- With Fitbit, Google takes on Apple in Big Tech’s race to make you healthier
- Wearables are dead. Aren’t they?
- Google Health, smartwatches, and beyond
- Apple Watch Series 6 review: The best may not be the right choice
- Price, rivals and context
- Health and fitness tracking
- Health stats and features
- Sleep tracking
- Workout tracking
- Heart rate monitoring and biometrics
- Smartwatch features
- Battery life
With Fitbit, Google takes on Apple in Big Tech’s race to make you healthier
After years of rumors that Google will launch its own smartwatch, the company has purchased Fitbit for $2.1 billion.
The acquisition comes at a time when Google is investing in medical projects, and the decision to invest in wearables may be about reaching everyday consumers as Google continues to look for ways to get involved in healthcare—while also conveniently helping the search giant compete with Apple on hardware.
In the years since fitness trackers have come on the market, they have been more of a tool for already healthy people, rather than a force for rallying the more sedentary among us. Still, the market for wrist wearables is growing and Apple is the leader by a fairly wide margin.
Fitbit’s fitness trackers and smartwatches make an interesting addition to Google’s hardware lineup, which ranges from smart speakers to glossy phones and laptops—but not just because Google can now more directly compete with the Apple Watch.
More recently, the company has made a foray into health technology and is developing software for doctors and consumers. In theory, a smartwatch might help the company marry its hardware to these health tools.
But in connecting hardware to health, Google, which is still an ad business at its core, will have to answer hard questions about how it plans to handle consumer biometric and health data.
Wearables are dead. Aren’t they?
Smartwatches have had a rocky history, so much so that people started heralding their death five years ago. It’s unclear whether these devices really make us healthier. Studies have shown that fitness wearables tend to be worn by people who are already making healthy choices in their lives.
Data also indicates that wearables don’t help people lose weight—coaches and nutritionists do. Another survey, from 2014, revealed that most people get rid of their wearables after six months anyway.
There was also promise that collecting daily activity metrics heart rate could somehow help doctors advise patients, but so far most doctors haven’t been able to meaningfully incorporate them into their practices.
Whether or not these devices are effective at changing behavior, insurers are still eager to get them on their customers.
Humana gives a portion of its customers access to Fitbit’s coaching platform as a way to incentivize healthy behavior (and hopefully lower its own cost of paying for chronic illness).
In general, the market for wrist wearables is up 29% from last year, according to research firm IDC.
Wearables have only grown in sophistication as well: The latest Fitbit, the Versa 2, has sleep tracking, heart rate detection, GPS (when connected to Wi-Fi), and Alexa. Fitbit also now has a subscription service for fitness advice along with coaching.
But even with all these features, reviewers of the Versa 2 have given it the equivalent of a shrug. The consensus seems to be that even with features sleep tracking, it is not as good as the Apple Watch for the money. Apple shipped 9.
7 million of its watches in the first half of the year, and IDC estimates the company will comprise 38.9% of all smartwatches shipped in 2019 by year’s end. Conversely, Fitbit’s growth has slowed considerably.
Fitbit was once valued at almost $10 billion, then it entered the public market at $4 billion, and now it is being sold to Alphabet for $2 billion.
Google Health, smartwatches, and beyond
Google’s Android watch operating system has been around for five years and is used by Samsung and Motorola among others. But the company has never had hardware of its own.
For years there have been rumors that the company is on the precipice of launching its own watch. Then, this year, the company bought Fossil’s smartwatch team, Misfit, for $40 million.
Now, with Fitbit, its watch again seems imminent.
“Fitbit has been a true pioneer in the industry and has created terrific products, experiences, and a vibrant community of users,” Rick Osterloh, head of hardware at Google, said in the prepared statement. “We’re looking forward to working with the incredible talent at Fitbit, and bringing together the best hardware, software, and AI to build wearables to help even more people around the world.”
In addition to making its mark in the smartwatch category, Google has big ambitions to get into health more broadly.
When it hired Geisinger Health’s CEO David Feinberg last year, Google focused its mission on bringing its search capabilities to electronic medical records and other places it might be useful in healthcare.
There are also other health projects inside the wider Alphabet umbrella, including research-focused Verily, biotech arm Calico, and the AI lab DeepMind. But these projects are largely aimed at researchers.
At the consumer level, Google mainly has its health tracker Google Fit. But another recent purchase shows Google has ambitions that go beyond the wrist.
Earlier this year, Google’s smart home subsidiary Nest acquired a startup called Senosis, which built a series of novel apps for measuring health metrics hemoglobin count.
That Google chose to fold the startup into its connected home division suggests it may be thinking about designing a range of health-oriented connected devices for the home (think smart scales and baby monitors).
