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BACtrack Mobile Breathalyzer review: Handy breath tester makes it easy to overshare

The $149.99 BACtrack Mobile Breathalyzer travels well and syncs wirelessly with iPhones, but be careful not to overshare on social-networking sites.

Brian Bennett Former Senior writer
Brian Bennett is a former senior writer for the home and outdoor section at CNET.
Brian Bennett
7 min read

Driving while intoxicated is, quite literally, a life-and-death issue: according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, every 2 hours three people are killed in alcohol-related highway crashes. Compounding the tragedy is the fact that these deaths are preventable. Keeping intoxicated drivers from getting behind the wheel can save lives. And that's where the BACtrack Mobile Breathalyzer aims to make a difference.


BACtrack Mobile Breathalyzer

The Good

The <b>BACtrack Mobile Breathalyzer</b> measures your BAC with professional-grade fuel cell technology and estimates how long before you’re sober. It's compact and syncs via Bluetooth with iPhones and has a companion app.

The Bad

In order to save readings you must store them in the cloud. The BACtrack's social-media features share way too much. It's pricey.

The Bottom Line

If you aren’t turned off by its questionable social-sharing features, the advanced BACtrack Mobile Breathalyzer is a compelling tool that can help minimize overindulging.

While keychain-size Breathalyzers have been around for years, the $150 BACtrack Mobile Breathalyzer brings the technology into the smartphone age. The pocketable unit syncs wirelessly over Bluetooth, allowing you to view your blood alcohol level on the companion iPhone app. It also offers some curious social-media and location-sniffing capabilities that run the gamut from ill-conceived to creepy and invasive. That said, the BACtrack can take measurements quickly and predict when you'll sober up, making it a powerful tool for drinking more responsibly.

A personal Breathalyzer with freaky social skills (pictures)

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Sporting sleek and futuristic looks enhanced by twin blue LED lights, the BACtrack wouldn't be out of place as a snazzy prop from a sci-fi flick. It's clear that the BACtrack is meant to ride along in bags or pants pockets since the unit itself is lightweight and small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. It comes with its own handy protective case, which zips up neatly.

The BACtrack ships with its own zip-up case for easy storage in bags and pockets. Sarah Tew/CNET

The device has just one button for powering it up and initiating pairing mode. Those sexy blue LEDs glow and flash to indicate power and connection status. Along the bottom edge sits a Micro-USB port for charging the BACtrack's battery.

There's just one button, which turns the device on and kicks it into Bluetooth pairing mode. Sarah Tew/CNET

Features and performance
Besides its attractive styling and compact size, the BACtrack's standout feature is that it can connect to iOS devices wirelessly via Bluetooth connection. Through its companion iPhone app, you can view breath analysis results in the traditional value of blood alcohol content percentage, aka BAC.

The BACtrack pairs with iPhones over Bluetooth and talks to a companion mobile app. Sarah Tew/CNET

I found the setup and pairing process quick and painless. I installed the app on my iPod test unit (while connected to a Wi-Fi network or mobile hot spot), and pressed the BACtrack power button to both turn it on and initiate pairing. I also had to tap the "Pair Your BACtrack" button on the iPod's screen.

Once my phone and the BACtrack were paired, I simply hit the screen to begin the measurement process. After that I blew into the mouthpiece for a few seconds, then waited a few more moments for the results. As expected, my first reading came back showing that I was sober as a judge, or close to it. It seems that having a potato chip or two prior to testing really can skew the results, in my case raising BAC levels slightly. The makers of BACtrack say that you should refrain eating, drinking, or smoking at least 15 minutes before each reading to ensure best accuracy.

Take your BAC reading and see an estimated time for your return to sobriety. Share results via Facebook or Twitter if you dare. Brian Bennett/CNET

After consuming one 12-ounce beer I was beginning to feel a buzz; my BAC reading came back as 0.035 percent, nowhere near the U.S. legal driving limit of 0.08 percent. At this level, the BACtrack reported that my reasoning and memory should be slightly impaired while the paper manual pointed out that I should also be experiencing a "loss of shyness." Keep in mind that the manual also took pains to say that driving skills may be impaired beginning at BAC levels of 0.04 percent and higher.

Interestingly, my BAC levels slid down to 0.033 percent after beer No. 2, which I drank in about 30 minutes (and after waiting for an additional 15 minutes). My BAC dropped slightly again even though I opted for another (final) brew -- down to 0.027 percent. I took this to mean that since I was drinking slowly, in my opinion, plus I ate dinner while imbibing, my body was able to absorb alcohol at a reasonable rate. Keep in mind that this is my personal experience with the BACtrack and other users with different metabolisms and alcohol tolerances no doubt won't have identical results.

