Steel HR brings brains, brawn, and battery to fitness smartwatches

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I spent a lot of years wearing a lot of smartwatches. Until I didn't. At some point, I just gave up having one more thing to charge every night. Or maybe being able to swipe away an email at a moment's notice just wasn't important anymore. And, so, I went analog. (Thanks to my lovely wife for this Christmas present.)

But I screwed up. I wore my Shinola (this one, since folks will ask) to the gym, twice, and very quickly ended up with sweat stains in the leather. (Let that be a lesson to you!) Time to be smarter about things. And one of the best pieces of advice I think there is when it comes to fitness tech is to try to stay in a single ecosystem. I was already using the Withings Body scale and Wireless Blood Pressure Cuff.

Time to try its fancy watch, too. This is the Steel HR.

See at Withings{}

The short, short version: The Steel HR is what I'd call a semi-smart watch. It's got an analog face and an indicator for activity level gauge, dialing up from 0 to 100% (or beyond) as you go throughout your day. It's also got a small digital display for basic notifications.

On the underside is a heart-rate monitor — the HR part of the Steel HR.

It'll check your heart rate once every 10 minutes or so when you're just walking around. But hold down the button on the side of the watch and you enter "workout mode," and the watch starts taking heart rate measurements continuously. Press the button again and you can see how hard your pumper is pumping and how much time has elapsed in each session.

You're forgiven if you look at the Steel HR and don't see it as a smartwatch. I don't. For one, it doesn't have the telltale color display. That's actually a good thing in this case, for two reasons. The first is that when I'm doing the fitness thing, I don't want to be futzing with the watch all the time. Back when I was wearing full smartwatches, I was always swiping at the darn thing. The Steel HR, however, doesn't bother me much, if at all. It tells the time, it tracks me in the background, and it notifies me of important incoming events — but those are pretty few and far between.

Steel HR

The other thing is that because it doesn't have a big, color display lit up all the time, the battery lasts for what feels like forever. As I type this, I honestly couldn't tell you the actual capacity of the battery, because I simply don't care. I haven't gone less than a week before I even thought about getting near a charger. Actual run time will vary a bit depending on how much you're using the active workout mode. The literature says you get up to five days' use in workout mode and up to 25 days in normal mode. And that's really not an exaggeration. The only times I've charged is when I've felt like it — not because I had to. And the watch charges pretty fast, too, quoting up to 80% in an hour, with another hour to hit 100%.

Hardware is nothing without software, of course. And so this all (like the scale and BP cuff and other products) ties into the Health Mate app, available on Android, on iOS, and on the web.

When you use the "active workout" mode, the watch will sync back to the phone and try to figure out what it is you were doing. Walking and running are the obvious ones. Swimming, too. I usually have to edit things when I'm on the elliptical, but that's sort of the point. It makes importing your workouts pretty seamless. You just need to double-check the activity and maybe calories expended. Elapsed time and heart rate are handled for you.

(The Nokia folks tell me the Steel HR also will try to automatically recognize tennis, ping pong, squash, badminton, weightlifting, basketball, soccer, volleyball, dancing, and boxing. And if it doesn't figure those out, it's got a bunch more you can select from yourself.)

If you work out without the Steel HR on your arm, did you actually exercise? OK, yes. But it's just not the same.

I've been wearing the Steel HR for a few months now. Not 100% of the time (I don't wear my Shinola 100% of the time either), but almost every time I exercise. I'm to the point where I kind of kick myself a little if I forget to strap it on in the morning when I walk — gotta have my steps counted!

But the Steel HR absolutely comes with me to the gym, every time I go to the gym. I love having a log of my exercises and how hard (or not) I was working.

But mostly I love having a semi-smart connected watch that can stand up to my sweaty body (I'll let that visual sink in for a minute) and run for weeks at a time. That it looks decent — more than decent, actually — is an added bonus.

See at Withings{}

Phil Nickinson

Phil is the father of two beautiful girls and is the Dad behind Modern Dad. Before that he spent seven years at the helm of Android Central. Before that he spent a decade in a newsroom of a two-time Pulitzer Prize-finalist newspaper. Before that — well, we don't talk much about those days.