Review Corner: Withings Activité Steel

Posted by on Sep 26, 2016 in gadgets, Geekery, Reviews, Updates | No Comments
Review Corner: Withings Activité Steel

I’ve had a Withings Activité Steel on my wrist for about five months. The Steel is, in some ways, the smart watch I’d been waiting for. Not as swanky and expensive as the original Activité, and not as cheap and poppy as the Swatch-like Activité Pop.

It is by no means perfect, but on balance the good things outweigh the bad for me. I thought a summary of the good and the bad might be helpful.

Setup

The setup experience was not smooth. The instructions were poor—download the Withings app, it said. And that was all it said. I already had the Withings app installed on my phone, because I own their Body Scale, so this instruction left my high and dry.

And Another Error

When I figured out what I needed to do in the Withings app, I was also stymied. “An error occurred”. After a lot of error messages and some Googling and a reset of the watch involving pressing a button on the back cover seven times in a row and waving a dead chicken over it—though I may be misremembering that last bit—I finally got the watch set up. Several minus points to Withings, but I’ve got to assume that I was a bit unlucky here.

Looks

I like the look of the Steel. The somewhat bulging back is cunningly minimised by the curve from the thinner case edges; the face is simple and elegant, the steel and white work well together. Of all the popular activity trackers, this is the one that looks the most like a watch, and not just that, but a watch I might actually have considered buying simply as a watch.

Activité Steel on the Wrist

It’s not all great—I find the light-grey-on-white of the hour divisions hard to see, and the reflective steel hands sometimes fade into the white face, depending on what they happen to be reflecting. I should probably have bought the version with the black face; it looks more contrasty.

Ten to TwoIt is, I would submit, not as good-looking a watch as the actual watch it replaced; Skagen’s Danish design pops out from the competition in the cheaper end of the watch market. But it is certainly not unattractive.

Being a ditzy fool who often works for himself from home, I normally buy a watch with a date/day readout, so it took me a long time to stop looking at the Steel, sighing, and then taking my phone out of my pocket instead to find out what day it was…

Activité Steel Rear Case

Telling the Time

Speaking of the time display, here’s something that very nearly broke the deal for me. The Activité Steel sometimes can’t tell the time. Three times now, I’ve noticed that the time on the watch isn’t actually right. You’d think this should be impossible with an electronic watch that regularly syncs with an iPhone that always displays the right time, but it’s not.

Three times now I’ve had to recalibrate the watch: make sure that its hands point to 12 o’clock at their “rest” posiiton. Because otherwise it’s been a few minutes slow.

Calibration

This “drift” from the right time has seemed to coincide with long drives for me, so my guess is that it’s something to do with continuous vibration at a particular angle—perhaps the drive of the watch slips slightly, putting the hands out of alignment. Whatever causes it, it’s annoying. I missed a ferry once because I left the house too late, as my watch was slow.

This is not a problem that a watch should have in 2016. I have purely clockwork watch from the 1960s that keeps better time (well done, Omega!)

Luckily, like I say, it doesn’t happen often. I just checked the calibration for the first time in a month and the watch was a single minute fast. I can live with that, though it’s obviously not ideal.

Activity Tracking

Happily, the Activité does its main job very well. It tracks steps, and it displays those steps on its little inset movement dial, and it reports those steps to the Withings app on my phone with very little in the way of manual intervention (the app needs restarting sometimes, after an update, say, and a notification will remind me to manually kick-start it, but this is infrequent and unproblematic.)

Movement dial

I’ve found the step-counting reliable, and the dial easy to read—it helps that my goal is 10,000 steps per day, so for me there are 1,000 steps per 10% division. (If you go over your target, the dial re-starts at zero. This is fine; I know if I’ve already done 10,000 steps in a day. My feet certainly know.)

The Activité doesn’t track cycling, which is one of my activities, but not a major one. Apparently it auto-detects swimming, which is impressive but not that useful to me.

It also tracks my sleep well. I swapped from using the excellent Sleep Cycle app, but I overlapped the Activité Steel and Sleep Cycle for a while to compare them, and the sleep records matched up very well. The Activité auto-detects sleep rather than needing me to start off a session manually, which makes it easier to use than Sleep Cycle.

The Withings app shows information from other Withings devices, like the scale and blood pressure monitor, and syncs with Withings’ web version of Health Mate (which has improved quite a lot since I first encountered it in 2011) as well as the Apple Health app.

The Health Mate app gives you notifications—congratulations on record step counts for a particular day of the week, for example—and Withings send you a weekly summary by email. I feel that there’s a lot of ways to see my data, plus you can download the raw readings from the website easily if you fancy doing more personal slicing and dicing.

Alarm

The Steel has a built-in alarm. It’s a simple vibration system, enough to wake me up, but quite subtle if I’m already awake. This is just as well, as you have to let it get its eight buzzes out—there’s no way of shutting it up mid-flow. You can at least tell it to only wake you up on certain days, so it’s easy to have a lie-in at the weekends. As with the Sleep Cycle app I used to use, you can set it to wake you in a window of time where the sleep tracker thinks you’re sleeping lightly anyway, which is a nice feature.

There’s an annoyingly double-edged feature to go with the alarm. There’s really swanky way of showing the alarm time: tap on the face of the watch a few times and its hands swivel around to the alarm time, pause there for a few seconds, then sweep back to the current time.

