When I first heard about the Zeo I assumed it was simply yet another device that ‘measures’ sleep. But once I got the unit and started to dig into it, I realized it was way more than any typical consumer grade device. Yet despite having a friendly consumer price – it carried the features and functionality of an expensive piece of equipment like you’d find in an institution. The more I got to understand it, the cooler it became. If you’ve read my reviews in the past, you’ll find this has all the same great detail – but with a product unlike any I’ve ever reviewed before. In many ways, it’s mind boggling what the Zeo has to offer.
Like all my reviews, they tend to be pretty in depth (perhaps overly so) – but that’s just my trademark DC Rainmaker way of doing things. Think of them more like reference guides than quick and easy summaries. I try and cover every conceivable thing you might do with the device and then poke at it a bit more. My goal is to leave no stone unturned – both the good and the bad.
Because I want to be transparent about my reviews, as I mentioned when I first got the device – Zeo sent me the Zeo for a period of 60 days as a trial unit. Once that period has elapsed, I send the whole messed up box back to the folks in Cambridge. Simple as that. Sorta like hiking in wilderness trails – leave only footprints. If you find my review useful, you can use any of the Amazon links from this page to help support future reviews.
Lastly, at the end of the day keep in mind I’m just like any other regular triathlete out there. I write these reviews because I’m inherently a curious person with a technology background (my day job), and thus I try and be as complete as I can. But, if I’ve missed something or if you spot something that doesn’t quite jive – just let me know and I’ll be happy to get it all sorted out. Also, because the technology world constantly changes, I try and go back and update these reviews as new features and functionality are added – or if bugs are fixed.
With that, let’s get started on a product like no other that I’ve reviewed. Ready? Good, let’s go.
When you get the box it’s roughly the size of a small toaster. Though, unlike that gift – this is far cooler.
Once you pop it open, you’ll find the stash of paper manuals and and a sleep wheel on top:
From there you’ll unbox all the remaining parts onto a table.
In front of you you’ll start with the big piece – the very shiny and hard to photograph bedside display unit:
From there you have the headband transmitter portion, which snaps into the base station for charging using its rechargeable battery:
Then you’ll have a few plastic baggies of headband sensor strips:
After that we move onto the USB SD card reader, though, if you already have an SD card reader, you don’t have to use this:
Of course, where there’s an SD card reader, there’s an SD card not too far behind:
And last but not least – the juice machine – the power adapter.
The only nit I have with the power adapter is that it doesn’t play well on a power strip with other adapters due to it’s size/design. Wish it were just a straight plug
Overview of hardware functions/buttons:
The Zeo bedside unit acts as both a really fancy alarm clack, as well as an easy to glance at history of your recent sleep activity. Unlike most alarm clocks that you run into these days, this one is super easy to navigate. Buttons on the top are labeled with graphical icons indicating its function, while a removable plastic strip below the buttons has additional text. Think of this text strip as training wheels until you get used to all the functions.
Let’s run through the main features on the bedside display itself – keeping in mind that at its core, you don’t need to press any of this stuff – just take the headband and stick it on your head – it’ll all work seamlessly.
This first button/section is essentially the one night historical function of the bedside display. From within this you can view last night’s data – including everything from total time sleeping to the numbers of times woken up. You can also view breakdown’s of your sleep from that night for the different types of sleep.
In addition, you can pull up the graph of your night’s sleep and then advance five-minutes at a time through the entire night should you feel the desire to do that much button pressing.
While at first glance the Sleep History section may seem similar to the Sleep Info section, it actually offers a lot more historical detail than the Sleep Info. While the previous Sleep Info section is mostly about last night, the Sleep History section is about everything to date.
The section allows you to go day by day through your history and view nearly all the same information as outlined in the previous section.
The only difference being you can’t see any detailed graphs or 5-minute interval graph information here – it’s all about pure numbers. But, it’s handy for a quick glance.
