Mio's Alpha can keep the pace, but makes some missteps (November 6th, 2013)
Product Manufacturer: Mio
- Accurate heart rate monitoring
- Comfortable product design
- Solid app interoperability
- Puzzling control design choices
- Makes this scratchy noise
- Somewhat pricey
Quiet as it's kept, we here at Electronista do like to step out to the gym or on a nice run from time to time, and the data tracking capabilities of wearable fitness devices have piqued our interest. One such device is the Alpha strapless heart rate monitor from Mio. Mio sent a unit our way, and for our full review we put it through its paces to see how well it kept pace with us.
The Mio Alpha is meant as a largely single-purpose device aimed at helping the more active among us track their heart rates continuously. That functionality, if well-realized, would eliminate the need for a chest strap heart monitor, which is about as unwieldy as it sounds. It would allow users to always see where they were in relation to their target heart rate at which points in a workout, a fact made all the more useful by the fact that the device sits on the wrist and pairs with a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone to log that data within compatible apps.
So how well does Mio pull it off? Well, like most of our real life workouts, this review will start out a bit bad before it gets better.
We've got to say that our initial excitement to try out the Alpha dampened once we grasped the impact of some of Mio's design decisions. The overall look of the device is solid, with a rubberized strap that fit even your reviewer's thick wrist quite well. The fastening mechanism is also clever, as it doubly secures the device to a user's arm, giving a real sense of a sturdy fit. The housing for all of the important bits - watch face, sensor, controls - is unobtrusive, curving around the top of the wrist subtly.
Overall, the feel of the Alpha is quite nice. It is secure, and its build materials make one feel that it will endure a good deal of sweat without malfunctioning, essential for a workout-oriented device. Unfortunately, other aspects fell short of our expectations.
The controls on the Alpha are perplexingly small. They are veritable slivers along the sides of the watch face, and they require long presses in order to activate features that change depending on the sequence in which they were pressed earlier. Setting the time can be easy enough, but we can't imagine really interacting with any of the device's other features - stopwatch, target heart rate zones - while in the midst of a workout, due to the minuscule controls. Mio would likely have been better served leaving perhaps two control options on the side and taking up some of the rest of the watch face with more accessible common controls. As the layout currently stands, this is a device you will really only use for the straight heart monitoring, not any of its other functions.
We were also a bit puzzled by Mio's choice for the Alpha's charging cradle, or rather the presence of a charging cradle at all. The Alpha docks magnetically with a compact USB charger, and the whole kit sits a bit weirdly. The USB cord isn't long enough to plug into any other adapters, so one must charge it from one's USB port. The Alpha's design, though, keeps it propped up, and the combination flops about on the table. We definitely raised an eyebrow at the way Mio handled this aspect, especially considering that other devices like the Pebble Smartwatch have a charging cable with a longer cord that also attaches magnetically, but in a fashion that is much less unwieldy.
Another issue we had with the Alpha was rather novel in terms of reviewing consumer electronics: there appears to be no way of turning the device off. Pressing the assorted buttons only takes one to other menu options, so the solution appears to be to let the device gradually power down, as its green LED sensors seem to indicate that it is always on, until it isn't. Those lights aren't the worst aspect of its always-on [feature? bug?] - the device emits a constant scratching noise. It's a bit like very, very muted FM radio static: soft enough that you can ignore it, but loud enough that you'll notice it if you took the device off and set it on your desk.
As we said earlier, this review starts badly but ends better. All of our design criticisms aside, the Mio Alpha actually accomplishes its singular task quite well. Once one manages to overcome the poor controls, its interface becomes manageable, though, as we said before, one will have trouble getting it to do much beyond continuously measure one's heart rate.
In indoor or outdoor lighting conditions, the Alpha's screen performs quite well. We were cautious of the level of quality we could expect in direct sunlight, given the device's somewhat shiny look. Still, though, stepping out for a bike ride, we found it completely legible, even under bright high desert sun.
As to its actual function as a heart rate monitor, the Alpha performs well. We found that its measurements of resting heart rates were about in line with independent readings. There were instances in which we got readings that were wildly off, but those were far and few between, and they likely stemmed from calibration issues or issues with the placement of the device.
We also compared the device against the heart rate monitors built into assorted gym equipment. In that case, as well, we found that the Alpha was within an acceptable range compared to what the gym's hand-grip sensors said.
The Alpha should be worn not directly on the wrist, but slightly above the joint so that it can rest against the skin. This placement is actually more comfortable than it would be were one to wear the watch directly on the wrist. It also makes for a snug fit, ensuring that the device does not bounce around while running.
Using the Alpha while working out, one has several options. One can simply use it as an at-a-glance heart rate monitor, slowing and speeding one's pace as necessary to stay in a given range. One can also set the Alpha to flash an alert when that range is exceeded, though this requires fiddling with the aforementioned wonky controls.
It is also possible to pair the device with a compatible app on a smartphone. The Alpha works with Adidas MiCoach, Endomondo, MapMyRun, RunKeeper, Strava, Wahoo Fitness, and mapMyRide. We chose Endomondo, and that worked quite well, with the app continually pulling information from the Alpha and logging it. We were pleased with the results, and we appreciated the interoperability with multiple apps, but we still can't help thinking Mio would be better served designing their own app for the device. It's hard not to think that doing so could mitigate many of the problems we had with Mio's design decisions.
Summing It Up
We already recommended the Alpha heart rate monitor to readers in the Fitness Edition of our Holiday Gadget Gift Guide, and we stand by that recommendation, even considering our reservations on the Alpha's design. This nifty little watch will get the job done if your primary concern is to have a device that will monitor your heart rate and you're willing to put up with a number of small hassles.
If that is your primary concern, you'll likely be better served by the Alpha than with a chest strap device, and it may well be worth the cost to you. Retailing at $199, the Alpha isn't exactly the device for the uncommitted gym visitor. Cyclists, runners, and other regularly active people looking to hone the cardio portion of their workouts, though, could find it to be much more useful than other devices.
That specificity makes us comfortable in recommending the Alpha to those that would use it best. Many others, though, might be better served by a simpler activity monitor, as the big names among those devices typically have more polish. This one is named "Alpha," though, so we are interested to see what, if any, improvements in forthcoming iterations, as the current model seems like a flawed but solid first step toward a very useful device.