Like a college athlete who explodes onto the scene in his rookie year in the pros, smart health sensors have made their mark in the short time since they arrived in the mainstream market. Take Fitbit, the most popular wearable company. Between 2014 and 2015, its annual revenue more than doubled, to $1.86 billion. There's a good reason for the success: Wearables work. They quantify your exercises, giving you the numbers you need to improve your performance. They can even act as a personal coach, urging you forward to achieve your goals. Here are six contenders from the latest wave of smart health sensors.
The Moov Now bills itself as a "personal coach & sports tracker." We're happy to report that in actual use it lives up to its billing. The Moov Now shines as a personal coach, its female robotic voice offering advice and positive reinforcement so you can "be the best you can be."
The package includes the Moov core (a small disk that serves as the brains of the operation), two rubber bracelets, (small and large), and a user manual. Setup is simple: Download the Moov app, sync the core (an operation that takes place rapidly and reliably each time you use the device), and you're good to go. The rubber bracelets—one for the wrist and one for the arm, depending on your activity—are so comfortable that you'll soon forget they're there.
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Unlike basic fitness trackers, the Moov Now doesn't simply use an accelerometer to record motion. It also uses a gyroscope to note rotation and a magnetometer to perceive orientation. The upshot is a device that provides feedback on your biomechanics to improve your form.
For example, when you're running, Moov Now may tell you that, "Your impact is too high; try landing on the balls of your feet," or "Don't rotate your hips so much; it wastes energy." Sometimes Moov Now sounds uncannily like your mom: "Don't slouch. Make sure your shoulders are back and your back is straight." Fortunately, Moov Now never tells you to make your bed. Though it does measure sleep.
The makers of the Moov Now believe in positive reinforcement, so the device generally focuses on your achievements, like "You crushed the target for Level 4!" It falls silent when you don't reach your goal. Once you catch on, though, the silence can sting as much as being told outright that you failed. But the point is that it works: Moov Now will motivate you to work hard.
The number of activities that the device supports is impressive. You can use it while running, biking, swimming (it's waterproof) or even boxing. Its cardio boxing resembles Guitar Hero, where virtual circles come at you on your smartphone screen and you have to time your punches as they pass. The device's app also offers numerous workout routines, from sprint intervals to a "Get toned in under 10 minutes" workout, which includes a combination of lunges, jumping jacks, planks, squats, and push-ups. Each routine has numerous levels. For example, the "Get toned in under 10" starts off as an under-10 minute workout; but as you progress and unlock more advanced levels (you need to complete a level to unlock a series of higher levels), you can advance to working out for an hour or more.
We don't have any serious criticisms of the Moov Now. True, it lacks a heart rate monitor, and the need to carry a smartphone and earphones with you in order to take full advantage of the device might seem like a lot of tech to include in a workout. But this smart health sensor's strengths far outweigh its weaknesses.
What Moov Now does well, it does very well, and that is to motivate you to exercise harder and in a more disciplined and targeted way. If you like to work out, but have trouble pushing yourself the extra mile—or if you'd like a trainer, but can't afford the cost—the Moov Now is for you. It's your own personal trainer that costs only $80. We recommend it unequivocally.
The Moov Now currently owns a Techwalla score of 85%: "Clearly above average. Only a couple of issues keep this from being best in class."
Jabra Sport Pulse
The Jabra Sport Pulse wireless earbuds' special feature is an in-ear heart-rate monitor. Built into the left earbud, it provides a remarkably accurate heart-rate reading. If you're surprised to learn that the ear is a good place to take such readings, you may be interested in this YouTube video of the CEO of Valencell, a company that licenses biometric sensor technology.
Every 10 minutes as you work out with the Jabra Sport Pulse, a female voice with a British accent tells you your heart rate. The announcements are unobtrusive, with the music volume dipping as you receive the beats-per-minute update. Then the music volume returns to its previous level.
With any earbuds, a proper fit is important, and fit becomes critical when you're wearing earbuds that have a built-in heart rate sensor. Here, the Jabra Sport Pulse does well. Four sets of EarGels and four sets of EarWings—each a different size—come with the device to help you find a snug fit. Our advice is to try the Sport Pulse initially with the set that's already attached. Go for a workout and then, if you find that the fit isn't right, start experimenting. You may even find (as I did) that one size is right for one ear and a different size for the other.
Once you've achieved a tight fit, you'll hear clean, crisp sound from the Jabra speakers, which offer solid performance, a good midrange, and bass that doesn't overpower. These earbuds are designed to play music to accompany your workout, not to batter your eardrums into early retirement. On the other hand, if you're looking for bass-pounding action, these may not be the earbuds for you.
