Withings Health Mate review: I walked 500 miles for an app

My attitude toward health and fitness apps has long been one of deep-seated antipathy. I hate the cacophony of nagging alerts and prompts, and, maybe it’s just me, but I also draw no encouragement from the photos of perfectly tanned and toned bodies welcoming me into the typical app. Few things are as demotivating as using a piece of software listing all of the dynamic activities I’m not doing.

Little did I know that a set of weighing scales would change all of that.

About a year ago, I got the Nokia Body+, determined to use it in its dumbest form possible: getting only my weight measurement and eschewing all the tracking and body composition metrics. The accompanying app was surely trash, I thought, and so what’s the point in struggling with it? Well, a few months later, after Nokia sold its digital health business back to Withings co-founder Éric Carreel — who promptly restored the Withings brand — I got curious enough to try out the Withings Health Mate app. I’m glad I did.

Linking the scales up to the app is a trivially easy task, done over Bluetooth, and once you have the scales on your Wi-Fi network, they’ll automatically upload any measurements you take to your account. If you care to track more than one person, Health Mate lets you create profiles, and it’ll be smart enough to assign incoming readings to the relevant person. That’s worked perfectly in my case, but mine isn’t the toughest scenario because the other person in my household has a very different body composition, and it’s hard to mix us up. Twins might have a harder time with this.

The app’s interface is what really won me over. I didn’t need to prune it to any great extent, it quickly accepted that I only wanted to see my weight measurements, and it tracked those reliably and graphed them nicely. The Body+ is also reasonably accurate about body fat percentage, which can be a helpful indicator, and that’s included alongside the basic weight measurement in Health Mate.

This may all sound unremarkable, but to illustrate how low the standard for health apps and gadgets is right now, let me tell you about one big-name alternative. I still love Samsung’s excellent Gear S2 watch, but in order to get any Samsung wearable device running on an Android phone, I need to — deep breath — install a Galaxy Wearable app, which insists I also install a Gear S Plugin, a Samsung Accessory Service, and finally the Samsung Health app. I have to do all of this while also granting access to my location, contacts, phone calls, notifications, and every other imaginable permission along the way. The worst part of the whole ordeal? The 2015 Gear S2 appears to no longer be supported by Samsung’s onerous software stack.

WITHINGS’ HEALTH MATE HAS THE MOST ACCURATE STEP TRACKING I’VE COME ACROSS

The only annoyance I encountered with the Withings Health Mate is that I accidentally enabled step tracking via my phone when setting the app up, and it wouldn’t stop showing me my steps. Any time I’d open it, I’d be confronted by the inactivity of my sedentary life and work style. It was frustratingly accurate, too. I’m a sucker for numbers, so, naturally, that bothered me very much, and over the course of a few days, the Health Mate app deftly gamified my interest in my steps number, driving me into taking multiple walks per day. This was the compound effect of the app’s clean and user-friendly interface and its clear-eyed accuracy about exactly how much I moved.

Being a smartphone junkie, I always have my phone with me wherever I go, and Health Mate has by far the most accurate step-tracking algorithms I’ve yet encountered. No steps are handed to me for free, and none go missing either. And that’s just with my phone. After about a week, however, I got restless to have the most accurate and complete tracking possible, and so I got ahold of Withings’ flagship health-tracking watch, the Steel HR Sport.

Perfectly complementing the Withings app, the company’s watch is light, elegant, and devoutly minimalist about its technology. It’s thin, which most smartwatches are not. It’s attractive, which most smartwatches are not. And it lasts for close to a month on a charge, which most smartwatches cannot even dream of doing. Take away the black circle that houses a monochrome OLED display, and it’s just a pretty dress watch with a curious complication at the bottom.

Once you go through another painless pairing process to associate the Steel HR Sport with your phone’s Health Mate, the app automatically starts ignoring the phone in favor of the wearable device. And yes, the step-tracking accuracy is still supreme among all the ones I’ve tried, which includes Samsung’s, Xiaomi’s, and, most laughable of all, Apple’s, which gives me 700 steps by lunchtime even if I’ve barely left the bed. If you’ve ever wondered why there’s no step count complication for the Apple Watch, my hunch is that Apple knows its step tracking isn’t that great, and so it gives you the abstraction of circles instead.

The Steel HR Sport also has you completing circles, as the red hand in its lower half tracks the percentage of your daily step goal that you’ve completed so far. But because it represents the tracking in an analog fashion, it feels somehow more organic and appealing than its digital rivals. I like pushing that red hand forward.

Pressing the single button on the side of the watch cycles through a selection of options for the OLED screen, including checking notifications and messages, but I quickly whittled it down to just two: one press to show me the date and time (useful when you want to know the time at night, since the watch face has no illumination of its own), and a second press to show me the day’s step count. That’s all I’ve ever needed for a watch to feel enhanced by technology. Everything else that other companies try to layer on top of that is basically cruft and bloatware to me, and I’m delighted that the Withings watch lets me stick to the basics.

Using a standard strap attachment, the Steel HR Sport makes it easy to put your own styling to it, and I made use of that freedom. The silicone strap that comes with the watch is nice and soft, but it picks up lint too easily and, after only a couple of weeks, it grew shiny at the spot around the clasp where the silicone rubs against my sleeve or any surface my hand is on. Putting on a leather strap I already had from Triwa added a touch of class to the already stylish watch. It’s hard to overstate how un-technological this health-tracking gadget feels. It’s really just a watch with a sprinkling of techie dust to make it knowledgeable about its user.

The final Withings thing that I ended up finding surprisingly useful is included in the Steel HR Sport’s name: heart rate tracking. The watch will automatically take a reading every half hour, or you can trigger one by pressing the side button. In all cases, the watch takes the measurement quietly and just feeds it into the app the next time you sync it up. How did that prove relevant to me? Well, looking at my heart rate graphed out over the course of a day is a great way to identify the times when I’ve been inactive for prolonged periods, plus it also flags up situations I may have found stressful by showing big fluctuations.

More than anything, the heart rate tracking contributes to the Steel HR Sport’s sleep tracking, which, in another first, is the first time I’ve found any sleep tracker to be reliable. Because the watch is so light and unobtrusive, it’s comfortable enough to wear while I’m sleeping, and it is spectacularly accurate. Health Mate allows me to correct any mismeasurements, but I only ever have to add or take away a few minutes. You can trust this watch to correctly log your sleep every night and even for prolonged naps. Inevitably, getting that insight into my sleep and seeing everything quantified, I found myself encouraged to improve my numbers, and so yes, this manipulative app and watch combo got me to sleep better, too.

At the time of writing this review, I’ve tracked in excess of a million steps — 819 kilometers or just under 509 miles — with the Withings Health Mate app, and an embarrassingly high proportion of that is because of the app. I’m fully conscious that my health should be sufficient motivation to get me out and moving, but it’s a simple fact that my primitive brain responds better to the allure of numbers. I even roped in a few of my friends to use Health Mate, syncing their own fitness-tracking apps to it to provide their step counts, and I’ve had a couple of heated end-of-the-week contests with a buddy in Moscow.

This entire experience is basically what technology should be about. The smart scales led me to the smart app, which led me to the smartwatch, which led me to make smarter decisions about my health. The smartphone, the third gadget of this tale, played an instrumental role in linking all of this up. Instead of trying to take over and dictate my life, the Withings devices and software blended into it. Their subtle gamification and classy design turned me from a fitness app hater into someone who tracks his weight, body composition, steps, and sleep on a daily basis and is actively enjoying the whole thing.

Some people will tell you not to treat your health as a game, but in my case, turning healthy activities into a point-scoring contest was the best thing I could do.

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