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Fitness tracking, hiding in a normal watch

It looks like a regular watch. It feels like a regular watch. But underneath, it's a full Bluetooth fitness tracker. The Withings Activité is here, and it could show where watches are heading next.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
4 min read

On my wrist, I'm wearing a round white wristwatch with a leather band. Its metal hands are simple. Its design, kinda retro. There's no screen, no buttons.

"Is this a regular watch?" I've been asked when I show people. They can't see what's different. That's the clever part of the $450 Withings Activité: it's a regular wristwatch, with analog hands, a curved sapphire crystal dome and stainless-steel housing. It looks like it came out of my grandfather's keepsake drawer. But it's water-resistant to 5atm. And its inner battery lasts 8 months before it needs replacing.

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And -- oh, yes -- it also tells me my daily steps, tracks my sleep, vibrates to wake me up, and syncs with my phone.

If that sounds like a departure from the "everything but the kitchen sink" smartwatch approach of the Samsungs of the world, that's exactly the point. This is, instead, a slightly smarter watch -- a timepiece that opts for subtle, invisible, embedded features over glowing touch displays and speakers. It's like the feature phone of watches.

And even if it's not as smart as a smartwatch, it might be an even smarter idea.

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Wearing it

I've been using the Activité for a few days and will post a review once I've worn it and collected data over a few weeks. But know this isn't a super-duper heart-rate-tracking bleeding-edge gadget like the Microsoft Band. In fact, it's nearly the complete opposite. It does just a few simple things: it counts steps to show you your progress via a daily-goal dial (10,000 steps is the default, but you can adjust it to your liking), it logs your sleep and it has a built-in vibration alarm clock.

What it does, it does automatically, smoothly and effortlessly. In fact, I barely had to do anything at all. Sleep tracking happens without pressing a button, and it got my bedtime and wake time pretty accurately over the first few days I've worn it. The simple "progress" dial versus a running step count means you won't get a lot of feedback through the day, but the watch does buzz gently when you hit your step goal.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Activité is, overall, smaller and slighter than I expected. It's a bit delicate on my wrist. But that's largely because many modern men's watches go for really large faces and straps. This feels more like a throwback from a few decades ago. The Activité comes in two designs: one with a black watch and strap, and the white watch with brown strap I have as a review sample. It looks good on female wrists, too: Bridget Carey tried it on in the office and liked it a lot.

A few design differences

There's no crown on the watch at all: serious watch collectors might freak out at that. You adjust the time and all settings via the Withings Health app on an iPhone (Android support coming next year). An included pin tool, pressed into a recessed area on the back, starts Bluetooth pairing with your phone. Once it's connected, it syncs to the proper time. You can set an alarm, too, also via the phone app. The wake-up call comes a gentle pulsing buzz. It may be a bit too gentle, because I slept through the silent alarm one morning. To check your alarm, you can double-tap on the Activité watch's sapphire crystal and see the minute and hour hands leap to the preset alarm time, then crawl back to the current time, like a Mary Poppins clockwork trick.

That's the only mechanical trick you can make the Activité pull off. The rest is embedded, and so hidden it's nearly a smartwatch in disguise. A future firmware update will allow the Activité to track swimming as well as walking and running: an included silicone wristband, easily snapped off and on in place of the leather one, makes the watch fully 5atm water resistant.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Because it's a completely traditional watch design, there are some drawbacks: there's no backlight, for instance, for night walks or runs (or even, while sleeping). There's no date readout, either. After a year of glowing-screen watches and vibrating notifications on my wrist, the Activité was almost shockingly low-key. I felt disconnected from my phone. But to some, that might be a good thing. This is a background-tracking device, something that works without you noticing it.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A classic watch, a modern app

Compared with the retro watch, the Withings app is all cutting-edge clean, flat design: the Activité's measurements fold into Withings' deep health hub, which works with Withings connected scales, blood pressure monitors, the Aura sleep-tracker bed system, and the RunKeeper, BodyMedia and MyFitnessPal apps. The Activité can track intense (running) versus casual (walking) activity via its embedded accelerometer, which is also how it measures sleep: light, deep and waking, just like basic fitness trackers such as the Fitbit Charge , Jawbone Up and Misfit Shine .

Sarah Tew/CNET

Sign of just-a-bit-smart watches to come?

The Activité isn't a smartwatch: it's a smartly connected watch. And that could be its genius. True, $450 is a lofty price for a watch brand that's untested (it costs £320 in the UK; pricing for Australia isn't available, but converting the US price pegs it around AU$554), but this points the way toward what we could be seeing everywhere by the middle of 2015: regular watches with a bit of extra smarts thrown in just under the surface.