Home health devices can probably deliver enough value for consumers on their own, but the holy grail for any tech company flirting with healthcare is to be able to connect to doctors.
Google’s health division has already started to forge partnerships here, though Apple may be slightly ahead as far as smartwatches are concerned.
Since launching the Watch, Apple has matched watch wearers with health studies and devised kits to help incorporate its data into health center apps.
“Apple has done a pretty good job creating pathways to integrate data from their device with hospital systems,” says Dan Durand, the executive director of innovation at LifeBridge, a healthcare company in Maryland. “It’s possible [Google] is trying to be competitive with that.
” Apple has harnessed its customer base for involvement in research studies. It has also worked to ingratiate itself with the medical community through collaborating with academic medical centers and organizations the American Health Association and the American College of Cardiology.
Google also has relationships with prominent health centers and organizations, though they are built on search rather than hardware.
There are some hurdles to connecting consumer health devices to the doctor’s office. For one, it’s still unclear how doctors would actually make use of wearables outside of a research context. Another big question is how good the quality of the data is. Part of the reason doctors often can’t use data collected from mobile phones and smartwatches is that none of it is standardized.
“If Apple has its own way of tracking and Google has its own way of tracking and they’re only working in their own ecosystems, that’s okay,” says Steve Wretling, CTIO of HIMSS, a nonprofit organization that provides resources to healthcare centers around data management. If these companies want to help doctors make diagnoses, everything about the data will have to be standardized. “Without standardization or a basic trust level it’s going to be difficult,” he says.
Wretling gets at one other issue Google may have to grapple with as it delves into smartwatches: trust.
The company has a reputation for mining every bit of a person’s online activity, though in this case Google has promised it will not use health tracking data in its ad targeting.
Still, some, lawmaker Katie Porter, are concerned about Google’s ability to appropriately handle health data without legislators providing clear guidelines.
The reality is, with or without a smartwatch, Google already knows a lot about your health your searches. The use of Google Search as a health tool alone should raise questions about whether the collection and storing of that data should be regulated. As Google adds health devices to its product lineup, the scrutiny is only ly to increase.
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Apple Watch Series 6 review: The best may not be the right choice
The Apple Watch Series 6 will go down as a minor leap forward in the story of Apple’s market-defining smartwatch.
While the Apple Watch has shown rivals the way, there’s a bit of catch up being played here. The addition of SpO2 brings the Apple Watch’s spec sheet in line with the s of Fitbit, but new colors and finishes make up for a lack of new features.
We’ve already reviewed the new Apple Watch SE, which now feels the mass appeal Apple smartwatch. So where does that leave the Series 6? Read on to find out.
Price, rivals and context
The Apple Watch Series 6 is a direct replacement for the Series 5, and starts at the same price point of $399.99. It’s undercut by the all-new Apple Watch SE, which starts at $279. The SE misses out on ECG, SpO2 and most importantly the always-on display.
When it comes to Apple Watch alternatives, the Samsung Galaxy Watch 3 offers a round-faced option at the same price point with similar features. The Fitbit Sense also packs plenty of health features, although it’s nowhere near as good a smartwatch.
If cost is an issue, then the Huawei Watch GT2e ($129.99) impresses, but also look to the Garmin Venu Sq ($199.99) for a great mix of health features, battery life and sports tracking.
A key reason to choose the Apple Watch Series 6 over the Apple Watch SE are the colors and finishes.
The SE only comes in aluminum, which is the cheapest material. And you only get to choose from silver, grey or gold.
The Series 6 comes in aluminum too, but also stainless steel which has a much higher quality finish.
And then there are new Series 6 exclusive colors. We reviewed the stainless steel in gold, which co-ordinates with my gold wedding ring. But there’s also blue, PRODUCT(red) and graphite to choose from, joining the silver, grey and rose gold shades.
And if you really want to splash the cash, there are ceramic and titanium versions too.
The stainless steel Series 6 is a noticeable cut above the Apple Watch SE, and it’s great there’s now more choice of colors.
However, appearance-wise everything else is the same as Series 5 and SE. It retains the upgraded shape introduced at Series 4, and uses the same screen tech and quality. There’s the same digital crown, used to scroll through menus and summon the menu screen.
Series 5, there’s an always-on display, which you don’t get on the Apple Watch SE. This is probably the biggest mass appeal feature that would draw people to the more expensive Series 6.
While not a Series 6 feature, there’s been a big new focus on Apple Watch faces in watchOS 7, so there’s a substantial new bunch to choose from if you haven't used that before.
Health and fitness tracking
On the Series 6, the headline addition is the SpO2 sensor, which tracks blood oxygen by shining a red LED under the skin to track the color of your blood. It joins ECG as a feature exclusive to the Series 6, and another reason to spend the extra $120 over the Apple Watch SE.
