Sometime between pressing my earphones' button to play back my heart rate and peeking through the glare of daylight at my steps taken via the curved black band on my wrist, I felt dizzy. Maybe it was because I needed water. But I suddenly had the sensation of juggling too many gadgets. A Bluetooth fitness band and Bluetooth heart-rate earphones connected to my Nexus 5 phone felt like...one Bluetooth too many.
To add to the already-massive list of increasingly similar smart fitness bands on the market, LG has entered the fray with the Lifeband Touch: one part pedometer, one part semi-smartwatch. It runs on both certain Android phones and recent iPhones. It can control your music playback. And while it doesn't have its own heart-rate monitor built in, it connects with others: in particular, a new pair of LG earphones that fit heart-rate measurement right in the earbuds.
I wanted to love LG's unique heart-rate solution, and wanted to find the band simple and easy to use. That's just not the case.
Part of the problem with the LG Lifeband Touch is its design. A curved black band, rigid and glossy on top, and soft at one end to allow it to slip over the side of your wrist like a bangle, feels heavier than other fitness bands. Its OLED display is touch and swipe-sensitive, a bit like the Withings Pulse, but it feels a lot lower-tech than the vivid all-color Samsung Gear Fit.
The OLED display looks fair in indoor light, but becomes completely unreadable outdoors with direct daylight. Considering you'll probably want to use the Lifeband as a watch, outdoors, on fitness-friendly sunny days, it's not so great. You also have to press the Lifeband's main button to read the time or your fitness progress. But, at least the band's motion controls make the display light up when you lift your wrist to check the time.
The Lifeband display's multiple readouts make sense at first glance: steps taken, estimated calories burned, distance traveled, and a basic clock, plus bare-bones music controls (volume, track skipping, play/pause) that work with whatever's playing on your phone via Bluetooth. But it's getting to these submenus that gets weird.
Besides swiping and tapping the display, there's a single round button that toggles through several modes. That ring glows, too: various LED hues, and even pulsing, depending on the mode it's in.
That LED color ring around the button could be glowing red if the Lifeband Touch is in pedometer/calorie counting mode, indicating that you're still far away from your daily goal. Or, if you're in heart-rate measurement mode, red would mean a high-intensity workout. Or, it could mean your battery is being charged, or the battery is low. Figuring out what light blue ("warmup" heart-rate zone), green (activity target achieved/full battery charge/"aerobic" heart-rate zone), or other colors mean practically requires having a decoder sheet in your pocket.
Reading the horizontal OLED display and getting the proper submode onscreen is also weirdly difficult. Pressing the button cycles through time, activity, and music control modes. But in activity mode, you either tap for daily progress and estimated calories, or swipe for distance and step count. And for a timed exercise-logging mode, which, if you tap "start," will change the readouts again to a timer and, if a heart-rate monitor is paired, heart rate. Swiping requires a full across-screen gesture; do it partway, and you might just end up tapping something instead, which will do something else entirely. Confused yet? I haven't even gotten to music control, which involves swiping through several screens just to tap to adjust volume.
Despite a seemingly simple design, figuring out what to do can be as confusing as an '80s digital watch.
HeartRate Earphones, optional
LG's curious HeartRate Earphones cost $180, and are sold separately from the Lifeband Touch, which itself retails for $150 (£120/AU$199). They're a completely different product, and can be used separately. But they also work in tandem with the Lifeband Touch to offer heart rate, as opposed to building an LED-based optical reader on the wristband itself. Alas, the earphones are not available in Australia.
Going with ear instead of wrist for heart rate works fairly well: I tried LG's earphones, and they measured my heart rate at similar levels to a chest-worn Polar heart-rate monitor, which I also tried for comparison. I never had measurement errors, and readings were continuous and realistic.
LG's earphones use a small wireless puck that houses the battery and connects via Bluetooth to your phone. Because they're wireless and need separate charging, you'll need to unplug that extra puck and use a Micro-USB cable to top off its charge. The earphones have loops to fit over your ears, and a handful of different-size silicone tips. You won't notice the heart-rate sensing patches, because they're glossy patches on the sides of the buds themselves.
The earphones didn't feel as comfortable as others I've worn, but held on tightly as I exercised. They didn't seal off noise as well as my favorite Etymotic earbuds, and their audio quality was fair but not excellent. For $180, that's hard to swallow. You're paying for heart-rate functions, not music quality. And wearing a heart-rate monitor set of earphones means you always need them in to work out, and you can't wear any others. They also only last four hours on a charge, which isn't really enough for a full day of use. And to make matters worse, these earphones have a custom plug that pops into the puck, meaning you can't use them with normal headphone jacks. And earphones break down over time through wear and tear; what happens to your expensive heart-rate headphones then?