No electronic device would be complete without a settings control panel – and this one has everything under the sun offered. Here’s the rundown of what you can tweak:
1) Alarm Music (5 choices that sound like those CD’s you see at Target with flowery waterfall music)
2) Snooze time (how long to snooze)
3) Wake Mode (SmartWake or Standard)
4) 12/24 Hour Display
5) Sensor Pad Life (shows how long until you need a new sensor pad, in months/days)
6) Erase SD card
7) Erase Sleep Data
8) Software Version Info & Upgrade Firmware
9) Wireless Headband disablement (to comply with airline FAA regulations about wireless devices)
10) Factory Reset option
Aside from the swanky Target music, the coolest options here are both the ability to upgrade the firmware over time, but also to allow you to see how much life is left in the sensor pads.
Center Directional Console Buttons (Brightness adjustment):
These four buttons are used throughout the menu system, and by themselves perform no specific duty except to adjust the brightness of the unit. The unit has 8 levels of brightness, ranging from Coastal Lighthouse illumination to Barely Visible. Though, they just use a simple numerical identifier of 1-8.
I do like though that it’s just a quick tap. As your eyes adjust in the darkness, you can easily reduce the brightness to whatever makes the most sense. And then in daylight, you can go to the brightest setting…you know…in case you need to signal inbound ships in a deep fog.
This allows you to simply set an alarm clock function. Using the directional arrows you’re be able to set a specific alarm clock time for a point in the future (AM or PM).
Once you’ve done so, on the main screen it’ll display that cute little alarm clock logo. You know, the one that kinda looks like Mickey Mouse ears.
Additionally, this is where you turn off the alarm clock after it makes its racket in the morning. Which is different from snooze. To turn it off you’ll have to hit the button and then right arrow – making it ideal in that it’s somewhat idiot-proof so that you don’t hit it instead of snooze. I’ve long since learned in life that bad things happen when you mix up snooze and alarm off.
This function allows you to quickly and easily change the time and date on the display. I got a lot of work out of this button over the past few weeks as I took the unit with me travelling both domestically as well as overseas. With half a dozen different time zone changes in a two week span, me and this button were close like bread and butter.
It only takes a mere moment to change the time. But it’s also important to ensure you do have the correct time set – since aside from alarm clock notices, it will also dictate what shows up later on the website as it graphs your night’s sleep.
You know what I love about this button? Ok, actually, I just realized I love two things. First, the obvious – the snooze function – I can’t get enough of that button. It’s my best friend.
But, really, what I like more is the ‘Home’ functionality itself. Sometimes I find myself so deep in historical information on the display I just need to escape – and the Home Function offers a simple and easy way out. Like a ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card – immediately taking you back to the home screen.
The headband unit is what watches your noggin and in turn relays information about your brain waves to the bedside unit, which records them to the SD card (or memory). The headband essentially has three components:
1) Transmitter device
2) Sensor strip
3) Soft strap holding it all together
The transmitter snaps into the back of the sensor strip, which in turn has an adjustable band that you can remove easily, as well as adjust with the Velcro included.
The transmitter portion transmits on the 2.4Ghz frequency using a proprietary protocol, and doesn’t use either Bluetooth or ANT+. Though I’m told that the protocol itself isn’t actually too unlike ANT+ in the it communicates messages with the base station. The transmitter has an effective range of 200-300ft outdoors, but indoors it’ll go a few rooms worth indoors. So you don’t have to worry about being on the wrong side of the bed and it not having enough signal. I found I could walk around my townhouse and it would record my data without issue. Unlike many other sleep-monitoring consumer level devices, there are no accelerometers in it. This is the real deal baby, it’s actually watching your brain waves via the sensor strip.
The sensor strip lasts about 3 months, at which point the silver on the contacts starts to dissipate, increasing dropouts and errors. No worries though, the sensor strips cost about $11 if you buy them in three packs, so about $3 a month. It’s the sensor strip that’s really the magic of the whole unit. This is what measures your actual brain waves and then relays them to the transmitter. In addition it’ll measure eye movement and muscle tone. Below is a quick diagram of what the three pads do:
As for worrying about transmissions to close to your head – they’ve done a fair bit of research here. It’s all posted on their forums after some folks asked, so I’ll defer you to that. While I’m no scientist, I’d have to guess that given the heavy amount of academia starting to look at and use this device in interesting ways, someone would have already made a racket if there was cause.
