Withings Steel HR review

Smart compromise
Withings Steel HR

(This review is based on the Withings Steel HR, the hybrid smartwatch that the new rebranded Nokia Steel HR is based on. We'll have a full review of the new Nokia Steel HR soon.)

2016 was the year we saw the hybrid smartwatch flourish, and in 2017, the Nokia 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.

Essential reading:Best smartwatch 2017

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 Steel HR successfully pull it off? Here's our full test.

Nokia 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 Nokia 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.

Nokia Steel HR: Features

Withings Steel HR review

The Steel HR is packed with a lot of features bound together by Nokia's 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.

Nokia 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.

Nokia 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 Nokia 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.

Nokia Steel HR: App and battery life

Withings Steel HR review

Nokia 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 Nokia 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 Nokia 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 Nokia 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.

  • 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


  • 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.

    • richardkglover says:

      It doesn't at this time.  It's limited to notifications on SMS, Calendar events, and Incoming Calls.  An MMS-only message (e.g. somebody sends you a pic) won't currently notify.

      Withings/Nokia may change that in the future, but for now that's it.

      Honestly, I kind of like it that way.  Most notifications from Apps are more annoying than not.  When I'm at work, I keep my phone on mute, but the notification on the watch gives me a subtle way to see if I have an important call or text.  I can choose to pull out the phone to read or answer based on who sent it.

      That's enough for me.

  • 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. 

    • richardkglover says:

      It's a trade-off between an always-on screen and battery life.  This goes all the way back to the earliest LED digital watches of the 1970s.

      I've had the Steel HR for about a week now.  The only time I wish the secondary display always showed something is when I'm actively exercising.  Then, I want my HR constantly displayed - or a cycle between HR, Steps, and Distance.

      It does that with the HR, but I'm not sure exactly how.  I've had mixed results in the three times I've run with it.  I'm a distance runner, so this probably isn't quite up to replacing my Garmin Forerunner - the accuracy of GPS, an inerval timer, and Cadence display are all very important to me.

      But... for everyday, all day, in all situations?  The Steel HR wins for me.

    • curlyc08 says:

      I love this feature! For me, it's a tracker stealthily disguised as a "normal" watch. I can tell the time via the hands, which don't lag or jump ahead like they can on normal watches, and can get my activity info anytime I want, but can also wear this and still look professional or even dressy. Perhaps they can add more features like the date next time, but for now, after trying out 12 different activity trackers over the last 2 months... I'm in love.

  • 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. 

  • TheBaconThief says:

    I just received my Steel HR yesterday. (Ordered Jan. 6 from NYC for any still waiting on their preorder)

    I downloaded the full manual 

    On page 25 it explicitly states " Your running activity, your distance and your calories are calculated thanks to an algorithm based on your number of steps and your personal data (age, height and weight)." In the heart rate section, it makes no reference to any effect on calories burned.

    I emailed Withings support to confirm, but this is very disappointing if true. My main reason for spending $80+ more for a HR monitoring tracker is to get a better idea of caloric burn during activities like weight lifting and rowing, where the total steps do no adequately reflect the amount of effort. Am I incorrect that trackers are able to do this? I don't see why the app can't do this if they are already capturing HR data.

    • Stego says:

      Given all the reviews I have read...Fact is wrist based hr monitors are inaccurate when performing rigorous activities... Especially interval training and where some wrist flexion is involved (weightlifting). My guess their algorithm doesn't consider hr specifically because of this.... But perhaps a future software update could address this somewhat. 

  • RaddersRed says:

    I own the previous generation Withings Activite Steel and the connectivity between the app on my Galaxy S5 phone and the watch is very unreliable, to the point where Withings tech support have exhausted all avenues. I even returned and replaced the watch but the issue remains. Sometimes it syncs quickly (rare), sometimes it takes minutes to sync, other times it just hangs or asks me to turn Bluetooth off/on. I am considering returning the second watch and upgrading to this model but I am wondering if it the sync will be any more reliable. At least the data will be visible on the watch itself though. So I wouldn't be dependent on the phone to see the detail.

  • taureah says:

    One of the coolest things to me when reading about the Health Mate app was the Reminders feature- you can set reminders for all sorts of health-related goals. Turns out, though, that this feature is only available on iOS, so as an Android user, no luck for me. So I thought, fine, I'll just set a few extra alarms during the day to remind myself to drink my water, eat my vegetables, whatever.... but, no, the device only supports one alarm, so if I want multiple alarms, I have to set and reset all day. I still love the look of the device, and that it's a device with both HR monitoring and swim tracking (a hard to find combo, even if it can't do both simultaneously)- but there's definitely still room for improvement. 

  • Stego says:

    just got my 40mm steel hr on preorder from Bestbuy Canada. So far so good. Notifications work, just wish email was in there. Even better if app lets you choose which contact to get notifications from. 

    Hr monitor is pretty accurate, no surprise here from reviews. Not as accurate when doing high intensity but good enough. Sleep tracking is accurate, but lying in bed watching TV at night may throw it off a little bit. 

