Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Heart Rate Monitor Madness

To keep track of my exercise, I've been using Sports Tracker on my Nokia N8, and the E-series phones before that. It's free, it works really well, and the interface is quite good. It maps my route, and depending on what kind of exercise I told it I'm doing, it guesstimates the calorie consumption.

The one thing I didn't have for it, though, was a heart rate monitor. The way Sports Tracker funds itself is at least partially by selling the heart rate monitor hardware. In the past this was annoying to order outside of Europe — especially the United States — due to the high exchange rate and shipping costs; though that seems to have changed. Unfortunately they're sold out, with more coming possibly in June.

No problem, Polar and Zephyr make ones too, so I'll just get one of them. They're bluetooth, so interoperability shouldn't be a problem; specifically I'd seen people say they use the Zephyr HxM with Sports Tracker. The added benefit is that it has probably the best belt design of all the ones I've seen, and is sufficiently powerful that it will work up to 30' from the phone; the Polar one specifically appears to not even work if you stash your phone in a Camelbak for mountain biking due to its low power signal, and that's just silly.

Not so Fast!

Got the HxM in the mail. Their website is pretty horrid, but the hardware is very nice, and comes packaged professionally. Turned it on, paired it with the N8, done. Started Sports Tracker. Won't find the HRM. A bunch of more research indicates that the Symbian version of Sports Tracker only works with the Sports Tracker branded bluetooth HRM. As far as I can tell, it's a matter of default PIN which you can't change, although I may be wrong. Well, bummer.

Instead of sending it back, no problem. I have an iPod touch, so I'll just use that instead... except Apple in their typical aggravating fashion only supports a few special bluetooth HRMs, most of the ones you can buy will not work with iPhones/iPods, and many of the ones that do, replicate the built-in bluetooth functionality with an external dongle. Well, bah.

Allright, is there an app for Symbian that WILL work? Ah, indeed there is! It's called Endomondo. Their site has a way to send a download link to your phone (doesn't work) and says you can download it from the Nokia Ovi store (nope, not there.) Luckily they give a backup URL that does in fact work.

Endomondo

The app isn't half bad. It's a far cry from Sports Tracker, but it lets you customize what's shown in the four fields on the screen, and it gets the heart rate from the Zephyr with no muss or fuss. It won't flip the screen with the phone. The audio coach function appears to not do anything, and it has no provisions for stationary or indoor sports. That being said, it has a neat function where it maps your route, heart rate speed etc. in real time on their web site, if you have friends also using the product (or want to share with the world.) Unfortunately, unlike Sports Tracker, the sharing to social media function is fairly useless if you want to share anything but your map. It also doesn't even try to guess calories without GPS input, and the web page could use some serious UI design help.

What differentiates Endomondo from Sports Tracker is also the social aspect; you get much more of a feeling that the idea is that you share and interact on their site; they have discussion forums, friends can send you messages to your workout app, etc. For me, currently, that unfortunately isn't too useful, and somewhat ironic, considering the lackluster integration with Facebook / Google+.

Endomondo has also, as per their comments in the discussion forums, made the decision to not support the Symbian version due to the ramping down of Symbian by Nokia. While I can't blame them for the business decision, the app is as it is, and there won't be any feature updates, bug fixes, or support if a future OS update breaks it.

A remaining annoyance with Endomondo is that it doesn't disable the screen saver. So, using it on an elliptical or such, you have to unlock the phone every so many minutes in order to continue to see the screen. Not as big of a deal outdoors where you likely fish the phone out of a pocket, unlock, look at it, lock it and slip it back into the pocket.

Android to the Rescue

...or not. Partly to solve my desire to have the HRM display up while doing exercise on my elliptical, and partly because I wanted to see what Android devices are like, and some other rationalizations, I bought a Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0. Endomondo, SportsTracker (turns out there are two different products with the same name!) Zephyr Heart Rate... plenty of programs to choose from with official support for my exact heart rate monitor. Pair the belt to the tablet, no problem. Start the application. Hm. Nothing. Settings, HRM. Search. Fail.

The root cause isn't entirely clear, but it appears that Samsung has taken some shortcuts with their Bluetooth stack, and as a result many simpler Bluetooth devices will in fact not work with many Samsung tablets and phones. Also, turns out SportsTracker (the one from Nokia) doesn't support the Zephyr HRM on Android either, although they do support the Polar one in addition to their custom HRM.

In Conclusion

The I like the Zephyr HxM. It's rechargeable with a little USB dock, so power sources are abundant. The strap is machine washable, the contact pads are some kind of metallic fabric that's perfectly soft and nice against the skin. The unit looks pretty sharp and is light, and when it works, it just works; I've yet to have it flake out in any sense. It snaps into the belt or the dock using normal clothes-style snap buttons, so it's easy to turn off (just unsnap it) when not in use.

However, I'm rather disappointed at the lack of interoperability: Almost nothing works with Apple devices; almost nothing works with Symbian. If you want to use HRMs with your phone, your best bet is to have an Android phone. And if you get an Android device, you have to find one with a non-broken Bluetooth stack. This may well be the deciding factor for when I look at upgrading my N8; looks like I'll be going the Android route, depending on how well I like the OS in general after having lived with the tablet for a while.