Activity trackers are headed in a brand new direction, one that will benefit everyone involved. For over a year now these devices have done a great job recording steps, a modest job monitoring other activities, and frankly a less than stellar job doing much else. All of that is starting to change as these devices are borrowing some of the best fitness features from their closely related cousins. These wrist-worn gadgets are starting to include a very important new feature: heart rate monitoring. In this installment we’ll review and compare the Basis Peak versus Microsoft Band, and make some comparisons to the Polar M400, and the up-coming Fitbit Charge HR and Fitbit Surge units.
Originally I wanted to write a review about devices that were $150-250 in price, could perform all-day activity tracking, and featured on-board heart rate monitoring. That truly is the case with two of the three devices listed in the title here. Since Fitbit’s new heart-rate devices aren’t yet out I’ve decided to include another device which I think should be on your radar, the Polar shown below.
PICKING THE ENTRANTS
When Fitbit first announced their new lineup of devices my mouth instantly started watering for the Fitbit Charge HR unit. Sure, I miss my Fitbit Force. But what really hooked me was their new PurePulse heart rate technology. At the same time they also announced the Fitbit Surge, a device that adds touch screen and GPS capabilities over top of the Charge in a slightly larger package.
At a price of $249 the Surge rattles the cage of more expensive running watches and exceeds what I think many are willing to spend. However, the inclusion of GPS allows people who perform outdoor exercise to track location-based data, so you may want to consider that unit in your shopping if outdoor activities are your thing. For my review here I’ve omitted it, though I may come back to compare it in future reviews. As my workouts primarily consist of stationary bike (indoors) and weight/gym activities, the Charge HR is a better buy. And I suspect that will be the case for many folks.
Less than two months ago Intel unveiled the Basis Peak to the world, and it was just released this month to stores everywhere. The Basis Peak is interesting because it takes the Basis B1 and updates it to include missing features like allowing the heart rate sensor to monitor during exercise rather than just all day resting data. Though the Peak is $50 more than the Charge HR, given that the Basis device adds more notifications (in a future update), plus a larger touch screen, the price seem proper. And it sits rightfully about $50 less than the Surge, which makes sense given the lack of GPS in the Basis unit that the big-bad-Fibit will offer.
Based on my criteria of finding premium tracker devices (or entry fitness devices) the up-coming Jawbone UP3 will need included, so we’ll have to come back to that unit once it becomes available later this month or next. They claim the heart rate sensors inside that unit are for resting pulse data only, but that may change in the future with firmware updates.
At this price point I also get to include the also very new to market and just announced Microsoft Band. It checks off all my requirements, though it adds a smart-watch attitude to the mix. While it may look like the odd-duck of this group, it actually sports the most features adding GPS and third party app support to some degree.
In a market where you can easily buy a device bundled with a heart rate monitor strap (such as the Garmin Vivosmart or the Polar Loop), it seemed a logical progression for these devices to add heat rate monitoring onboard. There remains some question as to how well these wristband heart trackers actually work, which is part of the testing I’ve done here, as best I could. Battery life won’t be stellar with any of these devices due to the GPS in some, and heart rate tracking in all. But the trade-off may be worth the constant visit to your electrical outlet.
There are plenty of devices that met two but not all three of the trifecta requirements (Cost, all-day tracking, and heart rate sensing). For example, the gorgeous Polar M400 requires an external strap/device to monitor heart rate, but for the price offers a stellar option for the more serious athlete (just see DC Rainmaker’s review). So I’ve thrown it in here, for good measure.
And there are devices coming soon that could add to this battle, like the UP3 mentioned, or the forthcoming Mio Fuse, or even the less-attractive Atlas. When those come out to test I’ll definitely consider writing about them. For now we’ve had three devices in-hand to test while we await some more… so let’s get started!
As a follow-up to their successful Basis B1, Intel’s Basis Peak is an evolution of that product. Those familiar with the B1 will notice that this new device carries a similar LCD display, though the new unit is sleeker, has no buttons, and comes in two colors (Black and white). At first glance it looks like a smart watch, though the more I stared at it the more it reminded me of some of the geeky calculator watches of yester-year. For as cool and modern as it looks, I feel it could be a slight bit more stylish and less nerd-like. Setup was fast and easy, done with my iPhone — even performing a quick OTA update right out of the box.
