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Withings’ long-running smart watch: Just don’t call it a swatch

Back in the fall of 2019, I mentioned that I’d recently switched from longstanding-wearing a series of Wear OS-based smartwatches to regularly donning Garmin’s fēnix 5 instead:

Roughly 3.5 years later, the fēnix 5 remains my smartwatch “daily driver”. Why? This excerpted paragraph from my earlier writeup concisely summarizes the reasoning:

The fēnix 5 loses only about 10% of its charge each day under normal operating conditions, translating to more than a week between recharges…This all is, in a word, liberating. I can wear it like a watch, not like a vampiric battery-sucking mobile electronics device, but I still benefit from the really important stuff that makes smartwatches great, such as notifications of incoming emails, texts, phone calls, and voicemails, and reminders about upcoming appointments.

I’m also pleasantly surprised at how well the watch’s integrated (i.e., non-user-replaceable, at least not officially) battery has held up. Then again, when you’re only recharging it once a week or thereabouts, the battery charge cycle count doesn’t escalate rapidly. That said, although a week-plus is still a heck of a lot better than “less than a day”, I’ve long wondered how much longer a watch developer could stretch the recharge latency without significantly hampering the watch’s “smart” aspects, via clever design, implementation techniques and the like.

Enter Withings’ Steel HR, whose intro dates from the January 2017 CES. Here’s a stock photo:

And here’s a company-published video:

France-based Withings may not be a familiar name to some of you. The company, founded in 2008, was acquired by Nokia in April 2016 and became independent again (accompanied by a resurrection of the original brand name) two years later. Withings focuses predominantly on consumer electronics devices with a health “angle”; they’re probably best known for their line of “smart” body scale products. And yes, for any of you who regularly follow CES coverage, they also introduced the U-Scan, a toilet-installed urine analysis device, in Las Vegas this year. Engadget’s…err…hands-on testing video is hilarious (IMHO), well worth a 5+ minute watch:

Unsurprisingly, Withings also develops and sells fitness trackers along with health-tailored smart watches such as the Steel HR. It normally costs $179.99, which gave me pause, but when I found one in “Used-Very Good” condition on the Warehouse area of Amazon’s site for less than half that price, $79.84 ($99.80 minus a 20%-off promotion), I couldn’t resist. Here’s what it looks like on my wrist; mine’s the 40 mm black face and silver body color combo option with the standard silicone wristband (my wife also got me leather and metal bands for Christmas):

The mechanical hands are a classy touch, at least to this old-timer, and are one key aspect of the long battery life. The lower circular inset on the face is also mechanical in nature and provides easy access to the current day’s step count status (remember the earlier mentioned health angle?). But it’s the upper circular inset, the fundamental difference between the two images, that likely caught your eye. It’s a low-power monochrome OLED display. By default, it’s off. Press the crown, and it activates and illuminates for a user-configurable time duration. Sequentially press the crown while the display is active, and the watch cycles through various operating mode options (again, user-configurable, both display-or-not and order):

  • Date and time
  • Heart rate
  • Steps
  • Distance
  • Active calories
  • Notifications on/off toggle (global…keep reading)
  • Battery level
  • Alarm
  • Stopwatch
  • Timer
  • And various workout modes (after an initializing long-press of the crown)

First-time pairing with my Google Pixel 4a 5G was brain-dead easy (and a firmware update was awaiting me), and ongoing Bluetooth connectivity is rock solid. Here’s a collection of initial-setup screenshots I captured, for your perusal (some of them contain lingering pop-ups for the prior screen capture’s Android notification in the lower left corner; just overlook this cruft):

About that battery level…it’s the crux of the Steel HR’s appeal to me. Withings estimates it’ll deliver up to 25 days (more than three weeks) of battery life between charges. To date, I haven’t worn mine for more than a few days at a time; that said, I haven’t seen the battery level drop below 100% yet. Tradeoffs? Sure. The electronic display is a miniscule percentage of the total watch face area, not its entirety; you’re probably not going to want to read an incoming text message on it, far from a full-length email.

Speaking of incoming text messages and other things, specifically notifications related to them, they’re conversely my sole notable frustration with the Steel HR. You can selectively enable and disable on-watch notifications on a per-smartphone-app basis—yes to text messages but no to email, for example. But, unlike with my Garmin, which I keep permanently in “do not disturb” mode, with the Steel HR you can’t disable haptic vibration for active notifications in order to rely solely on display notifications. A constantly vibrating widget on my wrist is the fast track to a straightjacket in a padded room, so I’ve got all notifications perpetually “off”. Withings engineers, please add a “mute” capability in a future software update, no matter that I might end up missing some notifications if I depend solely on the diminutive OLED!

Other than that (OK, a display of the current temperature at my location would also be nice), and with the qualifier that, as I said in my prior writeup:

Wearables are, unsurprisingly, a highly personal decision; what works great for one person may be lousy to another, and visa versa, due to feature-selection and -prioritization individuality.

I’m personally delighted with the Steel HR (here’s another—note, dated—review perspective). It delivers on pretty much everything I expect a wearable to do:

  • Tell me the time and date
  • Track and display my daily step count, and my pulse rate (both immediate and trending)
  • In combination with a GPS-inclusive tethered smartphone, log distance traveled
  • Timer-alert me when my steaks are ready to turn, for searing purposes, and
  • Wake me up from a nap (if I selectively enable notifications, as previously discussed) as well as track my sleep statistics

Your thoughts on this and similar reduced-function but correspondingly expanded-battery life wearables, versus their beefier-featured but more charger-dependent counterparts, are welcomed in the comments. Or anything else that my discussion here has spurned, of course!

Brian Dipert is the Editor-in-Chief of the Edge AI and Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.

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