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Finally, a Smartwatch That Doesn’t Look Like a Geek Watch

Withings proves that you don't have to sacrifice fashion for a "smart" watch.

Lauren Goode

It is widely acknowledged that most smartwatches are ugly. It’s as though a group of hardware manufacturers formed a consortium and set a range of ugliness standards for these ultra-geeky watches.

But last week another package arrived in the mail and I opened the box and thought: This thing doesn’t look like a smartwatch. At all.

This “thing” is the Withings Activite. Withings first showed off this watch months ago, but the first units just started shipping. (Customers who order now will get theirs early in the new year.)

Lauren Goode

The Activite watch is “smart” because it tracks things like steps and sleep patterns and wirelessly shares the data to a smartphone; but it looks like — it is — a handsome, round-faced Swiss watch. One that operates on a coin battery that lasts about eight months — so, no recharging needed.

It’s not exactly cheap, compared with other watches that wirelessly connect to the smartphone. It currently costs $450. That means it’s more expensive than the smartwatches being offered by Samsung, Sony, Motorola, LG, Pebble and others. (It’s even more than the starting price of the Apple Watch, which is not yet released.)

The Activite also only works with iPhone right now, and it’s not really going to address the needs of a fitness-focused consumer, which I’ll explain.

But, before I go into more details about the Withings Activite, I’ll just say that I like it. I like that it looks and operates like an elegant, classic analog watch that just happens to track a few health metrics, not a wrist computer that is an extension of the smartphone. People have complimented me on it over the past week, and are surprised when I tell them it’s actually another step-tracking device I’m testing.

Also, many smartwatches are decidedly masculine-looking, while this one has unisex appeal.

The Design

Technically, this watch was designed in France, where Withings is based, but it is manufactured in Switzerland.

Lauren Goode

Its minimalist round face is covered with sapphire glass, while the underside of the watch is made with stainless steel. It comes in black or white. It has a thin, French calf-hide strap. There are no hard lines, harsh metal edges, LED displays or camera lenses to this watch.

Also included in the box is an extra coin battery, and a rubber watch band for swimming. It’s easy to swap the calf-hide “fashion” band for the rubber one.

The watch face includes a standard clock with linear (non-numeral) hour markers, and a smaller dial within the face that shows your activity-tracking levels. This is automatically set to 10,000 steps per day as the benchmark for activity-tracking. So as you move throughout the day, the hand on the small dial moves.

What It Tracks

The Activite includes a standard accelerometer that tracks steps. It does not track stair-climbing, though it will count those movements as steps.

It also tracks sleep, and works as an alarm. You set the alarm through the Withings HealthMate app, and this auto-magically sets the watch alarm. The alarm, in theory, is a great idea. The watch vibrates gently to wake up the wearer. It isn’t jarring.

Lauren Goode

But currently, there is no way to deactivate the alarm, whether through the app or by tapping the watch face. There is also no way to “snooze.” It just buzzes several times, for around 30 seconds, and you have to wait it out. I found this annoying.

Since the Activite is waterproof up to 50 meters, the watch could track swimming activity. In fact, the box even advertises this as a feature. But it doesn’t do this yet. Withings says it plans to release a firmware update soon that will allow the watch to track swimming distance.

Finally, the watch tracks runs, but since it’s using the accelerometer to detect these spikes in activity and not GPS, the run distances may not be accurate.

All of this data is shared via low-energy Bluetooth to the HealthMate app.

The App
Rather than having a whole suite of apps for its various, wireless-connected health devices, Withings has taken a refreshing one-app-for-all approach. So if you’ve ever used the Withings Pulse activity-tracker, the Withings Wi-Fi scale or the Withings Aura sleep pad and bedside monitor, you’ve used the HealthMate app.

While the HealthMate app isn’t my favorite of the health-and-fitness bunch — I still think it could offer better insights, especially around sleep — I like that the app is a central repository for all Withings devices. The HealthMate app also works with HealthKit, Apple’s own app that pushes and pulls health data from a variety of third-party iPhone apps.

Withings says the Activite will be Android-compatible early next year.

What You Should Know

This is not a smartwatch for tracking serious workouts, nor is it a watch for receiving notifications — short snippets of texts or emails — from your smartphone.

As I mention above, the health-tracking options are limited. Right now you can’t even adjust your step goal to be more or less than 10,000 steps per day.

When I opened the Withings HealthMate app, it sometimes took a while for my watch and the app to wirelessly connect, and after that, the data didn’t sync in “just a few seconds,” as the app describes it.

And there’s a key element of the design worth noting. The watch face is a nice size, large enough to feel substantial, small enough not to overpower tiny wrists. But the watch band currently only comes in one size. I asked a couple of guys with larger wrists to try on the watch and it fit them both okay, but there wasn’t much wiggle room. Withings says larger watch bands are in the works.

$450 may be a lot to spend on a Bluetooth smartwatch, but as watch aficionados know, it’s hardly an exorbitant price for a well-made Swiss watch. If you’re looking for a fashionable watch that happens to track steps — and doesn’t need to be recharged — I’d consider the Withings Activite.

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