Overall I found my days spent with the Basis app to be good, though a few things about the app bugged me. Sure the Basis pulls in a lot of data, beyond just steps and caloric estimation. This guy records heart rate, skin temperature, even perspiration. Looking at all of this info on a small screen is cumbersome, so Basis did a great job making a web portal you can see a lot of this info more easily. However, I still wasn’t a huge fan of the overall iOS app layout. I also am not a huge fan of the points system used to unlock more features within the app. For a device so devoted to showing you actual real data rather than gimmicks, that one element seemed a bit out-of-place.
However, beyond my inability in my short testing to unlock more recording features (Basis calls these Habits), the unit did work out nice as a basic activity tracker. The unit knows if you are walking versus running, their proprietary Body IQ™ technology, and automatically detects and record those workout sessions for you. This is limited to walking, running, and outdoor cycling, so my stationary bike did NOT auto-detect my workout. Treadmills work too, if you avoid holding onto any handles.
My workout testing was on my Schwinn AirDyne, with is a stationary bike that also has oscillating arm-movement bars. As you’ll see in the last three photos above, the workout recorded with the Basis Peak compared to my Wahoo Fitness App had some major disparities. The Basis kept dropping my heart signal as my arms moved back-and-forth. You can see a photo which is a clipping from the Basis web site that clearly shows how sporadic my heart rate readings where, shown as peaks and valleys though often on my display the HRM was just blank.
I’d be willing to wager a guess that a huge cause for this issue is most likely the handle bars (arm movement) on my full-body-workout stationary bike. Runners probably wouldn’t have this problem. Fixed handle outdoor cyclists would also likely not have this problem. But my wrists and forearms were in constant motion for that workout, and even with the Basis worn in the proper position, the data shows there was an issue. I had better results with my recent testing of the Scosche arm-sensor, but I still think wrist worn optical sensors have an uphill battle to win me over. For my personal specific needs, this device wasn’t the best at reading my heart rate.
As I’ve stated on my blog before, I’m not a big fan of wearing my trackers to sleep so I didn’t test that. (There are many other great reviews of the Basis Peak that do talk more about that feature set). Plus, after wearing the Peak for 14-hours, I wanted to give my skin a break. I wasn’t finding the unit uncomfortable, but as you’ll see in two photos of my wrist above, my skin needed a break. Most of the day I wore the unit at a comfortable tightness, which worked fine for occasional readings. During my workout it was slightly more snug, though that didn’t resolve my issues as noted above.
Overall I liked the Basis Peak, found it comfortable, loved the deep rich data (especially when viewed on their website), and thought the white band was downright gorgeous. My cat’s hair stuck to it a lot, though. And the touch screen was simple to use, though the backlight was a bit weak and the pixel density was unexciting.
Compared to the other devices this unit felt like a more serious piece of hardware, and I suspect the clients will also be more hardcore. Once notification support is added this unit is certainly a contender, but the lack of much in the way of 3rd party integration and the price for features fairly similar to the Fitbit Charge HR make me question if this is truly the best of this bunch. And it lacked the goals and workout programs that people like Polar offer (see the M400 later in this post).
Unless you live under a rock then surely you’ve heard the news about the Microsoft Band. Let me be the first to predict that this will be “THE” hot time this holiday season. They are backordered, out of stock in store and online. I’ve heard of people paying over $500 for them on eBay and Craigslist, where these retail for only $199 new! Though I don’t think the band is worth twice the retail cost, my testing did prove that the unit was probably well worth the $199 asking price for the right buyer. The question is, are you the target audience?
What makes the Microsoft Band special here, and differentiates it from most of the other heart-rate sensing wrist trackers available (especially those in this review), is the fact that the MS Band feels like tech gadget, and less like just a fitness device. Which is funny, because it is the only band that provides real-time training/workout assistance in the form of rep counting and such (until the Atlas arrives). But when you add in a Starbucks app, and proper notifications for emails, SMS, and more — this unit is truly a one-stop-shop for the gadget hungry buyer.
