DC Rainmaker

Wahoo Fitness Blue HR Bluetooth Smart Heart Rate Strap In Depth Review

You may be wondering why exactly I’d be reviewing a single heart rate (HR) strap – after all, they are fairly common, and all largely do the same thing: Read your heart rate.  But, while the just announced Wahoo Fitness Blue HR may look virtually indistinguishable from every other HR strap out there – it’s an entirely different beast under the hood.  And that difference is key in understanding what may be the tip of the iceberg for a shift in health and fitness technology for years to come.

See, Blue HR is the very first consumer Bluetooth Low Energy sensor device.  Bluetooth Low Energy has been called a number of things over the years, from BLE/BTLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) to now more recently, Bluetooth Smart.  I previously noted the ever confusing naming scheme that the Bluetooth SIG has come up with, so we’ll just focus on the low energy aspect for now.

You’ve probably used Bluetooth devices in the past, such as wireless headphones.  However, BLE devices are very different from standard Bluetooth accessories in one key area: battery consumption. Unlike your wireless headset that requires near-daily charging, BLE devices are meant to be low-energy, and typically run instead on simple replaceable coin cell batteries that can last a year or more.  In that respect, it’s from a consumer standpoint virtually identically to ANT+ compatible sensors (such as what is used in your Garmin accessories), which offer roughly the same battery life.

So why is there excitement over BLE instead of ANT+, if they do the same thing?  One, and only one reason: Cell phones.

As dedicated health and fitness devices have rapidly been swallowed by cell phones for many users, the future is sensor devices that work seamlessly with your cell phone and compatible apps.  While ANT+ today has a number of Sony Ericcson and HTC phones that have ANT+ chips in them to support ANT+ accessories, the number of devices that support Bluetooth 4.0 (which is what is required for BTLE/BLE/Bluetooth Smart) will rapidly rise, quickly eclipsing ANT+ enabled cell phones.  Today, the two major phones on the market that support Bluetooth 4.0 is the iPhone 4s, and the Motorola Razr.

Now let’s not get ahead of ourselves, and instead – get to the unpacking…

Though before we start, note that Wahoo Fitness provided me a Blue HR unit ahead of public release to be able to test it out.  At the end of which, I can either return it to them…or give it away to you. I think you’ll see a giant ‘house cleaning’ giveaway coming up soon…

Unboxing:

You know what’s great about HR straps?  There’s not a lot to unbox.

After removing the outer wrapper, the HR strap is within a plastic compartment:

Inside you’ll simply find the fabric strap, the transmitter pod, and the instruction booklet:

The transmitter pod attaches to the strap via the two snaps:

And the instruction booklet is useful in that it’ll allow you to scan the QR Code and then have your iPhone automatically download the Wahoo Fitness app.  This app in turn has built-in support for the Blue HR strap.

If you’ve already got the Wahoo Fitness app on your iPhone 4S, then you’ll want to ensure you’ve updated your apps recently so that you have the most current version with the Blue HR support.  If you’re using one of the compatible apps other than Wahoo’s own app (such as RunKeeper), then see the later bits.

Connectivity and Stability (Read: no bad data points!):

There’s a few things you’ll notice that are different about Bluetooth Smart devices compared to your standard Bluetooth devices.  Starting off is that on the iPhone it won’t show up in the Bluetooth control panel.  Nope, Apple decided to take a different (more logical) stance that instead of pairing the BT device in both the control panel, and again within the app – you’d just do it in one place (the app).  That way you reduce the number of places you have to pair it, making it simpler for us.  Thus explaining why if you go into the Bluetooth control panel, you’ll notice nothing is there for the Wahoo Blue HR:

Instead, you’ll open up the app that you’re using, in my case the standard Wahoo Fitness app, and go into the sensor menu to pair the sensor:

Once it’s found, it’ll display the ID of the sensor (just like it does with ANT+ sensors), as well as the current value that the sensor is transmitting.  You can also name the sensor something useful – such as “Ray’s HR Strap”.  Though, since I only have one of them…I didn’t really need to.

Once that’s complete, you’re basically ready to rumble.  Note that with the Wahoo Fitness app – as well as all other apps that support the exiting Wahoo Fitness ANT+ dongle/key, you can combine Bluetooth Smart and ANT+ accessories together (via the Wahoo Fitness dongle/key).  So you can mix and match as your requirements change.

I’ve been using the Blue HR strap on virtually all my runs for the last 3 weeks now.  This means that I’ve been running with both an iPhone 4S as well as the running device du jour.   And also running with two HR straps, an ANT+ strap, and the Blue HR strap.

