Withings Pulse O2 review: Fitness band plus heart rate monitor checks blood oxygen, too

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The Good Excellent pedometer, excellent app, affordably priced.

The Bad Can’t read your heart rate with the band on; screen is not always on, and terrible in bright daylight; not water-resistant.

The Bottom Line A new wristband and new firmware improve the Pulse and make it a true fitness band, but it's not a big leap forward over last year.

8.0 Overall
  • Style 8
  • Features 9
  • Ease of use 7

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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 .

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Horizontal view. The LED display flicker effect doesn't appear except in photographs. Sarah Tew/CNET

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.