Like many geeks, I sit on my backside all day. Since I started jogging (using Get Running, naturally) I’ve been fitter, but I’ve not lost any of my over-ample girth. Over the course of this winter I’ve probably gained a stone1.
At nearly 18 stone2 now, something needs to be done. And what does a geek do when faced with a weight problem? Well, if it’s bonus month, the first thing he does is to buy a Wi-Fi enabled scale, of course!
The Internet of Things
The idea behind the Withings body scale is a simple one. Scales are getting more complicated — measuring your body fat as well as your weight, keeping records, in some cases even drawing graphs on their little displays.
But interfacing with a bathroom scale is hard. My current Tanita body fat scale needs me to kick it to wake it up and zero itself before I use it, and if I want a BMI reading from it, I’ve got to tell it whether I’m male or female, and type in my height first — with my toes. This is not the best user experience in the world. Nor is reading the little screen before the first coffee of the morning has crowbarred my eyes open.
My new Wi-Fi-enabled scale is meant to solve this problem. Part of the new “Internet of Things”, it’s designed to have a larger virtual life, extending its humble real-world existence onto the web.
By connecting your scale to the net, you can move the user interface to a computer, and use a decent keyboard and a screen. You can use a server on the internet as your scale’s “memory”. You can look at big pretty graphs in colour on your 24” monitor instead of a tiny monochrome screen. And you can back up and share your data easily. Your weight, in the cloud…
Does the reality match the idea? That’s what we’re going to find out…
Ordering and Price
Withings are a French firm, and the body scale isn’t widely stocked in the UK. None of the official UK stockists is a physical shop. Withings do have a seller account on Amazon UK, so I bought the scale through them; total cost £128 including £9 shipping. Shipping from France was trouble-free; the scale arrived within 48 hours.
£128 may seem like a crazy price for a bathroom scale, unless you’ve bought body-fat measuring scales before. The prices for these — which measure your body fat percentage by passing a (tiny!) electrical current through you, from foot to foot — are on the high side.
£60 is about entry-level. But the Withings isn’t entry-level. The Tanita BC545, to pick a roughly comparable example, is on special offer at £157 on Amazon at the moment. It does much of what the Withings does, but it’s not Wi-Fi connected, so it’s got a user interface from hell, with about 15 toe-pushable buttons, plus a bargraph crammed into its titchy display. Seriously. Go look at the thing!
The scale is a black slab of glass, with a solid-feeling silver plastic underbelly that’s concealed when the scale is on the floor. All you see is a glossy black square with pleasingly-rounded corners, with a circle of steel at the centre. From many angles, it’s only the Withings name on the front edge that tells you that you’ve put them on the floor the right way around.
Pulling the 3kg-ish scale — also available in white, by the way — out of the box revealed four Duracell AA batteries, four optional stick-on feet (to help the scale work better on carpet), a USB cable, and a tape measure.
I had one quibble with the hardware. One of the batteries was very loose in its slot. I just bent one of the terminals in by a millimetre with the end of a teaspoon and the problem was fixed, but at £128 I would have hoped for better quality-control.
Naturally, I didn’t read the paper instructions. I’m a geek. I just headed for the URL written on the peelable label on the top of the scale — start.withings.com.
Setting up the scale is a combination of setting up a MyWithings account and getting the scale ready and paired with it.
The website asked me to register with an email address and password. Then it successfully figured out I was on a Mac, and invited me to download the setup software. Apparently the software is also available for Windows and Linux, so they’re clearly making a decent effort to be cross-platform.
The easy steps through the “Pairing Wizard” had me hook up my scale by USB, downloaded the latest firmware to it, got it connected to my wireless network, and paired it with my new MyWithings account. I pretty much just followed simple instructions and clicked “next” a few times to do all that.
All I needed to do to the scale itself was set the units of measurement. That’s done with a small switch on the underside of the scale. A feature that surprised me, but warmed my old-fashioned heart, was the ability to choose not just kilos or pounds, but also stones-and-pounds3.
The web-based setup asked me for my weight, to which my immediate response was, “uuuh… shouldn’t you be telling me that? You’re the scale!” But I think this is so that if you set up multiple users, it has a chance of guessing who’s who on their first weigh in.
My scale was paired, my my.withings.com account set up and a new user created for my measurements (one scale can track up to eight different users.) I disconnected the USB cable, turned the scale the right way up, and stepped on. Unlike my old Tanita, the Withings scale doesn’t need a kick to zero it before you get on, which is nice.
Apart from the bad news about my actual weight — which was unfortunately quite believable — everything went smoothly. My weight popped up on the snazzy little matrix display, and when I got off the scales, a little Wi-Fi symbol appeared there. I checked the website a few seconds later, and there it was — my first weigh-in!
(No; the weight in the picture is not my weight. It’s just hard to take a picture of the scale’s display when you’re actually standing on it :) )
On your very first weigh-in, the scales don’t know who you are — they connect to the net only after a weigh-in. Because of this, they won’t measure body fat or BMI. I guess they need to know some user details (sex, age and height?) to work those out, and to display the “healthy” range you should be in.