Over the past three weeks the climates I’ve been in has ranged from 20*F and bone-dry, to 90*F and tropically humid.  The most fascinating part has been the lack of dropouts or HR spikes in the Blue HR, compared to my typical Garmin ANT+ strap.  Especially at the cooler/dryer temperatures.

Now, the latest Garmin HR strap does alleviate about 85-90% of these issues, but sometimes the first minute or two are troubling.  Whereas I’ve yet to see a bad/incorrect HR value on the BlueHR strap – not even for a second.

This is for a few reasons.  See, most of the companies (read: basically everyone) that re-brand the ANT+ straps do so using the firmware that came on them from the Asian company that mass produces them. The only thing changed is the logo on the front.  Most of the time the firmware works just fine, but sometimes, in certain conditions – it has ‘issues’.

Fast forward to the Blue HR strap and the starting point firmware from China (where the straps were made) was a non-starter.  So the Wahoo Fitness team actually re-wrote the entire HR strap firmware from scratch, using a bunch of Georgia Tech athletes as guinea pigs in trying to create the perfect athletes strap.  The resultant of which is a strap that just simply works without issue.  And based on my testing – all that development work has paid off.

Below is a handful of HR graphs from a few different runs.  The key thing you’re looking for (but don’t see) is abnormal spikes or dropouts, where the HR plunges to unrealistic lows or highs for a few seconds, before resuming normalcy:

You may be wondering about now how I made these look like Garmin Connect.  See, the Wahoo Fitness app allows you to upload to a slew of online providers, or you can even just send the raw .CSV files to yourself.

Here’s some other ones with TrainingPeaks instead (note that the missing segments are merely stoplights where the unit it stopped):

Both of these workouts were in the cold of WashDC, where my Garmin unit showed a number of incorrect winter HR data points (I know, I could just follow my own advice on HR gel, but I didn’t…).

Below, is the exact same run – showing the Garmin data with the ANT+ strap.  Note the highlighted yellow portion at the beginning (when I was running easy) – showing the 190’s HR values, then the sudden and instant correction back to normalcy:

Very cool stuff.

Speaking of ‘just working’, I’ve been happily impressed with how well the Wahoo Fitness app handles distance using GPS – where most of my runs it was going mile for mile talking the mile split at nearly the exact same second that my Garmin unit would auto-lap.  Very impressive.  Here was one run showing the two ended up identically.

Waterproofing and Readings Underwater

The Blue HR strap is fully waterproofed, and can be submerged in water up to 5ft without issue.  This is primarily ideal for triathletes that want to wear their strap under their wetsuit/tri top during the swim leg of the race, and then have it pickup automatically once on the bike or run.

(Display on iPhone slightly brightened in Lightroom to make it easier to see the “N/A” for ability to connect to display.  Just too darn bright out here!)

However, the Blue HR will not successfully transmit through water.  To test this, I put on the strap, validated it was communicating successfully, and then jumped into the water.  Once in the water, the strap stopped communicating new heart rate readings (continued to display last known reading).  Attempts to re-initialize the strap while in the water failed.  But, instantly after coming out of the water, the strap picked right back up with correct numbers.

Note that I was just floating in the water, with the phone at times sitting right above the water on the dock, sometimes I was further away.

3rd Party App Support:

The cool part about Wahoo Fitness coming out with the Blue HR strap, as opposed to some other fitness company, is that over 100 apps already support the Wahoo Fitness iPhone ANT+ dongle/key.  But why does the ANT+ key matter here?  Well, for those companies (i.e. RunKeeper/MapMyRun) that support the Wahoo ANT+ key, there’s only a minor change to support the latest API version (2.0/2.1) – which in turn supports Blue HR.  In other words, there isn’t a massive code change to support Blue HR – which is good for all of us, and good for those companies trying to balance precious development resources.  Here’s a screenshot of both Runmeter and Runkeeper paired to the Blue HR:

As of today, January 4th 2012, the following apps have built-in support for Blue HR:

RunKeeper
MotionX
Runmeter
Cyclemeter
MapMyRUN
MapMyRIDE
321run
Endomondo (tomorrow)

I tried out a few of them, including RunMeter on a run tonight – and found no issues either (no judging pace, it was a small set of hill repeats with rest included…at midnight.):

Expect to see a slew of new apps support Blue HR over the coming weeks and months, as the door literally only opened up today to them.

3rd Party Device Support:

At present the only non-cellular device that support Bluetooth Smart (BLE/BTLE) devices is the Motorola Motoactv.  And in theory, it would support the Wahoo Fitness Blue HR, but in reality – it doesn’t quite work yet.

