Mio boss: Fitbit and Apple are getting heart rate monitoring wrong

We speak to Liz Dickinson about bpm tracking, and where rivals are missing the mark

Liz Dickinson is a busy woman. The former Oracle, AT&T and IBM employee founded Mio in 1999, and built from scratch a company that brought the first strapless heart rate monitor watch to market; a company which now has partnerships with the likes of Adidas and TomTom.

And I'm running late for our meeting at The Wearable Tech Show in London.

The good news is that so is Liz; she's one place behind me in the queue for show passes.

"Did you see the Apple event last night?" she asks me after we'd realised whom one another was. "How disappointing it was," she remarks. It's not the last time Apple would come in for criticism during our time together.

Real heart

Liz is passionate about heart rate monitoring. After the birth of her third child in 1999, she decided that she needed to optimise her spare time so that any periods spent exercising were as effective as possible. She knew this meant detailed bpm-based training but wasn't prepared to wear a chest strap everytime she went for a run.

"I thought it ludicrous that you had to wear a chest strap," she tells us. "Astounding."

"Your heart rate is the best indicator of your fitness level; resting heart rate is a great predictor of how fit you are and, in fact, the best indicator of how fit you are is how fast your heart rate recovers in one minute," she explains enthusiastically.

But she says there wasn't a feasible consumer facing product on the market at the time.

She decided to take matters into her own hands, and on to her own wrist, using her tech industry contacts to create a prototype that QVC eventually showed interest in. The shopping network ended up being Mio's first supplier.

The continuous conundrum

The first Mio product required a user to touch their fingers onto the sensors to get a reading but Liz knew that a band that offered continuous heart rate monitoring was what was needed.

Wareable guide: Burn fat and run faster using heart rate training zones

This was in 2001, over a decade before the likes of Fitbit and Microsoft came to market with their continuous heart rate tracking wearables.

"We designed it from day one to meet the needs of the performance athlete," the Mio CEO tells us. "We took three years to perfect the switch from ECG to continuous."

And it's this dedication and heritage that Dickinson claims puts Mio streets ahead of its new rivals.

Fitbit failures

"Fitbit took a huge risk by introducing heart rate monitoring that they felt was 'good enough' for their consumers," Dickinson explains. "But, by adding heart rate monitoring, they crossed over a line. By putting something in that wasn't accurate they've really alienated a large group of their consumers."

Dickinson is, of course, referring to Fitbit's new PurePulse technology, as found in its Charge HR and Surge devices.

"I know it's not accurate," she states, confidently. "Why it's not accurate is because they've addressed the problem like everybody else in the past has tried to do it with a very singular view of what the issues are.

"They did their best but it's a very complicated problem. Photoresistor technology has existed for decades and it's not an accident that there has never been an accurate heart rate monitor in the market that works at high performance speeds.

"We've tested it. Our consumers have tested it and even Fitbit admits it. They go right out and say 'it's accurate enough for us'. But doesn't the lifestyle consumer deserve accurate heart rate monitoring?"

Wareable picks: Best heart rate monitor and HRM watches

Dickinson states Fitbit customers are so unimpressed by the new wearables that they are directly contacting her while seeking heart rate monitor device alternatives.

"I don't really have to get the message out because it's getting out for us," she tells us.

"So I don't have to do anything because [Fitbit customers] are emailing me, they're writing on forums and they're writing reviews. Word of mouth in today's world is the number one factor."

Apple Watch compromises

Dickinson isn't concerned about the threat of the Apple Watch either. While she admits that the Cupertino company's forthcoming wearable will raise the profile of heart rate monitoring for mainstream consumers, she dismisses the Apple Watch as a serious sports device.

"Apple gave up on continuous heart rate because they would have had to make too many compromises with the design and material selection to be put accurate heart rate monitoring in," she claims.

Apple gave up on continuous heart rate because they would have had to make too many compromises

"I think it's going to create awareness, people are going to start to ask the question, 'why do I need to know about my heart rate and what does it tell me?'" she continued.

"The conversation with the everyday consumer about heart rate is now a big deal. It took 20 years at least before people started to understand step technology; a metric related to something as basic as taking steps.

"How long is it going to take to get people to understand metrics related to heart rate, which is nowhere near as easy to grasp and certainly not easy to count?"

What's next for Mio?

Mio currently has four products on the market ‚Äď the Fuse, the Alpha 2, the Velo and the Link ‚Äď but there's plenty more in the pipeline.

Dickinson told us that a next-gen sensor is in the works and we can expect to see some "beautiful products" arriving later in the year.

