Review: Basis Peak fitness and sleep tracker

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Gizmag reviews the Basis Peak fitness tracker (Photo: Simon Crisp/Gizmag.com)

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The Basis Peak is a wrist-worn fitness tracker which is jam-packed with sensors to monitor an array of information about your body and activity. It also automatically detects whether you're walking, running, cycling or sleeping, and can deliver smartphone notifications to your wrist. Gizmag recently spent a bit of time with the fitness tracker to see how well it performs, and how useful all of that information really is.

UPDATE (4th August 2016): Intel has announced a recall of all Basis Peak fitness trackers after an overheating problem caused some users to suffer blisters or burns on their wrist. Users are advised to stop using their tracker immediately, and return it to Basis Science for a refund. Details on how to do that can be found on the Basis support pages.

The firm also says it is stopping support for Basis Peak immediately, though users can access their fitness data until December 31, 2016. After then, services will be turned off, meaning the watches can't sync, and become a very technical paperweight.

The Basis Peak fitness tracker is aimed squarely at people who want access to as much general activity information as a wrist-worn tracker can deliver, and who wouldn't mind getting a taste of smartwatch functionality at the same time. It tracks heart rate, steps, calories burned, sweat levels, skin temperature and sleep quality, while an update which landed earlier this year also means its big high contrast screen can be used to display smart notifications including SMS, e-mail, incoming calls, and events.

All of this means the Basis Peak is, at least on paper, one of the most capable all-round fitness trackers on the market, and a considerable upgrade to the original Basis B1. As such, potential buyers are probably also going to be eyeing up the likes of the Fitbit Surge, Garmin Vivoactive, the Fitbit Charge HR and the Microsoft Band, along with more dedicated sports devices like the TomTom Runner Cardio and Garmin fēnix 3.

In the box you'll find the waterproof Basis Peak along with a magnetic USB charging cradle. While promotional blurb states you should get four days of battery life out of a full charge, we found it was more like three days, and we actually preferred to charge it more frequently during periods of inactivity like sitting at a computer. The packaging clearly spells out what the Basis Peak is capable of, though you'll need to refer to the website to find out whether your Bluetooth Smart smartphone is compatible.

While we've seen some people struggle to get up and running with the Basis Peak, our experience of installing and pairing was relatively straight forward. That said, it was lightly frustrating that firmware updates cannot be done through the USB charging cradle and need to be carried out via a paired smart-device running the Basis Peak app. For us this was primarily a Motorola G (2nd Gen), but we also tested the iOS version of the app on an iPad.

It was only after starting to use the Basis Peak that we made a key observation: it looks a lot better than expected. Marketing shots do the tracker a disservice, and it's far from the Quasimodo of the fitness tracker world that you might be expecting. In real life it looks like a smart digital watch which will fit in whether you are wearing jeans and a t-shirt or a suit. Its only crime is that it isn't photogenic. The body is available in matte black (which we tried) or brushed metal, and interchangeable straps mean you can mix it up a bit.

A large high contrast always-on touchscreen display on the Basis Peak makes it a very viable watch replacement, and means that information is considerably easier to see than on many other fitness trackers. Even in bright conditions and while running it's possible to see and read the screen which is made with Gorilla Glass 3. In the dark, an upwards swipe on the right of the display activates a backlight. Navigating menus and settings is simple using the touchscreen (there are no buttons) though it's not as responsive or consistent as the Garmin Vivosmart.

Once you're wearing the Basis Peak, there's very little you need to do. Unlike most other fitness trackers, you don't need to tell it when you're going for a walk, run, or bike-ride, or when you're going to bed. Instead everything is logged automatically and your main interactions with the device are probably going to be to check the time or your notifications, and to keep an eye on your heart rate or daily activity totals. Whether this is a good thing or not is something we'll come to shortly.

While a 3-axis accelerometer allows the Basis Peak to track your steps in the same way as most other trackers, that's only the tip of the iceberg. Sensors allow it to also constantly monitor heart rate, sweat levels, skin temperature and sleep quality, with a breakdown of periods of light, deep, and REM kip. All of this means the device has great potential, if the information is used correctly. The only things missing are GPS, and the fact that the Peak only logs steps and not distance, which is sure to irk some users. That said, the Peak can use Bluetooth to stream its info to apps which have GPS, to see distance and pace, along with other fitness data.

In our experience automatic tracking was equally one of the most impressive and infuriating features of the Basis Peak. For someone as memory-challenged as myself it was liberating to know that I could head out on a run or bike ride without having to remember to manually start activity tracking. I've lost count of the number of half-tracked runs I've racked up recently with other devices. Automatic detection of walking, running and cycling was flawless with the Peak recognizing within seconds what I was doing when.

