"Wearable tech" circa 2013 seems to break down into either experimental gadgets (smartwatches, Google Glass, and the like), or health gear. The Withings Pulse falls into that latter category. It's a small black Bluetooth-enabled pedometer that joins the company's collection of Internet-connected scales and mobile-friendly blood pressure monitors.
Things haven't changed much in that wearable-pedometer space: in fact, the Withings Pulse looks a heck of a lot like the Fitbit One, down to the OLED display and black-stick-like design.
The difference is that the Pulse, true to its name, adds a pulse reader on the back. Withings claims this is the smallest device with a heart rate monitor. It certainly seems so: the Pulse is slight, smaller than an iPod Shuffle. You could lose it easily. But it's undeniably cool-looking, and more stylish than nearly any other product currently out there.
Some may prefer a more watchlike and even waterproof pedometer: those are all the rage lately, with the Fitbit Flex, Jawbone Up, and Nike FuelBand (water-resistant). The Pulse is more of a throwback to the clip-on pedometer than a true wearable wristband device. But, its modular design could be more flexible for those who don't like armbands.
Some might wonder, why not just use a pedometer app on a phone or MP3 player instead? (The Samsung Galaxy S4, for instance, has a built-in pedometer.) I found a standalone pedometer freed me from wearing down my iPhone battery charge -- and also made the Pulse a take-anywhere fitness device, much like the Fitbit.
I found the long battery life, and the ease of use, made it a convenient gadget to always carry around in my pocket.
The look: tiny, elegant...wanting a better wristband
Withings did a pretty great job with the Pulse's clean look. It's a beautiful design, reminiscent of Apple in its minimal lozenge-like appearance. But Withings may have gone too far with the minimalism: it's a solid slab of sleek black rubbery plastic without an integrated clip. I would have preferred a better connector for accessories than the little silicone clip case and the Velcro flexible night wristband that come with the Pulse. The clip attachment works well enough, much like the clip on the Fitbit Zip, but the Pulse's step-up design asks for step-up accessories.
The Pulse's rechargeable battery charges via a Micro-USB port on the bottom, but it doesn't sync via USB. In fact, it doesn't sync with Macs or PCs at all. You can only sync via Android or iOS, wirelessly, via Bluetooth. PC users might be upset about this -- in that case, get a Fitbit.
The Pulse charges up pretty quickly via USB, and the battery (rated for two weeks of use) lasted me about a week and a half on average. Even if the battery charge finally hits "low" and goes out, the Pulse lasts for 24 hours in a low-power mode that still records pedometer data, just in case you're on a killer workout and forgot to charge appropriately.
Display: Great, as long as it's not in the sun
Some pedometers like the Jawbone Up and Fitbit Flex have limited displays, or none at all. The Pulse has a 128x32-pixel blue OLED display that shows a lot of information: the time, steps taken, distance walked, calories burned, elevation actively climbed, and heart rate/sleep-racking data when turned on. The Pulse also records the intensity of your exercise, but that data's only visible via the app after it's been synced.
The Pulse display is touch-sensitive, too, but only for a simple set of one-finger swipes and touches. Each data point can be swiped back for previous days' readings: I was able to see how many steps I walked 2 days ago, for instance. In the current Pulse software update, I was limited to going 2 days back, but a future update should bump that up to 10 days.
All told, it's a ton of information, and it helps inspire confidence when walking just a little bit more. A little "10,000" number reminds you of the recommended goal of 10,000 steps a day, and the Withings app also counts up your activity time against the recommended weekly level.
To read the screen, you have to press the little button -- otherwise, it's all dark. The display is soft and readable indoors, but gets washed out quickly in bright sunlight. The soft-textured black surface through which the display pops up when lit has a pleasant matte, scuff-resistant feel, but a plain black-and-white backlit LCD might have been a better idea. Some prefer not to read pedometer data at all, but I like staring at my progress. If you cup your hand over the display, or don't face the Pulse directly toward the sun, you'll be fine.
