Hardware Reviews watches

Withings Steel HR review: smart looking, but is it smart enough?

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Smartwatches are fantastic for alerts and fitness smarts, but the battery life is often woeful and their looks are somewhat “informal”. What if you could combine a smart-looking, traditional watch with smartwatch functions and have almost a month of battery life? That’s the promise of the Withings Steel HR.

Withings, a French company that was once part of Nokia, specialises in health tech, including smart body scales and blood pressure monitors. It’s been producing smartwatches for almost a decade now, and the Steel HR is its latest model, with features including heart monitoring to sleep tracking.

The Steel HR can be bought at Amazon from £135 (depending on model) and the Sport from £130. Personally, the black Steel HR Sport is my favourite and, at the time of writing, it’s the cheapest too.

Unboxing

The Withings Steel HR makes a strong first impression. A glossy outer box, showing full-colour product images and product information, opens up to reveal an inner, matte white box, extracted by a small fabric loop. The lid of this inner box is held close by a magnet, which requires a small tug to flip the top open.

The watch itself is wrapped around a small piece of foam and there’s a piece of plastic film covering the watch. However, other than the plastic wrap around the charging cable, that’s it for plastic – everything else is card or paper. The manual is in a cardboard pocket stuck to the inside of the lid, which keeps everything together nicely.

All you’ll find inside the box is the watch, charger and manual. Waste is kept to a minimum.

The watch

The watch looks smart. Whether you pick the rose gold, black or white model, this circular, analogue watch wouldn’t look out of place when worn with a suit or formal dress. There are standard and sport models available in 36mm and 40mm faces.

Withings Steel HR

For this review, I’m using the 36mm rose gold model with the white face.

All models share the same layout, with two large circles within the main dial – the top one is a screen and the second is used as an “activity dial”. On the side is a push button in the style of a classic crown.

The most obvious aspect of the watch is the classic analogue dial, which displays the time. It’s totally silent in use but is lacking a second hand, which may have something to do with battery life. However, the digital display also has no seconds display and that’s an annoying omission. One other thing I miss is the lack of numerals around the outside – you’re limited to simple “tick marks” on most models.

A silicon strap with a classic buckle is included. This feels much thinner and lower quality than the type included with an Apple Watch but it does have a nicely contoured back. They’re detached via a simple catch that’s built into the strap itself, and are compatible with straps for assorted Garmin, Huawei and Fossil watches too, which means there’s quite a selection of alternatives available. Withings sells additional straps, but you can also buy cheaper third party versions.

Thickness-wise, the watch has an almost bowl-like look, with the deepest section being the middle of the underside. When worn on the wrist, this hides its true depth. This also houses the downward-facing sensors.

The watch is waterproof to 5 ATM, which is about 50 metres, and also includes GPS for workout tracking.

The charger is magnetic but, unlike the Apple equivalent, the watch sits on top and is connected by a couple of pins, rather than using any kind of wireless technology. A 1m captive cable ends with a USB-A plug.

Withings Steel HR

Operating the Steel HR

As mentioned above, the watch has a small, black, circular screen at the top, which is a low-resolution, white-on-black affair. It’s not flashy and it’s certainly not touch-sensitive – pushing the button on the side is the only control you have. But that’s what you get in return for a battery that should last almost a month between charges.

Pressing the button lets you cycle between date and time, heart rate, daily step count, distance traveled, calories burned and setting the alarm time. To select an option you long press the button. It’s easy to understand, but also takes some getting used to. From within the accompanying app you can even change which screens are present on the watch, as well as the order.

The watch also boasts sleep tracking, although the information gathered is viewed in the mobile app.

Abilities that don’t require the use of the button at all include the display of notifications. You can use the smartphone app to choose which information you wish be notified about. This includes phone calls, calendar, email, messages, etc. but will also work with third-party apps – everything from AirBnB to Apple Music to Twitter worked with mine, and all were individually adjustable (in terms of allowing them to notify you or not) within the Withings app.

