There’s something to be said about a return to simplicity in wearable tech. The category brims with possibilities, but in the current throw-it-all-at-the-wall climate, it’s hard to know which wrist dongle to buy, if any at all. Smartwatches run apps, but in a very limited capacity, and do you really need one? Dedicated fitness watches are great, but should you spend that much on something you wouldn’t even want to wear to dinner? And how accurate are all of these optical heart rate sensors?
The new Withings Go is an attempt to simplify all of this, by displaying some activity data, without making it overly complicated. It has an always-on E Ink display. It provides step-counting and sleep-tracking for days — actually up to eight months on a single coin cell battery. And Withings, which is in the process of being acquired by Nokia, has made a series of small changes to its mobile health app that make it easier to use than ever.
I've been wearing the Go for nearly a week now. I want to like it, but I don’t think I would buy one. On the upside, it offers continuous visual feedback on how active you’ve been that day, and its battery life is almost long enough to last you through a really long break between TV show seasons. But I don't love the way it looks. And my biggest knock on the Go is that it costs $79.95 for what feels like a me-too wearable, with companies like Fitbit, Misfit, and Jawbone having introduced similar trackers years ago for $30 to $50. That’s not to say those products are perfect, either. But if you’re going to buy a super simple wearable that may or may not end up in a drawer this year, I probably wouldn’t spend $80 on it.
The Go is a small circular module that can either be worn within a rubber wristband or as a clip-on tracker (both the wristband and the clip-on casing come in the box). It sells in five different colors; for this review I’ve been wearing the black wristband. The Go’s "simplicity" veers dangerously close to "cheap." It doesn’t strive for fancy. It’s at least easy to put on and take off.
It has an always-on, E Ink display that switches from activity mode to a bare-bones watch face with a firm press on the center of the screen. In certain lighting you can actually see the faint ripples of a button underneath the surface of the display, but only if you look closely.
the always-on e ink display is really convenient
The main value of the E Ink display is its visibility, as well as its low demands on battery life. And it's at least one thing that sets it apart from competing products, some of which require you to open a mobile app and sync the device to see any kind of meaningful data. It’s really, really convenient to glance down at the Go and see that you’ve only moved a quarter of the amount you should have today, or conversely, that you’re nearing your daily activity goal (all of which is preset in the Withings mobile app). For some people, this is exactly the kind of motivation they’re looking for — not heart rate levels, or VO2 max, but simply: how much am I really moving around?
For people who are inclined to record exercise sessions, the Go will automatically track certain exercises, like running and swimming. Auto-identifying exercises is becoming a standard feature for these types of trackers — Garmin, Fitbit, and Jawbone all do it, and Withings has offered it on previous products — but it’s a welcome feature regardless.
Of course, as with other wearables, that doesn’t mean it’s always precise. For example, last Saturday I ran around 2.25 miles for 30 minutes and the next time I opened the compatible Withings Health Mate app to sync the Go, it had recorded a 2.6-mile run in 29 minutes of activity.
Withings says that it takes one minute of activity for the device to begin recording, which explains the 29 minutes; and that a user’s height is used to calculate stride length and from there, an estimated distance. (And, to be fair, I was running very slowly, since I’m just getting back into running following a knee surgery.) But that goes to show what you get from a lightweight tracker with an accelerometer rather than a fitness watch with, say, GPS.
The Withings Go won’t record other types of exercises, like spin classes or weight training or yoga, but again, that’s to be expected from this category of tracker. It's easy enough to manually log an activity in the Withings mobile app, by tapping a blue plus button in the upper quadrant of the app’s home screen. Within the "Activity" tab, there are more than 35 different types of activities you can log.
The Go will also auto-track your sleep, and it’s pretty comfortable to wear on your wrist to bed. Another upside to the E Ink display: it won’t light up a dark room at night or disturb anyone else’s sleep, which other wearables can do. I can’t say with certainty how accurate the Go’s automatic sleep-tracking is without comparing it to some type of professional assessment, but my shut-eye and wake-up times seemed spot on.
Withings’ mobile app is one of the bigger draws of this product, or any Withings product. If the future of wearable tech is one where all of the standard sensor sets are attached in some way to our bodies, or where all scales and blood pressure monitors are Wi-Fi-connected, then the real differentiator is likely to be the software we use to crunch the data and analyze it, rather than the hardware.
withings' health mate app has improved a lot
The free Withings Health Mate app runs on iOS and Android, and it’s a series of small things that I like about it rather than one standout feature. On iOS it now supports Touch ID, so you can lock the app (and lock away your personal health data) and unlock it with ease. It displays your overall activity levels in a series of colorful charts. It works directly with MyFitnessPal, one of my favorite apps, for food logging. You can log your blood pressure in the app. The app displays smiley faces on days when you’ve hit your "personal best." Okay, maybe the smiley faces aren’t game-changing, but they’re fun.
But beyond the capabilities of the hardware and the specifics of the software, the question to ask is: will I want to keep wearing the Withings Go? It’s the not-very-well-kept secret of the wearables industry that there are user-retention issues, with some consumers ditching their activity trackers within months of getting them. Even Fitbit, the market leader for activity-tracking, has to face this: 28 percent of Fitbit buyers in 2015 were no longer using their Fitbits by the end of the year.
i just don't love the way it looks
At least once over the past week I took off the Withings Go because I didn’t want to wear it out at night, and forgot to put it back on, either as a wristband or a clip-on tracker. Honestly, I took it off mostly because of its looks. Withings did so well with the design of the Activite, an actual Swiss watch, as well as the less expensive Activite Pop watch, and then there’s the Go, which is like a toy version of those. The E Ink display feels like it’s part of a thoughtful approach, but the rest of it doesn't. It wasn’t until I saw gaps in my data-tracking in the Health Mate app that I felt inspired to put the Go back on, which again, points back to the importance of compelling software.
The Withings Go is clearly an attempt to cut through all the wearable crap and give consumers an easy option. And that’s not a terrible strategy — at all. As I said earlier, for some consumers, just having that glanceable activity data on their wrist at all times is all they need. But given its aesthetics and $80 price point, my recommendation for it would go something like this: if you like the way it looks, and if you want a step counter that also tracks a few other things, and if you would much rather use the Withings Health Mate app than the Jawbone or Fitbit or Misfit app, then go for the Go. That’s a lot of "ifs."
Photography by Vjeran Pavic