With the likes of Samsung, Motorola and Huawei all slapping heart rate sensors into their Android Wear devices ‚Äď all of which are inaccurate according to the Mio boss ‚Äď we couldn't resist asking if yet more Mio partnerships could be in the works.

"I wouldn't be opposed to it but so far no-one's really asked us," Dickinson admitted.

Our advice to those traditional tech powerhouses? Give Liz a call. If our Android Wear reviews have shown anything, it's that they could do with all the help they can when it comes to heart rate monitoring.


What do you think?

Reply to
Your comment


  • HRguru·

    I read the article and was very interested in checking Mio out again. I had one of the early models that required two finger touches and it fell apart after a while. I tried again with the first Mio HRM watch and it was okay, though accuracy was not its strong suit. It was a "good enough" alternative to a chest strap after a couple firmware updates. So I went to Mio's website and was going to buy the Fuse. Ratings looked great. Then I decided to buy instead at Amazon and when I read the reviews at Amazon they were terrible. 

    I went back and re-read the article. Sounds like sour grapes coming from someone who is about to get her clock cleaned ... literally! Promoting your own excellence is so much more effective than knocking your competition. Apple and Fitbit provide awesome user experiences, while reviews and my own personal experience prove that is not the case with Mio.

    40% of iPhone owners are considering purchasing the Apple Watch. It is going to bring many new people into the category, encouraging standing, walking and working out. It will work with all the same apps Mio users work with because they clearly don't use the Mio Go app (it has 8 ratings average 2 stars ... yikes!)

    Mio has been an amazing pioneer in this space but sadly they say "you can recognize a pioneer by the arrows in his (or her) back. She sees them coming, hence the sour grapes.

  • Transammatt·

    I agree with HR. I tryed the fuse and it was not for me. Heart rate was everywhere with hard workouts. I returned it. Let's not even talk about there app. This is where fitbit and apple will shine.

  • chris_hollan·

    Totally agree with the earlier poster. Apparently the rest of the world is completely fine with the "good enough" capabilities of the fitbit and products like it. I'm sure Liz is a strong advocate for accurate heart rate monitoring for very sound reasons. Unfortunately for her - the masses aren't nearly as concerned. Screaming from the rooftops that we should all be more interested in what is, at best, a nice to have technology in our day to day gadgets probably isn't going to keep Mio in business much longer.

  • Transammatt·


    I may give it another try. Only worked out with it a few times. I seen my heart rate go over 165 a few times! Never seen it that high using a fitbit surge.maybe my surge is reading low,and sometimes at the peak of my workout the surge does loss the heart rate .


  • BZ101·

    If you don't have competition, you don't have a business.  Regardless of the ultimate capabilities of the Apple Watch's training, they'll sell a bazillion of them ... and there's still room for others.  

    The fitness world is a land grab as the market is so new in the grand scheme of things.  So there's room for lots of participants as people find their niche.  E.g., as healthcare costs rise, more and more companies will look to reduce costs by leveraging good behavior (sort of the car insurance model of lower premiums for safe driving records) or as people push their bodies further for training what will they use on their wrist ... an activity tracker or a serious training device for HRM (including HRV, VO2 Max, recovery period, etc.).  So if your employer buys activity trackers for all employees and insurance companies lower premiums for consistent active behavior, guess what will eventually be on your wrist -- a $350 Apple Watch or a $100 activity tracker?  This is just one example of the landscape changing.  There are so many aspects of fitness tracking that have yet to even surface and have not played out yet.  But it will be a huge driver of personal behavior and the economy moving forward.  

    So I think the point in the article above and Liz's comments is that Mio has it's niche with accurate optical HRM during training.  It's the reason Adidas and TomTom licensed the technology.  It's incredibly difficult to build accurate optical heart rate monitoring and naive of companies to think they can just step in and create a good device.

    I do not work for or have a financial stake in any of these companies, but have a  personal interest in them and the industry as a whole. 

    Bottom line is Mio's technology (along with Valencell) are the only two reliable optical HRM hardware and software combinations.  It's a combination of the LED/sensor and the algorithm to understand blood flow during strenuous activity (including skin color, hair density, body temperature, ambient light leak, etc.).  The software part takes years to develop accurately (and still can't compensate for poor hardware -- see Fitbit's problems which are well documented).

    Liz is 100% right ... Fitbit's technology is not good, Jawbone is so delayed because getting it right is hard (and they even admit v1 won't work well during exercise) and I'm sure Apple wanted 24/7 HRM, but found that the sacrifice to do it accurately would be on watch size and battery life (both of which are clearly not something Apple would seriously consider sacrificing).  So people are learning as they go.