SpO2 is tracked automatically through the day and night, and you can spot check from the Blood Oxygen app on the Series 6. It’s a short, 15 second test with a nice animation, and you’ll find the results tucked in the respiratory section of Apple Health.
It works fine, and we had no reason for any concern over accuracy. The data lined up nicely against a medical grade SpO2 finger sensor we tried it against.
We did find it more difficult to obtain a manual reading than we have on any other device, with the Apple Watch warning it couldn’t get an accurate reading. We had to shift the Series 6 further up our arm each time.
You can see how the Apple Watch displays blood oxygen (and ECG/VO2 Max) below.
Blood oxygen is worth keeping an eye on, as drops during sleep can be a sign of a sleep disorder. And with the COVID pandemic still ongoing, blood oxygen has been in the spotlight.
But taking manual readings isn’t really the best use of SpO2, and the fact the Apple Watch tracks it automatically, and during sleep, makes it one of the better integrations we’ve seen.
Apple hasn’t used this data to inform any medical outcomes, it has with Afib detection via its ECG monitor. It won’t suggest you get checked out for sleep apnea, nor does it measure breathing rate, or use SpO2 for any other measure than the saturation in your blood.
Apple has launched three health studies – for asthma, flu and respiratory illness, and heart disease – data from this sensor, so there’s every chance the Series 7 will use SpO2 to alert you to all kinds of conditions. But right now, unless you specifically want this data in your life, it’s a small piece of the overall puzzle.
As we mentioned, the Series 6 still has ECG capability to track Afib heart rhythms – just the Series 5. And it can alert you to high/low heart arrhythmias, too.
Resting heart rate is tracked on the Heart app on the watch itself, and that data is available in Apple Health.
The high/low heart rate detection is a superb life-saving tool, and proof that wearing your smartwatch could save your life.
And while the same can be said of ECG, it’s something we’ve used a handful of times in a year with the Series 5. That’s thankfully because we don’t suffer with a heart condition, but SpO2, we increasingly feel that these are features many people will opt in favor of the cheaper Apple Watch SE.
Health stats and features
The fitness tracking element of the Apple Watch is still top notch. The activity rings are a major part of the daily experience, and incredibly motivating.
It’s always been a smart choice that Apple Watch demoted steps in favour of the Move ring, which is active calories burned. Calories is something that everyone can understand, is easily mentally linked to shedding weight, and automatically adjusts to your fitness level. It’s a good system.
The friends challenges are also superb, with the calorie burn algorithms making it a fair fight between people of differing fitness, so fitter people have to work harder to earn points.
The Apple Watch Fitness app (formally known as Activity) has been revamped as a one-stop-shop for fitness tracking and workout data. But health data including sleep and heart rate goes into Apple Health – it’s a little convoluted to be honest, and it would be nice just to see everything in one place.
The Fitness app shows steps, exercise, stand time, cardio fitness (VO2 Max), stand minutes per hour, running pace and walking pace as trends. An arrow shows whether you’re improving or declining, and you can tap to see your averages over the last year, although sadly, not longer than that.
This is also where the Fitness+ service will live when it launches.
But for the first time, sleep tracking joins the Apple Watch thanks to watchOS 7.
Now, this isn’t exclusive to Series 6, and can be found even on the Series 3. So we’re simply echoing here what we’ve already written in our Apple Watch SE review.
It’s nowhere near as detailed or data heavy as you’ll find on Fitbit or other rivals. But there is enough to improve your sleep.
Apple’s sleep tracking will offer a summary of how long you slept, showing dark and light periods for any time you woke up in the night.
However, there's a bigger focus on consistency, time in bed and time asleep.
Consistency is crucial for improving sleep, and the Bedtime feature on iPhone goes hand-in-hand with the Apple Watch's tracking. That puts your iPhone and Apple Watch into a do not disturb state before bed, reminding you it’s time to hit the hay. And that does the extra work of keeping the Apple Watch screen dark while you’re in bed.
In the Apple Health analysis, it shows your preferred bedtime as a baseline against the time you actually fell asleep, so it’s possible to make improvements to your routine.
But while sleep tracking is now a core feature, it’s very much in the background. There’s no sleep goal ring, and sleep is logged deep in the Apple Health app.
You can check your last sleep duration and your consistency in the Bedtime app on Apple Watch itself. But if you didn’t know Apple Watch tracked sleep, you’d be forgiven for missing it entirely.
In watchOS 7 there are more workout modes than ever, with dance and functional fitness added to the Workout app.
The Apple Watch is still a superb workout and fitness companion.
