How Does My Activity Tracker Work?

I am, as readers of this blog will know, practically spherical and practically immobile.  I thought an activity tracker might motivate me to move more.  A long overdue service and new battery for my very old expensive watch was (at over £300) roughly what the watch would fetch second hand, so I was also in the market for a replacement watch.  (Although: I’d already done this once, and while the cheapest I could find was still working, the strap was not.)

I was downcast to discover that almost all trackers were not for use in water.  I wanted something I could keep on all the time, not remove for showering or swimming.

A lot of reviews praised Withings, while complaining that they were pricier than others. The facts did not bear this out!  Loads of trackers were more expensive, especially if waterproof.  Not only that: since Withings doubles up as and indeed looks exactly like a watch, I’d be killing two birds with one stone.

I bought the ‘activité steel’ for about £120.  The ‘pop’ saved about £15 but had a coloured face while I wanted white: the ‘sapphire’ was over £300 for no obvious benefit other than a leather strap.

It’s great.  The silicon strap feels nicer than I thought, but for about a tenner I bought a steel mesh bracelet on ebay which goes perfectly.  And it just looks like a watch. Plus you replace the batteries yourself with ones you buy at the supermarket for about £1.

Withings – I think you should make more of this.  I only found out how cheap and easy it was when your online advice to take it to a jeweller failed and I contacted the company.

Take that, Cartier, who charges over £100 and a week or more merely to change a battery!  Take that Timpsons, who refused to touch it because it doesn’t have a winder!  Take that H Samuel, who said they weren’t sure, but for £35 they would send it away for a couple of weeks and – possibly – do the job!

But how does it work?

I am dumbfounded by how clever it is.  But it is not as clever as it thinks it is, and while remaining impressed by all that it does, I get frustrated by its fails.

Sleep monitoring.  I’ve mentioned before that for over four years I have not slept through the night, since the note on the mat.  So I have become fascinated by the daily sleep reports.  How does it know from my wrist that I am asleep?  It seems pretty accurate.  It distinguishes between light and deep sleep well, I think, and it diligently reports every time I get up to go to the loo.  BUT.  While it doesn’t seem to think I am asleep if I am reading in bed before I drop off (if I go to bed at eleven and read until midnight), it somehow still thinks that I am asleep when I wake an hour later and go back to my book or emails.  Why?  If I nod off on the sofa in front of the telly, it never registers that as sleep.  And if I check the app in the night, it leaves a gap when it adds the rest of the night.  Since much of what it calls light sleep is actually reading etc, I tend to ignore it and look at how much deep sleep I am getting.  It says nothing about REM, by the way.  Not sure why.


Steps.  While it admits to my getting up to go to the loo in the night, marking those episodes as ‘awake’ it does not recognise any steps after bedtime.  In fact, it doesn’t recognise them at all unless I go for a brisk walk.  So, according to Withings, I slide down the banister and presumably shuffle along on my bottom making cups of tea etc.  A day spent at home, mainly sitting at my desk, admittedly, but obviously on my feet to make lunch, answer the door, put the laundry in etc, will often register virtually no steps at all.  Very depressing.  A stroll to the letterbox registers, but not domestic pottering.  Presumably something to do with the swing of the arms?  I had a day of running around the V&A on a treasure hunt recently and was disappointed at the end of the day to see how low my steps tally was.  I wondered whether it was because I had my watch arm clamped to my side throughout, clutching my coat to my body because – UNBELIEVABLY – the V&A cloakroom refused to take our bags and things unless we were members (but then later, when we approached a smaller cloakroom elsewhere in the building, they did, no questions asked).

Other activities.  I don’t use the feature which allows you to tell the watch that you are playing tennis, doing aerobics or whatever (there’s quite a selection).  So if I do aqua aerobics, I just let it count the steps in the water.  If I actually swim (or even if there is just a repeated swimming arm movement in the class), it will tell me that I swam.

Like I say, it is fantastically clever, but not as clever as it thinks.  I’d love to know how it works.  When I asked the young man with ‘product’ in his hair (John Lewis, where the staff are normally pretty knowledgeable) his reply, delivered as though he was incredibly clever and imparting wizarding wisdom to a child, was ‘it’s algorithms’.  Ah, brilliant, thanks, that tells me everything I need to know.

But maybe it’s just as well.  If I did know, the temptation to wave my arm in a particular way while waiting for the kettle to boil (instead of, say, having a little dance) would likely be too great.  Which reminds me of a recent cartoon from The New Yorker.  The caption: People pay me to put steps on their Fitbits.


PS If you also buy Withings scales you get weight, heartbeat and stuff sent to your phone as well.  Again, you’d think this would motivate me not to stuff my face, but no…

PS And, importantly, if you have any questions or problems, the customer service team could not be more responsive and helpful.  A pleasure to deal with.  Makes all the difference.  Take note, Lidl and all you other people who are horrible to your customers.

Image: Top photo taken from Withings site.


Published by

Florence Feynman

I am a middle aged, middle class woman, thinking.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s