Controls are excellent. The quick startup documentation includes a chart describing the functions of the various buttons, and you'll want to hold onto this chart until you have the functions down. Jabra keeps it simple with four buttons. Three are raised so you can use them sight unseen to control music and take calls. On the left side is the prominent "Sports button," which fills one side of the earbud. With this you start your workout.
Jabra recommends downloading two apps: Jabra Sport, which is specifically for this device; and Jabra Sound, which looks like a general music app. The music app seems unnecessary, since the Jabra Sport app can access and play your music via your iTunes playlist. Options include "Current Music," which accesses playlists from sources such as Amazon Music, and "No Music."
The Jabra Sport app also offers workouts—short (3 to 6 minutes), intensive exercises designed to strengthen your core and burn belly fat. And it supports other activities, like walking, spinning, and hiking. You can arrange for the device to track you, to establish a target pace, or to set a cadence goal. Another option is to train via heart-rate zones. We found these workouts effective but not as compelling as those available from the Moov Now, which left us somewhat spoiled.
It's worth noting that the Jabra Sport Pulse and the Moov Now go together like peanut butter and chocolate. The Moov Now has no heart-rate monitor and requires earphones. The Jabra Sport Pulse has both. Indeed, the Jabra Sport Pulse may find its best use as a complementary device to be used in conjunction with other fitness devices.
The Jabra Sport Pulse is a solid piece of gear. Our criticisms are minor. If you feel that workout earphones should deliver brain-splitting bass, you'll be disappointed in this product. And the advertised battery life of 5 hours is less than ideal. But with an accurate heart rate monitor, above-average speakers (by our reckoning), and straightforward controls, the Jabra Sport Pulse will be a welcome addition to most modern workout junkies' fitness hardware.
The Jabra Sport Pulse retails for $200 but can be found for less. It receives a Techwalla score of 79%: "A solid product. Despite some flaws, it's still a good value."
Polar Stride Sensor
The Polar Stride Sensor is an oval Bluetooth device that attaches to your shoe and help you improve your performance by measuring speed and distance. It accomplishes this without GPS, by using an accelerometer to extrapolate from your stride (the length of your steps).
Stride and cadence are the keys to speed. As Polar's site says, "There are two ways to run faster: moving your legs at a higher cadence or taking longer steps."
Our first impressions of the device were all good. Setup consisted of inserting the included coin cell battery into the device, downloading the Polar Beat app, and pairing the device to the app by shaking the Polar Stride Sensor to activate it. The device comes with a rubber holder that you weave your shoelaces through to bind it to your sneaker. It makes for a secure fit. Then you insert the Polar Stride Sensor into the holder.
To calibrate the device, you move a known distance—a half-mile on a treadmill will do the trick—and then enter the distance in the Polar Beat app. In our calibration, the Polar Stride Sensor was surprisingly accurate from the get-go: It accurately measured a half-mile run on a treadmill even before being calibrated, so calibration in this case amounted to doing nothing more than paying the device a compliment.
In our first test outdoors, the Polar Stride Sensor performed admirably. Its distance measurements were accurate. Your smartphone tells you when you've reached certain distances (such as 1.5 miles), and it reports your lap time.
Although the Polar Stride Sensor doesn't have a heart-rate sensor, the Jabra Sport Pulse filled that role very ably—again proving its value as a complement to other fitness devices. The Polar Beat app, for its part, found the Jabra earbuds without a hitch. With a heart-rate sensor in the mix, you get other statistical information, including calories burned and workout intensity, based on heart rate zones.
If you keep location turned on in your phone's settings under the Polar Beat app, you'll also get a map of your run or walk. You can post your workouts to Twitter or Facebook.
One note: The Polar Stride Sensor is sensitive with regard to battery placement. In this video, a user explains how to fix the issue on the similar Polar S3.
The Polar Stride Sensor, when it originally came out, worked only with Apple iPhone models 4S and higher. (Android devices were slow to adopt Bluetooth Smart, or Bluetooth version 4.0+.) But the situation has since changed, and the Polar Stride Sensor should work with Android products that offer Bluetooth Smart compatibility.
The Polar Stride Sensor retails for $80. Although it has not received enough ratings yet to yield a trustworthy Techwalla score, we recommend this device for athletes and competitors who want to improve their running times.
In terms of coolness factor, Athos wins hands-down. The company makes smart clothing plaited with biosensors that measure your muscles' activity during workouts. You can watch your exertions in real time on the accompanying smartphone app and make adjustments to improve your technique and performance.
