set weekly running goals, your fitness level and a space to add photos and notes. It's pretty thorough and arranged in an interface that's much friendlier than the quite in-depth interface you get from Garmin's Connect app.
In addition, Withings offers sleep tracking. This is one area where accuracy is intermittent: some nights, for whatever reason, it would only track four hours of sleep, despite getting between six and seven hours. Other times it would track a full eight hours sleep perfectly. In the end, the inconsistent results mean it wasn't actually any use at all, so we stopped wearing it at night.
Performance and battery
- Up to 25 days battery
- 5 days in workout mode
- 1 hour charging from 0-80%
- 2 hours charging from 0-100%
One of the biggest advantages of a hybrid smartwatch over a 'traditional' smartwatch is its battery life. Without a big colour screen to constantly power in the HR Sport, it's very efficient. Withings claims up to 25 days between charges in regular watch mode, and our testing suggests that's actually not too far off.
With such a long-lasting battery, it's fairly difficult to get an accurate measurement, but it will comfortably last around three weeks, even when you exercise a few times a week. We took it on a number of running sessions, tracking GPS from our phone and our heart rate, and it's only needed charging once in the five to six weeks we've had it.
What's more, it's the charge-speed to battery life ratio is great. Just an hour plugged in will get it from completely empty all the way to 80 per cent, which is more than a couple of weeks' worth of battery.
Likewise, the Bluetooth connectivity seemed to work well for general day-to-day activities. We didn't notice any specific incidents of phone notifications not being delivered, or the activity counting elements of the app not updating when we loaded it up.
Once or twice, however, we did seem to get intermittent issues tracking GPS on our running routes. Strangely, this only happened with an iPhone, which was also connected to another fitness tracking watch at the time. Once we switched it over to a Google Pixel 3, it wasn't a problem at all. Running routes were tracked accurately, with distances pretty much matching exactly what the Garmin Fenix 5 Plus was tracking on our other wrist.
As a so-called smartwatch, however, the Withings is quite limited. It isn't capable of showing a lot of information, but can give you small snippets when you need them. For instance, when you get a notification – from WhatsApp, for example – it scrolls the message across at a steady, read-able pace. Characters are limited, as is space, so it tends to only show the first few words, but they should be enough to give you the gist of the message, so you can decided if you need to pick up your phone to open in full.
As hybrid watches go, the Withings Steel HR Sport solves a lot of problems and fills gaps left by many other hybrids and full-on smartwatches. With its really long battery life and analogue watch face, it ensures that there's not as striking a learning curve for those who don't like the "mini-smartphone-strapped-to-your-wrist" approach of smartwatches. Likewise, it's equipped with enough features to ensure fitness enthusiasts aren't left feeling short-changed.
With the Steel HR Sport and the smartphone app combined, you can track running and gym sessions, complete with location, heart-rate and fitness level data. That means you get most of the data you need, even if most isn't displayed in real-time during an activity. For everyday fitness and activity tracking, it's not really missing anything, and you still get the traditional watch hands.
With all that said, it's clearly not a smartwatch. You can't run apps, and can't read full notifications (let alone reply to them), so think of this more as an advanced fitness tracker with a classic analogue watch face and a battery that lasts a full month on a single charge. Perfect for some.
The Fitbit is a different idea, closer to smartwatch territory, offering a coloured display in a digital watch-like design. There's heart-rate tracking, NFC for payments, an altimeter and waterproofing too. However, like the Withings, there's no GPS – you'll need a smartphone tether for that.