Withings has returned as its own company after a short stint under Nokia, and it’s brought out some new fitness trackers to take on the top contenders. The $ 129 Withings Pulse HR looks and acts much like Fitbit’s Alta HR: its svelte, rectangular module tracks heart rate all day and night as well as daily activity and workouts.
Plenty of fitness trackers have debuted in the past couple of years, but the Alta HR remains our top pick for most users. Withings is hoping to dethrone it in the minds of the public by offering a device that’s even more subtle in design and promises weeks of battery life. But those things aren’t achievable without sacrifices, and the options Withings left out of the Pulse HR may deter some from choosing it.
The Pulse HR may be nondescript, but that doesn’t mean it’s not solid. Stainless steel makes up most of the module, along with a polycarbonate surface coating that makes the top part soft to the touch. The OLED display is only as big as it has to be—it doesn’t take up the entire flat surface of the modular, rather only the middle third or so.
Its minimalistic nature makes viewing it in direct sunlight easy, but the screen is tap only. A press of the single side button or a tap on the display’s surface cycles through the time and stats including heart rate, steps, and battery life. Tapping didn’t always register for me, so I used the side button most of the time. It also has the traditional raise-to-wake feature that reveals the clock whenever you turn your wrist upward. Unfortunately, that feature was finicky as well, with the device only waking the screen about half of the times I consulted my wrist for the time.
At 45 grams, the Pulse HR is quite light, making it one of the most comfortable devices to sleep with. Its heart-rate monitor keeps track of pulse all day and all night, so its design had to be suitable for 24-hour wear. You could even wear it in the shower thanks to its 50m water resistance, but I opted not to do that.
Its bands are also interchangeable, extending the life of the device in the long run. Additional wristband colors and styles will be available from Withings this year, and I hope they include more wristband sizes in these new options (currently, the Pulse HR comes in just one size). Fitbit’s Alta HR also has interchangeable bands, but I prefer the softer, more flexible silicone of Withings’ bands over Fitbit’s. Bands for the Alta HR are most rigid in the areas connected to the module itself, giving them a strange C-like shape when you remove them. The hinge and band style of the Pulse HR makes it so the tracker lies flat on any surface that you place it on when you’re not wearing it.
Aesthetically, not much makes the Pulse HR stand out among other fitness trackers. However, Withings strategically sacrificed some design flare and laborious hardware in favor of battery life. The Pulse HR lasts up to 20 days on a single charge or up to five days in “workout mode,” which basically means that the battery will drain faster the more you work out. My device was down to 70 percent after five days of all-day and all-night use, with three one-hour workouts recorded in that time as well.
Heart rate and connected GPS
The Pulse HR tracks exercise in two ways: automatically or through the on-device workout menu. Similar to Fitbit’s SmartTrack, the Pulse HR can detect when you’re exercising for a certain period of time and record it as a workout period. It’s more accurate than I expected: on a few occasions, I found 10- to 15-minute periods of “fitness” automatically recorded in the Health Mate app that coincided with the times I was scrambling to run errands. It appears that the device recognizes most sessions of increased heart-rate activity and records it—if you don’t want to include those sessions in your daily log, you can delete them in the mobile app.
Arguably more convenient for those who make a point to exercise regularly is the workout menu, which is accessible by long-pressing the Pulse HR’s side button. Six workout profiles live here and you can change which show up on your device from within the Health Mate mobile app. In this way, the Pulse HR is a bit more like Fitbit’s $ 150 Charge 3, and it makes sense considering its module and screen size are somewhere between that of the Alta HR and the Charge 3. There’s more space to include the graphics necessary to compose the workout menu.
I rarely forget to record a workout, so I appreciated the inclusion of the workout menu. Short presses of the side button let you flip through all on-device workout profiles, and a long-press selects and starts a recording of the profile that’s on the screen. While exercising, stats like duration, heart rate, and distance fill the carousel spots on the screen, so you can tap or press your way through them.
Another long-press of the side button immediately ends and saves the workout when you’re finished. Every time you do this, the session is automatically saved, ensuring that all recorded activities are locked in until you choose to edit them in the Health Mate app.
Most workout profiles have the option to connect to your smartphone’s GPS; the Pulse HR will search for your smartphone with the Health Mate app running on it when you begin a workout in attempts to grab that GPS signal. You can begin working out before the signal has been captured—the feature works in the background, mapping your route as you exercise and presenting you with a map in the details of the recorded activity in the Health Mate app.
The few maps I recorded were accurate, and that’s not surprising since the feature feeds off the nearby smartphone and doesn’t rely on the hardware of the Pulse HR itself. Even without GPS connectivity, I was surprised at how accurate the running-distance calculations were. The Pulse HR’s measurements of my treadmill walks and runs were almost identical to those of the machine itself.
The heart-rate monitor tracks pulse continuously while you exercise, and it’s a pretty accurate sensor, too. It usually measured my heart rate within 5 BPM of the Polar H10 chest strap, but it did take a few minutes to warm up and record high heart rates (in the 170 BPMs) accurately.