It does a lot of things really nicely, but perhaps isn’t “the best” at any of those features. For example: if you have an iPhone like myself, then you’ll get notifications for just about anything. But if you want to see just VIP email alerts you need to have a Windows phone (see screen shot above). Or if you want to use voice assistance (Siri), too bad– that feature, and the on-board microphone, is reserved for Windows Phone users with Cortana support only. Also, a big beef I have with all these devices (including my previously reviewed Garmin Vivosmart for example) is that once you dismiss the alert from the wristband, it still shows at your phone. Dismissing the alert at one place does NOT dismiss it at the source; a shortcoming that won’t probably be resolved until the Apple Phone flexes its big muscles next year.
Let’s talk about form factor for a second here. Where the Basis Peak sits on your wrist like a modern watch in size, and the Fitbit Charge HR is more of a wrist-band tracker feel, the Microsoft Band reminds me more than anything of the Samsung Gear Fit in size and shape. Though the Samsung display is about 30% larger and 25% more pixel-dense, the devices are overall similar in size. Yet somehow Microsoft has managed to pack in so much heft that they double the weight of the Gear Fit, tipping the scales at over 2-ounces. This makes it over 20% heavier than the Basis Peak, for reference. You notice the MS Band when you wear it, and not necessarily in a good way.
Between the added weight and the odd “firm” shape of the band (as you can see when it is sitting on a table, it has a permanent “square” form) — it just doesn’t come off as comfortable as the other two devices here. I do like the sliding-clasp style for helping you loosen the device when you don’t care as much about heart monitoring. But as you’ll see in the photo above, just an hour of wearing this device left an imprint on my skin like the others. (Though at this point I think that is just the nature of the beast with optical HRMs)
Again I did not test every feature here (i.e.: sleep tracking), though I tried to capture as many photos of various features and such in the screen shots above. Because of the low availability of this item most of my testing was done with the help of the local MS store, so please forgive the rather limited data shown in the screen shots. Still, I was able to put the unit through its paces and LOVE the app they wrote for iOS.
It works great, is smooth, syncs swiftly, and provides a rich user experience that was easy to follow and felt on-par with the Fitbit app. The interface on the wrist was the best of this bunch, feeling more like a true extension of your phone and less like a stand-alone device. Of course the battery life is only rated at 2 days, about half of the two competitors here.
Beyond the poor wrist feel, yet great interface, one of the main components of this device is the heart rate sensing which left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. During one test I sat there walking around while doing my best to imitate wrist movements as if I were on my bike at home (Again I was at the store, so no way to test this for real). I was able to get the HRM to drop my signal constantly, and when it did that it would jump around. At one point I saw a spike to 140 BPM, then a quick drop down to 90 BPM, stepping down 5 BPM at a time. It seemed like the heart data was jumpy, and it appears I’m not the only person who feels the unit is a bit blotchy there.
Again I think that optical sensors aren’t the best option, but if I would have rated the Basis Peak maybe a 6 or 7 out of 10, the Microsoft Band was a 4 or 5 out of 10 as far as HRM accuracy is concerned. At the same price as the Basis unit this unit brings more “fun” to the table, and with future expansion possibilities for other 3rd party “tiles” I feel this device will reach a broader audience.
Sure people buying these devices want fitness, but they also want feedback, they also want to show it off to their friends, and they also want it to do more than just track their well-being. Buyers expect one device to “do it all” — and when you consider that this unit is on par or cheaper than many of the smart watches, but adds on-board optical heart rate tracking, it actually becomes a rather sweet deal. If you’re thinking of buying a tracker but you’re also cross-shopping smart watches, this might be the best hybrid you can find yet!
UPDATE: After playing with the MS Band at the mall a rep there calls me today saying they got a small band in that I can take home to play with and test. So I did some more in-depth testing for a few hours this evening, as shown here:
From this extra time I was able to determine a few things. The band was most comfortable on my non-dominant wrist, but “upside-down” as holding my arm as more natural that way for reading the sideways-screen. Locking into my heart rate during my cardio exercise on my stationary bike was on-par with the Basis Peak, if not marginally better with regards to staying locked on my heart BPM.
