Forget notifications, forget apps, forget all of the noisy little distractions masquerading as help — sometimes a wearable is at its best when it stays out of your way. As it turns out, that’s just what French hardware house Withings had in mind when it built the Activité ($450) and Activité Pop ($150). In addition to that, though, these fitness bands have something perhaps even more important going for them: With their round faces and classic dials, they don’t actually look like activity trackers. Indeed, they’re not quite traditional fitness devices, nor are they full-on smartwatches, and I sort of love them for it. Just know that one of them probably isn’t for you.
The Activité is by far the pricier of the two watches, at $450, with two versions available. Our review unit came with a black, calfskin leather strap and a black face, offset by a few red-orange touches like the secondary step-counting hand. Not quite your style? There’s also a model with a brown band and surprisingly handsome blue trim. (This is the one I would buy; the white face and blue accents look great together.) Both versions are better suited to strutting around town than tearing up a treadmill, but the included silicone strap helps them pull gym duty when needed. I’m glad Withings included it, but two things kept me from using it more: The default leather band looks way sharper, and my wrist tended to get uncomfortably moist under the plastic band.
If the Activité aspires to the elegant, understated charm of a Montblanc Heritage Chronométrie or a Piaget Altiplano, then the Activité Pop falls squarely in Swatch territory. That’s hardly a bad thing, per se; it does everything the premium version can, just in a less expensive, more colorful body. The Pop trades the leather for a utilitarian silicone strap, which pops on and off with the same dead-simple latch system. That downgrade in build materials is all that sets the Pop apart from its stablemate; the body is made of a darker, PVD-treated stainless steel instead of the Activité’s shiny alloy, and the hands are made of plastic. As for the glass dome covering the face, the Pop’s is made of mineral glass, as opposed to scratchproof sapphire, which you’ll find on the higher-end model. All told, the Pop was a little less comfortable to wear for long periods of time, largely thanks to that silicone strap, but you’ll be fine if you don’t suffer from Sweaty Wrist Syndrome.
The Activité’s raison d’être is that colorful second hand perched under the primary one. As you go about your day, it’ll slowly sweep around a smaller dial to show you how many steps you’ve taken so far. Your baseline goal is set to 10,000 steps by default, a target you can change in Withings’ companion app if you’re feeling ambitious. That’s really it. The Activité aspires to very little, but Withings (rightfully, I think) cares more about execution than dazzling you with superfluous features. There is one neat little addition, though. To check what time your alarm is set for, just double-tap the Activité’s face; that’ll prompt its hands to dance around the clock and stop at your chosen time. It’s a lovely little touch that floored everyone I showed it to… when it decided to work, anyway. Sometimes a couple pokes with my index finger was enough to do the trick; other times I had to knock it with my knuckle. On several occasions it didn’t work at all, which made me look just brilliant in front of my friends.
When the first images of the waterproof Activité started making the rounds, I hoped for a big, beautiful Moto 360-sized dial breaking down my day’s movement. What we actually got was a pair of watch faces just over an inch in diameter, which made them feel a touch delicate on my slim wrists. This is a totally minor annoyance; Withings made the decision with both genders in mind, but I can’t help but think a larger, more substantial design would have been awesome. C’est la vie.
You’d expect a fitness-friendly wearable to come with some sort of clunky charger, but Withings managed to sidestep that little necessity. Both watches are powered by a humble button-cell battery, the sort that used to be RadioShack’s bread and butter before RadioShack stopped being a thing. Withings promises the battery can last through eight months of use before you need to schlep out and buy a replacement. I’ll update this review if that turns out not to be the case.
Since the Activité and Activité Pop don’t do much by themselves, it’s up to their companion app — Withings Health Mate — to pick up some slack. Think of it as the display the watches themselves don’t have. Once you’ve programmed your height, weight and fitness goals, you’re dropped into a timeline that neatly combines all your heart rate, movement and sleep data into a single feed. It works well enough, but the whole thing can be tough to parse at a glance with all the numbers and tiny graphs filling up the screen. Then again, if you fancy yourself a data-visualization nerd, you’ll find plenty to like here.
