In a world teaming with me-too fitness trackers all focusing on steps, calories and trying to quantify sleep, the $149 Spire activity tracker appears to offer something new. Instead of simply recording how much you move, burn and snooze, this pebble-like clip-on puts a Zen spin on things, keeping tabs on your body position and your breathing, using those insights to help you beat stress, improve your focus and, of course, move more. That's the theory at least.
Sound like another wearable gimmick? Well, the makers of the Spire claim their tracker is based on seven years of research into the science of breathing. These studies into how we inhale/exhale have shown that breathing better can have significant positive impacts on our health, including lowering blood pressure, reducing tension and even increasing endorphins.
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Yet while we could all use a little more calm and focus in our everyday lives, does the Spire really help us chill out and be more productive? Our resident fitness tech expert Kieran Alger has spent the past month finding out.
Spire: Design and build
The Spire has an instantly eye-catching design, not just because of its got a unique form but it looks like a piece of well crafted tech too.
The tracker itself feels well made. At 32 x 44mm and 20g, it's light, compact and discreet. More importantly it's nicely soft to the touch, thanks to an outer skin that feels like the fabric used to cover speakers. All of which is essential seeing as the ocean-smoothed stone tracker works best when it's worn close to the skin, clipped to the inside of your waistband or, if you're a lady, onto your bra strap. So it needs to be comfortable.
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Ask anyone who's used a Fitbit One and they'll tell you there are drawbacks to the clip-on form factor and it's true that this design isn't going to be everyone's cup of camomile. They can be uncomfortable to wear, they often fall off without you noticing and you have to do things like remembering to swap them over when you change your trousers. Not to mention they're not much use when you're not wearing clobber with a decent place to clip it on. Or worse, not wearing anything at all.
Which brings us neatly to bed time. The Spire's design means this isn't a tracker you're likely to wear in bed, a fact that's accentuated by the lack of sleep tracking. The Spire has clearly been designed to be a day-worn device and it was largely comfortable and unobtrusive, in fact it's very easy to forget you're wearing it. That could have been a problem but thanks to the clasp being so tight (it was often a bit of a struggle to get it on) you never really had to worry about losing it.
The Spire pebble comes with a USB wireless charging dock that's also pretty good looking. It's powered by Qi wireless charging technology and has a fetching cork finish reminiscent of the dashboard of a Seventies car. It just about gets away with that look but sadly the use of lightweight grey plastic for the rest of it makes it feel cheap. Granted, this helps keep the costs down but you can't help wishing it had a proper brushed aluminium finish.
The Spire does activity tracking in the form of your usual step counter but the real cleverness kicks in with its ability to provide real-time feedback on your breathing and your state of mind.
The Spire quietly logs every breath you take, sending all the data via Bluetooth to its partner iPhone app. It displays each lung full on the app's home screen, represented as an ever-undulating wave. There's plenty of novelty value to be had taking control of this clever little animation, although it seems to respond more accurately when you inhale than exhale.
But there's a serious point to it too. The Spire uses this information to give you feedback on your current mental state, breaking it down into three areas: Focus, Calm and Activity. By measuring your breathing patterns throughout the day, the idea is that the Spire can notify you when you're tense, give you a kick when you've been inactive for a long time or even help you become more focused.
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You can set goals for each of these states from within the app, working towards a total number of steps or a total number of minutes spent in a calm or focussed state each day. Sadly, these goals are fairly rigid. For example, you can only choose between 5,000, 10,000 and 15,000 steps per day, nothing in between.
The same is true for Calm and Focus that come with 30, 60 and 120 minute options. Unlike some smarter trackers, the app also doesn't learn as you go so there's no gradual improvement to work towards.
Notifications come in the form of vibrations from the pebble. All of these can be tailored to your own preferences via the app. Among other things, you can set the Spire up to notify you when a period of activity of a certain duration ends, if you haven't taken a deep breath for a number of minutes or if you've been tense for a certain period of time.
The theory is great in principle but one big problem we found with this was being able to decipher what each buzz notification means. The only way to workout what's going on is to take out your phone and fire up the app, which is in itself a distraction. Somehow it just doesn't feel right that in order to achieve a more Zen state of calm the first thing you need to do is fire up your iPhone.
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Maybe we're too busy being stressed to really grasp the point of the Spire but we didn't find it added much value at all. In fact, ironically, the need to keep checking your phone to see your state of mind was a big distraction. Even worse, you can't help feeling that it has just created something else to worry about. Another thing to check, more tasks to complete and all that without really revealing more than we already know, i.e. when we're feeling a little stressed.
One other niggle is that without your phone the Spire really reverts to being not much more than a fancy pedometer. It has to be constantly connected to your phone via Bluetooth or it doesn't capture any breathing. While Bluetooth low energy has cut the battery burn, this is still a decent drain on your iPhone's already squeezed power. It also means you have to be within range which did lead to times where we had gaps in data just going about our normal business.
The Spire works best when you fire up the Boosts section of the app. You can choose from four different flavours of voice coached programmes to help you reach the state of mind you desire. There's Meditate, Energize, Calm and Focus. These are drills are great for forcing you to take time out of your day to either be calm, require focus or be more active.
Spire: App and tracking
The Spire app and tracker are extremely straightforward to set up with just a few simple steps to get going – plug in the wireless dock, charge the tracker and download the app. The app itself only takes a minute to configure, needing just a few key stats to tailor it you before you're reading to start tracking.
Pairing worked for us first time, although others have found this less reliable. On the whole the phone-app syncing worked, albeit we did have occasional issues where it took a while for the Spire to be recognised if at any point it had been out of range or disconnected from our phone.
The iOS app is well designed, with a user-friendly simplicity that you don't always get with fitness trackers. It has three main sections Home, Progress and Boosts.
On the homescreen you get your real-time breathing animation along with a timeline feed of what Spire calls Streaks: periods of calm, focus, activity and tension. Theses are all nicely colour coded and you can access more detail on each Streak with a single tap.
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The Progress section gives you a quick window into how your day and your month are going. The Daily view represents each of the three states in a lovely little daisy (very similar to the Withings HealthMate app) with each petal showing one section either Activity, Calm or Focus, and a percentage score against your daily goals. You can also tap a petal to see how you're doing in more detail for each of these.
The monthly view rows up your daily flowers in a classic calendar grid but doesn't really offer that much useful insight in terms of long term trends.
By far the best bit of the app is the Boosts section we mentioned before although be warned, you'll need to download each of these before you can make the most of the coaching. Once they're loaded into the app, the drills are easy to follow and actually worked well.
Spire: Battery life
The Spire's staying power was impressive considering it had to be paired via Bluetooth the whole time. We got a good six and a half day's tracking from a single charge.
There's something fantastic about being able to just drop the Spire onto the wireless charger and getting a full charge on the dock was pleasingly rapid, just half an hour for a full reboot from empty.
- Eye-catching but simple design
- Wireless charging
- Great battery life
- Easy to forget
- Intermittent app sync
- Questionable accuracy