Wednesday 21 August 2019

Ask Adrian: Our technology editor tackles your trickiest tech problems


On track: the Fitbit Charge 3 counts your steps and can also measure your sleep and your heartbeat
On track: the Fitbit Charge 3 counts your steps and can also measure your sleep and your heartbeat
Canon EOS 250D
Huawei P30 Pro
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Question: I'm trying to get a little healthier. My niece said that I might consider getting one of those digital health watches. Is there any one you'd recommend? I'm not very tech savvy, I'm just looking for something that will help me become more active.


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Before I recommend one, a word of warning: dedicated health trackers and step counters are notorious for ending up in a drawer after two weeks' use. However, take heart - it's no longer quite as errant as a gym membership. In recent years, digital health features have become a lot more mainstream in some of the gadgets we already have.

Your smartphone, for example, has a reasonably good step-counter system. (This is true whether it's an iPhone, a Samsung, a Huawei or anything else.) Most phones call their own app 'Health'.

These will tell you a couple of basic things. First and foremost, they tell you how many steps you are taking each day, whether that's inside or outside. From this, they're able to guess at how you're doing aerobically. In this vein, they will suggest that you give them a little information about yourself, such as how old you are, what height you are and how much you weigh. If you're happy to type that into the phone app, it will then tell you things such as how many calories you may be burning.

Obviously, this depends on you having your phone with you most or all of the time. And the health data is fairly limited.

If you want something a little more advanced, this is where a wearable health tracker comes in. The vast majority of these gadgets come in the form of a digital watch. Some are slim bands with small monochrome displays, while others are full blown smartwatches that can do a great deal of more advanced tasks.

The main advantage to using one of these is that, because you wear one like a watch (or maybe even as a watch), they sit next to your skin all day. That has two benefits. The first is that most now have a sensor on them that measures your pulse, or your heartbeat. This can yield all sorts of additional information on top of merely telling you how far you've walked.

The second advantage is that they give you a reasonably good indication of one other crucial, under-measured part of your health: sleep. Almost all good wearable health devices monitor your tossing and turning, together with other signals, giving you an approximation of whether you're sleeping well or not.

A bonus feature, if you regard it as such, is that just about all of them now let you answer messages, calls and social media, as well as measuring your health performance. They do these additional tasks if you wirelessly 'pair' one with your phone. ('Pairing' is something you might also do for wireless headphones if you're using your phone as a music player. You do it by going into your settings and tapping the 'Bluetooth' line. You should see a list of available, compatible devices within a few yards of your phone.)

Against that backdrop, it's still possible to call some wearable health trackers 'basic'. At that tier, the one I'd recommend is the Fitbit Charge 3 (€139 from Harvey Norman, Curry's and other stores).

It's a relatively slim band with a small, rectangular screen that tells the time and a number of other things.

As well as counting your steps, its core functionality is also measuring your sleep and your heartbeat. Because it's a monotone device, it has a fairly decent battery life of around five to six days.

It also does the messaging and alerts, although you don't have to switch that on if you'd prefer not to.

However, to get the real benefit of the health data, you do need to synchronise it ('pair' it wirelessly, as I describe above) with either a phone, tablet or laptop. A phone is the easiest and quickest way to do it.

This way, the phone app (it's free in Apple's App Store or Google's Play Store) can tell you how you're doing on all of the measurements that the wearable gadget is taking.

In general, I think this is good value for money. However, if you want to rely mainly on the device's screen itself as opposed to checking your progress on the phone app, it's possible that the data might be too small to read on the screen for some older people.

In this case, you might consider alternatives such as Fitbit's Versa Lite (€159) or Garmin's Forerunner 35 (€205). They do a similar job but with a slightly bigger display that's easier to read.

There's one final option, albeit a pricier one. Apple's Watch Series 4 (from €439), as well as doing all of the things I've described above, is the only smartwatch that can take an ECG reading to give a basic assessment of whether you might need to see a doctor for a heart problem. It's also able to give your doctor important health information in an easy-to-email format (a PDF document).


Recommendation: Fitbit Charge 3 (€139 from Harvey Norman, Currys and other stores)

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