The genius of these smart garments is that their creators found a way to miniaturize and streamline the technology of electromyography (EMG), which reads electrical energy produced by muscles. Not long ago, only the most advanced athletes had access to EMG, with a typical EMG machine costing $15,000. Athos reduces that cost dramatically, giving you your own wearable EMG machine and making the technology available to nearly everyone.
Athos currently sells two garments: shorts and shirt. Woven into the shirt are twelve EMG sensors and two heart-rate sensors. The shorts contain eight EMG sensors and four heart rate sensors. Each of these garments requires an Athos Core, a 2½-by-1½-inch oblong device that fits into a dock on the Athos garment. This core contains an accelerometer and collects and analyzes data from the EMG sensors.
The Athos Core sends the information to the app, which displays it in an intelligible way. The app even provides a video replay, which resembles a film of your muscles in action, lighting up on the image of a human figure. A color scheme signifies how hard each muscle is working, from blue to red, each color representing a zone of effort.
This information tells you whether you're working the right muscles for a particular exercise; and whether you're exercising both sides of your body equally. You can watch the replay, read the left/right percentages, and make corrections, leading to faster results while avoiding injury.
Athos can also help you find the exercises that work best for you. There's more than one way to get yourself fit. With dozens of exercises for every muscle group, it can be hard to know which ones are most effective. But with Athos reporting the results, you'll have the data you need. For example, cable crossovers may do little for your pecs while kettlebell flyes work wonders.
In tests, the Athos shirt performed as advertised. Below is an image of the right/left side percentages from an exercise I did to isolate the triceps. It shows that I was in balance, although it's not clear if I was overworking my trapezius muscles. Athos presupposes that the user has a certain level of knowledge—about which muscles should be working, which should not, and in what proportion—in order to make proper use of the reported data.
Athos suggests that its garments can replace trainers, which is true—but only for well-informed users. For most users, rather than replacing trainers, Athos will be a great resource for them, as this video attests, enabling trainers to look inside the person who is exercising and see which muscles are firing, in what order, and to what degree.
Athos products have the potential to be a game changer. They popularize a technology—once financially out of reach of all but a few people—that offers an unparalleled view into the human body. Compared to an EMG machine, the price is a steal, though it may still be too pricey for some potential buyers. One Athos shirt plus core costs $398. A pair of shorts plus core costs $348. A full-body package, which includes one shirt, one pair of shorts, and one core, costs $547. Athos is available only for iOS devices.
Athos smart clothing has not yet received enough ratings to generate a trustworthy Techwalla score.
Mio Alpha 2
Genius is the ability to make complicated things simple. Mio has achieved that with its Alpha 2—a simple but extremely accurate heart-rate watch that consists of a digital display, two buttons, and an indicator light.
The Mio Alpha 2 has a sporty aquatic look, which is appropriate because the watch is water-resistant to depths of 30 meters. It comes in three colors: black, yellow, and pink. The watch is large at 1.69 inches wide, but it's not overbearing thanks to its light weight and its comfortable silicone strap. You barely notice it after awhile.
The display is large and easy to read, even in bright sunlight. It also has a backlight, which you activate by double-tapping the mineral-glass LCD. Another a cool feature is the indicator light just below the LCD display, which It flashes different colors depending on which heart zone you're in. The device stores 25 hours of workout data and lets you sync and download the data to the accompanying Mio Go app when convenient. In other words, it untethers you from your smartphone during workouts.
You charge the Mio Alpha 2 via a magnetic cradle that plugs into a USB port. Its battery life is excellent: up to 24 hours in workout mode (with the heart rate monitor active) and three full months with the heart-rate monitor switched off.
Aside from measuring your heart rate, the Mio Alpha 2 will track your distance, pace, steps, and calorie burn, and it includes countdown, chronograph, and repeat interval timers. It will also track your daily goals. The default goal is 10,000 steps a day, but you can set your own goals based on number of steps, distance, or active calories.
To set these goals, you use the Mio Go app. The app isn't bad, and it lists your daily workouts. But you're not wedded to this app if you already have a favorite heart monitor app—say, Strava or Runtastic. You'll find a list of compatible apps for the Mio Alpha 2 here.
The Mio Alpha 2 does an extremely good job of measuring heart rate, so you might think that this watch is meant for fitness buffs only. After all, even most people who work out regularly aren't into heart-rate-zone training. When told their heart rate is 110, they'll shrug, or stare back blankly. But PAI might change all that.
