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I’m a Spotify person. Sure, there are many audio services, but the one I listen to virtually the entire day (and at night with the kids) is Spotify. Largely because it works anywhere I am in the world, without funky restrictions. Regrettably though, when it comes to sports wearables, none of the majors offer options there. Not Garmin (Deezer/iHeartRadio), nor Fitbit (Deezer/Pandora), nor Apple (just Apple), nor Polar (Google Play). Sure, Samsung does on a handful of devices, but those devices aren’t terribly awesome at endurance sports.
Of course, the reasons most of these services can’t get Spotify is 100% on Spotify. Not for lack of trying/desire by Garmin/Fitbit/etc… All of which is somewhat beside the point in some ways, but it’s entirely the point for this post.
That’s because I just got back from the pool using Spotify while swimming laps. But, before you get too distracted note that this Kickstarter project is only available for pre-order through Tuesday. I personally don’t care whether or not you support the project, but since time is tight, I figured I’d mention that first in case you get distracted at lunch with those fries and don’t find this browser tab till late next week. After Tuesday, their campaign closes.
Now Waterfi is hardly a new player to the water based wearable music scene. In fact, I’ve tried their gizmos in the past – a long time ago. That was the last time I did a round-up of pool swimming options, and ironically, the landscape has hardly changed since then. For whatever reason, it’s a stagnant market.
Still, Waterfi’s got something unique here with their Swimcast product. The small waterproof music player works by enabling your phone to stream content to it, exactly the way Google Chromecast works. And by ‘exactly’, I mean, 100% precisely. That’s because inside this little pod is actually a Google Chromecast Audio device. Which doesn’t mean you need Android, it works just fine with iPhones too.
Now you may be wondering how that works when you bring in water. But what Waterfi does is cache whatever it is that you’re steaming to it, so even as you go underwater pushing off the wall at the end of each length the audio doesn’t drop.
But first, let’s talk hardware basics. You’ve got the Waterfi Swimcast pod seen below. It’s got a waterproofed headphone jack (because Bluetooth doesn’t travel through water), which is all pretty much the same as most waterproof music players. Ignore that this looks a bit rough (or that I got dirt from my picnic table on it). Like most prototype devices, it’s simply 3D printed. No different than 3D printed or early hand-made stuff I get from Garmin or any other big name company.
Next to it you’ve got a micro-USB charging port. That too is waterproof, which has long been common on various devices out in the market for probably close to a decade.
And of course, then there’s the headphones themselves, which come with a bunch of tops:
And that’s it. Now to understand a bit more on that Chromecast Audio inside it piece, they’ve got a nifty picture on their Kickstarter page that I’ve snippeted for here, it shows exactly what they’ve done on the inside:
With the hardware all covered, what happens next is that you’ll need to pair it up with the Google Home app. Again, this can be on either Android or iOS.
As part of this you’ll specify the WiFi network name, as well as give it a location. In my case, I created a room called ‘Pool’, because…yeah.
After you’ve got it paired up using Google Home, you can then use the ‘Cast’ option which sits in the upper right corner of most apps. It’s the little square with a few radio signal looking things on it. However, in Spotify, it shows up under the ‘Connect to a device’ menu’. You can see below I changed from ‘Kitchen’ (at left) to ‘Pool Speaker’ (at right).
Note that the advantage to using Google Chromecast Audio and casting is that it’s actually not limited to Spotify. Anything that plays music from your phone and has the ‘Cast’ option you can use, that includes:
– YouTube/YouTube Music
– Apple Music
– Any audiobook service (i.e. Audible)
– Apps that make fart noises (for a concerto of farts)
Really, it doesn’t matter. Just think of the Waterfi as kinda like a Bluetooth speaker (except not Bluetooth), it doesn’t care what you play to it, it just plays whatever it’s told via the Cast option, which is in the vast majority of entertainment apps out there today.
Finally, note that because the battery switch pieces haven’t been finalized yet, there wasn’t a way to power it off (or on). It was always on, so they tossed in a small USB battery bank to keep it charged in my swim bag till I was ready to swim. After the swim, it simply ran out of juice eventually. But again, that’ll all be sorted by launch – it’s just typical beta device stuff.
As a side note, I’ve got a lot of USB battery packs, and I’ve never seen one this thin before – about the size of a credit card, and only a few cards thick. Pretty cool, found it on Amazon as well for only $11!
Ok, with all those basics covered, let’s head to the pool.
A Test Swim:
After a brief test in my living room (+ a microwave to simulate a faraday cage and lack of signal underwater), I headed across town to the pool to give it a shot. I tossed my phone in my gym bag and left it pool-side. Certainly this was risky, given mid-afternoon in Amsterdam was a mix of 3-8 year olds….and….65-85 year old ladies doing pool aerobics, but…in the home of Stroopwafel I trust.
I got the Waterfi unit powered on and then enabled the Hotspot on my phone (an original Pixel phone), within a few seconds, the Swimcast player had found the hotspot and soon it was accessible in Spotify as a device I could stream to.
