Withings Steel HR review: This hybrid smart watch fitness tracker has a 25-day battery life

1:28 | Edge
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Friday March 17th, 2017

The first thing you notice when you see the Withings Steel HR is how little it resembles what most of us have come to expect from most fitness trackers in terms of shape and design. At first glance, it looks and feels like a classic analog watch: the silicone strap (or leather, if you choose that option) connects to a slim, round display with minute markers dotting the edges and hands to show you the time. The one giveaway that this is not your typical watch is the small circular OLED display at the top, and little would you know that housed behind that round face is enough hardware to power a very capable fitness tracker.

The Withings Steel HR (from $179.95, amazon.com, bestbuy.com) has all the standard features one would expect from a fitness tracker: it lets you know how many calories you've burned, offers heart-rate monitoring, automatically tracks your sleep, counts your steps, pulls notifications from your phone and has an alarm to gently wake you up.

Aside from its design, one thing that really helps to set the Steel HR apart from a lot of other fitness trackers is its incredible battery life. Most fitness trackers can last you a few days before it needs to be charged again. Withings boasts that it can last up to 25 days on a single charge and that it has the longest battery life of any heart-rate tracker on the market. After spending nearly three straight weeks with the Steel HR on my wrist and over a dozen workouts tracked in that time, there was still enough juice left in the tank to leave me with little reason to doubt them on that claim.

Using the Steel HR is simple enough. There is a single button on the right side of the watch that you press to turn on the display and to cycle through the different stats. It was a minor nuisance having to press the button every time to turn the OLED display on, as the display doesn’t automatically light up if you pull the watch up toward your face. However, the goal meter below the OLED display is a nice touch on the watch face. You can quickly see how close you are to hitting your daily activity goal by looking at the meter as it climbs towards 100%.

Withings likely had to make some compromises for the sake of battery life and overall look and I found the OLED display to be one of te biggest weaknesses of the watch. While it’s relatively easy to read in regular usage if you’re just casually checking to see how many steps you walked, all of that changes if you’re engaged in a workout or on a run. If you’re running, trying to read the display or cycling through the different screens was a bit of a challenge. And you won’t get a lot of useful real-time feedback during a workout. With such a small screen, you can’t just casually glance at the display to get a quick readout. Notifications from your phone also don’t give you any real useful information.

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It appears that GPS functionality was another compromise that Withings likely made. Not every fitness tracker comes equipped with GPS built into the device. Instead, they typically rely on your phone’s GPS to track you. However, the Steel HR isn’t even able to use your phone’s GPS, so it’s hard to put much faith into the accuracy of the distance measurements. It instead uses sensors and data about you to generate the distance, which is far from accurate. If you’re a runner, this is a pretty glaring omission.

Workouts are automatically detected, which seemed to work fine. Like most fitness trackers that have this feature, it will occasionally falter, but you can typically rely on it to record your workout in case you forgot to do so. You also have the option of tracking a workout manually by holding the button on the side, and workouts can be logged in the app after you sync your watch.

The heart-rate monitor on the Steel HR has two modes: workout and smart mode. Smart mode is constantly running and takes measurements about every 10 minutes, which helps to preserve battery life. However, if you switch to workout mode, it continuously runs throughout your workout. Every fitness tracker that I’ve used has had odd, random spikes that occur every now and then—this was no different for the Steel HR. I frequently wore a Fitbit Charge 2 along with the Steel HR to compare and noticed that the Steel HR always tracked higher than the Fitbit. It wasn’t enough to give me any real cause for concern, but it’s something that should be noted nonetheless. The Steel HR also seemed slower to normalize, frequently spiking at the start of a workout before eventually coming back down to a more reasonable level.

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Sleep tracking worked as well as the Fitbit Charge 2, and the fact that you barely notice the watch while you’re wearing it makes it easier to wear at night compared to some of the bulkier fitness trackers out there.

If you’re the type of person that wants the features of a fitness tracker but don’t like how most of them look, the Withings Steel HR may be the tracker for you. It has a sleek and stylish design that looks good whether you’re in the gym or out on the town. Most people that see it won’t even be able to tell that you’re wearing a fitness tracker. For those that may be runners or just a little more serious about fitness, you may find the Steel HR lacks in some areas. Although, even with the compromises that Withings made with the Steel HR, this is the best hybrid option available.

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