2016 was the year we saw the hybrid smartwatch flourish, and in 2017, the Withings Steel HR wants to prove that smart analogue watches can also pack a real fitness-tracking punch.
An upgrade to the Activité Steel, the big new feature is the optical heart rate monitor, which aims to make the watch a better, more useful day-to-day fitness tracker.
It's trying to go beyond the basic step and sleep tracking that you'll find on other hybrid smartwatches like the Misfit Phase or Fossil's legion of designer connected timepieces. But it's also trying to provide a better solution for smartwatch notifications where space for a screen is limited.
So does the now-Nokia-owned company successfully pull it off? Here's what we made of the Withings Steel HR.
Withings Steel HR: Design
The Steel HR borrows its form from the Activité Steel, which impressed in our review at the start of last year. The HR comes in two sizes, a 36mm case and larger 40mm version, with both available in black and the smaller model also offering a white option. But even the bigger one, which I used in testing, feels rather dainty – though that's certainly not a complaint as this makes it more suited for running, something that you're more likely to do with it now that it has a heart rate sensor. However there is a price difference between the two, with the smaller costing $179.95 and the larger one $199.95
A stainless steel case moats a face which manages to hold a lot of information while still retaining a classic, uncluttered look. There are two sub-dials, a digital circle on top and an analogue one below, and both are used to deliver the watch's smart features.
The analogue complication is dedicated to your activity that day, with a single hand representing your progress toward the 100% goal. The digital display is where the Steel HR is able to throw up notifications and other data without relying on the user interpreting hand movements – a la the Misfit Phase and Skagen Hagen Connected – or reaching for their phone, while blending in so as to not be too noticeable. In fact, it's not obvious that the black version of the HR has a display at all on first glance.
The Steel HR is impressively light, with a silicone strap that's comfortable to wear both casually and during sweaty exercise. There are other straps to choose from, including leather ones that will fit nicely with the classic look, but won't be so good for running with.
The monochrome screen might look a bit outdated, but it's functional for the size, displaying tiny bites of information quickly. The information only sits on the screen for a few seconds, but it's clear and easy to read. When it comes to notifications, it's a little less elegant. In the Withings app you can turn on calls, messages and calendar notifications, and when you get one, the name of the contact/event will be displayed on the screen accompanied by a series of vibrations that differ depending on the type of notification.
The limitations of the screen mean you'll see just the name of the person (usually scrolling as the small circle tends to truncate) and not the message. What we'd really like is support for more notifications very soon, like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger etc, especially as the traditional SMS is far less popular these days.
Withings Steel HR: Features
The Steel HR is packed with a lot of features bound together by Withings' impressively comprehensive app. If you want to use the watch as a mere step tracker/calorie burner it does that effectively enough, but it also monitors your heart rate continuously through the day, tracks overall distance travelled, and, with a long press of the button, becomes a running watch to track distance and heart rate zones.
Withings accomplishes a shrewd compromise of smart and analogue, even with a small and limited monochrome display. Pressing the single button on the right of the face will let you scroll through the different information "circles" that can be added, removed or reordered in the app, including the date, alarm, battery, your current heart rate, calories burned, steps counted so far that day and overall distance travelled. There's also a digital clock should you wake in the night and want to check the time.
With the heart rate tracker now on board, the Steel HR is also better equipped for runners. The watch automatically detects swimming, running and a bunch of other sports including basketball and tennis, but you can start a training session manually with a long press of the button. The watch is water resistant to 5 ATM so you'll have no problem swimming, although you won't get heart rate data in the water, just distance and calories burned.
Though it automatically tracks your heart rate through the day with the optical sensor, you can get an on-demand reading by skipping through the digital display. However I've found that it often shows an immediate reading at least 10 bpm too high, before adjusting down to a more accurate beat after a few seconds.
I wore the Fitbit Charge 2 on many of the days I was using the Steel HR, and realised that the likely reason for the lag in reading is because the HR takes a heart rate reading every few minutes while Fitbit – and some other trackers – takes one every few seconds.
Again, it's a compromise, as the reduced readings allow the HR to keep the battery running for longer. When you're actually in exercise mode with the Steel HR the heart rate tracking is more continual, causing it to jump around much less and keep a more steady reading.
Withings Steel HR: Workout and sleep tracking
Step and distance tracking prove solid on the HR, but more surprising is how well the optical heart rate sensor does during a run. Not that Withings has given us any reason to doubt its abilities here, but on a more classic watch like this – one that you wouldn't class typically as a "running watch" – you'd be forgiven for having some skepticism.
In reality, it's very good. The image below shows a side-by-side comparison of the HR on the left and the Wahoo Tickr heart rate strap on the right during one run I went on. Not only are the peaks and troughs very much the same, the average and max HR are incredibly close.
On a shorter run, shown below, the average and max heart rates were a little off, but again the peaks and troughs were close.
Overall, I've found the heart rate sensor to be one of the stand-out features of this wearable when it's used for running, but before you consider the Steel HR as a serious running watch there are other things to think about. For one, it doesn't have built-in GPS, nor does it use your phone's.
Instead it infers distance from other sensors, so accuracy is a little less trustworthy there. You also won't get some of the more granular data you'd get from more serious running watches. It's proficient, yes, but we're hesitant to call it a running watch.
The automatic sleep tracking is another strong suit; even when the HR wasn't spot-on in our testing it came very close. Detecting the sleep and wake times is sometimes iffy with automatic trackers, but the Steel HR proves impressively accurate. Also, the fact it's so small and light means anyone who's happy enough to wear a basic fitness tracker to bed should have no problem sleeping with this on their wrist.
Withings Steel HR: App and battery life
Withings has been building on its Health Mate app for a while now, and it's turned into a really great portal for your daily fitness metrics. In fact, it even won a Wareable Award last year for Health and Fitness Platform of the Year. If you're already using it then you'll know that the activity timeline is your go-to screen when you open the app, giving you an overview of everything you've been doing in reverse chronological order.
All the numbers and colours can be a little overwhelming at first, and I reckon Withings could tidy up the daily reports a bit, but it really drills down into your daily activity, while badges, goals and tips help keep the motivation going.
At around 25 days, battery life is another of the Steel HR's strong suits. That figure is given by Withings for when you're using the watch with continuous heart rate monitoring, but you'll get another 20 days of step tracking even once that's over.
Less impressive is the magnetic charging pad, which is strangely inelegant compared to the rest of the experience. Unlike most other watch chargers we've used, the Withings one lacks any kind of click mechanism or dip to keep the watch in place, meaning the flat dock is harder to align and keep in place. You'll get it soon enough, but it's oddly clumsy.
- An elegant, classic look
- HR sensor great for running
- Fantastic battery
- No GPS, even with phone
- On-demand HR tracking a little iffy
- Charger feels poorly designed