After the first weigh in, things get smarter. The second time I stepped on the scale it greeted me with “MAT” in the top of its display. It had figured out who I was, and was indicating the (user-changeable) three-letter nickname from my user account.
This time my weight displayed, and the scale also told me my body fat percentage and BMI, along with a little graph showing where I was compared with “healthy” ranges. Again, the figures were depressing, but consistent with my old scale.
If you’ve got multiple users, the scale tries to tell you apart biometrically when you step on. From what I can glean from the forums, the recognition is based on the weight the scale reads compared to the weight of everyone at their last weigh-in. I didn’t test this, but “nearest weight” seems like an algorithm that’ll work okay in most households.
If the scale can’t decide who you are out of a couple of people it knows about, it’ll display both user nicknames and ask you to lean to one side or the other to select the right person, which is an interestingly Wii-like bit of user interfacing.
For every weigh-in I’ve done since, the scale has been in my bathroom, which is a good test of the Wi-Fi. My bathroom’s as far away from my base station as you can get in my flat, and there’s two very solid walls in between the base station and the scale4. Every reading has been successfully transmitted in the time it’s taken me to walk back to my Mac and check the website.
If your Wi-Fi network is down for a while, the scale will remember up to 32 weigh-ins, and transmit them the next time it can see the internet.
So, the physical scale really is just a smart lump of mostly-glass that needs no complicated interaction. You step on; you read the numbers; you cry a little bit (optional); you step off. It couldn’t get easier5.
The main event with this scale is the virtual side of things, primarily the MyWithings website — the data, the graphs, and the connections you can make from it.
The graphs are the website’s main feature, taking up the bulk of the display. As well as your weight graph, you can choose a secondary graph that’s important to you — fat or lean mass — and display it below the weight graph.
Other things you can graph are height — presumably good for kids — and blood pressure, from Withings’ other “Internet Thing”, a blood-pressure monitor.
A pop-up area on the right-hand side shows you individual weigh-in details. From here it’s easy to add a new weight reading manually, or to delete weigh-ins. You can also set targets for your weight or body fat, and the site will add an “objective” line to the graphs, and optionally drop you an “Objectives Report” email once a week to let you know how you’re getting on.
I’m not a great fan of the look of the website. It’s one of those predominantly black interfaces that’s trying for “cool” rather than “friendly”. If you like the look of Tweetdeck you’ll probably get along with it, if you know what I mean. It’s all darkness-with-electric-highlights, and to me has the visual feel of a first cut of a design that someone needs to spend more time on.
On the other hand, it is actually pretty usable, with most tasks being obvious and easy. I didn’t manage to break anything or get myself into a mess when I investigated various links and widgets. Some things took some working out — that you can click and enter your “obective” weight rather than clumsily dragging a slider around, say — but on the whole the experience is good.
There’s generous help available on the website, too, covering everything from basic set-up to more esoteric things in your web “dashboard”, though some of the instructions are a little out-of-date6.
The MyWithings site can also broadcast your weight to other users and third-party services.
You can share your data with other users of your own scale, or anyone else with a (free) Withings account, like a personal trainer, say. Web services you can throw your weight around at include Twitter, Google Health and Microsoft HealthVault. There’s even an option to export your graphs as PDFs, if you want to print them out for sharing.
(Through a different section of the site, you can also export your weight data as CSV. It’s always good to see a simple raw export option from a website.)
There are other Withings data “consumers” not mentioned on the Sharing page; for those you set things up from the third-party website instead. RunKeeper, for example, is one of these — it uses my weight to help figure out how many calories I’ve burned on a run, and can pull a feed from Withings to keep track of my weight automatically.
In practice, I found the sharing easy to use. I put a widget in the sidebar of my running blog easily enough. Connecting with RunKeeper account went smoothly, too, once I’d actually found the right button7.
Bizarrely, though, it seems to default to tweeting your location, which seems a little over-sharey. And there’s also no way of turning that off.
It’s not like the scale has a GPS unit, though, so it won’t pinpoint your house. In fact, it locates me in Craven, North Yorkshire, which is nearly as far away as you can get from Bristol while still being in England, hundreds of miles adrift.
If you do want an accurate location, you seem to be out of luck. There’s no way of setting it manually8.
The Flash site isn’t terrible news for iPhone and iPad users. Withings provide a free app called WiScale to use instead. It’s a cute little app (albeit inflicted with the same color scheme as the website) and it’s got some nice iPhone-y features. A knurled wheel scrolls you through your weigh-ins when in portrait mode, and when you turn to landscape mode, your graphs appear, all pleasantly draggable and squeezable for your interfacing pleasure.
There’s also an Android app. And even if there’s not a specific Withings app for your platform, there may still be a weight-tracking app that can take a feed from your scale.
Freedom and Risk
There’s no subscription fee for any of the Withings services. It’s very much like the Kindle — you buy the device, and the infrastructure comes for free, for life.
