Review: Withings Smart Body Analyzer WS-50
Back in 2010, Withings introduced the Connected Scale, a handsome dark glass- and metal-topped digital scale with 802.11b/g connectivity and a free weight monitoring app. At the time, we noted that its $160 price tag was awfully high for what could charitably be described as a relatively plain bathroom scale, with little to recommend it over $60 alternatives. Many less expensive competitors have been released since then, and Withings even released a similar $100 followup called WS-30 that one of our editors purchased and liked, but the company obviously has wanted to find ways to justify a higher price point. Thus, it has released the Smart Body Analyzer WS-50 ($150), which is a hint less expensive than the Connected Scale but with a lot more functionality under the hood. There's no question that it's better than its predecessor in several ways, but whether you'll be willing to pay the premium over a regular digital scale remains open to discussion.
From the top, Smart Body Analyzer appears nearly identical to the Connected Scale. The same almost blue-hinted charcoal and black top glass surface returns here, interrupted in the center by a silver swirled metal circle, and up top by a modestly redesigned 3” black and white screen. In addition to shifting its background color from the first model’s dark blue to black, the new screen uses a boxier font than before, and includes some new graphic touches that weren’t seen on the original display. It’s easily visible from the five- to six-foot distance most users will maintain when standing atop it, and still backlit for viewing in the dark, but remains nothing fancy.
Flip the scale over and you’ll find several obvious changes on the bottom. The plastic shell has switched from silver and white to jet black, with a smaller compartment for the four AAA batteries below two capacitive buttons. One button switches the scale from kilogram to stone or pound units of weight measurement. The other uses chain links to represent Bluetooth pairing functionality. Each will generally will only need to be pressed one or two times. Withings has also swapped the optionally installed light gray adhesive carpet-ready “feet” for black ones, and left out two frills found in the original package—a USB cable and a retractable waist-measuring tape. They weren’t really necessary before, and aren’t needed now, either.
As cosmetically similar as the Smart Body Analyzer looks to its predecessor, plenty has changed inside and in iOS software since we reviewed the Connected Scale nearly three years ago. The Wi-Fi functionality has been upgraded to add 802.11n to the prior b/g feature, widening WS-50’s compatibility with home routers just as WS-30 did before. Also like WS-30, the Smart Body Analyzer now includes a Bluetooth wireless connection option that works with old and new iOS devices alike. Last but not least, in addition to the digital scale and BMI calculating features of the prior model, the Smart Body Analyzer adds heart rate, electronically measured body fat, CO2 air quality, and ambient temperature sensors.
Setting up the Connected Scale using its original app and Wi-Fi was problematic, but the Smart Body Analyzer makes the process much simpler. Download the newer Withings Health Mate app to your iPhone or iPod touch—there’s no iPad-specific UI yet—then log into a free Withings account, link the Smart Body Analyzer to the app over Bluetooth, and optionally use the app to share your iOS device’s Wi-Fi settings with the scale. We had a couple of very small hiccups during installation, but they were quickly resolved, and the expanded wireless functionality has its benefits. When the Smart Body Analyzer is paired with your phone, it can share measurement data directly over Bluetooth; when it’s not, it can send measurement data to Withings’ servers over Wi-Fi for later exploration on your device. This happens often; a manual sync/refresh button on the Wi-Fi-connected app can effectively negate the need for a Bluetooth connection at all.
Apart from the aforementioned lack of an iPad interface and its continued requirement of a family-wide account for multiple users, the Withings Health Mate app is a major improvement over the prior WiScale app, featuring a much cleaner white interface and managing many additional types of health data. A butterfly with four differently-colored wing segments gives you an easy way to set up various weight, activity, sleep, and heart tracking tools, including input from the Smart Body Analyzer, as well as supporting separate accessories such as headbands and armbands. Graphs and numbers provide a quick snapshot of both current measurements and your trajectory—up or down—with easily sliding panels to reveal additional data, as well as noting when each piece of data was last updated by the accessory or manual input.
The critical question prospective Smart Body Analyzer customers will need to answer is whether any or all of the new hardware and software features are worth the $150 price tag. Clean app interface aside, the scale is still a scale, and though it works just as expected, so do many other less expensive scales we’ve tested. The heart rate monitor provides a beats per minute (BPM) indication, a convenient feature to include without the need for an arm-based accessory, and the app can combine this information with separately synced data from Withings’ Blood Pressure Monitor.* Withings’ body fat monitor adds electronic measuring precision that the Connected Scale’s prior height/weight calculation-based BMI lacked, but flashes the unsightly word “fat” on the screen at times. Then, there are the air temperature and carbon dioxide monitors, which seem out of place here. Does anyone really care to know or track the ambient temperature near a scale? Is a foot-level sensor most likely residing in a bathroom really the best place to be sampling air quality? Is a scale customer looking for that feature in the first place?
One issue from the Connected Scale has carried over to the Smart Body Analyzer and expanded somewhat with its new functionality—a disconnect of sorts between the scale’s attempts to be fully automated and actual ability to do so, absent sonic or on-screen prompting. For instance, the Smart Body Analyzer still synchronizes with your Withings account to determine the names and general weight ranges of people who are registered users, generally members of your family. Most of the time, the scale will automatically guess an identity based on the weight currently on it, and display a three letter code to let you know it’s linking results to a specific person. Between the occasional tendency of the scale to not guess an identity at all, indicated with an X, and its inability to do body fat or heart rate tests unless your feet are bare, the screen can display X’s quite often. It doesn’t say “tap your foot here to start a heart rate test,” or “tap twice to change users;” it just automatically works or fails. If something fails, you can re-mount the scale to run the full gamut of tests again, or manually use the app to register results with a particular user. When everything works, you’ll see several brief screens with numbers, letters, and graphs that are all nice enough, though much better viewed on your iOS device’s display.
Overall, Withings’ Smart Body Analyzer WS-50 offers some tangible improvements to the Connected Scale while preserving its best prior features—an atypically nice industrial design and a multi-user wireless weight tracking system. The addition of heart rate monitoring functionality is a clear plus, and the new body fat measurement tool improves this model’s accuracy, even if its on-screen “fat” display could stand to be less ego-crushing for users. Similarly, WS-50’s improved wireless functionality and app contribute to a much better user experience than before. These benefits are offset by a couple of not particularly useful sensor additions and an approach to automation that isn’t as ideally implemented as it could be. If you’re looking for a good scale without all these frills, you’ll likely find the $100 WS-30 to suit your needs quite well, but if the heart, fat, and/or ambient condition sensors appeal to you, you’ll like how they’re implemented in the app. The Smart Body Analyzer merits our general recommendation.
[* = Updated March 26, 2013: The original version of this review noted some confusion about the Smart Body Analyzer’s heart rate monitor feature, which displayed only a single number on the scale’s screen, while the purported to offer current blood pressure data as well. It appears that the app inaccurately tags past blood pressure readings from Withings’ server with the date when they’re synced, initially making it appear that the scale is gathering more data than it’s actually capable of measuring. Thanks to Felix B. for pointing out the issue.]