Why I’m Returning the Atlas Wristband

Read this before you buy the Atlas Wristband (MSRP $249.99, Amazon.com)

I previously made a post showing photos from my unboxing of the Atlas Wristband. Atlas Wearables’s new fitness wearable offered great promise, and was a very easy sale to me. I think I fit the target market entirely: I’m obsessed with data and its analysis, often train by myself with limited guidance, and believe that the right technology can be a game-changer.

Unfortunately, the Atlas Wristband failed to deliver on the company’s marketing promises: flaky exercise tracking (Roger Fingas’s review on AppleInsider faults Power Save Mode for this), and no actionable guidance. The two advanced metrics — form score and velocity — both appeared to be broken.

Atlas Wearables claims that the “Atlas Wristband removes the burden of manual tracking entirely.” This is a bold assertion, one that doesn’t hold true in my experience. I observed a couple of issues: 1) my Atlas Wristband continued to count reps after I’d finished sets – this occurred on several occasions with the overhead press, and 2) the Atlas Wristband would occasionally log reps while I was setting up the bar for my next set. Given that automated exercise tracking was the Atlas Wristband’s killer feature, I couldn’t help but be disappointed to watch the reps continue ticking upwards while I watched in bewilderment.

This was further aggravated by their clumsy, buggy software, and software updates that were slow to ship. Obvious features, like the ability to modify user-configured workout programs, were absent at launch, and remain absent at the time of writing. I alluded to exercises being logged while I was setting up the bar: I could not manually strike those sets, though I implemented my own workaround. Additionally, I once encountered a sync issue that resulted in a complete loss of data for that workout.

These issues aside, there are hardware faults that won’t be fixed by software updates. Specifically, heart rate monitoring for anyone whose skin contains melanin (see the class action suit against Fitbit over its heart rate monitoring claims). Atlas Wearables addressed this in a recent blog post showing that its optical heart-rate monitoring, licensed from Valencell (http://www.valencell.com/), produced very similar readings to a chest-strapped Polar H7. Darker-skinned individuals who demand the gold standard in personal heart rate monitoring will be better-served by the Polar H7 (MSRP, Amazon) versus newer, potentially disruptive technology, at least until the bugs get ironed out. For more information on the challenges facing optical heart-rate monitoring, I encourage a quick read of this article (Optical heart-rate measurement’s top 5 challenges, Steven LeBoeuf).

Judging by the data that the Atlas Wristband captured during my workouts, it appeared to have been capturing my heart rate consistently. However, the on-screen display didn’t provide a clear indication into whether my heart rate was being captured at the time. More often than not, I would see a heart meter icon filled to some degree, with no heart rate to reference. Searching through the online documentation didn’t turn up any useful information.
A side note that I found very curious: Atlas Wearables founder and CEO Peter Li, a self-described swimmer, touted the Atlas Wristband’s utility for swimmers in multiple interviews and articles (see JHU Hub, NPR). The Atlas Wristband was meant to be the fitness tracker that did it all, offering something for all athletes. Yet upon receiving my copy, I noticed a couple of labels affixed to the product packaging (after printing) that suggested ratings downgrades, specifically with respect to waterproofness. Michael Sawh, writing for TrustedReviews, wrote back in March 2015 that “it’s waterproof up to 50 meters, so you can go swimming with it and it can actually track strokes as well as analyze endurance in the pool.”

Overall, my time with the Atlas Wristband felt like a beta test. In true startup fashion, Atlas Wearables’s strategy appeared to be to get the product into as many hands as possible, with the hopes that enough early adopters would stick around to see the marketing team’s promises fulfilled.

While the Atlas Wristband ultimately didn’t deliver, at least at launch, wearable fitness trackers remain promising. I will continue to monitor the development of the Atlas Wristband because I believe that improvements are in the pipeline. They just didn’t come fast enough for me to justify holding onto the device beyond the 60-day return window.

I will miss heart rate monitoring – my experience with the Atlas Wristband taught me that this is more important to me than rep counting, because I always have video recordings to look back on. The camera don’t lie. Without the Atlas Wristband, I no longer have to worry about discrepancies in rep count between my personal count and what the device sees. I can keep count in my head just fine.