Smart wearables should be automatic. And as I wake up and get myself a coffee, I look at the Basis Peak on my wrist and think, "I don't have to do a thing. This is nice."
But, how do I adjust the time, which is stuck in Daylight Savings?
I'd never before used a fitness watch from Basis, which is owned by Intel, although one of my colleagues raved about it. Equipped with pedometer, heart rate monitor and galvanic skin response sensors, too, the original Basis band continually tracked heart rate and activity, recorded sleep, and collected all the data to provide habit-coaching feedback. It encouraged daily achievement-style goals, and tailored them to keep you motivated.
The new Basis Peak is a total revamp, a redesign and improvement on the previous watch. And at $199 or £170 direct from Basis, it's affordable. Australian pricing and availability is yet to be announced, but the UK price translates to AU$315.
It has a better, more visible LCD display, which doesn't need to automatically light up like the last Basis. It can track active workouts and running. It's shower and swim waterproof (to 5ATM, which means you can stay in the water with it like a regular water-resistant sports watch). It will get texts and notifications, via a future firmware update. And, the Peak can wirelessly sync with an iPhone or Android phone app.
So, I lived with the Basis Peak and let it automatically guide my life. How did it do? So far, not too bad. If that sounds lukewarm, well...yes. The Basis Peak shows how amazingly automatic a wearable can be, but it's more limited than I expected -- and competitors are catching up fast. The software on the Basis Peak as I tested it is incomplete. As features are added, maybe the Peak will end up being fantastic. For now, it feels like it's easy enough to use, but not quite good enough.
Oh, and by the way, I fixed Daylight Savings by deleting and reinstalling the app, and repairing via Bluetooth. These types of experiences, while seemingly minor, show that the Basis Peak isn't as seamlessly automagical as it should be...yet.
The Peak feels good to wear, but it doesn't look particularly attractive. Its steel body is clean-looking, but from a distance looks like plastic. The bottom, in fact, is plastic: the green-LED heart rate sensors there hug your wrist, and are surrounded by four metal contacts that measure how much you're sweating.
The rubbery silicone watchband attaches snugly and feels smooth. The Peak feels like a regular digital sports watch -- I barely noticed it was on.
The big LCD display is easily readable: the time pops up in big numbers, and it's far, far more eye-friendly than the original Basis watch. Yet I was surprised there was no way to change the watchface, or the number size. Actually, there are no buttons at all. It took me ages to figure out how to turn the backlight on, even though I had a reviewer's guide (hint: you swipe up, but from the right side of the screen, not the center).
To navigate on the Basis Peak, you touch the screen. It's a capacitive touch Gorilla Glass-covered display, and swiping left and right (or up and down) switches between one of several simple viewing modes. Swipe right, and you see your heart rate. Swipe again, and there's a running tally of how many daily steps have been taken, and when the last targeted walk or exercise session was.
If you're showering, at least the Basis doesn't have any buttons to get crudded up or let water in, but capacitive touch and water don't work well together (neither does heart rate: you'll need to wait til you're dry to resume heart rate readings).
The Peak comes in both all-black and white with a grey band. My black review unit's black band is red underneath, a classy touch that most people won't ever end up noticing, because it's facing down on your wrist.
What does the Basis Peak do?
The Peak counts steps, and tracks your heart rate all the time. It also tracks sleep, doing so in a more advanced way than basic accelerometer/pedometer trackers like the Jawbone Up24 or Misfit Shine .
It can also intelligently notice when exercise has begun -- walking, running, or biking -- and start counting steps (and/or estimated calorie burn) and heart rate. Called "Body IQ," the watch instantly switches from a simple watch face to an interface that shows your activity's data.
All you have to do is create a Basis account, enter your basic info (height, weight, gender), and let the band pair and sync via Bluetooth. The band and the app handle the rest.
Coaching and 'habits'
There's an achievement-based gamification element to the Basis Peak. You start at level 0 and add a "habit" or two, which are basically challenges: wear the watch for 12 hours a day; take 2,000 steps in the morning; wake up at a certain time two days a week; burn an estimated calorie total daily; get up and move every hour.
These achievements are similar to what Nike offers with its Fuelband or Jawbone does with Up, but the repeated success of these achievements over a week triggers points that unlock more habits. You add another, and another, from a set list.
Habits get ramped up as you complete them: first maybe it's "do this two days a week," then it's three days a week. If you miss a goal, the challenge scales down.
While I appreciate the addition of these challenges, they didn't necessarily build habits in me...yet. There are more active coaching elements to the Basis Peak, but the current firmware doesn't allow reminders to be sent to the watch itself. Instead, you need to look at the phone app, which has one of the uglier layouts I've ever seen.
