Review: iHealth Lab iHealth Blood Pressure Dock BP3 for iOS
Rarely is the major problem with iPod, iPhone, or iPad accessories a lack of good ideas or usefulness -- rather, the broad knocks against many of them are excessive pricing and unnecessary inconvenience. So when we start this review by noting that iHealth Lab's Blood Pressure Dock BP3 ($100) is a cool and useful accessory that just happens to be expensive and not as easy to use as it should be, you'll hopefully understand intuitively why we think it's worthy of a limited recommendation, but could rate higher with post-release improvements.
Straight out of the box, the Blood Pressure Dock appears to be relatively straightforward: iHealth Lab bundles a glossy white plastic dock with a blood pressure arm cuff and a USB cable. Plug your iPod touch, iPhone, or iPad into the dock and you’re prompted to download iHealth BPM, a free application from Andon Health that is required to make the BP3 hardware useful in any way. Connect the cuff to the dock, run the application, and press a big yellow button on the screen—that’s pretty much all the average person will need to know in order to take his or her first blood pressure reading. iHealth Lab has engineered BP3 with a single hardware button for power, and an auto-off mechanism. It’s fairly simple.
There are some unexpected complications. Start with the USB cable, which you’ll need to use for occasional recharges of the accessory’s integrated 400mAh battery. Since iHealth Lab doesn’t include a wall adapter, you’ll need to plug the Blood Pressure Dock into your computer in order to refill the unit’s battery. Once that’s done, the nearly dome-shaped accessory can rest almost anywhere you desire; the pneumatic tube running between the base and the arm cuff is three feet long, so you’ll need to sit down in a nearby chair while using it. As with virtually any other blood pressure cuff out there, you use a Velcro strap to adjust it on your arm, pulling it tight before the dome fills it with air and measures your pulse and blood pressure. iPad users in particular may be concerned about keeping the lightweight dock from shifting around while the unit’s in use.
Because iOS devices are involved, there are a couple of other issues worth noting. Rather than saving you money by using an iOS device as BP3’s screen and data processing core, this accessory demands a premium price whilst requiring you to have your Apple device handy to measure your blood pressure—standalone blood pressure monitors offer much of the same functionality without needing an iPod, iPhone, or iPad to be connected. Second, BP3 makes you adjust to its unusual shape. The unit’s iPad-ready dock is made almost entirely from hard plastic that’s been molded to support bare devices, but doesn’t work with most of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad cases out there. If the Dock Connector weren’t flush with the dock’s bottom surface, case compatibility would be far less of an issue.
Where BP3 begins to make strides over less expensive rivals is in the quality of the app-assisted readout it offers. In addition to systolic, diastolic, and pulse measurements—all within the right range during our testing, though seemingly becoming less reliable when the unit’s battery power was low—the iHealth application tracks your blood pressure history, instantly categorizing the results as normal, high-normal, or in varying degrees of unhealthy hypertension, providing both explanations of the results and graphs to chart them over time. While the app isn’t fancy, it’s triggered by a very obvious, large “start” button, and does include quite a bit of optional information, all of which is presented through simple tabs at the bottom of the app’s main screens. If all you want are numbers, they’re presented in as obvious a manner as possible, with a color-coded green to red scale to let you know whether to be worried about your latest result; the text is there solely for those who care to read it.
On the other hand, some of the app’s features are implemented in a less than ideal manner. It allows you to share your results through an easy “Share” button, but outputs them in an under-formatted e-mail that looks more like raw statistical data than a decently-explained blood pressure reading. Additionally, the application doesn’t have support for separating results into different users, so all of the history it tracks is automatically assumed to be for a single user. You’ll have to manually delete diverging entries in order to keep the app’s graphs straight. Finally, for reasons unknown, we occasionally saw “This accessory is not supported by iPad” or “iPhone” messages under iOS 4.2, despite having the application installed on each device. This may have been related to low battery power in the dock, but we weren’t entirely certain.
It’s also worth noting that we’ve had the opportunity to briefly test a rival to BP3 from Withings—a product that has not yet been officially released, and will cost $20 or $30 more than iHealth Lab’s BP3. In short, while this competing unit’s price is high enough to make it equally niche, it’s more portable and case compatible than BP3, with an application that has some relative advantages and disadvantages; all will be discussed in an upcoming review. While it’s far too early to declare either of these products a winner, we’d definitely advise prospective users to wait until both are available before deciding to purchase either one.
Overall, though iHealth Lab has delivered a usable and generally worthwhile new accessory in the BP3 Blood Pressure Dock, the price, dock design, and app implementation are all off the mark—each in ways that just a little extra adjustment could help. To the extent that non-iOS blood pressure monitoring systems can be had for considerably lower prices than BP3, it’s important for iHealth Lab and future competitors to either price their accessories more aggressively or leverage Apple’s devices to produce results that are more than just colorful, e-mailable versions of what can be had elsewhere. It’s also key to make connection of Apple’s hardware as easy as possible, without requiring case removal or encountering error messages. So while BP3 represents an interesting new direction for iPod touch, iPhone, and iPad accessories, further innovation and better value for the dollar will be needed before health-tracking add-ons for Apple devices become truly mainstream.