Apple's big wearable announcement Tuesday was met with excitement by some and disappointment by others. While health and fitness is a major selling point of the device, it's not the standout health wearable that it might have been. And with a price point starting at $349, it's a hard sell for consumers just looking for a better Fitbit.
The health tracker Apple Watch most resembles is the Basis Band, which was until recently a startup-driven device but now the flagship health wearable of chipmaker Intel. A new Basis Band is due out soon, and that's the model that will compete with the Apple Watch when it goes on sale next year. But for now, we're comparing the Apple Watch with the current device, which has been out since 2012. We set out to compare the two devices on a number of different criteria.
Heart rate tracking. Both Basis and Apple set themselves apart from the wide field of activity trackers by tracking the user's heart rate. Basis uses optical blood flow measurement to track heart rate, a design choice which leads to a trade-off: Basis can't track heart rate accurately while the wearer is in motion, and warns that its device is not a replacement for a chest strap heart rate monitor for that reason.
"We consciously made this trade-off when designing Basis to ensure the band was practical for 24/7 use – lighter weight, longer battery life and smaller form factor," the company writes on its website. "However, our multi-sensor approach automatically captures the key metrics to help you get fit – activity duration, activity type (walking, running and biking) and caloric burn as well as physiological metrics like sweat levels"
We don't know exactly how the Apple Watch will track heart rate, but the promo video shown at the launch event suggests it will be able to track heart rate during activity. Given this context, its interesting to note that Basis lists battery life as one of the trade-offs. Basis uses the heart rate in sleep tracking, stress management, and caloric burn calculations. Apple uses it in fitness tracking and in a novel form of messaging.
Activity tracking and behavior change. The Basis Band has a three-axis accelerometer, most likely similar to the accelerator in the Apple Watch. But the Apple Watch is able to tap into the GPS and wifi of the user's iPhone to add more context to the accelerometer's readings. When the iPhone 6 comes out, it will likely also be able to tap into the barometer and measure altitude based on those readings.
But the Basis' nature as a standalone device is as much a help as a hindrance for an activity tracker. Apple Watch users will have to run, walk or bike with their phones, which some serious exercisers will prefer not to do.
Both devices back up the sensors with a software platform. Basis has Body IQ, a relatively new passive tracking function that automatically detects whether the user is running, walking, or biking, and displays tracking data accordingly. It also has Healthy Habits, the goal setting and behavior change platform that debuted when the device launched in 2012.
Basis offers users more than 10 different “habit cards” that use “baby steps” or little victories to help people form long lasting habits. These steps are meant to be achievable but they get harder as a person progresses through them. They are also intended to be things that easily fit into your life as opposed to a workout regimen a fitness magazine might recommend that necessitates going to a gym. Basis combined achievable baby steps with a notion of consistency to encourage users to develop habits to help people fit good habits “into the corners” of their daily lives.
Apple Watch offers a similar approach with its activity app, giving people baby steps to move more and become healthier. But rather than having a range of customizable habits, Apple Watch's behavior change software gives everyone the same three goals: burn more calories, be active for more of the day, and stand up more. The app will customize the particular goals that are set for each user within those parameters.
Sleep tracking, battery life, and additional sensors. This is a major area where Basis Band pulls ahead. The company touts its advanced, personalized sleep analytics, and the device can even automatically switch to sleep tracking mode without the user having to tell it to. The company even teamed up with the Stress and Health Research Program, a joint venture between the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center (SFVAMC), and the Northern California Institute of Research and Education (NCIRE), to compare the Basis Band to standard-of-care polysomnography tests. The tracking methods were nearly equally accurate.
Apple, despite hiring a sleep specialist from Philips Respironics, showed off no sleep functionality at Tuesday's launch event. MobiHealthNews has speculated that this is because the Apple Watch's battery will apparently last only a day -- requiring users to charge it every night as they sleep. The Basis Band, by comparison, has a maximum battery life of four days according to its website.
Additionally, the Basis Band has temperature and perspiration sensors built in. Apple Watch doesn't appear to have anything of the kind.
Price point and aesthetics. Originally priced at $199, the Basis B1 Band is now only $149.99. Although CEO Jef Holove considers it "the BMW of the category," it's actually not too much more expensive than Fitbit or Jawbone's newest models. The Apple Watch, on the other hand, is set to start at $349. Of course, Apple Watch buyers are getting more than just a health and fitness device, and more than just a watch -- the wearable will sport versions of a number of different smartphone apps. Apple Watch users will also have a much larger range of aesthetic choices, both for the hardware of the device's customizable strap and for the software of the device's customizable face.
A May 2013 survey from ON World showed that health and fitness was the highest priority for smartwatch customers, with 30 percent of respondents saying it was the most essential application. As of now, those customers stand to see more fitness value from something like the Basis Band then from Apple's new smartwatch. But it's probably too early to call this competition: the Apple Watch launch is still some time away, and Basis's new device is on the way as well.