Withings Steel HR Review: Outstanding looks, but very few hooks

A delicate balancing act is evidently difficult to achieve for the hybrid smartwatch. The category is always moving forward, especially with quality offerings from Fitbit, Garmin, Apple, Samsung, Huawei and Withings, but it seems 2-in-1 wearables which aim to be a fitness track and a smartwatch fall too heavily on just one side.

We saw it with the otherwise excellent, albeit chunky, Huawei Watch GT2 (although they do have a newer model that we haven’t tested yet), and we see it again with Withings’ Steel HR.

While it’s not the perfect solution for those who want the best of both worlds, it does just fine.

Design

Though there’s a sports specific variant available, with more nuanced fitness assessment, the less expensive Steel HR doesn’t feel like a compromise. Especially when it comes to design.

The 36mm model (there’s also a 40mm) comes in either black or white and sticks to the brand’s signature of sleek, classic design that moves away from the odd, plastic-looking aesthetic most fitness tracks are known for. When it comes to build, it’s hard to fault a device that looks as good as this.

Though slightly on the smaller side for bigger arms like mine, the Steel HR is gorgeous to look at and, once you’re done fiddling around with the fit, comfortable to wear. This should be largely credited to the smooth silicone strap that’s simple to clean and brings a bit of choice to how you want your watch to look. Though silicone has been known to irritate certain skin types.

You can get the strap in white, purple, blue, red and a few other colours, or change the feel entirely and go for the more professional looking leather or fashionable woven options. There’s also the option to just go outside of the Withings brand and opt for your own strap, like this canvas band which is likely much more breathable.

I don’t care much for unnecessary customisation, and plain black is mostly always my preference, but having the range there at least provides plenty of choice given it’s as much a fashion accessory as a functional hybrid smartwatch.

The slick and minimal look naturally flows onto how the lay out of the device. There’s only one button on the right side of the body, there so users can easily scroll menus.

Although only having one button gives a somewhat clunky UI, where you’re pressing a few times to bring up all the desired measurements. Once will simply turn on the small circular screen at the top of the watch face to show the time, once again will show you heart rate, and subsequent presses bring up steps taken, distance, any set alarms and battery life. If you want to skip to distance, for example, you need to press the button a few times to cycle to that display.

Regardless, the face is clean and uncluttered even when you have multiple readings up, and all text looks fantastic. The display can be quite dim though, and there are times when I found I’d have to squint to make out the readings in broad daylight.

The Steel HR is rated for 5atm, which means you can take it as deep as 40m underwater. You can definitely take this into the shower with no worries.

Unfortunately there’s no NFC, and it doesn’t look like it was built-in either so there’s no hope for a software update activating this. There’s also the fact that Withings has the anticipated and impressive looking ScanWatch coming out later this year, which doesn’t bode well for future updates with the Steel HR.

At 6 o’clock, there’s a small round dial with its own tiny hand and hash-marks counting up to 100%. This is where you can see how close you are to achieving the fitness goals you set up in the companion smartphone app, Withings HealthMate (iOS and Android). There’s also a small, round digital screen at 12 o’clock on the watch’s face that turns on when you press the button on the side of the watch. You can see the date, time, your metrics, and any notifications you set up on this small screen. The screen, which uses a display technology called OLED, is what sets the Steel HR apart from most other hybrid watches and makes it closer to a true smartwatch.

To start logging a workout, you just long-press the button, and the watch will start timing your workout and recording your continuous heart rate. Based on that information, the watch calculates how many calories you’ve burned. The Steel HR connects to the GPS on your phone to tell you the distance you’ve gone, the location of your workout, and the elevation at that location.

You can get notifications from more than 100 apps on Steel HR, including exercise apps like Fitbit, Run Keeper, Runtastic, Lose It!, MyFitnessPal, and more, as well as messaging apps like WhatsApp, Slack, Facebook Messenger, and your phone’s standard messaging app. Other apps like Uber, Facebook, Twitter, and more can send you notifications, too, if you want them to. However, the more notifications you get, the quicker your watch’s battery life will disappear.

Performance

The biggest problem with the Steel HR is consistency. Although the battery is exceptionally reliable (more on that below), the actual fundamentals aren’t the strongest when it comes to fitness tracking.