Of course, having your scale live in the cloud is not without its dangers. I’m personally not too worried about privacy; I bought the scale so I could share my weight with the world. And you can always lie a bit about your date of birth when it asks if you’re worried about that.
But what if Withings goes bust? We’re in some fairly nasty economic times right now. If Withings disappears, so might the servers that run the scale infrastructure, and the MyWithings site. I’d lose the ability to see my past weigh-ins, to share with Twitter, or to add new users, at the very least. At which point I’m left with a very expensive scale and not much to show for it.
This is the main chance you take with the cloud, I think. With greater rewards — the interconnectedness, the extra value added by the website and the connections to other services, all managed for you by Withings — there’s going to be a bit of extra risk. You’ve got to have confidence not just in the device you’re buying, but also in the company behind it.
I think it’s a chance worth taking — but it’s definitely worth bearing in mind when you’re buying.
Of course, even if Withings did disappear overnight, unlikely though that is, you still might not be left completely high and dry. I see that one enterprising hacker has already Wiresharked his Withings scale and decoded enough of the protocol to have his scale send data to his own server rather than to Withings’! (If you read his blog entry, bear in mind that I didn’t experience any of the slowness he’d found a problem with the MyWithings website. Maybe that’s I’m just a lot closer to Paris!)
Obviously, it’s in Withings’ interests to encourage as many third parties as possible to join up with their scales, and their API seems to back this up. You can freely access the API for non-commercial use (commercial use is negotiable). They provide example code in PHP, and even a sample iPhone application.
It’s a REST-based API that looks easy to use, and returns JSON data in response. For fiddling about with your own account, the my.withings.com website provides your user ID and public key (resettable on demand) under the “Share” settings, letting you dive in and start playing. I had a little go using wget and successfully retrieved my weight measurements very easily. This opens up the ability for you to do pretty much anything with the data from your scales, including rolling your own Twitter posting, making prettier widgets, and so on.
For extra geek-points, the API has both “pull” and “push” facility, meaning you don’t have to keep on polling it for data — Withings will give you a prod whenever a scale user you’re interested in registers a new reading, after you’ve registered an interest in them.
Apart from my minor annoyance with the loose battery connector, the Withings hardware is excellent. It looks good, it feels solid, and the fundamental idea of it — moving the user interface from the scale to your computer or phone — is the way of the future for many household devices.
After a week of weighing, the weight measurement seems consistent, and the body fat measurement, while a little variable at the start — possibly because I wasn’t so consistent with my weigh-in time — seems to have settled down, too. I can’t fully judge the accuracy, but the measurements are close to those from my old scale, and look about right for me.
The Wi-Fi hardware and firmware seems totally reliable, faultlessly connecting to my Wi-Fi network and transmitting my weight every time without a problem.
Withings also get bonus points for supporting Mac, Windows and Linux with their setup software.
I can’t, in all conscience, criticise the MyWithings website too much. The only things I’m not really convinced about are the Flash-ness (mitigated by native iOS apps) and the look of the interface, which is a matter of personal taste9, after all. Ignoring those quibbles, the site is easy to use and seems reliable and fast. The graphs are easy to read, and changing the settings, sharing your data and setting objectives are all simple to get to grips with.
Apart from the odd over-enthusiasm the scale has for Tweeting your (incorrect) location, the sharing options are good and seem to work well. My weight in RunKeeper stays up to date, the widget on my running blog shows my latest details, and my Tweets are indeed being sent weekly, albeit from North Yorkshire.
In conclusion, the Withings body scale gets a lot of things right, and not much wrong. It’s a good scale that adds a lot of value through its Wi-Fi connection, website and associated services; a good example of the “internet of things”. And, so far, it’s helping me lose weight. Recommended.
Amazon link: Withings Body Scale, sold by Witings SA
- Fourteen pounds, or around six and a half kilos, for leftpondians and SI-lovers respectively. ↩
- 252lbs, or 114kg. ↩
- Yes, I’m a metric kid, but for some reason most of my generation still seems to measure two things in Imperial units — weight and road distance. I was brought up on kilometres and kilos, but it’s still a hundred miles to London, and I still want to be a few stone lighter. ↩
- And when I say “very solid”, I’m talking Georgian basement walls supporting a three-storey house, and they weren’t fooling around when they were putting houses up in the 1760s, believe me. ↩
- Unless it quietly weighed you while you were sleeping, and that would probably be a bit too creepy. ↩
- For example, you can indeed add a comment to each weight entry (“Ooops! I shouldn’t have had that second dessert yesterday!”), but it seems to be done through clicking on the graph itself, rather than the non-existent “Insert comment here” section of the control panel described in the help. ↩
- if you’re looking, it’s under “Sharing” options on the RunKeeper website, even if that does seem a bit arse-backwards. ↩
- I did look for help on that on the Withings forums, but couldn’t search for information because, apparently, both “twitter” and “location” are words too common to use as a search term. Erm. Well, maybe that indicates that there’s lots of useful information on the forum, but it doesn’t help much if you can’t find it… ↩
- And I’m given to understand that there are actually human beings who like the way TweetDeck looks. ↩