We should start by saying that the PulseOn heart rate monitor is still very much in beta – and it shows. When the final device is shipped, the company tells us that its screen will be better, metallic finishings will be polished, the quality of the strap material will be improved, the overall quality and feel of the device will be better, the software will be more stable, additional features will be added, the battery life will be improved and data about distance and speed will be shown on the display.
This is all good news, because I can confirm that the screen is unreadable in direct sunlight, the current strap is made of cheap polyester, the device is a little awkward to use, the software was a bit flaky at points, stated features are missing and the battery has been draining quickly even when the device has been switched off.
Despite all of the room for improvement, two key features of the PulseOn were unimpeded by the necessary updates. The device has an optical heart rate sensor that the company claims is "by far the most accurate optical heart rate solution in the market." The accompanying mobile app, meanwhile, supposedly helps to explain the data collected and "tell you what your heart rate means". With both of these features present, we were eager to test drive the PulseOn.
The device's main body actually looks quite sleek. It is small (according to PulseOn it's the smallest on the market) and has a curved bezel bleeding into a flat screen. Hinges for the strap help the device to wrap around the user's wrist and there are only two buttons to worry about. One button is used to initiate exercise session recording, while the other scrolls through info like time and heart rate. The buttons are a touch fiddly and the symbols on them aren't exactly self-explanatory, but once you know which is which then the device is simple enough to use.
The PulseOn is charged using a large crocodile clip with contacts that align with corresponding contacts on the bottom of the watch itself. This may void the need for a USB port in the device itself, but is also overly fiddly. Magnetic contacts, or perhaps a wireless charging pad, would be far easier to use.
The optical sensor does appear to be all it's cracked up to be. PulseOn told us that it uses "multiple wavelengths to dynamically read blood flow in different depths of the skin." The main benefit of this is that a chest strap is no longer required for accurate heart rate monitoring (though that's old news, with Samsung also placing standalone heart monitors in the Galaxy S5 and four different smartwatches). Repeated tests against a manual heart rate count over 60 seconds, though, did show the PulseOn to be consistently accurate.
The PulseOn pairs with a smartphone via Bluetooth, which is as straightforward as pairing any other device with your phone. When you load up the mobile app, an icon in the top right corner will indicate whether or not the app recognizes the devices as successfully paired. PulseOn automatically syncs any data with the user's mobile device, so there's no manual syncing required.
Once the app has synced at least one set of data, it's possible to see just how insightful PulseOn can be and to what extent it explains the data for you as promised. The data provided is certainly extensive. The app puts a general fitness score and a "time to full recovery" front and center. Information about the user's latest fitness session includes length of session time, heart rate, intensity and calories burned. The company plans to soon add a distance travelled figure as well. Rotating your phone into landscape mode shows the data in graph format (a somewhat clunky navigation element) and exercise history can be shown by event, week, month or year.
Unfortunately, PulseOn's assurance that it will tell the user "what their heart rate means" doesn't entirely hold true. How the fitness score is calculated and what it actually means are a little murky. The score is accompanied by phrases like "improving fitness" or "maintaining fitness," but these aren't especially enlightening either. Elsewhere, it is not explained whether the heart rate figure is a peak or an average (or, for that matter, what its significance is). Similarly, it presents calories burned without context. There is no indication about how any of this data should inform your next workout. That isn't uncommon among today's fitness trackers, but it also doesn't measure up to PulseOn's claims.
The app itself is available on iOS and Android. I was using it on an Android device and found the UI to be a bit clunky. Navigation wasn't the most intuitive and some transitions were slow and jittery. But having said that, all of the data was presented clearly.
I have no doubt that the PulseOn is a device that can produce some accurate and useful data. The company is also promising some big improvements before this wearable ships to the public. But it's crucial that the app presents the user's data with more context and significance than it does now. And with perfectly capable heart rate monitors showing up in more all-purpose mobile and wearable devices, it's harder to justify plunking down US$200 for a single-purpose device like PulseOn. But, who knows, maybe the final release will change all of that.
The PulseOn will retail for $199 and is due to begin shipping in September this year.
Product page: PulseOn
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