What makes a good fitness tracker on your wrist? A comfortable fit, obviously, but also the appropriate type of easy-to-use functions, no-nonsense wireless syncing with a good app, and a very readable display. The Withings Pulse , previously one of CNET's top fitness trackers, is small, can read your heart rate, and has a great Withings app and ecosystem that connects to other health gadgets. All it needed was a stylish wristband to pop into.
Now it has one, along with a new firmware update enabling blood oxygen reading and a redesigned app, and the whole package has been renamed Withings Pulse O2. So why was I less excited about it? Maybe because the landscape's changing so fast. But for its price, this Pulse still has a lot to offer. And now that the Fitbit Force is no longer on the market and the future of the Nike FuelBand is unclear, the Withings Pulse O2 is one of the best tracker-bands with a screen on the market...if you can live with some of its design flaws.
What's new: O2 reading, and a watchband
If you own one of last year's Withings Pulse pedometers, here's the great news: a simple firmware update and one of the new wristbands, which will only cost you $10 via Withings, gets you everything the Pulse O2 offers.
What you get in software is a new vertical watch-face mode that works with the band, and an additional way for the heart rate monitor to also show your blood O2 levels. It's now essentially a pulse oximeter, like what you'd use in a hospital. It's a useful addition if you need to check your oxygen, but both the heart rate monitoring and O2 reading have to be done when standing still and using your finger: it's not a continuous tracker like you get on some bands like the Samsung Gear Fit .
The band: Easy fit, awkward as a watch
The new band has soft rubber straps and a black aluminum clasp that the Pulse slides into. It holds the Pulse securely and attaches cleanly, fastening like a regular watch band so it won't fall off your wrist. The band can be replaced with other regular watchbands, too: Withings offers other color options, or you can be creative. With the Pulse in the band, it looks reasonably attractive, and has a horizontal style like the Nike FuelBand and Samsung Gear Fit.
A new vertical watch face lets you easily check time with a press of a button, but pedometer readings are ridiculously small at the bottom, impossible to glance at without a magnifying glass. But, the previous Pulse didn't have pedometer readings in its clock display at all. The design of the Pulse's display is odd, too: a soft matte surface has a glowing blue LED screen beneath it, like the FuelBand. But the FuelBand writes its numbers in huge dots: this display has smaller fonts, and text looks fuzzy through the matte surface. In bright daylight, it's basically unreadable. And you need to press that side button to light the display.
The rest of the Pulse's display modes are all still horizontal, though, which means you have to twist your wrist to use it properly. And flipping the main clock to horizontal isn't possible on the Pulse itself; you have to change the setting on the Withings app and re-sync.
Sliding the Pulse in and out gets tricky, and feels like it'll scrape the Pulse's soft finish. And you'll need to take it out to read your heart rate: it requires your finger to use, and there's no hole in the back of the band to take readings, which gets seriously annoying.
But, if you just consider the new Pulse band as an added convenience, it's better than anything the little fitness tracker had before.
The Pulse as fitness tracker
The Withings Pulse is still one of the best pure pedometers out there, if you care about accurate readings, easy syncing, and a detailed, data-rich app. The Pulse has its own LED display that shows steps taken, distance traveled, elevation climbed, estimated calories burned. It also tells the time, and can track sleep and read heart rate.
Each function pops up with a click of the top button. The display is also touch-sensitive, and with a finger-swipe you can dig back to previous days' readings. The Pulse stores the last 10 days of data.
Syncing with Android or iOS is as simple as pressing and holding the top button for three seconds, or waiting for the Pulse to sync automatically via the Withings Health Mate app. The Pulse O2 also works with a wide variety of phones: iOS 5 on an iPhone, iPad, or third-gen iPod Touch or later; or Android 2.3.3 on a phone or tablet, is all you need -- which includes some iPhones and Android phones that don't always work with other recent Bluetooth fitness trackers.
The Pulse can also be worn as a simple clip-on device: for $119, you get the Pulse plus a wristband and a rubber clip accessory. In clip mode, it's actually easier to use.
Heart rate readings seemed accurate compared to gym equipment I tested against. The data is collected and graphed in the Withings app, but no extra coaching is offered on the device itself. There is, however, in-app coaching, similar to what Jawbone offers, but more along the lines of health suggestions based on your data.
Sleep tracking needs to be started before going to sleep, but turns off automatically: waking up and taking ten steps will shut it off. I like checking how much I'm sleeping, but the Pulse makes you click through three menus and then touch a display to either a heart or moon-shaped icon to start heart rate measurement or sleep tracking. It's too many clicks and swipes and touches, and isn't intuitive.
One more important note: the Pulse isn't water-resistant. A Micro-USB charge port pops out the side, which at least avoids the need for a dongle, but also means you can't get the tracker wet. Other bands can be worn in heavy rain or in a shower.
Withings claims two weeks of Pulse use on a single charge. A full charge of the Pulse got me about 10 days of use with the older model. I've only been using the current one for a few days so far.
Health Mate app: Lots of health options
Withings has a nice ecosystem in its Health Mate app, and a new redesign offers a cleaner timeline for collected data, more like what the Jawbone Up offers. There's an attempt at social competition, too, with new fitness goal challenges, but the app doesn't connect to Facebook and makes you email an invitation or scan for local devices via Bluetooth. The newest version of Health Mate also allows iPhone 5s users to tap into the M7 chip and use their phone as a pedometer if they don't have their Pulse (or, if you don't own a Pulse at all and want to use the Withings app). I tested the Pulse O2 on an iPhone 5s.
The Health Mate app also has new reminders for various health-encouraging habits: sleep more, or drink more water, or take your blood pressure. The app can ping you with these reminders, and they're generated based on what the data you're sending to the app. In the few days I used the Pulse O2, I couldn't get a strong sense of the coaching, but I'll update this in a week or so.
Withings has a wireless scale and blood pressure monitor that sync with the app, and combine to form a more detailed health-profiling ecosystem. You can also link a BodyMedia armband, if you have one. The app links with RunKeeper, Runtastic and MyFitnessPal, too.
Conclusion: A new band on an old tracker
Credit goes to Withings for allowing current Pulse owners to get some new ways to use their tracker, but the Pulse O2 as a wearable fitness band lacks the type of display I'd like to make this easy to use when working out.
Still, the added features and the affordability of the whole package make the Pulse one of the more attractive fitness bands-as-watches out there, especially now that the Fitbit Force isn't on the market and the FuelBand's future is in question. It works in tandem with a variety of useful Withings health hardware accessories, too. The Pulse O2 isn't a fitness band of the future. It is, however, a very welcome upgrade for the present.