That said, because all this Body IQ tagging of exercise is automatic, there's no way to do it manually. This is important because the Basis Peak only recognizes walking, running and cycling, if you are doing something else like weights or rowing, it will not show up in your activity feed. Yes, data from all those sensors is still being recorded and is accessible in the web and smartphone apps, or to export, but it doesn't make it easy to use. Similarly there's no way to manually log exercise completed when not wearing the Peak.

Sleep tracking is another example of great function marred by the Peak's insistence of doing everything automatically. Giving much more information than most rival sleep trackers, it will identify periods of light, deep, and REM sleep, along with logging when you toss or turn in bed. However, a worrying number of periods of sleep were recorded whenever I sat down at a computer or to watch TV. Either I unknowingly suffer from narcolepsy, or the Peak struggles to distinguish between inactivity and sleep. What make this worse is the inability to correct false positives anywhere in the app or on the website, meaning overall sleep data is skewed.

In terms of the tracked numbers, the Basis Peak was fairly consistent with other devices, for example a 30 minute run logged as 5,220 steps on the Peak compared to 5,006 on the Fitbit Charge HR and 5216 using the Tickr X. Average heart rates came in at 161, 162 and 162 bpm respectively with top heart rates or 181, 175 and 180 bpm. A comparison of heart rate charts showed very similar patterns across all results.

The selection of information which can be displayed on the screen of the Basis Peak is more limited than some rival devices. On their wrist, users are limited to watch functionality (which annoyingly lacks an alarm or stopwatch/timer) checking their current heart rate, recent activity and daily totals. While all of this is incredibly easy to see and navigate, it's a shame the information isn't more usable. For example using the vibration function to notify users as they moved between heart rate zones, like on the TomTom Runner, would make the tracking more handy at the time of exercise.

However, once you load up either the smartphone app or Basis website you suddenly have access to a selection of tracked data which few other fitness trackers can compete with. This is presented in a selection of charts, graphs and colorful patterns which all make the information very easy to access and identify patterns from.

On the MyBasis website, information is broken down into My Habits, which shows progress towards reward badges, Insights, where you can check out daily breakdowns of key activity and sleep events, and Data, where you can explore all of the information collected by the Basis Peak. Within the smartphone app, this consists of a Dashboard overview, more detail on Habits, an Activity Feed, and a Chart View.

While this, along with the ability to export tracked information, should be enough to keep even the most data-hungry exerciser happy, there's still the question of how usable and actionable this data is for the majority of people. On a more practical level, the Basis approach to jockeying you along is one of the most compelling we've experienced on a fitness tracker, and ideal if you don't want to dive head-first into your exercise data. You start off with a couple of basic Habits, targets for things like wearing the Basis Peak or walking a set number of steps each day.

The more you complete these targets for the set number of times each week, the more points you get to add more habits – which can include things like increasing walking in a morning, getting a consistent bedtime, or running or cycling for so many minutes per day. We found this system more encouraging and engaging than those on rival devices, but it's a shame that you can only compete against yourself and there are no native social aspects to the Basis Peak.

A recent update to the Basis Peak gave the device a basic selection of smartwatch-lite features, such as the ability to display information about incoming emails or SMS messages on the wrist, as well as incoming calls which can be declined without touching the phone. While this is nice to have, the implementation is not as smooth as with other fitness trackers with smartwatch aspirations. For example, while messages flashed up on the Garmin Vivosmart as the exact time as on paired phone, with the Peak there is a delay of around five seconds. This was just long enough to doubt notifications were coming through, and then reach for a phone just as it flashed up on the Peak's screen.

The Basis Peak is a solid fitness tracker which gives you access to all the information you could wish for (with the exception of GPS). It's a smart-looking device which is packed with sensors and is ideal for people who want access to masses of data, and who aren't afraid to get their fingers dirty using that information.

However, it's less geared to those who just want a quick overview of their activity, and it's arguably not quite as impressive as it should or could be. Seemingly basic features like a stopwatch and alarm are missing, as is a distance measurement. Equally, the insistence of doing everything automatically means users can feel like they are not in control.

It feels like a series of firmware updates could easily transform the Basis Peak into one of the most impressive fitness trackers on the market, and given it has already gained notification abilities since it launched, that is a possibility. But for now buyers are getting a good fitness tracker, not the great one it could be.

The Basis Peak is available for US$200 and come in black or silver options.

Product page: Basis Peak

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