Sometimes you just want a watch to be a watch.
Smartwatches are increasingly everywhere. Fitness trackers, too, in all shapes, prices and sizes. But if you're looking for a regular watch that also happens to do a couple of semi-smart things -- fitness-tracking, basically -- the Withings Activite Pop remains the best option. If a Fitbit married a Swatch, you'd get the Activite Pop.
The Pop debuted back in January this year. It was a less expensive version of a nicer, sapphire-crystal and stainless-steel watch, the Withings Activite , that costs $450 (It retails for £320 in the UK, and Australia availability is unknown, but the US price converts to around AU$550.). The Pop is only $150 (£120 UK, or around AU$183.). It trades calf leather, polished steel and a sapphire dome on Withings' fancier Activite watch (and Swiss-made certification) for a silicone strap, PVD-coated steel, and a mineral glass dome. But its features are identical. It's a Bluetooth-connected fitness tracker, capable of step-counting and sleep-tracking. It syncs automatically with iPhones and Android phones. It has a silent vibrating alarm. It's water-resistant for swimming and showering (up to 50 meters). And thanks to a replaceable coin battery, it works for up to eight months straight without charging (I've had one for six months, and it's still going strong).
Early versions of the Pop -- before they were sold in the US -- had a tendency to live up to their name in the worst way: the crystal often spontaneously shattered. Withings says it has fixed the underlying manufacturing problem with subsequent Pop watches, and only the corrected models have reached US retailers. (Worldwide, check for a blue dot on the box, and you'll know you have the "good," post-fix version.). I've been using one of the newer production models for a few months, and I haven't had any problems. It hasn't broken (unlike my original one did), so it appears Withings fix did the trick. While I fell out of love with the Pop when it had breaking issues, I'm now back on board.
With its manufacturing glitch in the rear-view mirror, the Withings Activite Pop is ultimately a solid watch that's fun and easy to use. It's still not perfect: the Pop still has issues storing and syncing data over periods longer than a day and a half (not an issue if you're syncing every day, but if you're traveling it could be a problem). And, no, it doesn't measure heart rate (but, at this point, you probably don't need that anyway). But nevertheless, the Pop is the closest thing to a Fitbit-style device in a standard watch that you can currently buy.
Editors' note: This review was originally published January 16, but has been re-reviewed after Withings has fixed manufacturing issues with the Pop that caused us to pull our ratings down. The review has also been updated to reflect changes in the fitness tracker and watch market.
Design: Undercover smarts
From the silicone band to the round mineral-glass-domed analog watch face, the Pop looks like your better-looking everyday watch. The three colors it's available in -- blue, black and white -- are all attractive, but the flat colors sometimes makes the Pop look more low-end than it actually is. The watch body is still steel, but it's permanently treated with a colored, matte texture. The hour and minute hands are painted, versus gleaming metal on the higher-end Activite. The mineral glass is a bit duller than the gleaming sapphire of the step-up version. But you probably won't notice. The price is right on the Pop, and that makes all the difference.
The Pop doesn't stand out like an Apple Watch or a funky fitness band. It's not meant to. This is designed to look and feel normal. And it does, which is the Pop's biggest success. Every time I put it on it just feels like I'm taking a break from smartwatches and fitness bands. It's actually a little relaxing.
There's no crown to set the time: that happens automatically when the Pop is synced with your phone's Withings Health Mate app. And when you change time zones, the watch changes its time automatically, too. You can set a silent alarm to vibrate a wake-up call, but you have to set it in the Withings app. And the vibration isn't quite powerful enough to reliably wake me up (it's fainter than the Pebble).
Fitness tracking: Automatic and easy...mostly
The Pop syncs via Bluetooth via iPhone or Android with the Withings Health Mate app, a clean-looking piece of software with connectivity to other apps and devices. But syncing is somewhat slow, and data somehow gets lost from time to time.
Syncing happens in the background, but not always consistently. Or, it syncs as soon as the app is opened. Unlike the classic watch, the Health Mate app has a flat, modern design reminiscent of other top-notch fitness hubs. Syncing has gotten faster with recent firmware updates, but a full day's data still takes about 20 seconds. More worrisome was my discovery of "missing days" of data. If I didn't sync every day, a day or two (or more) would occasionally disappear...even if I was wearing the Pop for weeks at a time. Withings says the Pop only holds about a day and a half of data onboard. That's disappointing, and the biggest current drawback on the Activite Pop. If you're on a vacation where you're not syncing with your phone, you'll lose data. Other trackers hold a week or more without needing to sync.
Step counting works as on any other pedometer, except on the Activite Pop you'll only be able to see daily progress via a secondary dial on the watch face that goes from 0 to 100, marking the percent of your daily goal met. Right now that's a nonadjustable 10,000 steps, or 1,000 steps per dial marker. At midnight, the dial resets to zero.
The app shows steps, distance, and even automatically breaks down activity sessions. My 1-mile walk to work gets pulled out and recorded, so I can see how my daily commute was.
Sleep tracking also happens totally automatically. I go to bed and find that the Pop syncs my sleep data with fairly impressive accuracy. It gets my bedtime and wake time right most of the time, and doesn't get confused by my sitting sedentary on a sofa for a movie late at night. The Pop measures three levels of sleep: deep, light and awake. It's on par with other sleep-trackers using accelerometers like the Misfit Shine and Jawbone Up24 , but lacks the heart-rate input of more advanced trackers like the Microsoft Band and Basis Peak . Honestly, for the average person who just wants to do basic sleep-logging, this is a really nice solution.
The Health Mate app integrates with connected scales and blood pressure monitors, and works with MyFitnessPal and RunKeeper, too. It covers my bases for everyday fitness tracking and health monitoring, especially since I have high blood pressure.
The Pop's battery life is rated at 8 months with the included, replaceable CR2025 button-cell battery. (You can get a pack of five of those batteries at Amazon for about $4.) I had no way of verifying this, and right now the Withings app doesn't indicate the battery life remaining on the Pop. But that type of battery life means that you won't need to worry about charging. Not this week, not next, not for months. So far, I still haven't needed to pop in a new battery.
The future of everyday watches
There are bound to be more advanced fitness trackers than the Pop, and more advanced smartwatches, too. But the Activite Pop marks where the future of regular watches will be going. Tech that's invisible, and just works. Embedded sensors. Longer battery life, and less hassle. It can happen, with compromises.
The Activite Pop isn't perfection, but it's exactly the type of easy-to-use device smart wearables should aspire to be. And it's the best combination of easy-to-use form and function in a reasonably priced gadget. I like wearing it, and I bet many others will too, as long as your expectations don't exceed basic fitness tracking.