As you'd hope and expect, syncing the Pulse is a breeze. The Pulse connects via Bluetooth to Android phones and iOS devices -- Android 2.3.3 and higher phones and tablets, and iOS devices (all iPads, iPhone 3GS and newer, and iPod Touch third-gen and newer) running iOS 5 or higher. The pairing process is simple; after that, once you've downloaded and logged into the Withings app, all you have to do is press and hold the Pulse's button for 3 seconds and it connects, syncs data, and disconnects. You don't have to have the app open, either. The Pulse stores up to 20 days of data, so it doesn't need to be synced on a daily basis.
Syncing went smoothly for me, with only instance where it needed to be paired again. Otherwise, the process is simple, and the Pulse stays unconnected when not in use, saving battery charge.
Withings app: A little world of devices and services
Withings has a little ace-in-the-hole in its app, which knits together data collected from various devices: the Withings Smart Body Analyzer wireless scale, an iOS-compatible blood pressure monitor, the BodyMedia armband, and the Zeo sleep-tracking headband. Other apps are also supported, including RunKeeper and MyFitnessPal. Withings promises "100+" apps that work with the Withings Health Cloud; I counted at least 70 on the Withings site, although they're not all intended for use with the Pulse specifically. The Fitbit products are compatible with a lot of apps, too, but not as many as Withings' seem to be.
The bottom line is: you'll have options for ways to take your data and connect it with other services, or even push out the pedometer use to a semi-full-scale tracking of weight, blood pressure, sleep quality, and heart rate. The Withings app, based on my use of it on an iPhone 5, works really well -- there are a number of charts for tracking data, syncing the Pulse was easy (with the exception of one hiccup that required re-pairing), and I felt motivated to use it.
The mobile app isn't as robust in its various data filters as I'd like, and you have to live with the presentation and coaching style that Withings has put together -- four different lobes around Weight, Activity, Sleep, and Heart, depending on what devices and services you funnel into it -- but it's cleanly laid out and does the job.
The Web site offers more of a complete graphing experience and other presentations of your workout data.
Pulse reader: A little heart rate love
The LED/photo-sensor heart rate reader on the back of the Pulse works like many others on smaller devices. It seemed to give an accurate-enough reading compared with other devices like the Basis Band. Activation is a bit unintuitive, though: you press the Pulse button to get to a graphic menu with an image of a heart, touch and hold the heart, and then hold your finger to the back panel when it's lit. You can also use the heart rate reader when it's attached to your wrist via the included band.
That band has a little cut-out square to allow the monitor to contact your skin when it's worn. The band could be used as a general way to wear the Pulse around, but I got pretty sweaty on a 93-degree day in New York and felt the Pulse getting damp; since it's not water-resistant, I wasn't sure what that would do to it in the long term. I used the band for sleep tracking, instead.
Starting sleep tracking involves the same tap-through-the-menu process as heart rate tracking, except you touch and hold a moon icon. A timer then starts...and you go to sleep. When you wake up, you press the button to end the tracking. The Pulse detects light and heavy sleep and sleep interruptions. (Based on the tracking of a few nights for me, I'm a pretty light sleeper.) The Pulse has a three-axis accelerometer to track motion.
It doesn't hurt to throw in sleep tracking among the Pulse's features, but it's probably the one I'll use least. It could be handy to time how many hours you sleep, if nothing else. I'm not sure I'd trust its accuracy beyond testing how much I roll over in the night, but it's a nice little reminder, at least in my case, that you haven't slept enough.
Conclusion: can this beat the Fitbit?
Fitbit is clearly Withing's chief competitor. The Fitbit's advantage is form: multiple designs, and even a wrist-wearable, waterproof fitness band in the Fitbit Flex.
The Withings Pulse, however, is really tough to beat on features and connected apps and health gadgets. It works like a charm and feels fun to use. However, it's not waterproof, isn't clearly readable outdoors, and lacks great wearable accessories: the included clip and wristband don't feel like they do the Pulse justice.
The core of the Pulse is excellent...but next time around, more attention should be paid to how easy and resilient it is to wear. Still, I'd recommend this version to anyone looking for a versatile pedometer and health tool to kick off some good habits. It's helped for me. I'll just keep hoping for better armbands and accessories.