Another neat trick of the BACtrack is that it projects the time it will take until you'll likely be sober. At the levels that I was consuming, the app estimated that I wouldn't return to complete sobriety (0.00 BAC) for almost another 2 hours. Even though I was well below the legal BAC limit for driving while intoxicated, seeing this certainly made me think twice about grabbing that proverbial "one more." In case you're still not clear about your current condition, the app spells out BAC readings in detailed explanations of how specific values typically affect mental and physical impairment.

Freaky social features
The BACtrack represents a new breed of Breathalyzer, one that's social. To check BAC levels of friends, the BACtrack comes equipped with plastic, disposable tips so others won't feel grossed out by your cooties. You can view your readings on your phone or in the cloud, or remain completely anonymous by discarding results after each measurement.

Thanks to disposable plastic tips included with the BACtrack, you can test your friends' BAC levels too. Sarah Tew/CNET

Thankfully, the BACtrack application is set in anonymous mode by default. That said, in order to save readings to view on your phone you must enable the data storage function in app settings. The trouble is that the application doesn't save information locally. Indeed, while the app presents prior readings you've taken, you have to enable data storage (more aptly named cloud storage) to see them. You also have to create a BACtrack mobile account, requiring a username and e-mail address, to enable data storage.

BACtrack WorldView shows details such as username, time, location, BAC level, time, and even photos. The app also lets you tag drinks. Brian Bennett/CNET

Another questionable setting you'll find under data storage is something called "Share Readings Anonymously," which despite its description, discloses quite a bit of personal information to the world. This includes current location, along with your username, BAC level, time, date, and any incriminating photos you decide to upload, splayed out on a Google Map in both the BACtrack app and on the BACtrack Web site.

Be careful or you might give away your location by accident. Brian Bennett/CNET

To be clear, though, the information the BACtrack system scoops up isn't easy to find. For example, you can't search for particular users within the map, called BACtrack WorldView, and typically it showcases the region of the globe with the highest concentration of BACtrack readings. Every time I viewed WorldView, the San Francisco Bay Area (where the company is based) was displayed.

I asked BACtrack founder and CEO Keith Nothacker why his company would want to collect this type of data anyway. He told me that approximately 10,000 people die every year in drunk-driving-related accidents and that he hopes this shared information will "create a dialogue and raise awareness of this serious issue." Nothacker also explained that since today many people, including me, are reluctant to disclose BAC readings, he's "trying to take the stigma away from BAC levels." He said that the idea is for people to have an honest discussion about how alcohol affects them and reduce the instances of drunk driving.

It certainly sounds like a noble cause, but there's a real potential for privacy violations. As always, any pool of data becomes potentially valuable for marketers or other third parties. In my mind, the fact that you can tag drinks down to the specific brand of beer and that the company has just opened up the gadget to third-party developers only compounds the issue. Anonymized or not, I can't think of a good reason to make this information public, ever.

The BACtrack even lets you share readings on social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. You are given a choice to publish results, or not, via these channels after each reading. While I tested the BACtrack at The Churchill, a local CNET New York watering hole, I also did most of my drinking at home. This uncovered an unexpected problem. I noticed that there was no way to disable the BACtrack from attaching geotagging data to breath readings unless I went completely anonymous. In other words, you can't pick and choose which data to share. That means you may accidentally share your home's location down to your cross streets -- something I almost did. With that information it wouldn't take much for strangers to piece together your home address.

When you get down to it, the BACtrack Mobile Breathalyzer really is a standard personal Breathalyzer at heart, though admittedly a very fancy one. Its $149.99 asking price makes it no impulse buy, especially compared with much more affordable devices -- the keychain variety typically cost as little as $10. More-reliable products that use fuel cell sensor technology, the kind that both the BACtrack and police departments rely on, range anywhere from $50 to $100. What the BACtrack uniquely brings to the table are its compact size, Bluetooth syncing, and predictions of the time of your return to sobriety. As I've said before, I take issue with the BACtrack's icky social-media sharing features, which while advertised as anonymous are anything but. I frankly see no sane reason to share your BAC with anyone for any reason, least of all strangers. Still, if you keep the data storage feature disabled, the BACtrack is a compelling tool that could help many people avoid danger to themselves and others.