However, as it had plenty of spots where it dropped (shown in the dips/smoothing in the photo above), it did end up showing about 20 calories less than the Wahoo Fitness App. Overall the wrist band optical pickup worked best when my arm was not pushing the bars, indicating once again that thus far the first devices just aren’t ideal of my personal form of exercise. Still, in those few hours I enjoyed playing with the weather app, the notifications, and even the workout app. It didn’t seem to want to count my reps during a curated workout program, but it was still at least kind of cool to have it show that data. I’m aware of at least two companies planning to release similar apps for the Apple Watch when it comes out.
Even with this added time my overall take on the Microsoft Band is one of excitement, but disappointment. It isn’t the most comfortable thing to wear, it is heavy, and the battery life isn’t amazing. But, it is good at many things, yet in this group is surely isn’t the best for everyone. And, in my case, it wasn’t the device I chose to keep wearing after testing.
Polar M400 Sports Watch
Last but definitely not least is the Polar M400. It lacks the built-in heart rate sensing the two prior devices have. But when you really look at the specs, this device is probably the best of the batch here to really compare to the Fitbit Surge that will be released in early 2015. Unlike the Basis Peak and Fitbit Charge HR which lack GPS but include heart monitoring, the Polar M400 not only adds GPS to make up for that lack, it also adds buttons, a huge screen, and a more complex workout system.
For those not familiar with the Polar Flow website and app, look into it. There is a reason names like Polar and Garmin are known in social circles of triathlon athletes and true hard-core sports folk. They make products that work, and coach you with programs, workouts, segments, and training. When you use the Polar site with a device like the M400 you can truly monitor and improve not just your fitness levels, but also your awareness of your progress towards your goals, be it a 5k or other event.
Since there are already some amazing in-depth Polar M400 reviews out there, I’m going to focus just on how it compares and contrasts to the two devices here. It lacks the beauty display that the MS Band gives you, but then again it also lacks the gimmicks of things like Starbucks or even notifications. You don’t get a smart watch here, you get a SPORTS watch. Navigate was a breeze, swiftly able to use the watch alone to see how many workouts you did yesterday, how many calories they burned, what % of fat was burned during them, etc.
While the Microsoft Band did offer some nifty coaching on the wristband itself, the device bridges the gap between smart watch and fitness wearable, but lacks the pedigree that Polar and Basis exhibit. And while the Basis device is a true all day fitness monitor, it doesn’t have the coaching features, nor the granular menu system that the M400 provides. When you’re doing a workout the Polar lets you customize displays, to the umpteenth degree.
Obviously I found the unit more comfortable than the others based on weight and lack of a heart rate monitor. But the GPS makes it thick, such that the Basis Peak felt and looked more slender. Battery life was amazing, though going almost 2 full days at over 95% life. It is rated to last a month if you don’t do any GPS activity, and frankly I bet it would last even longer. the typical user should expect about 2-weeks of real-life use, assuming you workout 5+ days per week with the GPS on during those runs. For my indoor cycling needs, the life would be just splendid!
Syncing the device is manual, and must be triggered by the user. However, their app will now push data to Apple’s HealthKit which may be a bonus for users who want integration with other apps, or at least sharing out to those apps. In a world where Basis is closed, and Microsoft is VERY open, Polar sits squarely in the middle, though they are starting to open up more with a new Connect with Polar program.
Wrapping it up
Hopefully this has painted a picture for those shopping and trying to compare these units. I’d place the Polar M400 at the top of the list here, but it is certainly NOT for everyone. If you want to focus on exercise/fitness with more concern about your athletic achievements than your text message, the Polar unit is just the best quality and feature set here. The second closest would be the Basis Peak but it didn’t wow me.
And while the MS Band is a neat piece of kit, I think it fails to be a great smart watch, and comes off as a bulky fitness tracker that doesn’t excite. If you want notifications and some of those gimmicks, but you also want a heart rate monitoring fitness tracker slash smart watch, wait for the Fitbit Surge. Something tells me that device will truly be the best option for built-in HRM devices, at least until the Apple Watch arrives.