Horology has long been one of my obsessions. With a particular soft spot for clean, modernist bauhaus design – best embodied in brands like Nomos and Junghans, I was immediately attracted to the Withings Steel line of tech-powered analogue wearables when I encountered them years ago.
Despite the recently-unveiled Move line of wearables with customisable and ECG variants, the Steel series has been the mainstay of the company. Withings (pronounced why-things), a French consumer electronics company with a focus on health and other home products, was briefly acquired by Finnish company Nokia between 2016 to 2018 – and the Steel line had seen them throughout this period.
The Withings Steel HR Sport is the most advanced model in its Steel series: offering heart rate, connected GPS and fitness level (VO2 Max) information. The Steel HR, a decidedly more formal-looking timepiece, drops the fitness tracking but retaining the OLED display that displays smartphone notifications and other information. It also has shares the attractive analogue subdial that shows your progress toward your daily activity goal. The Steel offers a more barebones approach without any digital displays to betray the technology within. Instead, it only tracks sleep, and activity through the app or the offset retrograde dial that screams NOMOS through and through.
There are three main aspects I believe make smart wearables worth your money. 1) they must be smart – feature sets matter, but user experience is king. Are the wearables smart enough to cater to the average consumer’s usage? 2) They must be wearable – are they something you just want to put on each morning (or keep on for weeks on end)? 3) Their value must be justified. Branding is a particular pain point – in most cases a feeble “feature” to justify high prices on wearables that just don’t give users what they need – unless perhaps what they need is to casually show off the brands they wear.
Steel HR Sport in (on) hand – permanently for two weeks, I kept my Apple Watch on my right wrist: for comparison, but mostly for the easy access to information like weather, date and alternate time zones that I’ve grown accustomed to.
Thus out stood its limitations – of which there are plenty. There’s a single, round, low resolution OLED display, that requires a press on the crown-esque button from your alternate wrist to activate; no lift-wrist-to-wake on this bad boy. That was a huge pity since I had already grown accustomed to getting data like weather, date and time, secondary time zones by simply lifting my wrist.
Adding to that, I quickly realised I had to grant the Steel HR Sport prime real estate on my left wrist since I can’t rotate the watch around for use on my right wrist (if you want the “crown” to point outward toward your hands) – much unlike my Apple Watch. Then again – this is to be expected on any analogue watch with numerals or subdials that simply won’t read normally if rotated 180 degrees.
Furthermore, notifications are gone forever if you look down at your wrist too late – you’ve no other choice but to snatch up your smartphone. That’s a bit of a pity since the haptic motor on the Withings Steel HR Sport can be pretty subtle – especially when you’re absorbed with the task at hand.
GPS, too, is only available if you lug your smartphone along to capitalise on the connected GPS. I’ve gone on hour-long runs with only the (non-LTE) Apple Watch for ages, and having to take a smartphone along a run wasn’t the best of feelings.
It must be odd, reading a review beginning with all the limitations of the watch. But just like fine poetry, limitations in the rhyme, rhythm and versification dictated by the form of poetry are what makes otherwise ungrammatical, awkward, incomprehensible language beautiful.
It’s limited, but not stupid by any stretch of the imagination. The Withings Steel HR Sport has what most trappings equivalent wearables offer: steps, sleep and heart rate tracking, with the addition of VO2 max-estimated fitness information.
Push notifications serve more as a means to keep your phone stowed and silent (especially important for subscribers to pocket-deprived ladies’ fashion). This meant that unlike an all-screen wearable like the Apple Watch, I was unable to significantly reduce my interaction with my phone beyond eliminating superfluous screen-checks for phantom notifications.
Being stuck in isolated, air-conditioned cells most of my day, I missed the ability to tell the outside weather at a glance, but that’s probably the biggest downside to the watch. I would also have loved a lift-to-wake mechanism on the Steel HR Sport, but tapping the “crown” with my opposing hand wasn’t that big a deal.
There’s a great overlap between the smart and the wearable aspects of this gadget – but Withings demonstrates the efficacy of good aesthetic design in making their devices wearable.
Virtually indistinguishable from a regular, analogue watch, the only giveaway of its smartwatch identity is the darker subdial, sans-hands, at the 12 o’clock position that betrays its true identity as an OLED display.
Sure, some smartwatches have analogue-styled digital displays, but they turn off in any other position where your wrist isn’t raised. I found myself struggling to tell the time in certain critical scenarios – like lying flat in bed (raising your wrist whilst lying down simply doesn’t wake the display), and carrying heavy objects (where it is just too difficult to lift your wrist chest-high to activate the display).
That being said, I truly, truly wished Withings had put some sort of luminescence on the dial of the wearable. I had the black version of the Steel HR Sport, and the hands are a slight shade different from the dial. Beautiful red accents on the tips of the hour, minute and 6 o’clock subdial hands are incredibly beautiful and provide great legibility, but in pitch darkness, you simply can’t tell the time without a tap on the crown to flash the date, with the time appearing a second after.
In terms of form, the Withings Steel HR Sport stands out high above the competition. With my tiny wrists, I automatically am excluded from the huge smartwatches that the market is awash with. With a 39.5mm case diameter, the device is the perfect mean for most wrists. The lugs, that accommodate 20mm straps, sits at the edges of my wrists perfectly.
The perforated, quick-change silicone strap ensures breathability and comfort while offering the option for easily adapting your wearable for the boardroom after your morning run. I did find the straps a tiny bit too long for my bony wrists, and the wearing process a little cumbersome with double strap keepers and a double tang buckle. Switching the straps out for a comfortable leather piece, these concerns disappeared.
The Steel HR Sport is the most expensive device in the series, retailing at GBP 189.95 (between SGD 294 – 329 online).
For iOS users, the Apple Watch is hands-down the best wearable if you are amenable to almost-daily charging sessions. They’re not cheap by any means, though. The latest Series 4 models start at SGD 599, with the previous-gen Series 3 starting from SGD 419.
For Android users, Fitbit’s Versa (SGD 318) and Versa Lite Edition (SGD 248) are some of the best everyday wearables, with cheaper options like the Charge 3 (SGD 238) and the Inspire HR (SGD 158) in a sleeker fitness tracker form.
Here’s where my horological mind politely interjects. “Fashion” smartwatches without the haute horologie features of mechanical movements that are wound by hand or wrist movements can cost around S$300 in many cases – with little else to justify its price than fancy design and faux brand-legacy.
The Withings Steel family of smartwatches aren’t selling on account of its feature sets and cutting-edge tech and gadgetry. Instead, it marries an excellent build – with engraved, milled steel, domed crystal, and elegant design – with a smattering of “smart” features to make sure you aren’t left behind.
Sure – there’s no lift-to-wake on the display, there’s no internal GPS, and there are no e-payment options; the included sport strap is a tad finnicky, and there’s no luminescence for legibility in pitch-darkness.
But if one thing’s for sure, it’s an eye-catcher. The umpteen times I’ve been asked “what watch is that” had always concluded with a wide-eyed, incredulous “that’s a smartwatch?”