Weight! Weight! Do tell me! My search for a reliable, accessible smart scale
I’ve not become one of those people who uses their Apple Watch for tasks I previously did with my phone. For the most part, I still text, email, tweet, and talk to Siri on my iPhone. But my Apple Watch has become an essential fitness companion.
I’m moving, exercising, and standing more than I used to, and I don’t like failing to complete any of the three daily goals. This is great for someone like me who works from home. The commute to and from my office is hardly arduous, and even though I eat well, it’s easy to be too sedentary.
After a few months with my Apple Watch, I found that the habit of moving around more was addictive, and I wanted to take my exercise more seriously. We’ve had an exercise bike and a sauna for a while, and I supplemented them with a multi-purpose machine for lifting weights, to build up my muscle strength. So if anyone tries to kick sand in my face now, well, they’d just better watch it, that’s all I can say!
The Apple Watch keeps track of the number of workouts I’ve done, and uploads the data to Apple’s Health app, so I can see how fast my heart rate was when the workout was at its peak.
You can hear some more about my experiences with the Apple Watch as a fitness tracker in this episode of The Blind Sport Podcast.
The Apple Watch has taught me that hard data motivates me. Sadly, if you’ve spent years, maybe even decades, eating the wrong things and not looking after your body, it’s going to take plenty of time, dedication and tenacity to reverse the damage. If you can see yourself being increasingly active, and noticing that it seems less of an effort to stay active, the positive results encourage you to keep going.
Encouraged by the positive effects of tracking all the data my Apple Watch can do on its own, I added a third-party app to it, Sleep++, for tracking how many hours I sleep, and the quality of my sleep.
I love the fact that all this data is reviewable and completely accessible in Apple’s Health app for iOS. You can add the data you particularly care about to the Dashboard, and review it at any time. Historical data is stored there too, which is handy if you’re working with a medical professional who wants to observe trends.
And that brings me to the substantive topic of this post. My quest to add other data, specifically weight and body fat percentage, to my Health app. Is it just crazy geeking out to seek a smart scale that interfaces directly with the Health app, when I could just stand on a talking scale first thing in the morning and enter my weight into the Health app manually? It’s no surprise to readers of these posts that I’m a geek, but smart scales now measure a lot more than weight. If you’re doing what I’m doing, and including strength training in your fitness routine in addition to cardio, you may gain muscle mass, which means you may not see the kilograms dropping off the scale as quickly as you’d like. Today’s smart scale will calculate body fat percentage. So if your weight stays fairly constant when you’re doing strength training but your body fact percentage is declining, you know that all your efforts are paying off.
I’ve owned a smart scale, one of the early devices manufactured by iHealth, for some years. It’s smart, but not particularly so by today’s standards. It only measures weight, not any of the other factors available on today’s smart scales. As I’ve become more serious about health data collection, I decided it was time to upgrade.
My goal was to find a smart scale that was as effortless to use as a dumb one. I wanted to be able to step on the scale, have my weight recorded easily, and step off. That wasn’t the case with the early iHealth scale I was replacing. To get a measurement from this scale, I had to step on the scale which woke it from hibernation, step off, go into Bluetooth settings on my phone, connect to the scale, then run the app.
iHealth now has a Wi-Fi-enabled scale that simplifies the weighing process a lot, but I ruled out replacing my current iHealth scale with one of their newer ones because iHealth’s iOS apps are not particularly accessible, and have become less so over time. Since making my new purchase, I’ve found that iHealth’s website appears quite good, so if you’re willing to work predominantly with the website on an ongoing basis, the inaccessible app may not be a deal-breaker, particularly given that their scales will synchronise with Apple’s fully accessible Health app.
The iHealth scale I am upgrading from has been quite accurate. There is a little fluctuation if you weigh yourself repeatedly, but it’s consistent with many home-use scales and gives a weight close to medical scales you would find in a doctor’s office or pharmacy.
I decided to ask around and see if there was a smart scale that blind people had found particularly accessible, and was recommended the Beets Blu smart scale. It’s available for $84.95 from Amazon.
The set-up process was straightforward and accessible. Download the app, and enter your gender, birthweight and height.
Once it’s set up, daily usage is an equally accessible experience. Open the app, and ensure you’re phone is in range of the scale, which is paired automatically via Bluetooth. Stand on the scale, and you’ll hear a beep telling you that measurement is taking place. A few seconds later, you’ll hear a second beep. By default, if your phone isn’t set to silent, the self-voicing app will speak your weight and some other measurements.
The scale measures
•Body Fat Percentage
•Muscle Mass Percentage
•Lean Body Mass Percentage
Having obtained your body weight and already knowing your height, measuring BMI is a simple case of applying the formula. But some of the other measurements are what really makes a smart scale smart. While you’re on the scale, low-level electrical impulses are sent through your feet to obtain data in addition to weight. This means that to get all the smarts that smart scales offer, you need to weigh barefoot.
While it’s necessary to have the app open before you step on the scale, and thus not quite meeting my criteria of being as easy as weighing with a regular scale, I would have been happy with the Beets Blu but for one thing. Mine was terribly inaccurate.