Finally, the whole thing is strapped to your head using a super-soft fabric strap with an elastic inside. You can adjust it using the small bits of Velcro on the strap, but don’t worry – it doesn’t get stuck on anything else. You don’t have to worry about having your head accidentally Velcro’d to the pillow. Cause that would be awkward.
Using it while Sleeping:
Using the headband is really as simple as putting it on. However, I found that it does take a few days to get the ‘right’ headband strap length. If it’s too lose, the headband will either fall off – or make poor contact, which leads to gaps in your data file, like below:
Alternatively, if it’s too tight, you’ll find yourself waking up with a light headache – so just have a bit of patience with it the first few nights. And if you wake up in the middle of the night, have a quick glance at the graph and ensure there aren’t any dropouts – because this indicates it’s probably too lose.
The unit is transmitting data at an astonishing 128 samples per second back to the bedside table. While access to data at this level is exposed if you want it (I’ll talk about that later), it’s recorded in 30-second increments onto the SD card, and then for the rest of the site it’s shown at 5-minute blocks.
The unit can store sleep data itself in memory, before requiring you to stick the SD card in. This is handy if you forget to put the card in the unit and head to bed, as I’ve done a few times. For the most part, the unit will figure everything out and get it all written to the card and uploaded. Though I had one night were it got a bit confused when I stuck the card in two days later. Otherwise, it’s been fine with my forgetfulness. And it’s never missed a night when I do the correct procedure of putting it in ahead of time.
Of course – while the SD card is functional, I’d much rather have the whole thing be wireless via WiFi – just like the Withings Scale. I asked the founder – Ben – about this, and he said it’s the most requested feature for them. From the conversation it sounds like it’s on the radar, but he was mum on any details unfortunately. But this doesn’t mean they haven’t tried a few quick ideas – such as using the Eye-Fi Wireless SD cards to have it transmit data via WiFi. They even went so far as to work with the Eye-Fi team to try and make it work, though, in the end, it just didn’t pan out.
Reading your mind…or rather…your brainwaves:
Establishing a ZQ Score:
Much of the intense analysis that Zeo does all boils down to creating a score of how well you slept that night. Zeo calls this your ZQ. This is a simple numeric number that’s composed of multiple components that either increment or decrement your score.
The bulk of this score is a function of how much sleep you got. In other words, if you slept 8 hours you’ll likely have a higher score than if you slept 5 hours. But, it’s not as simple as that either. The score then gets bonus points for restorative sleep (REM and Deep). REM sleep is restorative for the mind, whereas Deep sleep is better for the body.
But, you can also lose points – for example, the number of times you woke up and how long you were awake can ding you. I don’t know though if you lose points for sleep walking – heck, you should get props for it if you can knock out some training or chores while there.
You can see all this below within the ZQ breakdown. This is cool in that it’s not completely black box, but rather visible and understandable.
While a typical alarm clock will wake you up at the specified time (aka: when you don’t want to wake up), SmartWake is different. Because it has access to your sleep state, it knows what type of sleep you’re in. Based on that, it can better judge when to wake you up. For example, we know that waking someone up in deep sleep is a bad idea. Angry birds happen then. But, because your sleep state is constantly oscillating – it can aim to wake you up at the best possible point within 30 minutes of your alarm time (never after that time though).
For example, looking at the below chart, SmartWake could wake me up at the exact right moment as I transition between REM sleep and light sleep – which gives me the best chance for a ‘happy day’:
Pretty cool stuff, now only if it could get me a few more hours of sleep while it’s at it…
Analysis and Website:
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the website. Up until this point in the review I’ve talked purely about how the data is captured and the bedside unit. But the real power is the site, and how it gives you pretty stark feedback about how well you sleep. It then allows you to take that feedback at face value – or it can guide you through a series of steps and ‘coaching’ options to try and improve your sleep. First though, we’ve gotta upload the goods!
Unlike most other fitness gadgets out there, this part is dead simple. The Zeo doesn’t use any fancy desktop installed software or agents, rather, you just stick the SD card in your computer (or the provided adapter) and then choose the single file sitting on the SD card using the site.
It’ll show you which nights are available to upload, and lets you select/deselect ones if you choose.
Once it’s uploaded, you’re good to go to the analysis piece!