What it gets right: Being automatic (kinda)
I loved that when I started walking, the Peak would immediately begin a timer to count my steps. When I stopped, a summary of steps per minute, heart rate and step count would be logged for that session. I liked just going to sleep and knowing that Basis would record my sleeping without pressing a button.
Except, the watch wouldn't always get it right. Sometimes I'd be sitting on the sofa and it would record it as sleep. Sometimes, but not always. Generally, the wake-and-sleep times for sleep tracking were great. But the times it got it wrong were frustrating.
Also, activity recording is a mixed bag. Step-counting was no problem. For runs, I needed to get myself moving faster than a jog for the Basis to shift its recording to "run mode." And for cycling, which the Peak can record too, there's bad news for stationary bikers: I tried pedaling at my gym and the Peak wouldn't even register it as an activity, even though my heart rate was very elevated.
Once again: since there's no way to manually override what the Peak decides to record and process, there's no way to easily fix its automatic decisions.
Basis Peak app: A few steps behind
Maybe I'm spoiled by Jawbone's excellent Up app, or I've come to expect more from phone apps in general, but the Basis Peak mobile experience feels like a beta. An odd interface immediately greeted me: a daily count of my steps, resting heart rate average and estimated calorie burn. Below that, there are diamond-shaped icons of my habits and my daily progress with them. And below that, recent activity and a strange bar graph representation of sleep from the night before.
To get to deeper charts of my daily heart rate, or even more arcane features like skin temperature readings or perspiration levels, you can look at a daily charting graph in a sub-menu, but the collected colored line-squiggles are hard to read and interpret.
Syncing is also a challenge: with the first 1.0 app release on an iPhone 6, my Bluetooth connection would frequently get lost, and syncs would hang. I had to unpair and repair a bunch of times, and an odd Daylight Savings-related bug wouldn't update the time on my Basis Peak, even though my phone's time was correct.
Access the MyBasis website, however, and suddenly the charts and data looked great. The older Basis watch was a PC-centric syncing wearable, and maybe that's led to the web data looking so much better. But the new Peak only syncs via mobile now, not a PC, so why not make that mobile app look and feel even better?
The Basis app also lacks extra features: there's no option for food tracking, or to connect a smart scale. Other services like MyFitnessPal and and RunKeeper don't feed into it. It's not social either, so you can't add friends or compete on goals...again, not yet, anyway. Other fitness apps do this.
Your heart rate...without much analysis
The Basis Peak knows my daily average resting heart rate, which it gets from when I sleep, but there isn't much else it does to help me. I swipe, I see my heart rate. It looks high. Is that bad? Is that okay? Does it mean I'm stressed? Was it the coffee? I don't know.
I see I've taken 8,700 steps today. I see I haven't walked around in an hour and a half. But heart rate...it's hard to determine what it means. And I don't see this watch helping people make more sense of it in a way beyond sleep tracking.
Heart rate accuracy is something that optical green LED trackers suffer with, but the Peak generally got a lock on my wrist reading and held the reading at a level that seemed consistent over time. At times, my reading seemed to run higher than on a Microsoft Band attached to my other wrist. At other times, during treadmill jogs, my higher heart rate didn't always register as highly as the handlebar gym equipment built into my treadmill did. Sometimes heart rate seemed to hover before re-adjusting. The Peak seems fine for casual use, but serious fitness nuts will still probably want their own super-accurate chest band or tracker.
I like wearing it -- I just wish it were smarter
Of all recent watches and bands I've tried, the Basis Peak feels the most wearable. I can wear it in the shower. It has an easy-to-read screen. It's comfy. The battery life is good enough to last through three nights, more or less, before a recharge. It feels like a regular watch.
But it just isn't smart enough, yet. Habit-based coaching feedback is supposed to arrive on the Peak in a future update, and so are notifications: incoming phone calls, text messages, emails, calendar events and notifications from a few other unspecified apps.
With those promised reminders being pushed to the watch, offering me feedback on how far I am from reaching a goal, or telling me to go to sleep, I could see myself liking the Peak much more. Right now, the watch feels like a blank slate. I can't set silent alarms. I can't start and stop exercise mode on my own. I can't even change the time manually.
When the firmware and software's updated, maybe the Basis Peak would be a go-to watch for me. But, it really doesn't do all that much right now to make me love it.
Conclusion: Not yet worth the leap, but it has promise
I really wanted to love the Basis Peak. I've really wanted to love a lot of other wearable tech gadgets, too. But this watch, in its current form, ends up being forgettable. It's not something I could see many people wanting to buy. There are too many alternatives, both now and down the road, that'll do similar things.
If you already like using the Basis ecosystem, this watch is your only option now. Once its promised remaining features become available, I'll revisit the Peak. For now, it's compellingly simple, and automatic to a fault. But it's just not smart enough or versatile enough, or helpful enough, to make me want to keep using it. Maybe when its coaching notifications arrive, I'll feel differently.