Apple Watch as a health tracker : 6 months review

How does the Apple Watch compare to other devices as a health and fitness tracker?

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Tracking exercise, calories and standing hours with the Apple Watch

I had and used the Apple Watch series 1 for six months before writing this review. I don’t have any relationship with Apple so I consider this as a fair review.

In summary, the Apple Watch opens up exciting opportunities for health tracking for most of us. It’s beautiful, integrates nicely with the Apple ecosystem, and can be augmented in powerful ways with third-party apps.

The Apple Watch is not by any means perfect. There are devices with more functionalities. But it might just be good enough if you are planning to track your overall health and activity.

Let’s see how it works in detail.

The watch has an integrated optical heart rate sensor that reads your heart every minute. LEDs on the back light the veins and arteries going through your wrist and a light sensor will then correlate vein opacity with heart rate. This method is not accurate if the watch is loose, if there are any fast movements, or if there is strenuous exercise. It can be off by 30 or 40 bpm. I found for example that a more traditional chest heart rate sensor gives much more reliable readings that the Apple Watch.

The optical heart rate sensor is satisfyingly accurate at rest and for light activity such as walking or light running.

An accelerometer also allows the watch to detect wrist movements. Algorithms then deduct steps and floors walked or inactivity such as prolonged sitting. Since standing is one of the main metrics, the Watch will vibrate if you don’t stand every hour.

The Apple Watch also has bluetooth and will get a GPS reading from your iPhone to estimate position and distance.

So far, this is similar to many other devices, such as a Fitbit Surge or a Garmin Vivoactive HR.

What makes the Apple Watch is its deep integration with the Apple ecosystem. It is able to sync data with your Apple account. You get your calendar, alarms, reminders, notes, text messages. Your email accounts will be automatically synced. What’s even more powerful is the ability to install third-party developer apps.

This means the Apple Watch is not just a watch but a computing device.

For example, “Pillow” is a nice app on the iPhone that you leave on your bedtable. With the microphone, it will try to guess the different sleeping stages. You get interesting metrics and it even has an advice section for better sleep.

The Pillow developers also has an app for the Watch. R.E.M. sleep or deep sleeping means erratic and high heart rate, and (perhaps) faster breathing. The app checks your heart rate and is able to offer a more accurate and detailed sleep metrics.

This is a feature that Apple would have never developed. Garmin, Fitbit or other brands would also never develop a niche functionality such as this. Only the Apple Watch with its popularity can interest niche developers.

Sleep tracking is just an example. You can have weightlifting apps, running apps, dietary integration with MyFitnessPal. While not as powerful as an iPhone, the Apple Watch opens up new possibilities for health tracking.

It’s not perfect by all means. The battery life truly sucks. I used it as a sleep tracker, which means it would die sometimes in the middle of the night. I always stressed about forgetting to charge it in the morning. A Garmin Fenix 3 lasts for 3 weeks in comparison. If you view the device as a just a watch, this is not important. If you rely on the Apple Watch to track 24/7 your health and show you insights, this is a big let-down. Do we really need this extra stress?

The sensors are very basic. As mentioned, the optical heart rate sensor is not reliable for strenuous activity. I also wish it had more sensors. The Microsoft band 2 measures your body temperature (a key vital metric) and UV index. Other devices measure body hydration (LVL band by BSX), blood lactacte or even blood pressure. There are wrist devices that measure your body fat (TomTom Touch) or an EKG (see AliveCor) when you touch the band with your other hand.

I am not planning to wear several devices on my wrist, legs or chest. What about a single device that measure reliably the core vital metrics? The Apple Watch is very far away from that, and don’t even rank compared to other smaller companies.

One major let-down is also its dependency towards your iPhone. Setup is done through the iPhone, and this umbilical cord will never be cut off. The iPhone will stream data, notifications, mails, GPS position and who knows what to the Watch. If your phone dies, a red icon will blink and many of the Watch’s will be useless.

This is where you realize that maybe the Apple Watch is just a second screen for the iPhone. Like a loyal dog to its master, it opens up new opportunities but will never truly run on its own.

Summary

I have to thank Apple to open up new opportunities in the wearable and health tracker space. The Apple Watch is a beautiful and nicely integrated device with the Apple ecosystem. It will track your walking activities as well your jogging.

I don’t see myself having to charge it everyday, every month, for the next years to come. There are many other things to do. Electronic devices are meant to help us, not us being enslaved and having to “feed” them daily. This is one of the reason I let the Apple Watch go and get a GPS sports watch instead. But there’s no reason others looking to complete their Apple systems won’t get and like this watch.

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