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Withings Steel HR Sport review: A classic design gets better

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
190
inc VAT

The Steel HR gets a sport redesign and gains a host of new features

Pros 
Elegant design
Long battery life
Multisport exercise tracking
Cons 
Lacks onboard GPS
Pricey
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After being bought by Nokia in 2016 and sold back to a co-founder in 2018, you might have thought Withings would step back and consolidate before launching itself back into the harum-scarum of the wearables market. But it’s wasted no time at all getting back on the horse with the release of the Withings Steel HR Sport.

Based strongly on the Nokia Steel HR, which we rather liked when we reviewed it earlier this year, the Sport adds much-needed extra features and amps up the style but follows a similar template to the firm's previous wearables.

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Withings Steel HR Sport review: What you need to know

Just like the regular Steel HR, the Sport is a watch first and smartwatch or fitness tracker second. It has a stylish, understated physical watch face with analogue hour and minute hands and an analogue sub-dial to show progress to your daily step count target; and it has a small, circular monochrome OLED screen that shows more detailed info such as notifications.

It’s a classy-looking device, the idea behind which is not only to look like a normal watch but also to offer much better battery life than regular smartwatches. It tracks your steps, your sleep and your heart rate, is waterproof to 50m, but doesn't include built-in GPS and its notification-handling isn't as advanced as on a proper smartwatch.

Withings Steel HR Sport review: Price and competition

One slight black mark against the Steel HR Sport from the get-go is the cost. It sells for £190 which for a smartwatch this minimal is quite high. And it looks even more expensive when you set it in context.

When you can buy the Ticwatch E or S or a Fitbit Charge 2 for less, that sticks in the throat somewhat. It’s pricier than the Nokia Steel HR, too, which retails at around £150 and a similar price to the excellent Fitbit Versa.

Withings Steel HR Sport review: Key features and performance

So what makes this Sport version worth splashing out on? Its looks for a start, which are in a different stratosphere compared with most fitness trackers and smartwatch rivals at this price. It's available with a white or black face (I prefer the latter) but both look lovely and comes with a stretchy rubber sports wristband in the box that allows you to get the watch comfortably tight without cutting off the blood supply to your fingers.

Whether you like the way it looks or not, though, there’s no denying that the Steel HR Sport is a superior smartwatch to the Steel HR, as there a number of major improvements. The first of these is improved handling of notifications. The tiny OLED screen is still too small to show the full text of messages – you only see a snippet but it's enough to tell if you should get your phone out and read more – plus there's now support for apps, which wasn't available with the Steel HR for nearly a year after launch (but has recently been included).

Attached to my iPhone X, the Steel HR Sport was able to notify me of new email, Slack messages and Twitter notifications, where the original Steel HR was limited to texts, calendar and calls. Plus, you can pick and choose which apps to block and which to allow, in case you get tired of your watch buzzing every five minutes.

The Steel HR Sport is better at tracking your exercise than the original Steel HR, too, although it’s still pretty minimal when compared with fully fledged smartwatches. First on the list is tethered GPS. Where the original Steel HR was limited to distance estimates based on your stride length, the Sport allows you to track your runs more accurately by piggybacking off your smartphone’s GPS. You need to have the app open on your phone to do this, though, which is a bit of a pain and easy to forget in the rush to start a run or a ride.

That’s not all, though. There’s also multisport tracking, which includes swimming, cycling, running and even activities such as volleyball, Zumba, skiing and ice hockey. You can cycle through these on the watch’s tiny screen, although because there’s so many (30 in total) the number shown on the watch is mercifully restricted to six. You can select which are displayed through the Withings Health Mate app.

The last big new feature is the that the Steel HR Sport will now give you a “fitness level assessment” via VO2 max estimation – a measurement you only usually get on more serious fitness tracking wearables. Slightly annoyingly, this assessment is only delivered after you go for a ten-minute (or longer) run, but it’s nice to have nonetheless.

Plus, of course, there’s all the stuff that made the Nokia Steel HR so good in the first place. You get continuous heart-rate monitoring that updates every ten minutes when you’re not exercising for a view of your resting heart rate (it updates every second during workouts).

It also has sleep tracking, which keeps tabs on your heart rate and how much deep and light sleep you get in a night, awarding you a “sleep quality score”afterwards. This appears to be mostly accurate, although it thought I’d gone back to sleep one morning when in fact I was sitting in bed drinking a cup of coffee. Still, if you notice this happening it’s pretty easy to edit sleep events and alter start and finish times.

And, despite the new features, the Steel HR Sport still lasts for “up to 25 days” per charge according to the specifications. The more you use it for exercise tracking the less time the battery will last but after three-and-a-half days and around two and half hours of activity tracked, the watch still had 68% remaining on the gauge. I'll take that.

The big weakness is the small number of third-party fitness tracking apps the accompanying Health Mate app connects to. Only Google Fit (Android), Apple Health (iOS), MyFitnessPal and Runkeeper were listed in my pre-release test app, although it is possible that will change once the watch is officially released.

Withings Steel HR review: Preliminary verdict

I haven’t been using the Withings Steel HR Sport for long and haven’t yet had the occasion to test it while swimming so these are my first impressions. But those impressions are largely very positive.

Not everyone wants to wear a watch that looks like a smartwatch and this smartwatch-cum-fitness tracker delivers a spectacularly good compromise. It looks great, tracks more than just steps and lasts ages on a single charge. It might not deliver full-text notifications, and it might be limited compared with fully fledged smartwatches but it offers a compelling alternative for those who prefer a more classic look.

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