​Withings Steel HR review

Smart compromise
Withings Steel HR

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

Withings Steel HR review

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.

Withings Steel HR review

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

Withings Steel HR review

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.

Withings Steel HR
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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.

Withings Steel HR review

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

Withings Steel HR review

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.

Withings Steel HR review

On a shorter run, shown below, the average and max heart rates were a little off, but again the peaks and troughs were close.

Withings Steel HR review

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 Steel HR review

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.

Withings Steel HR review

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.


Withings Steel HR
By Withings
Withings has made a watch that walks the line between smartwatch and analogue timepiece with impressive skill. As a fitness tracker it's among the most feature-packed and best looking; as a running watch it's still quite pared down, despite a heart rate monitor that works like a charm. Withings has made a smart analogue watch that looks gorgeous and doesn't spread itself too thin, and comes out as one of the best hybrids out there right now.

Hit
  • An elegant, classic look
  • HR sensor great for running
  • Fantastic battery
Miss
  • No GPS, even with phone
  • On-demand HR tracking a little iffy
  • Charger feels poorly designed

17 Comments

  • Nischit says:

    Good idea withings 

  • Adamnknighf says:

    do we know if it has notifications for things like whatsapp etc?

    • j.stables says:

      There are limited notifications/alerts, but they're not readable.

  • Cyclist says:

    too bad it does not connect with Strava...

  • AlexHongKong says:

    Add second timezone as a display option and I'll buy at least one!

  • DigoriePiper says:

    Too bad the display isn't always on as we're back to the same ridiculous situation as Android and Apple watches where you've got to flick your wrist or press something to get to see it. At least you can always see the time and an approximation of your steps though.

    Would have been nice to alway show the date or a 2nd timezone on the display and then it's at least as useful as a dumb watch.

    Probably the closest thing we've seen so far though to a useful smart 'watch' so well done Withings. I might just be tempted to replace my now tatty looking Pebble Time with one of these.

    • X-Boss says:

      same here, I think I can put up with my pebble for a few more months but this time next year I will be wearing something else. I love the pebble and its simplicity (to a certain extent), however with Fitbit now buying off all the pebble tech, I feel it is time I move on. I have owned 3 of their products since the Fitbit One days and was fairly happy, but my last Fitbit gave me more trouble than worth and I hate the fact Fitbit data is locked in.

      If the Withings watch is reliable I will get one in a heartbeat, I don't even mind if they decrease the battery life by upping the HR tracking frequency and having a screen that stays on. 

  • Tracer says:

    Seems near perfect to me.  Long battery life, water resistant to 50 meters, and heart rate monitoring.  I'm sold

  • Erik1 says:

    Really nice (smart) watch. When its available?

  • Styleplague says:

    come-on with the launch already...

  • Berlin says:

    any chance in the near future's update to have whatsapp/viber/messenger notifications with readable index ? 

  • fuzzyrug says:

    Is there any way to turn off the HR function and get even longer battery life?

  • anitatigner says:

    I am excited to trade in my Pebble Steel for 36mm white Withings HRA, bUT the release keeps getting pushed back. I am a little concerned about moving over to Withings because their customer service hasn't been the best.

  • pcs says:

    Saw these at CES this week, and review doesn't do justice to describing how attractive these watches are, compared to standard fitness trackers.  They don't look like plastic and rubber; they look like dress watches.

  • bobsher says:

    Got mine on January 12th. Love it. I had a Pebble Time Steel, and was disappointed that I had to accept a refund instead of Time 2. This is obviously easier to use, more fitness oriented, and better looking. Crazy battery life doesn't hurt either. I agree that the charger is an obvious misstep, but otherwise could not be happier. Note to bigger people: I am 6'2", about 220 lbs., and the larger size is almost small on me. The 36mm takes an 18mm band, which is very thin. I replaced my 40mm watch's silicone band with a 20mm stainless steel band, and it seems a little thin for my tastes, but livable. I am excited to see what Fitbit does this year. A waterproof Blaze 2 might be ideal. In the meantime, this is on my wrist almost 24/7.

    • Stego says:

      i just sold my Pebble Time Steel and now am in limbo about which watch to get.

      Notifications are important, as I miss every single call, email, text and reminder on my phone since I keep it on vibrate only, but vibration is way too weak on the Nexus 6p. 

      The pebble really did notifications the right way, one of the things I will miss the most. 

      I also enjoyed the fitness tracking on the Pebble, even though it was pretty basic. 

      I'm now very interested in continuous hr tracking as well as Auto activity tracking. 

      I use a Withings Body Cardio and really like the metrics it provides and the healthMate is really good.  (Not as good as Fitbit though)

      Getting this watch would round out the metrics nicely in the app...And the battery life is great. 

      What concerns me though is the durability of the crystal...Given it protrudes from the bezel and will be the first thing you smack when walking around. 

      The other thing is how visible is the digital dial... I was having a hard time reading the notifications on my Pebble ...Eye sight is deteriorating a little as I approach my mid forties. Although the steel hr is not showing multiple lines of text.. might be easier to read especially if it's really bright. 

      I'd really like to see it in person before buying it..But that means waiting weeks months before it gets to retail shelves in Canada.   

    • Stego says:

      At this point, probably best to wait until Feb or March to see what AW 2.0 will bring to the table avoid buyer remorse. 

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