There’s loads to love: GPS that doesn’t require standing around to lock-on is still amazing, the heaps of workout modes are great, there are third-party apps including Strava plus accurate heart rate and offline music on the wrist thanks to Apple Music – it’s very easy to recommend.
But those that take their workouts really seriously will still find the Series 6’s limits.
While watchOS 7 now tracks VO2 Max, there aren’t the same training insights you’ll get on a Garmin. And battery life on GPS will struggle to last a whole marathon if you don’t turn something off.
And if you choose to use the Workout app, those used to the detail of ecosystems Strava will be disappointed by the detail on offer. It’s impossible, for instance, to deep dive into your session to see things max HR. That’s why we still use the Strava app for running.
Also, if you take your iPhone out for a run the Apple Watch will use the smartphone’s GPS to save battery, which can lead to accuracy issues.
The Series 6 does add a continuous altimeter, which is great for climbers and hikers, so you can see your elevation change in real time.
And that will go hand-in-hand with the Blood Oxygen app so you can check how your body is coping with altitude.
But we’d say that if you require this kind of data, a Garmin Fenix 6 or Instinct Solar are far better suited sports devices given the battery life.
At-home workouts are also great using Apple Watch. It can be used as part of Zova and Fiit workouts as a sensor, and Apple is launching Fitness+ which is totally reliant on the Apple Watch for heart rate tracking, which appears on screen.
With that in mind, it’s a good job that the Apple Watch still features the best optical sensor we’ve tested.
Heart rate monitoring and biometrics
We’ve extensively tested the Apple Watch, and found the optical sensor to offer a good experience.
Compared to a chest strap, it’s been spotless for all of our steady and tempo runs and workouts.
And when we tried to break the sensor with rapid 30 second intervals, we found it still fairly reliable, tracking surges in bpm all the way up to 190bpm, leaving rivals such as the Fitbit Sense in the dust.
Yes, it lags a chest strap, and in rest periods it took longer to see our heart rate drop. But many rivals simply crap out with the movement and speed of HIIT sessions, while the Apple Watch doesn’t.
As you can see below, a run tracked on the Apple Watch against a chest strap only showed 1bpm different across a 40 minute session that included fast intervals. Both tracked heart rate into the 190bpm range from a standing start – and in real time, the Apple Watch kept up with the chest strap. An impressive performance.
We also found the VO2 Max estimations to be more accurate than most devices, presented in the newly revamped Fitness app.
We have a good handle on our VO2 Max level historic lab tests. And the Apple Watch Series 6 was certainly in the right ballpark.
If you’re looking for the most comprehensive health features then choosing between Apple Watch and Fitbit Sense is a tough call to make.
And as a sports watch, Garmin’s Forerunner and Fenix watches still lead the way.
But as a smartwatch, the Apple Watch is almost unparalleled.
Notifications are bread and butter, and delivered superbly.
Then you have Apple Pay which is still a leader in contactless payments, with almost total support for banks in supported countries, and a seamless experience.
The App Store is brimming with Apple Watch apps, and the quality has improved dramatically. The S6 chip is more than capable of powering demanding apps, and we’ve seen Google Maps re-join the platform.
If you’re into Apple services then you have support for Apple Music, and you can have playlists sync onto the smartwatch – the same as you can for podcasts. We’d say this needs revamping as the process is pretty fiddly, but users of Apple One will get plenty of value from the Apple Watch.
No other smartwatch can boast this level of service support. Wear OS has just canned its music streaming service. Fitbit Pay doesn’t support our major global bank. Garmin’s apps are barely that.
But this is also true of the Apple Watch SE. The Series 6 doesn’t offer anything extra in this regard – which is why we concluded the Apple Watch SE is better for more people.
While no other smartwatch can touch the Apple Watch as a smartwatch, battery life is its Achilles heel. And it’s becoming an uncomfortable problem.
We got way more than the 18 hours stated by Apple, with closer to 36 hours at a time including a 45 minute workout.
But there are plenty of smartwatches, such as the Huawei Watch GT 2 Pro (10 days) and Fitbit Sense (six days) that now set the bar of what we expect from a smartwatch. And the Apple Watch Series 6 struggles to stack up.
It’s sleep tracking that really upsets things. The routine of nightly charging was acceptable, but now we need to find time to charge, and are having to create new routines. Ensuring we have charge is now something we actively think about – and that’s a bit wrong.
The faster charging does help. Zero to full in 90 minutes does make a difference, so we can generally pop the Apple Watch on its charger when we get bed, and it’s ready for the day when it’s time to leave the house (or work at home in these crazy pandemic times).
That said, we feel that the pressure of battery anxiety will be even more acute when the world returns to normal.