The three star sensors here – a heart rate infrared sensor; day-and-night motion sensor; and MEMS three-axis accelerometer – all work excellently when it comes to very basic exercise. Walking, running, swimming – you can mostly count on this to accurately track the three most common activities with ease, but step outside of that and nuance is an obvious issue.

The heart rate tracker, for example, theoretically supplies you with easily trackable information about your average heart rate throughout the day, recorded every half hour. This information is then displayed in Withings’ incredibly clean and likeable smartphone app. I found this worked the best of all the sensors, but when it came to the other two, results were varied.

On my month-long test of the device, there were several days were it seemed like it just stopped tracking my sleep at random hours throughout the night. The results I were given were then unreliable.

Similar frustrations were found with the accelerometer. More intensive workouts were tracked inconsistently, which is far from ideal for a fitness tracker that also lacks the comprehensiveness competitors offer.

Being able to track how close you are to your fitness goal with a simple percentage, displayed near the top of the device, is perfect for those who just want speedy information at a glance. Although given that the sensors sometimes stop tracking – which may be more of an issue for people with darker skin (like me) – the lack of reliability does cast some doubt over the entire thing.

It’s better to think of the data sets as rough rather than precise, but that’s typically the case with most fitness trackers anyway. Pin-point accuracy is still a goal for most of these brands, but some are closer than others.

Bluetooth is also a miss sometimes. On more than a few occasions, the signal seemed to drop out and force me to manually reconnect the watch. I was using a Google Pixel 4 XL, which is one of the best Android phones on the market, and still have the issue.

As for the positives. In harmony with the elegant look, the Steel HR features a really pleasing alarm function that wakes you from your sleep with slow, rhythmic vibrations that’s much softer but still as effective when compared to the typical smartphone alarm. Of course, the lack of strength may not be enough to jolt particularly heavy sleepers from their slumber. For me – and I’d consider myself a moderate-to-heavy sleeper – it worked just fine.

The battery is also exceptional. If you toggle continuous heart rate monitoring on you’ll get around 5-6 days, but with it you can expect to go almost a month without a charge. It’s not the juiciest battery in a watch (the Huawei GT2 springs to mind), but it’s one of the best you’ll find without a coin cell battery.

Charging is also a breeze. You just place it in the specialised dock, which locks the device securely in place, and you can expect a full charge in just under two hours.

As for the smart features of the phone. Although the screen is small, the watch displays notifications from your phone clearly and without distracting from the watch face. But that’s really all; there aren’t any music controls, and you don’t have NFC, GPS or any interaction with your phone’s voice assistant. That has its benefits, as it leaves little to distract from its use as a no-fuss fitness tracker, but kind of makes the claim as a “hybrid” feel shallow and meaningless. Previewing text messages isn’t all that impressive in 2020.

Verdict & Value

If all you want is your step, sleep and heart rate details displayed on an easy-to-understand interface daily, then the Steel HR is usually very good at that. You’ll just have to be okay with blank spots every now and then, although that’s atoned for with how good it looks. Empathically, this is one of the best looking wearables out there and is perfect for those who want something a bit less conspicuous around their wrist.

The clean, minimal design indicates a bit of a trend with this watch. The features are also kept quite basic, and the app is similarly easy on the eyes. Ideally that should mean a smoother experience for those who want the simple things, but you’d still want better accuracy before the Steel HR started living up to any promise.

The lack of smarts doesn’t bode well either, especially given the mid-range price tag this sits at. There are cheaper fitness devices, and in the upper range, smarter ones too, but you’ll find very few that are this good-looking. The compromises are there, so it’s all down to what trade-offs you are comfortable with.

THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Highlights: Exceptionally attractive; everything is kept simple and easy to read on a whim; smartphone app is clean and uncluttered; heart rate monitor and sleep score add value.
Lowlights: Not always the most accurate; inconsistent sleep monitoring; display can be very reflective outdoors; not many smart features; late in its life cycle; only one functional button.
Manufacturer: Withings
Price: From A$299
Availability: Now

Chris Singh

Chris Singh is the Deputy Editor of the AU review and a freelance travel writer. You can reach him on Instagram by following @chrisdsingh.

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