    Mio's advantage as Liz puts it is in accurate training optical HRM.  They target athletes which happens to be more of the market than you would think (close to half right now).  Most consumer devices are off the person's wrist within 4-6 months and never used again.  Athlete's continue to train with them.  So if you look at their target market, accuracy during high intensity is what people need and where Mio excels.  It's the reason Garmin has been successful with their activity specific devices (e.g., swim, run, golf, etc.).  Hardcore folks have high demands.  I do not see Mio being a top player in the sub-$150 activity/step tracker business.

    This article is by no means sour grapes or trashing the competition in hopes to win points for yourself.  Mio will never be as big as Apple or likely sell as many devices as Fitbit (who targets the couch potatoes).  That's not the point.  Her comments are an accurate reflection of the state of the industry and how accurate optical HRM for training is essential.  And that's where I believe Mio will succeed.

  • ZeApelido·

    I work for a pretty unknown competitor to these companies in optical HR tracking. 

    Suffice to say, all of them are not very accurate. Mio is indeed better, but that is relatively speaking. Our devices are more accurate than Mio, but still, we all fail to be near the accuracy of a chest strap. 

  • HRguru·

    So as it turns out, reports coming out now show the Apple watch and Mio are nearly identical.

    • Ann·

      can you send links to these reports?

      • snafunaafi·

        I own a fitbit and can tell you its a piece of dangerous junk and before the, I think its great brigade jump on this comment. I shall tell you why I am highly qualified to state this.

        5 years ago I was diagnosed with Atrial Fibrilation and feel nothing. First discovered on a piece of gym equiptment with a pulse monitor, I can go from 75BPM to over 160BPM and over.

        I have several polars with chest straps and stop on hitting 160BPM, but wanted a strapless solution, hence the Fitbit.

        I dont trust manufacturers and as such worked the fitbit in tandem with a polar. I had an A Fib attacked with my Polar screming 210BPM and my Fit Bit stating 95BPM. I went over to a gym x trainer with a heart rate attachment, it confirmed my Polar was right.

        My attack only lasted 3 minuets and went back to 120BPM, in all this time my ignorant fitbit never went over 100BPM.  So lets get this right, any idiot who tells me that a heart rate monitor does not need to be acurate need a sharp kick in the backside. If it was not for my Polar I could of had a heart attack and Fitbit a court case. Thats if I survived.

        I am about to buy an Alpha 2, as most review I read describe it accuracy.

        • Bob1111·

          AFIB does not cause heart attacks.

          • pieterhartzer·

            Agreed, but it can still cause heart failure and strokes, neither of which should be taken lightly.  

            It's not worth the risk having inaccurate equipment, especially when you know you have a heart condition.

  • Kivi·

    having just bought my wife a Fitbit surge a few weeks ago I can tell you that I feel it was wasted money given its inability to track heart rate even remotely accurately while exercising.  Running both a garmin chest strap device as well as the Fitbit surge we can see how absurdly poorly the surge measures heart rate. Tonight the garmin was measuring 140-150 bpm while she was exercising on her bike trainer.  The Fitbit at the same time was giving her readings of 85 bpm and declining.  This happens every time during intense exercise, which of course makes her Fitbit Surge useless.

    As an aside, I have an Apple Watch which I did not have expectations of being accurate during exercise.  Surprisingly it has so far been giving heart rate readings that completely match the readings I get from my garmin chest strap device.  I'm very disappointed with the Fitbit because I thought it would actually be a superior device to the Apple Watch for measuring heart rate.

  • pcc·

    After a heart attack, I started in a rehab program, which I continued at home afterwards. At the clinic, they used a Polar H7 chest strap to monitor HR during exercise, so I bought one for home, and made sure that my home equipment had GymLink connectivity. In the meantime, I also got a Fitbit Charge HR for the 24/7 monitoring. Having both the Polar and the FItbit, I can compare the HR records, and, at least in my experience, they match very well. I see no more than plus or minus 5 bpm differences, even during exercises, usually much less, in fact. Granted, my individual goals tend towards endurance training, so I work out on a cross-trainer, a rowing machine, and a recumbent stationary bike for one hour per day with a target HR around 140 bpm. I don't go higher than 145 bpm. I wear the Fitbit pretty tight, and during exercise, especially the rowing, I have to wear the Fitbit high on my forearm, but this is what Fitbit suggests. I can confirm that there are serious measurement errors when I wear the Fitbit at the default wrist position, but loosening the band three notches, and sliding it up until it is tight again, solves the problem reliably.

    I don't want to suggest that others who have had less positive experiences have somehow goofed up, but does anyone have a reasonable suggestion as to the circumstances under which the Fitbit fails?