Although the display is limited to a single line for text, it scrolls across and does so on a loop, so you don’t have to worry about missing anything. For simple texts or tweets, it will show the entire message. Notifications are accompanied by a vibration – it’s no Taptic Engine, but it’s powerful enough. The same vibration is used for subtle morning alarms to wake you without disturbing anyone else in the bed.

One thing that is absent is any kind of security on the watch. If it’s stolen, it’s easy to reset and pair to a new phone.

The software

Withings has an app named Health Mate, which is available for both Android and iOS. It reminded me of the Fitbit app, syncing watch data back to the app, as well as connecting to more generic apps such as Apple Health. Data is shown visually in Health Mate and there’s even a leaderboard.

You can see the home and dashboard screens here. The latter can be customised to show the information that you want. The Devices and Profiles tabs at the bottom allow you to change both the watch and your personal settings. The plus button at the top allows you to record something to the app, such as an activity or a weight recording.

Withings app

The Profile screen also displays goals and achievements, as well as letting you connect to third-party apps. One that I particular like is the connection with the Nest Thermostat, which allows it to control your home temperature at night to ensure that you get the most comfortable sleep.

The app (in this cast the iOS version) was easy to use and stable, with no obvious issues. It has a strong 4.5 rating in the App Store too, which is telling.

Withings Steel HR review verdict

I’ve not had chance to really push the claimed battery life, but based on my experience so far, it seems pretty accurate. Of course, this will always depend on how much you use the watch but compared to the day of battery life you get from most smartwatches, this is a massive bonus.

I found the watch easy to use, although that single button operation is frustrating at times. The app is well written, which is a relief, because the smartwatch is entirely reliant upon it – you can’t even adjust the time without pairing to the app. This was always my issue with Fitbit; the software was okay but syncing with the device could be problematic. I’ve not had any connection issues with the Withings.

Steps, heart rate, etc., showed near-identical results to my Apple Watch. The Apple Watch is often praised for being one of the most accurate smartwatches, so this is an encouraging sign.

The watch looks great and wouldn’t be out of place in a formal setting, thanks to that hybrid set-up. It looks smart, it plays smart and that battery life is as good as you could possibly hope for.

Withings Steel HR Review
  • Features
  • Design
  • Ease of use
  • Value

Withings Steel HR summary

The hybrid design puts the “smart” back into smartwatch. It’s well-specified with superb battery life, if you can live with reading notifications off a tiny screen.

Overall
4.1

Pros

  • Month-long battery life
  • It looks great for a smartwatch
  • The software is simple to use

Cons

  • The display is small and relies on slowly scrolling text
  • The single button control mechanism is fiddly

About the author

David Artiss

Currently working for a technology company based in San Francisco, David has worked in IT for nearly 30 years. He is a keen gamer and happily admits to being a gadget nerd too.

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  • I had a couple of Withings watches for several years. [Note the impression I had with your mention of Nokia was that it was a spin-off of a Nokia unit. Well it was but the company started off as Withings; was bought by Nokia and then several years later was sold back [I think to the original owners].]

    The major plus with the watches compared to other ”smart” watches was that you didn’t need to charge it as the battery lasts for about 9 months at least.

    The major negative was that you couldn’t charge it yourself and you couldn’t change the battery yourself but needed to go to a (standard) watch battery change place. Expensive and especially if on holiday possibly difficult.

    One day I saw a very good offer for a Huawei GT watch (I had a Huawei phone at the time) and it was so cheap I bought it just to compare. I ended up switching to it. It lasted several days between charges especially after I started turning it off at night.

    Now I perhaps regret having felt rich enough to buy an Apple Watch because while a pleasanter feel on the wrist it’s a major pain to have to charge the darn thing every day.

    i.e. I wouldn’t go back to the Withings but I last time took the Huawei GT with me on a 2 week holiday because of the charging issue with the Apple Watch despite now having an iPhone.

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