Your Sleep Section:
The site is roughly divided into three areas: ‘Your Sleep’, ‘Coaching’, and ‘New Tools (Beta)’. So we’re going to start in the ‘Your Sleep’ section – which is the basic dashboard.
Above is what you see once you’ve uploaded that night’s sleep. You’ll see it categorizes the type of sleep you get into four basic buckets: Wake, REM, Light and Deep. You can learn about the exact differences between these sleep types here.
It offers both a nightly timeline view – and a simple pie chart. On the sides you have the key numbers such as total time sleeping and the time you started to attempt to sleep, along with the time you woke up and indicators of how you felt.
But, one of the keys here is to use the journal to allow Zeo to start to figure out how much sleep is best for you – and what things contribute to better or worse sleep. To do this, you’ll click on ‘Update your Journal’ on the right hand side. This will bring up a mini-questionnaire about the previous night’s sleep (or any other night you choose).
The goal of this is to start to help you to identify what may be causing issues with sleep – or what may be helping you sleep. For example – everything from caffeine consumption to watching TV is covered. I found that while I generally don’t have any problems falling asleep – it was pretty useful to be able to start putting together a mental picture of what can trigger sleep issues. It also made me more aware of what my cause issues later on that night when I was going to head to bed.
For example, if we then take this data and use the ‘Cause and effect’ subsection, you’ll see I can chart and plot the data a million different ways – comparing for example, the time I went to bed against my ZQ score. As you may remember from the previous section, think of the ZQ score as a human readable report card number for that night’s sleep. The higher, the better.
And again, in the ‘Trends’ are you can also overlay more data onto a line graph of your sleep score to better understand how everything interrelates. Pretty cool stuff. I’d love to be able to then plot things like resting heart rate or even weight against all of this – and see if I can start developing patterns.
In addition to the passive feedback that the Zeo site can give you about your sleep patterns, you can also enlist in their Coaching program, which actively monitors your sleep results and the offers way for you to improve. It does this by giving you recommendations and holding your feet to the fire on the recommendations it’s given – all with the ultimate goal of improving your sleep
New Tools (Beta Section):
This section is sorta the Google Labs of Zeo. It’s here they stash all the things they’re working on until they can be finalized and find a final home for them. As of this writing, there are two items in here – a weekly sleep report (just like a report card) and nightly report.
Personally, I think the weekly report is the cooler of the two. This gives you a night above night overlay of the week’s worth of sleep – showing you all the usual details you’ll see everywhere else on the site, but compressed into one easy to understand space:
Additionally, the nightly report card has an easy breakdown view of that night, something you can quickly print off and take to a doctor’s office if you needed to. Actually, from a usefulness standpoint – both of these are ideal for quickly printing out and taking with you on the go.
Of course, over time this section will have different beta features, and these features will likely transition to a permanent home elsewhere on the site.
In addition to the website, they also have an iPhone app, which allows you to quickly view your sleep data from your iPhone. Though, keep in mind this is a data viewer for already uploaded data. This won’t bypass the need for the device or the bedside unit. Though…I certainly wish that were the case, as it would allow me to more easily travel and still get this type of data.
The app features a couple of basic areas, including the ability to look at individual night’s of sleep, as well as the ability to look at trends and overviews of some of the bigger key metrics. I’ve taken a bunch of screenshots and placed them in a gallery below.
While the app is handy for quickly viewing your sleep data when you’re not near a computer, I find that because I have to use the computer to upload the data anyway – it’s sorta redundant. I think it’s honestly more valuable from the ‘Here let me show you (a friend) this cool data from my phone’ than it is ‘Let me sit down and analyze my sleep last night’. Maybe if in the future they create some sort of dongle to connect to the headband, it would become more useful.
3rd Party Integration:
In talking with the guys from Zeo, I’m happy to see that they ‘get it’ when it comes to 3rd party integration. They’ve got an API to access both the website data, as well as the data straight off the device itself in real-time, and via Sourceforge in open source no less. They’re looking to be the poster children for how to do sports/fitness technology from an open data standpoint.
Given they’re fairly new, the number of folks partnering with them is still pretty small. However, I’m fairly certain that will grow.