    The one big disappointment for me is the size. I wish they designed this with a bigger watch face ! 46mm would be nice, with a bigger OLED screen. I find it's a little small and not a watch I enjoy looking at. I'm coming from a Vestal 51 mm watch so this is a big change. I love big watches. Something like a Fossil design for this watch would have been perfect. 

    At this point, I can sum it up with one word : "meh". 

  • Bmeindl says:

    I love the hardware compared to other smart watches I've had but the interface to the app and operation of the app is very disappointing.  The watch syncs sporadically and sometimes doesn't sync at all even when going to the alarm section or " pulling down" he menu screen. Could the app just have a sync button that would perform a forced sync?  I have found that when a sync does happen (i.e. I can see the steps in the app increasing,) the step count is often less by 1000 to 2000 steps less in the app than on the watch. Lastly, the user interface seems unnecessarily complicated and unclear as compared to other smart watches I've owned . The software needs some serious work.

  • Greyflame says:

    Heard rumors that it will have a 2.0 version. Would love to wait for it and decide to choose between this and fitbit charge 2. Wondering the performance of heart rate accuracy of steel hr and fitbit charge 2 during HIIT or workout in gym.

  • RichT says:

    I bought this watch because i need TWO watches. one that looks nice in everyday use, and one that i use when working out.

    I had hoped this would replace both, but sadly this is not the case.
    The majority of watches that measure HR and are waterproof etc usually look like something a 13yr old would wear with acres of plastic and frankly look childish outside the gym. So I was attracted to this nice looking watch.
    I currently wear a seiko chronograph for everyday, and a mio Alpha for working out. I had hoped this Withings Steel HR would replace them both and at the price it was, it was the price of two watches but the convenience would be worth it.

    Unfortunately the desire of the Withings engineers to extend battery life at the cost of all else has resulted in a watch that is not capable of performing both functions.

    This is a real shame as the hardware is there to do exactly that, but the software/funtionality is seriously compromised during simple workouts.

    For example when performing a workout, there is not a selectable option to continuously view your HR, either on the watch or in the phone app. How you are intended to adjust a workout to stay within an HR zone is beyond me, as there is no ant+ function either. With the Mio alpha, it is clearly visible and you can adjust you work rate accordingly. I use the cross trainer, and it is not reasonable to keep pressing the button every time to glance at the HR to vary workout intensity.

    This wouldn't matter if there was a discrete indication when you are above or below your chosen HR range, but again there is no facility for this. This is a real shame as there is a vibration facility on the watch, and this could be used to buzz on the wrist to warn when above or below your zone.

    I understand the design ethos was to save power but this could be a selectable option within the app, and if you didn't need it, and preferred to save power, it could be switched off. Indeed if this drained too much power, continuously display the HR on the small old screen on the watch, and if this uses too much power if continuously on during workout mode, then use the accelerometer to determine when it was horizontal (wrist held out to view) and illuminate it for a second or two.
    I would suggest the dial for % goal on the face of the watch could be used to glance down during a workout, but i believe the hardware of this is omni-directional, and so probably is not capable of displaying where you are within your HR zone.

    Unfortunately these simple ideas have not been adopted by Withings, and so you have absolutely no idea whats going on during the workout.

    There are other small flaws, such as the small oled display cuts off the edge of some capital letters when displaying text or call information from your phone, but I could have lived with that. But unfortunately i will be returning this watch, as at this price, the lack of these subtle software and display options do not enable me to use this as my only watch, which was my reason for investing in this significant price tag.

    One last thing, I had hoped to contact Withings development/customer service team to directly discuss these issues, but this was ignored. I had hoped to encourage them to add these changes to the app and control the watch in a useful way, so I could retain it, but if anyone else thinks the same thing, I think you ought to know they may be ignored, as I was. This includes emailing Cedric Hutchings (CEO) directly. You have been warned!

  • PeteK says:

    I bought the watch still under the Withings brand in June 2017 shortly before they rebranded it to Nokia. After all the positive reviews I was pretty disappointed in the overall experience with the watch.

    First of all the newly redesigned app was a hugely disappointing experience. It has a long way to go especially if you compare it to Fitbit's app.

    I had to reboot my watch a couple of times per month after it had become unresponsive. Due to this, it lost all the data which wasn't synced to the app. On one occasion this was 4 day of data.

    What most annoyed me was the awful experience with the sleep tracker. I usually read for an hour in bed before going to sleep, Withings/ Nokia was tracking this every night as sleeping time. The same thing continued in the mornings when the tracker was still logging it as sleep even though I had been awake and active for 30-60 minutes, getting my self and the kids ready in the morning. I can assure that it usually is the most hectic time in our family. I never had any issues tracking sleep properly with the two Fitbits I owned before.

    Luckily the seller accepted my return of the product in August. Apparently, I wasn't the only one complaining and returning the product. It really is a shame because this is one of the most beautiful fitness watches out there. I also liked the amazingly long battery life and that it was waterproof.

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