It’s finally arrived: an activity-tracking wristband that promises accurate, real-time heart rate monitoring during the heat of exercise. The Basis Peak is lighter, slimmer, brighter and more elegant than the Basis wearable it replaces, and when it goes on sale in early November for $200, it stands a good chance of restoring dignity to the heart-rate monitoring space.
Make no mistake, most wrist-worn wearables have laughable heart-rate tracking features. They can only do heart rate “spot checks” that report how fast your ticker is ticking when you stop whatever you’re doing, and keep your body perfectly still like a terrified squirrel. It’s a quaint feature at best—when the devices work. Their performance is usually inconsistent, but of course you already know this if you own one of Samsung’s many wearables, including the Gear Fit.
The Basis Peak, announced Tuesday, aims to deliver a heart-rate monitoring experience that rivals what we currently only get from chest-strap monitors and earbud systems like LG’s Heart Rate Earphones. Basis, which was acquired by Intel in March, says the Peak has a completely revamped heart-rate sensor that serves a reliable, continuous data stream regardless of how hard you’re pushing your body.
It’s exactly what you need for zone-based cardio training, and improves upon the previous Basis heart-rate sensor, which was mostly enlisted to calculate general calorie-burn numbers and sleep quality in the B1 Band and Carbon Steel Edition.
The forward march of sensor tech
So what’s changed? For starters, the company’s new spectroscopic sensor has a brighter LED. This makes it “less susceptible to channel interference; interfering light has a harder time disrupting the signal,” says Ethan Fassett, Basis VP of Product. Second, the sensor has an improved photo receptor. This is the element that absorbs the LED light, providing a footprint of the blood flow beneath the surface of your skin.
Third, the Peak is lighter than Basis products it replaces. The reduced mass translates into less dramatic “inertial movements” that might cause the Peak to break contact with your skin. Fourth, the sensor housing now has a raised berm that forms a stronger connection point to your skin—almost like a sealed gasket. And, finally, Basis’ new straps are stretchy, flexible silicone. You can pull them tighter without giving up comfort, and the snug fit ensures more reliable data collection.
With all these improvements working in concert, the quality and consistency of the heart-rate data improves significantly—enough for Basis to claim its breakthrough. I can testify that the Peak is more comfortable to wear then the Carbon Steel Edition I tested earlier this year, and an improved black-and-white LCD display is indeed much easier to read than Basis’ previous dim, low-contrast screen. Still, only real-world testing in November will prove out the company’s sensor claims.
Beyond the new heart-rate sensor, the Peak uses the same accelerometer, skin temperature sensor and perspiration sensor it deployed in earlier products. Algorithms have been improved, and Basis’ Body IQ feature can still automatically sense whether you’ve initiated a walking, running or cycling workout. The Peak is rated for 5ATM water resistance, which means you can take it swimming. Body IQ, however, won’t automatically recognize swimming activity—yet. “It’s a use case we’re aware of, and we’re pretty excited about it,” said Fassett.
Improved design, top to bottom
Even without the new heart-rate sensor, the Peak improves nearly every facet of Basis’ industrial design. The body of the device has a lower profile than earlier Basis products, making it less prone to snagging on shirtsleeves. It’s also now made of forged aluminum instead of plastic, and the improved, high-contrast display is a full touchscreen, allowing Basis to ditch its archaic button control.
Battery life remains at four days—a generous duration when Android Wear watches can barely make it through the night. The wearable’s charging puck has also been redesigned, and is much easier to snap on and off. When the Peak goes on sale, a matte black model will come with a black strap bearing red accents, while a brushed silver model will come with a white strap bearing gray accents. But Basis has ditched its custom strapping apparatus, so you’ll be able to outfit the Peak with any 23mm replacement strap you fancy.
Basis wearables already appeal to quantified-selfers. In particular, the company’s Advanced Sleep Analysis system can report not only light and deep sleep, but also REM sleep. But once you add in continuous heart-rate monitoring, you have a wearable that can cover all your activity, from your deepest slumber to your most adrenaline-charged exercise. As Fassett repeated frequently, it’s a true 24/7 device.
All that’s missing are smartwatch-like functions, like notifications for texts, emails and incoming phone calls. Well, it turns out those are coming too, care of an over-the-air update that Basis projects will arrive before the end of the year. Notifications will only live on the device for a maximum of five minutes, but maybe that’s OK.
After all, you’re supposed to be working out, and getting that heart rate pumping. That’s the raison d’etre, and if Basis pulls it off as advertised, it could have something special, indeed.
Health and Fitness Software
Jon is the Editor-in-Chief of PCWorld and TechHive. He's been covering all manner of consumer hardware since 1995.