PAI (Personal Activity Intelligence) is based on a scientific study conducted in Norway over a 20-year period with a group of more than 60,000 people. From this study, researchers have developed a range of PAI scores. If you can maintain a minimum PAI score of 100 (measured in seven-day periods), you have a good chance to increase your longevity and reduce your risk of contracting lifestyle-related illnesses, the scientists behind PAI say. Everyone's PAI score is different; it's based on a person's maximum heart rate, resting heart rate, gender, and age. Mio has developed an app solely dedicated to measuring PAI, and the app works with the Alpha 2. Because PAI uses a score that's easy to remember and makes sense of heart rate data, it could encourage more people to become interested in using heart rate as a workout metric.
The Mio Alpha 2 lacks some features that its competitors have. It doesn't include GPS, so if you want to map your walks, runs, and cycles, you'll need to bring your smartphone with you. And it figuring out how to access the phone's features takes a little work. The included quick-start guide doesn't cover everything, but you can find a more detailed manual online. You can also view some helpful how-to videos here.
The included literature says little about PAI, which requires downloading a separate app. Most people don't expect to download more than one app per product; and since the Mio Go app doesn't mention PAI either, a person could buy this product and totally miss out on this important new metric.
Those points aside, if you're looking for a dedicated, very accurate heart-rate monitor that plays nicely with other apps, the Mio Alpha 2 is your ticket. With the introduction of PAI, it has the potential to appeal to a wider audience. Its price is attractive, too: Released at $200, it has since dropped to $150.
The Mio Alpha 2 receives a Techwalla score of 73%: "Recommended, but seriously flawed. There are probably better alternatives." This rather low score reflects reviewers' concerns about the lack of features in comparison to other fitness trackers.
Blast Basketball Replay
Ed and Steve Sabol of NFL Films became famous for revolutionizing how we view professional football. The Blast Basketball Replay may become famous for revolutionizing how we view ourselves. It provides motion capture video and metrics of your jump shots, layups, and dunks using slow-motion video while displaying key metrics. It's like watching an NBA highlight reel, only you're the star.
You clip a small sensor to your shorts and record the video using the Blast app on your smartphone. The app and sensor do everything automatically and smoothly. For example, the video capture knows to switch to slow-motion as you start your jump, and it turns the action into a separate clip (no editing required on your part). In a single session, you can perform numerous jump shots, layups, and dunks. The Blast Basketball replay will cut out all the downtime—retrieving the ball, walking back from the basket, drinking a Gatorade before the next layup—and record only the relevant actions: you running up to the basket, jumping, and releasing the ball. It saves these actions into a series of clips which you can view any time. You can also share your clips on Facebook, YouTube, and Vimeo, and via text message and email. The app can store up to 1,000 actions. You can delete the ones you don't want if you need more space. All actions are time- and date-stamped.
The Blast Basketball Replay is more than just a fun gadget for producing highlight selfies. The company, Blast Motion—which also sells sensors for baseball, golf, and general athletic performance—set out to bring technology that was previously available only to professional athletes within reach of amateurs as well.
The Basketball Replay sensor measures four metrics that are important to jumping: vertical acceleration, jump height, hang time, and rotation. From these measurements, it calculates your average performance. The app provides informational videos about each metric—what the metric is, why it's important, and how to use an appropriate drill to improve on that metric. For instance, under "vertical acceleration," the instructor in the video explains that vertical (or jump) acceleration gauges you how explosive you are. Improving this metric, he says, will enable you to you shoot quicker on offense and block better on defense.
The Blast Basketball Replay comes with a sensor, a clip attachment, and a charger. The sensor measures just 0.59 inch by 1.06 inches and weighs only 0.3 ounce. Setup is a three-step process. First, you charge it. The charger plugs into a USB dock and takes 90 minutes to charge completely; the charge will then last about four days in standby mode. Second, you install the app, register, and sync the device to your phone. Syncing involves turning the sensor up for 2 seconds and then down for 2 seconds. Third, you attach the sensor to the clip attachment and put it on the back of your shorts. The company recommends putting it directly in line with your spine as that's your center of mass and the best place to record the most accurate results. In our tests, setup was seamless. The Blast did everything easily, without causing any frustration.
Bear in mind that in order to record your sessions when using this device, you'll need a friend to hold your smartphone or you'll need something stationary to mount your smartphone on while you're on the court. According to the company, the app works best within 5 yards of the sensor, though it can work up to 20 yards away with some risk that the connection may drop. So the smartphone has to be up close on the basketball court—which means that if you don't have the court to yourself, you risk having your smartphone knocked over by other players or by an errant basketball.
The only other noteworthy limitation is that the device currently works only with iOS devices. The Blast Basketball Replay retails for $150. Techwalla has not rated this product yet, as there are not enough ratings for a trustworthy score.