For example, in the past few weeks they teamed up with the folks behind the Withings Scale as well as the folks from Digifit to put together what they call the ‘Health Triad’. Which is a fancy term for ‘our stuff talks to your stuff’. Today, that integration is pretty minimal in the form of Digifit’s iPhone app combining it all together – but down the road expect to see more. In the below screenshot the Zeo ZQ score is overlaid on the top, while down below would be additional calorie and weight data if I had it populated – essentially providing a combined view.
Ideally, I’d love to see both Training Peaks and Sport Tracks offer this level of integration, and I’m relatively optimistic that we’ll see both start doing so soon.
Advanced and Really Cool Stuff:
Now, the really really really cool stuff comes when you start to go under the covers with the Zeo (no, not like that! I mean in a technical sense). I’m going to cover all of this awesome stuff in a future post shortly, but here’s a teaser.
Real time data access:
If you crack open the back of the Zeo unit, you’ll see a mysterious little data access port. With the right USB or Serial cable, you can start talking to the Zeo in realtime and get streaming data.
You’re able to access data at its full data rate, and do what you please with it. The Zeo folks provide a bunch of starter Python scripts as well as documentation of the API via the Raw Data Library (RDL). Geek your heart out.
Real time Brainwave Monitoring:
But, the real cool stuff comes when you can actually watch your sleep in real time. Well, I suppose not your own sleep, but someone else’s. Pretty sweet! I’ve got a whole post coming on this. Awesome stuff! Oh, and yes – that’s me below (like everything else in the review).
Lucid Dreaming Initiation (Aka – recreating the movie: Inception):
Well, sorta. Lucid dreaming is when you know that you’re in a dream, allowing you a bit more mental freedom to make decisions based on that. Folks are playing around with using the hardware and the raw data library components to trigger Lucid Dreams based on known sleep states. Think of it like an alarm clock that will literally tell you that you’re in a dream, and allow you to act on it. Crazy cool science stuff! Read all the details here. And the initial beta app released here by a community member – just released yesterday!
Athletes and teams using it
Given my blog is endurance athletic focused, perhaps the coolest thing here is all of the athletes using it to better understand their training. For example, the guys on Team Radioshack now use them to specify training levels day by day by watching Deep and REM sleep (I’m going to be putting together a post with the Team RadioShack doctor, Dr. Allen Lim about it in a few weeks). Olympic Triathletes like Jarrod Shoemaker now use it as well as others at the Olympic Training Center.
Back at Kona a few months ago Dr. Lim talked about how essentially by watching sleep you can create a power meter for the brain. Here’s the YouTube clip on it to hear more.
Dr. Lim talking about using Zeo in training
Again – all really interesting stuff, especially for those of us that pound our bodies on long rides and runs, and want to see the impact of that on training.
In summary, this is probably one of the coolest gadgets I’ve had the chance to test. Usually in product reviews I end up with a long list of ‘problems’, but in the case of the Zeo I just keep ending up with a longer list of things that are so cool about it. And the kicker is that as someone who sleeps relatively fine – I still find a ton of value in what it provides. I can’t even being to imagine how useful it would be to folks who have trouble sleeping, to better understand some of the issues. Since I started dropping little hints about the Zeo in blog posts over the past month I’ve had countless folks e-mail or comment at how they have sleeping problems and would love the level of data that Zeo provides.
Given the price of about $168, it’s pretty cheap compared to most health and fitness gadgets that measure body signals. While the device isn’t a true medical device by government classification, I don’t think that should stop anyone from using it to get more sleep. After all, we use all sorts of fitness related gadgets all the time to better our health.
While I have very few issues with the unit, I do want to cover some of the highlights and lowlights.
– Simple to setup, ‘just works’
– Really clean website, well thought through
– Headband is fully wireless – won’t strangle yourself in your sleep
– SD card transfer is easy and simple
– Advanced API’s and data access points offer partners lots of options
– Really darn cool real time access to the device for those that want it
– Wish it were Wifi enabled
– Doesn’t adapt well to travel (though I did take it around the world!)
– Replacement bands are a touch high at $11-14 a pop every 3-4 months
– Headband can be a bit finicky at times from a sizing standpoint
Hopefully you found this review useful. At the end of the day, I’m an athlete just like you looking for the most detail possible on a new purchase – so my review is written from the standpoint of how I used the device.
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