There are some interesting discoveries here though.  Let’s start with the pairing process.  On the Motoactv, you’ll go into the sensor pairing menu, the same settings place you’d normally pair ANT+ sensors.  From there you’ll choose to add a new BLE sensor:

Within about 1 second, it’ll find your Wahoo Blue HR – so quick that getting a picture is nearly impossible.  After which, it’ll show the newly found sensor, as well as the sensor ID:

You can highlight that sensor to validate that you’re in BLE mode.  This is important, because the Motoactv is only able to connect to either ANT+ sensors or Bluetooth Low Energy sensors at the same time.  Meaning, you can’t use the Blue HR at the same time as an ANT+ power meter.  But you can however use standard Bluetooth devices at the same time (such as headphones).

Finally, come time to start a workout – the strap will automatically pair to the device (assuming you’ve switched to BLE sensors instead of ANT+ sensors).  Once paired it’ll show that as confirmed.

After pressing start, you’d expect the device to display HR…but alas, it doesn’t.  It just reads nothing, null.

And that’s where some of the nuances of a brand new protocol break down.  Despite there being an established device profile for Bluetooth Smart Heart Rate Straps, the two devices aren’t quite working together…yet.

I know that both Motorola and Wahoo Fitness are eager to make this happen – so I don’t expect this to be a long term item, but it will likely be the reality of device integration moving forward with other companies.

The Road Ahead:

There’s little question in the sports technology world that medium to long term, Bluetooth Smart devices will become incredibly popular.  But what remains a bigger question is the next 18 months.  At present there are only two ‘device profiles’ that the industry has agreed upon – for the HR strap and for the proximity sensor (allows app actions to occur based on proximity of a device, such as your car keys).  Outside of that, it’s a bit of the Wild Wild West.  And while that’s good for innovation of new devices, it’s ultimately bad for consumer interoperability.  Standards are why things work well, everyone doing their own thing works great if there’s only one company in the market.

The strength of ANT+ is that you can virtually guarantee that if you have an ANT+ Speed/Cadence sensor – it’s going to work with all of the different companies that support that specific device type.  Today, aside from the HR strap and proximity sensor, no such platform exists in sport for Bluetooth Smart.  And even in the case of the HR strap – there appears to be issues in implementation across vendors.

Now, lest we forgot – ANT+ wasn’t always as rosy either.  It wasn’t too long ago that certain power meter companies failed to correctly implement the ANT+ protocol in their devices, resulting in compatibility issues.  And just like ANT+, just because a device supports Bluetooth Smart, doesn’t mean it’ll support your type of accessories (i.e. Speed/Cadence sensor).

In the case of Bluetooth Smart, I suspect we’ll see consistency in large market standards – such as things related to audio and automotive.  But I suspect we have a long and painful road ahead of us with respect to being able to just buy a Bluetooth Smart device and simply know it’ll work with any other device we want.  Ultimately, some of the control will need to be reigned in by the Bluetooth SIG in order for it to be successful in the consumers eyes.

Summary:

If you have a iPhone 4S or Motorola Razr, and want heart rate data from a heart rate strap that you don’t have to recharge every few runs – the Blue HR is where it’s at.  There’s simply nothing else on the market and available today, mostly because there’s virtually no other Bluetooth Low Energy devices out there (the Polar semi-unannounced H7 Bluetooth Smart strap isn’t yet available).  I do expect we’ll see that change – both with respect to new players, and existing ones. – and we’ll probably see that change start being announced next week at CES in Las Vegas.  Note that the MacBook Air and Mac Mini do support Bluetooth 4.0, but I’m not aware of any apps that would in turn support Blue HR.

The work that the Wahoo Fitness folks have done around stabilization of heart rate data is incredible – and to be honest, that in and of itself is enough of a reason to buy this strap if you have a phone that supports it.  It certainly beats HR strap dropouts and spikes.  It’s also notable because I suspect you’ll see a flood of re-branded straps Bluetooth Smart straps from China into the market, but without the specialized firmware that Wahoo has done – ones that quite frankly will have pretty rough data points from what I’m being told.  So it’s a bit of buyer beware until things settle out.

Finally, a few pros and cons:

Pros:
– Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy (Bluetooth Smart)
– Battery will last about a year, simple coin cell changeable battery ($2 at drug store)
– Incredible work on HR data cleanup, to ensure data is both accurate and stable
– No dongle/key required like ANT+ for iPhone
– Works with a number of major apps already

Con’s:
– Doesn’t yet work with Motoactv, or many/any other devices besides cell phone
– Standards are still in flux, which may result in a inconsistent user experience

Also, one last item – it should be pointed out that Wahoo Fitness is definitely not abandoning ANT+ accessories, and in fact, there’s still development work going on there for new stuff (and it’s sweet!).  This is merely another market for them, in the same way that other fitness companies branch out into other markets.  And in the case of Bluetooth Smart, they’ve told me to expect to see other popular Bluetooth Smart accessories coming soon.

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