What’s the downside of a smartwatch? Why, having to keep the thing charged up of course. Every couple of days, maybe. Some smartwatches manage to make it all the way up to five or six days. Except for the Withings Steel HR Sport hybrid smartwatch. It’ll run for up to 25 days per charge. And that’s with it displaying the time, all the time. No need to shake your wrist, it’s always there.
And that means, despite my tendency towards
low-battery-anxiety, I’m happy to sit here with the Withings Steel HR Sport
reporting a mere 35% of charge on its battery. Normally I’d be getting quite
agitated by now. I’m relaxed because I last charged the watch at least a
fortnight ago, so I’m confident it’s not going to run down on me for a while
Withings Steel HR Sport Features
How does the Withings Steel HR Sport manage this feat? Why,
by going old-school for much of its functionality. You see, in the topsy-turvy
world of 2019, some mechanical devices consume less power than some electronic
The Withings Steel HR Sport has an old-fashioned electrically powered movement with real hands that go around the dial. And that uses very little power. Remember how you’d go years between changing the button cells on your watch?
The smart display sits on the dial just below where “12”
would be were it printed on the watch face. This display in a little circle
that measures around 12mm across.
The watch face is dark grey. The hands are lighter grey with
red tips. I found it a little hard to read, so for we older types, the
white-faced version is probably the better choice. Another option is Withings Steel HR (ie. the
non-Sport model), which is also available with a white face. The only other
obvious differences are that the non-sport model doesn’t calculate a “Fitness
Score”, and it’s a bit cheaper.
At the bottom of the dial is another small dial with a red
hand. This one is also electro-mechanical. This dial indicates your daily
progress towards your step goal. Very analogue!
The watch is rather stylish. It doesn’t even look like a smart watch. The frame is steel. The body is 13.25mm thick and the whole thing, band included, weighs 57.5 grams. There is a range of bands of different materials. The review one had a dark grey silicone band that was far more flexible than the norm. I loved it.
Withings Steel HR Sport smart stuff
As you can see from the name, the Withings Steel HR Sport
tracks your heart rate as well as measuring steps and using the GPS on your
phone to track its location. It uses the Withings Health Mate app to do the
tracking for you, but it can hold a fair bit of data internally if it is
separated from your phone for a while.
That said, I’d suggest you keep your phone fairly handy and
keep the app running in the background. The watch can reflect notifications on
your phone, but only if the app is going. Likewise, the GPS tracking isn’t
going to work without the connection.
And if you don’t have it syncing on the fly, then when it
does reconnect it can take a long, long time to upload the data. I must have
rebooted my phone a week or so ago and not restarted the Health Mate app. So
this morning when I reconnected, the sync took at least ninety minutes, with it
seemingly restarting several times.
You can set which exercises you want to track – all the
usual stuff including workouts, cycling, walking and even swimming. The watch
is rated for up to fifty metres immersion, not that you’d do that. But you’re
fine swimming normally with it.
You invoke exercise mode by holding down the single button control on the watch – it’s where the watch crown would be on a regular watch – then single press to cycle through the exercises. You can sort out which exercises you want and their order in the app.
Withings Steel HR Sport modes
When you’re in exercise mode, the little circular display is
on all the time. Single button presses cycle you through heart rate, calories
burnt, duration and so on. When the Withings Steel HR Sport is not in exercise
mode, the little display is off. You bring it to life with a button press, and
again you can cycle through a few different things.
Of course, all the time the regular hands just keep on
keeping the time. They move in one notch jumps – for example, once per minute
for the minute hand – they don’t cycle continuously.
Setting the time was a bit of fun. Of course you do that
through the app, as with all other settings. The app presents a circle and you
use that to set the three hands in turn to the upright position. It’s kind of
cool seeing the hands rotate under the control of the app. When you’ve done all
three, you tap “Next” and the hands jump instantly to the time shown on your
phone, which ought to be the correct time.
Overall I found the app a bit flaky. Often the GPS tracking
would be only partially complete. There’s the very slow syncing I mentioned
earlier. And it seemed to slow down some other apps, making them slow to open and
But you don’t really need to use the Withings Health Mate app, except for setting up. Now the Withings Steel HR Sport watch works with the very popular Strava app.
My heart rate
I’m starting to wonder if there’s something about my wrist that makes it hard for heart rate trackers to take an accurate count of my pulse. A couple of months ago I reported how, when I was on an exercise bike that showed my pulse, a smart watch over-estimated my heart rate considerably.
Well, much of the time the Withings Steel HR Sport underestimated
my heart rate considerably. I followed the instructions about having the watch
the right distance from my wrist bone. Then I’d be cycling away with the
machine showing, say, 120 beats per minute. But the Withings Steel HR Sport
would be reporting 87bpm.
(What if it was right and the exercise machine was wrong? I
did several pulse counts and confirmed that it was indeed the exercise machine
that was correct.)
That would be one day. Then the next it would work fine.
I struck upon the idea that perhaps I could put the watch
the other way around so that it’s HR sensor was pressed against the underside
of my wrist. That worked like a dream … the first time. But the next time it
was back to underestimating. It was inconsistent like that. Way off then on,
then off again.
So, as always, take the heart rate reading with a nice chunky grain of salt. And likewise, do not bank too heavily on downstream measures, such as calorie burn since these probably use heart rate as part of their input data.
The Withings Steel HR Sport smart watch is an attractive
device, perfectly fine for tracking the usual range of exercise. The recently
added Strava support means you don’t even really need to use the sometimes
problematic Withings Health Mate app.
And I just have to love that three-plus week battery life.
(A further note on that: I wrote this article more than a week ago and let the
draft marinate until I was ready to finish it off. The Withing Steel HR Sport
was sitting on my desk throughout that time, unused, since I had another smartwatch
to check out. And now the battery is down to 25% from the 35% it was a week