Again, I’m just using Spotify as an example because it’s what I use. You can use anything you want. I selected an appropriately random playlist – Beach Hits – and then slightly increased the volume to the midpoint. Then I hit play and packed the phone away in my swim bag.
I also attached the Swimcast to my goggles near the back of my head. It has these little hooks to latch onto your goggles and hold it tight.
To give some context on distance and obstructions (since frankly, that’s the most important thing here), I left my bag in the furthest corner of the building I could. A towel draped over it, where the arrow is. There were lockers there, but alas I lacked whatever magical card you needed to use them. Though, they’d have been closer to the pool than my spot.
I then walked all the way to under where I took this photo to the showers to rinse off before entering the pool. That’s about 50-75 meters away from my phone, obstructed by changing stalls and a few concrete pillars. The audio never dropped once.
So then I simply jumped in the pool and began my laps (as best as possible given the cluster that the pool was – look, it’s my first week here in Amsterdam and I haven’t figured out the pool scene yet).
Almost instantly the audio dropped – within 5-7 seconds of starting.
Hmm, that’s odd (and non-ideal).
So I dorked around with the back of my head where the pod was, ensuring I tightened the headphone cable into the port, and then also positioning the pod slightly higher up on the back of my head. The end resultant was this:
Then, I set out again. And this time…it was perfect.
It never dropped, not once, during my laps swimming freestyle (which was all of them). At both ends of the pool it was perfect…and any point in between. When I reached the wall, I did flip turns as normal, and the audio kept on playing without issue.
Which made me wonder…how long would the audio play for when underwater?
So I held my breath and went under. At precisely 20 seconds under, the audio cutout.
I then went above the water and let it reestablish connection and the audio continued playing.
Then I tried it again.
And again, 20 seconds after losing WiFi signal, it lost audio.
To me, that’s a reasonable timeframe. About the only scenario I can think of in normal pool workouts where this would be a problem is those doing backstroke, because the pod would be below the water almost the entire time – thus preventing connectivity.
One item that’s worth pointing out is that the pod has no controls on it. So no stopping/starting/skipping/volume changes. You can pair a small/cheap Bluetooth Smart remote to your phone though, and control that. This remote could then simply sit inside a ZipLoc bag poolside (perhaps in a larger mesh bag with pool drill toys, or glued to a water bottle). That would then allow control, assuming it could reach your phone. Hardly perfect, but certainly an option.
Still, all in all – pretty darn cool.
I was pleasantly surprised how well the WiFi worked in the pool building. I suppose that in many ways a pool is the perfect WiFi environment – there’s no walls or such in the middle of the pool sitting on the surface. Thus WiFi carries well. Of course, if you end up leaving your pool bag down deep in some basement locker room inside a swath of metal lockers, you’ll probably have a non-awesome experience.
In terms of theft of a swim bag depending on your pool facility design, you could also consider an older phone you have lying around as the dedicated pool bag phone. After all, no need to have anything new or fancy for this. Most of us have random old phones (perhaps even broken-screen ones) sitting around that would more than work here.
Nonetheless, the tech did work – and better than I expected it to.
Now the tech geeks amongst you will probably smirk a bit. Partially because it’s clever geekery, and partially because it’s not true offline caching in the same way Garmin caches iHeartRadio or Fitbit for Pandora, or Apple for Apple. In that sense it won’t work if you don’t have internet access in some manner. But ultimately, it does the job. It simply does it in a rather creative technical way. Waterfi has taken the ugly aspect of how to waterproof a Chromecast device and done it for you. And because they aren’t developing any software here, that minimizes the number of things that could go wrong from a project timeline standpoint. Not to mention the company has been around the block a few times, boasting some 200,000 devices made to date.
Of course, there are some obvious limitations here. First is that you can’t change songs mid-swim. The device is effectively a black box of magical music once you leave your gym bag behind. For most of us, that’s actually not a big deal – because we’re listening to a longer playlist on Spotify (or whatever platform you’re using). But, that means you can’t pause tracks either. So if someone interrupts you to chat in the lane during the best part of the song…you’ll just have to tell them to talk to the hand instead. Same goes for adjusting the volume. One could look at the Waterfi variant of Mighty, which can do full offline Spotify and has buttons, but that means you can’t do other services, so it’s a bit of a tradeoff.
And finally – you’re dependent on your phone connection. That, in turn, means that if the Waterfi device can’t talk well to your phone inside your locker, you’ll have to leave your bag somewhere on the pool deck (with phone inside), which might be vulnerable to theft depending on your pool. Sure, some pool facilities may offer free WiFi, but I suspect that’s pretty rare.
Still, it’s a cool concept, and it will probably work for a lot of people – especially those that want Spotify while swimming. And given the price – $129 on Kickstarter (again, their campaign ends Tuesday), it’s not a horrible price to pay. Plus, you’ll still have a totally functional Chromecast Audio too (which normally costs $35 by itself), so there’s that for ya. Not to mention I suspect we’re a long way off from any other viable competitor in this space that can do both Spotify as well as other services (like Apple Music), especially given how restrictive Spotify has been as of late. Thus for now – this definitely seems like the best path forward.
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