Out of nowhere at IFA 2016, Withings managed to pull off a spectacular coup for fitness tracking. The French company, which was snapped up by Nokia earlier this year, has added heart rate tracking to its smart analogue fitness tracker in an amalgamation of design, technology and incredible that left us astounded.
Let's start with the form factor. Not that different from the slim Withings Activité Steel, the Steel HR is a dainty analogue watch with a stainless steel bezel. It comes in two sizes, a standard 36mm and larger 40mm version which is slightly more suited to male wrists (although this still wasn't large enough for two guys that interrupted my briefing to complain that the watch wasn't big enough – surely a first in fitness trackers). Anyway, the key thing to take away here is that this tracker is slim and truly unisex.
Eagle-eyed readers will notice the lack of Activité in the branding. The company now sees Withings as such a strong name that's it's superseded the brand.
However, there are a couple of major changes from the Activité. There's now an optical heart rate monitor under the watch body, which is built into the stainless steel case. This offers 24/7 heart rate monitoring, which is logged in the Withings Health Mate app, as well as during workouts that can be started by long-pressing the crown.
Essential reading: Lower your resting heart rate with wearable tech
The app logs resting heart rate, which is averaged across your day to weed out any erroneous readings. It will also log your bpm (beats per minute) and use it to colour the calorie burn reading.
The second change is there's now a screen, embedded in the watch. It's actually not very noticeable and on the black version of the watch we missed it on a first scan of the device. It's not always-on but enables users to cycle through their daily stats, including steps, distance, calories and the date.
What the tiny screen represents is one of the neatest mash-ups of analogue and smart wearable tech we've seen. It's perhaps not the most elegant solution, but it's subtle enough to offer the on-demand information of a Fitbit combined with the style of a classic watch.
Aside from step and workout tracking, the Withings HR Steel also features automatic sleep detection. This has previously been a strong suit of Withings', and we're hopeful that the added heart rate metrics will improve this fine area of its ecosystem.
Now onto perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Withings Steel HR: battery life. The company claims that the battery will last 25 days with continuous heart rate monitoring, and that once this period is over, you'll get another 20 days of step tracking. What's more, it uses a lithium-ion battery, so you just pop the Steel HR on a magnetic charging pad, and there are no replacement coin cells needed, as you get with most smart analogue devices. A decent compromise in our eyes.
How is the battery life so impressive? While it's almost certainly an act of voodoo, there are some sacrifices. The continuous heart rate only takes a reading every few minutes, rather than every few seconds, dramatically reducing the power consumption.
This clearly means it's not going to be as accurate as it might be. While the watch will automatically detect exercise and up the frequency – for example when running for a bus – that's not always going to be perfect. We'll have to get testing to see how good the Steel HR is at pre-empting and logging elevated heart rates, but the pay-off of a month of use between charges is an extremely welcome proposition.
It's fair to say we've been left excited by what Withings has achieved with the Steel HR. Long battery life, continuous heart rate monitoring and a workable blend of analogue style and digital smarts, on paper at least – this could be the first balance of compromises that works. We can't wait to get the Steel HR into the Wareable office for thorough testing.
Shop for recommended fitness trackers on Amazon
Wareable may get a commission