Saturday, 18 January 2014

Review: Withings Pulse Activity Tracker / Health Mate app

Those of you who read this blog regularly know that I am readily distracted by shiny things (Look!  A baby deer!), and that I have an almost unnatural love of fitness apps and gadgets.

It is in the spirit of the latter that I picked up the Withings Pulse activity tracker last year.  I am a long-time Fitbit user since my first Fitbit Ultra back in January 2012 (when I first started working out).  Along the way I have also tried the Fitbit Zip and now the Fitbit One (after my Ultra sadly gave up the ghost last year).

But that's not to say that I cannot be in a plural tracker relationship.  Just because I use and love my Fitbit One doesn't mean that I can't also love another activity tracker just as much.  Or so I thought. 

I already use and enjoy a couple of other Withings products, notably the Withings wireless scale and the Withings blood pressure monitor, both of which I picked up in July 2012.  I have not had any problems with either of these products (although I have heard from other people that the Withings scale is plagued by reliability issues), and I was eager to try the Withings Pulse activity tracker when it came out.  "Eager" is perhaps the wrong word. "On the waiting list" is more accurate.  I couldn't wait to try out this new fitness toy.

A few points of note.  First, the Withings scale and blood pressure monitor speak with the original Withings Wiscale app.  The interface is user friendly and clean, and provides me with both a snapshot in time and historical look at my weight, resting pulse, and blood pressure values in a convenient table.  I love this app and love how it works with the scale and blood pressure monitor.  And in a year and a half, I have had no issues with any of them - the app, the scale or the blood pressure monitor.  Perhaps I am an outlier, but so far, all my devices have functioned as advertised, and I love them to pieces. 

Last year Withings launched its new Health Mate app.  The new app is intended to give a snapshot of even more values, including exercise and sleep.  The Health Mate app, like the Wiscale app, talks to the Withings wireless scale and Withings blood pressure monitor and provides users with charts showing readings from each device.  The graphs are clear and easy to read.  They do not provide the same tabular historical view as the Wiscale app, although it is possible to click on past readings to see where you stood, say, last month.  I found the Health Mate interface less useful and certainly less user-friendly than the nice tables provided by the Wiscale app, but I could work with it. 

Where the Health Mate app falls down in my view, and falls down badly, is in its exercise tracking.

The Health Mate app will track your exercise and summarize it, just like it tracks your blood pressure and weight.  But it only tracks information from one of the partnered devices/apps, like Runkeeper or Bodymedia.  If, like me, you don't use one of those services regularly, you get no credit for your workouts.  In my case I work out using the elliptical and treadmill indoors 6 days a week.  There is nothing for Runkeeper to track, and I don't want to subscribe to Bodymedia.  An armband is not really a great device for me.  My primary complaint is that there is no way to manually add exercise into the Health Mate app - - it's either use the partner apps/devices, or nothing.  Other trackers, notably the TactioHealth app and even the DigiFit app permit users to manually add workouts.  Not so the Health Mate app.  No thanks. 

Where does the Withings Pulse fit into all this?  The Pulse is an activity tracker much like the Fitbit.  It tracks steps, elevation, distance and calories as well as hours slept.  What really caught my eye, though, was the heart rate sensor.  The way the sensor works is that you press one of your fingers up against a light on the back of the unit, and after a brief interval, your pulse will be displayed.  Except when it doesn't.  I spent many a frustrating morning trying over and over to get a pulse reading with this device - - often it would simply fail or it would return a garbage reading like 150 bpm resting pulse rate.  My normal resting pulse is between 40 bpm and 49 bpm, so 150 seems a tad high.  Ludicrously so, actually.  But mostly the device would simply not record a reading, and I would have to start the process over. 

As a result, battery performance on my Pulse was very poor.  It apparently takes a lot of juice to repeatedly not record my resting heart rate.  I was lucky to get 5 days' tracking out of a single charge, but depending on how often I tried to record my pulse each morning, this number could decrease significantly. 

When it tracked my pulse perfectly (which was seldom, in my experience), the pulse tracker was a really neat idea.  But the pulse tracker was simply too buggy and frustrating for me to keep using it.  After all, getting increasingly frustrated by my inability to record my resting heart rate tended to increase my heart rate. 

Another frustration was the Pulse's interface with the Health Mate app.  As I mentioned above, the Pulse only talked to the Health Mate app, not the Wiscale app.  No problem, I thought.  The tracker was advertised as automatically syncing with the app whenever it was in range of its bluetooth receiver.  Not in my experience, sadly.  My Pulse never automatically synced with the Health Mate app, never, not once.  In fact, when I first got the Pulse tracker, it wouldn't sync at all with the app, and Withings customer service was singularly unhelpful.

Eventually I could get the tracker to sync with the app, but only when I forced it to sync.  That's not the way the tracker was advertised, and it certainly is not convenient.  More significantly, it is not like the bug-free performance of the Fitbit, which has always synced with my computer without fail. 

On a head-to-head basis, in my experience the Fitbit is far superior to the Withings Pulse activity tracker.  While both devices track many of the same metrics, the Fitbit does so accurately, and with minimal intervention on my part.  The Fitbit app is easy to understand and works well, every time.  The Fitbit battery life is at least 7 days on a full charge.

The Pulse does offer features that the Fitbit does not, like the pulse tracker.  When it works.  Which is seldom (with my device).  The Health Mate app is less user-friendly than the Fitbit app, and certainly less flexible.  The Fitbit app imports my exercise from MFP, even the stuff I do at home (which is almost all of my daily exercise).  As far as the Health Mate app is concerned, I am a completely sedentary couch potato who magically achieves 10,000+ steps a day while simultaneously doing zero exercise. 

So my love affair with the Fitbit will continue to be a monogamous one, at least for the foreseeable future. 


  1. I'm a Fitbit fan myself, but I do glance at some of these new, similar items and would like to try them out (just not pay for that privilege) and I wouldn't give up my Fitbit while trying something new. I had wondered how this one would stand up. Thanks for your review! Yea Fitbit! *Ü*

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  3. It is in the spirit of the latter that I picked up the Withings Pulse activity tracker last year. I am a long-time Fitbit user since my first Fitbit Ultra back ...