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This smartwatch has the tech that sparked the Apple Watch ban

This smartwatch has the tech that sparked the Apple Watch ban

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Masimo let me try on a prototype of its forthcoming Freedom smartwatch. It’s priding itself on the accuracy of its sensors.

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The Masimo W1 and Freedom protoype side by side on a table.
Masimo showed up with the Freedom (right), a prototype for a smarter watch featuring its blood oxygen tech.
Photo by Victoria Song / The Verge

In the past few weeks, you’ve probably heard something about the Apple Watch getting banned. Something to do with a sensor, with some medical tech company accusing Apple of infringing on its patents. That medical tech company is Masimo, and it’s known within the medical community for its pulse oximetry technology, used for measuring blood oxygen levels.

The company would also like to be known for something else: its brand-new smartwatch, which features the tech that got the Apple Watch in trouble.

Masimo isn’t traditionally a gadget maker, but its new watch — the Freedom — is meant to be a true consumer device: something that looks stylish on the wrist, can relay your notifications, and will track your health while it’s at it. On paper, that sounds an awful lot like the Apple Watch.

I got to see an early prototype of the Freedom at CES last week, and in person, it’s an intriguing product. For starters, it’s visually distinct from the Apple Watch, in that it’s opted for a circular display with a leather band, with no digital crown in sight. To scroll, there’s a unique touch bar on the right side on which you swipe up and down to navigate. On the left, if you squint, there’s a small button that you use to select items in the Freedom’s interface. At 46mm, it’s chunky on my petite wrist, but it didn’t look out of place on Eugene Goldberg, Masimo’s president of consumer health.

Side view of Masimo Freedom showing side touch bar.
The Freedom prototype sports a unique touch bar for scrolling.
Photo by Victoria Song / The Verge

“It’s really adding the convenience functionality that a consumer is used to having, in addition to tracking all of the things they’re doing,” Goldberg says. The Freedom will have features like notifications, timers, and a smoother app experience. On the health front, it also features insights into sleep and stress.

Even so, what I saw was the bones of a fairly basic smartwatch. There weren’t a whole lot of menus to go through, and the software was clearly a beta version that wasn’t ready for primetime. As a prototype, it was clear the platform was still evolving.

Focusing on smarter features is a change in strategy for Masimo — because, technically, the company has tried its hand at smartwatches before. The Masimo W1 launched last year to little, if any, fanfare. But the W1 leaned heavily into the health side of things. It received FDA clearance for blood oxygen and pulse rate but was lacking on the smart and productivity side of the equation. Goldberg describes the W1 as the sort of device you’d get for an elderly relative who’s concerned about their health, not someone who’s keen on their tracker acting as an extension of their smartphone. Even though it looks like an Apple Watch, the W1 is more of a fitness band to the Freedom’s smartwatch.

In our meeting, Goldberg emphasized that Masimo’s goal with the Freedom watch is to showcase the accuracy of its sensors — not fire potshots at Apple. In particular, he highlighted that unlike some competitors (Goldberg declined to name names), Masimo’s blood oxygen tech is able to account for challenges like motion, low perfusion or bad blood flow, and skin pigmentation. Goldberg also says it’s a bit too early to tell whether the Freedom will get FDA clearance, though he tells me that it will have the same medical-grade sensor as the W1.

Sensor arrays on Masimo W1 and Freedom
The Freedom (right) will have the same medical-grade sensor as Masimo’s existing W1 smartwatch.
Photo by Victoria Song / The Verge

“Even as technology in general gets better, we need to create an expectation of what accuracy and ‘continuous’ [monitoring] actually means. You go to the CES show floor and in digital health, ‘continuous’ is everywhere, but I don’t necessarily believe they’re all truly continuous,” Goldberg says. “You want to know where’s the good data, where’s the bad data, and then how do you as a health professional actually work with that data? That’s where all this is going.”

Goldberg is right about the shortcuts other watches take with their health readings. Many big-name wearables don’t actually scan for your heart rate (or blood oxygen) each second; many opt to prioritize battery life by measuring once every few minutes. Other companies are trying to make this distinction a selling point, too: Movano was at CES this year touting the accuracy of it medical-grade smart ring, and a few years ago, Omron showed up with an FDA-cleared smartwatch capable of measuring your blood pressure.

Even so, Masimo’s timing is uncanny. The company was relatively unknown to consumers when its W1 smartwatch launched, but the Apple Watch ban has since catapulted the company and its blood oxygen sensor tech into the news. It’s still not quite as recognizable as Apple or Samsung, but the drama helped the Freedom to stand out a bit from the myriad trackers and wearables on the CES show floor.

Whether it’ll continue to stand out depends on if the watch can hold its own when it launches later this year — and, perhaps, whether the Apple Watch has its blood oxygen feature back.