Speaking of data, the Activités try to collect plenty of it. By far, Health Mate’s neatest trick is using your iPhone’s camera to check your heart rate. It’s actually an ingenious little feature: With a bit of help from the LED flash, the app detects your pulse through the skin of your finger when you stick it on top of the camera. Out of curiosity, I pitted the feature against the Microsoft Band to see how it stacked up against a wearable with a built-in heart rate monitor. The results: The race was surprisingly tight. Microsoft’s wristband gave me an up-to-the-minute readout of my pulse that was always just between one and three beats per minute off from what Withings’ app reported every time I tried them. The problem is, since it requires the brightness of the flash to penetrate your skin, trying to measure your pulse in a bright room doesn’t always work. Your environs don’t even need to be that bright to throw things off: I tried this feature on a New York City subway under some middling fluorescent lights, and still had no luck.
Part of me bristles at the idea of wearing something on my wrist while I sleep, but the Activités mostly did a fine job of tallying up my restful (and restless) hours in bed. My sleep schedule has been all kinds of terrible lately: I’ll sleep for three or four hours in the middle of the night, only to pass out again when I’m done working for the day. Still, it somehow never fully sunk in how terrible my sleep quality was. In fact, the app sometimes seems a little too pessimistic, which led to inevitable questions about accuracy — some nights I could’ve sworn I got more sleep than what the app was reporting. (How restful it was is a different story). After a while, a sort of philosophical dilemma arose. Does it really matter if a device/app combo like this isn’t accurate all the time? After all, broad strokes are more helpful than none at all, right? Your mileage might vary, but in my case, the app just reinforced what I already knew: Sleep more, idiot.
Before I start to sound too forgiving, know all is not well here. A couple of design decisions seem misguided. You earn badges for completing certain unseen challenges (like walking the equivalent of a marathon), but they only appear in your timeline — not the profile page where you’d expect to see all your accomplishments laid out nice and neat. Fine, that’s a minor one. Then there’s the alarm clock. When you try to set an alarm for the watch, you do so by dragging a bar up and down the screen to select the time it’ll go off. At first it’s neat, but if you have to set an alarm for, say, eight hours from now, you have to carefully drag the slider to the edge of the screen and wait for it to cycle through the hours until it finally lands on the time you want it to. A text box wouldn’t have been hard to implement, and it would’ve been so much easier. Withings may have made some lovely watches, but Jawbone and Fitbit still lead the pack when it comes to app design and stability. Bring on the updates, people — you can do better.
Withings’ two-pronged approach might seem savvy, but it’s not the only one with a wearable for all-comers. Fitbit may be the biggest example, and it’s nipping at Withings from all sides with devices like the Flex and the Surge. If you’re the sort who just instinctively reaches for a phone when you need the time, the $100 Flex might be up your alley; it’ll track your steps and sleep like the Activités will, but its more ho-hum design and lack of a meaningful display help keep its price fairly low. Meanwhile, Fitbit’s new Charge HR (which will or won’t give you a rash) packs a built-in heart rate monitor and caller ID into a sleek bracelet that costs just as much as the Pop. Willing to shell out a little more? We loved the $200 Basis Peak, which rocks a slightly more traditional watch form factor, displays smartphone notifications and can automatically tell when you’re working out or have gone to sleep.
Then there’s the Activité. For the price it commands, you could splurge on a fancy Android Wear device; the LG G Watch R and Moto 360 both cost less and do plenty more, including step count. They’re both some of your more stylish options too; though, the former definitely has a more masculine feel than either the Activité or the 360. The thing is, Withings is still working on Android compatibility for both watches so it’ll be a little while before those are viable alternatives. The get-up-and-go types reading this might prefer Adidas’ miCoach Smart Run, but let’s be real: It’s hardly a looker. If anything, the Activité’s closest rival just might be the base-level Apple Watch, which is slated to start at a lower price of $349 when it launches in April. Both wearables put a premium on design, though the Apple Watch’s ability to do more makes it a potential Activité killer if ever there was one.
I love the Activité, but man is it a hard sell sometimes. If we take a moment to zoom out, it’s exactly the sort of wearable I think people — regular people — would embrace. It’s simple — elegant, even. You can set it up through your phone and, in theory, never again touch the app (which could use some work, by the way). It adds just enough to a regular watch to be meaningful, without getting in your face about it. That said, the Activité isn’t really meant for the average schlub. Watch nerds, aficionados, fetishists — people who care deeply about what they put on their bodies and what it says about them — might find its balance of quality and performance worth the $450 price. That’s what makes the Activité Pop such a compelling option. It does everything its more expensive relative does and with a design that’s (almost) as fetching, for a fraction of the price. It still might not do enough to satisfy people on the bleeding edge of tech, but it’s a lovely place for the average person to start.
Filed under: Wearables