I was delighted to step on the scale for the first time and find that my weight was a massive 11 KG less than what was being reported by my iHealth scale. And that was an average. My weight fluctuated enormously when I weighed myself repeatedly, far wider than I consider acceptable. In short, while it was an attractive and accessible product, it failed the most important test, weighing me accurately. I was able to confirm that my older iHealth scale was the correct one by visiting a pharmacy, where they had a top-quality medical scale.
I contacted Beets Blu support, and to their credit, their responses were timely. We had a little communication problem, when they thought that when I was referring to my iHealth scale, I was talking about my Apple Health app.
After clearing that up, they agreed to replace my scale. However, it turns out that Amazon would not authorise a replacement of the product to New Zealand. My only option was to submit a request for a refund, which Amazon granted instantly. I was then able to choose whether to buy another Beets Blu scale, or try another product.
It’s possible that I had a defective Beets Blu unit. No matter how excellent a product is, there will always be out-of-box failures, and I may have just been unlucky. However, whether it’s looking at reviews online in general or on Amazon, I was struck by the unusually high number of positive reviews that also came with the disclaimer that the reviewers had been given a scale. Once bitten and all that. So I decided to look for other options.
You may have better luck than me with the Beets Blu, and if having to have the app open isn’t a deal breaker for you, it’s an accessible solution at a good price, if you get a unit that measures your weight correctly.
I asked a little more widely for people’s experiences with smart scales, and a number of people recommended the Fitbit Aria Wi-Fi smart scale. The feedback I received indicated that the iOS app was manageable.
If you’re a part of the Fitbit ecosystem, then purchasing an Aria may be a no-brainer. I don’t use the Fitbit app, nor do I own any of their hardware. Fitbit failed one of my key criteria, synchronisation with Apple’s Health app. In Googling about this, it appears that not supporting the health app is a business decision. Well, in this case, it’s a business decision that lost them a customer. Everything else I have syncs natively with Health, I want my scale to as well.
It’s possible to sync the data from your Fitbit account to the health app thanks to a third-party app called Sync Solver. But that’s one more link in the chain that might go wrong, one more thing to troubleshoot if things aren’t working the way they should.
I also read some show-down reviews between the Aria and the scale I ultimately chose, and the general consensus seemed to be that the scale I’ve eventually ended up with is more accurate.
Withings Smart Body Analyser WS-50
After reading more mainstream reviews and talking to a few more blind people who have travelled this road already, I decided to try the Withings Smart Body Analyser WS-50. It’s available from Amazon for $129.99. This is a Wi-Fi-enabled scale. It held the tantalising promise, once set up, of allowing me to step on the scale in the morning and be done with it. No need for the phone to be nearby or with a special app open, because the scale transmits the data over Wi-Fi to your personalised Withings account. Next time you open your Withings app, you get the latest data.
In preparation for giving this scale a go, I downloaded the Withings iOS app and tried to register an account. I was not able to complete the registration process on my phone due to accessibility issues. Signing up via the website was a breeze though, and I was then able to log into the account I had created via the iOS app.
Immediately, it started counting my steps for me and giving me useful health information.
When the scale arrived, I was impressed with the set-up. I had to press a button on the bottom of the scale to put it in pairing mode, pair it via Bluetooth and run the Withings app, and was then taken through a simple quick set-up process. The scale detected the Wi-Fi settings my phone was using, and asked if I wanted to use those same settings for the scale. This would have been pretty slick, except that my iPhone connects to our 5GHZ network, and the WS-50 doesn’t support 5GHZ. We also run a 2.4GHZ network for backward compatibility, so I entered that information manually and we were up and running.
I wasn’t able to enter a goal weight in the iOS app due to an inaccessible selection process. This isn’t essential to complete set-up.
The scale recognises up to eight people, and each person can link the scale with their own account via the iOS app. Based on your weight, the scale knows who is stepping on it, and transmits data to the appropriate Withings account. When you step on the scale, the initials of the person it thinks it’s weighing flash up on the screen. There’s no way for a blind person to verify that it’s got the right person, which may be an issue if there are two people in a household with similar body characteristics.
When you stand on the scale, you need to stay there for around 10 to 20 seconds for all of the measurements to be completed. There’s no audible indication from the scale when weighing begins or ends.
When the weighing is over, you will have data on
- Lean mass
- Fat mass
- Heart rate
- Air quality
The Withings app couldn’t be described as a model for accessibility, with a number of unlabelled buttons. However, the buttons’ functions can be determined from context, and the detailed information about what has been measured is accessible.
I appreciate that by way of help within the app as well as initial explanatory emails, Withings seeks to explain the things that it is measuring, so you know whether any of the numbers being reported are cause for concern.
And the data from your Withings account can be synced with your Health app.
If you use the popular My Fitness Pal app, Withings shares data with it, making it possible for you to draw correlations between the food you consume and the impact on your personal health.
If the Beets Blu unit I received had been accurate, I would have kept it and been happy using it. The app and audible progress indicators from the scale itself are excellent. Yet I’m glad that I ended up with the Withings WS-50.
The Withings app could use some accessibility love and care. I should be able to set up an account within the app like every other user, and it wouldn’t take much time at all for those unlabelled buttons to be labelled. Yet the scale has proven accurate for me and it’s a great experience. Just step on the scale, and step off it. Once set up, it’s no more complex than weighing with a dumb scale, yet I’m getting more info, and a record of progress towards my health goals.
Are you using a smart scale? Which one, and how is it working out for you? Leave your thoughts in the comments.