This would be a great demonstration for the watch—a real “impress your friends” party trick—if it were reliable. As it is, it sometimes takes me a few tries to get the Activité to strut its stuff (yes, I know you’ve got to hold still for a while before tapping), so I’ve become loath to show this feature off, lest I end up surrounded by confused friends as I continue slapping the face of what looks like an old-fashioned analogue watch and saying, “no, honest, it’s a smart watch. Hang on, let me have another go…”

Straps

The straps that come with the Steel are both good and bad. Good because they’re easy-change, with each strap having a little bolt-like fitting that lets you easily remove the strap and swap it for another. Bad in that they’re silicone, which my wrist turned out to have a problem with.

Activité Steel and black additional strap

That problem being, I think, the lack of breathability. I don’t think the angry red rash that appeared on my wrists under the strap was an allergy, because it didn’t flare up until the warmer months arrived. I was fine in April and May, but come June’s warmer weather, all of a sudden my wrist was a red, itchy ring. I experimentally swapped my Steel to my right wrist and the red, itchy ring appeared there, too, before the one on my left wrist faded.

Activité Steel Silicone Strap Rash

Luckily, as well as the quick-release, the Withings watch has another excellent feature: completely standard watch strap fittings. I ordered a replacement 18mm NATO-style strap in canvas from Amazon, swapped out the non-breathing silicone, and my rash problems disappeared and have never come back. Because it’s easily removable and washable, I just run my strap through the wash every month or so to keep it nice and fresh and, frankly, not smelling of summer wrist-sweat, and everything’s great. (Tip: put your strap in a sock and tie up the end, then wash it along with the rest of the washing. Less chance of it getting caught in your washing machine mechanism.)

I think the Activité looks pretty damn good on a NATO strap.

NATO-style

 

Battery

A major attraction of the Activité is the long, long battery life.

Withings say the battery lasts nine months. It’s lasted six months for me so far, and I have no reason to believe it won’t carry on another three. This is fabulous, because it means I just don’t have to worry about it.

This lack of a daily recharge cycle—unlike, say, the Apple Watch—means I can easily use the Steel for sleep tracking as well as daytime activity tracking. I don’t have to carry support gear for my watch on holiday with me: no cable, no dock, no nothing. The battery is a very standard CR2025 and any decent watch repair shop in the world should be able to swap a new one in for you from stock.

This is great, and it’s a standout feature of the Activité range for me.

pile_bouton_au_lithium_3v_cr2025_-_2

Photo: Lionel Allorge

Robustness

The Steel has lived on my wrist for 155 days now, pretty much non-stop. I usually take it off to shower, but it’s certainly showered with me occasionally. I’ve worn it to do the washing up, to walk hundreds of thousands of steps, to cycle in the rain, to walk on sandy beaches, to ascend one of the UK’s biggest hills—you get the picture. I don’t exactly have an adventurous lifestyle, but the watch gets about. It’s survived extremely well. I’ve had no issues whatever with the waterproofing, and the glass is only showing a couple of minor scratches, the kind that any watch glass tends to accumulate through daily wear-and-tear.

Sapphire

If I’d wanted more robustness, then the original Activité—now rebranded to sit alongside its cheaper brethren, the Steel and the Pop, as the Sapphire—would have been the better bet. As you’ve guessed, the “Sapphire” bit refers to the watch crystal, which is scratch-proof sapphire glass. (You also get a fancy leather strap and a more elegant face in this Swiss-made variant.)

Withings Activité Sapphire
Photo: Withings

On the other hand, the Sapphire’s £320 price tag is the reason I waited for the Steel to come out.

Summary

And the price tag of the Steel is still the clincher for me. Despite its foibles, the Activité Steel is an attractive, non-geeky-looking activity tracker whose battery lasts nine months, and whose core step- and sleep-tracking function works very well, for £140. Checking Amazon today, they’re down to £120. 

There are plenty of other activity trackers on the market, but the only one I’d prefer to the Steel is an imaginary product: the Steel, only with some of its little problems fixed. If it didn’t need its occasional recalibration; if I could always read the time easily, rather than occasionally being stymied by its reflective hands; if its straps hadn’t given me a rash; if I could reliably get it to show me the alarm time. But these irritants have been only occasional or, in the case of the straps, easily overcome, and I’ve grown fond of this watch over the last six months.

It’s not going to be leaving my wrist any time soon.

Activité Steel on Wrist

The Future

Recently, two things have happened at Withings.

The first is that they were bought by Nokia. Given that I like the Steel, but feel a little let down by the finishing touches, hopefully Nokia can provide a bit more testing and engineering knowledge while letting the product people at Withings keep coming up with good ideas. Corporate takeovers very rarely work out the way you want, though. Let’s hope Nokia and Withings can do justice to that terrifying corporate buzz-word, “synergy”.

The second is that Withings announced the Steel HR. This looks very much like the Activité Steel with one upside and, as usual, a corresponding downside: it’s got a heart rate monitor built in, but the battery lasts for 25 days rather than nine months. Still, charging once every 25 days is not a terrible inconvenience, and it gives you enough time to go on holiday without bothering to take your charger with you.

The other features seem unaffected: you can still swim with it, it still tracks your steps and sleep, and so forth.

The Steel HR looks like an interesting development, and the £169.95 price tag is pretty good considering all the features. That’s only £50 more than the Steel.

Will I buy one? I might just ride out the early reviews and make sure there’s nothing too annoying going on. If it turns out that Withings have solved some of the problems—perhaps the Steel HR can reliably tell the time, say—I’ll definitely consider it an upgrade. From the pictures, it seems like you can even have a date display…

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