Friday, March 1, 2013

Review of the wrist strap Mio Alpha heart rate monitor

Anyone who’s been racing triathlons for more than one season has more than likely been monitoring their heart rate. I've written posts HERE about heart rate training and HERE about VO2 testing which gives athletes direct correlations between effort and heart rate. Heart rate talk is everywhere on the triathlon forums and if a triathlete is serious about improving their performance, they cannot afford to ignore their heart rate.

The problem is how can triathletes afford it? The average GPS watch these days comes with the capabilities to read ANT+ devices, and more specifically heart rate straps. Those sometimes awkward straps that going around a person’s sternum and sit there to track beats per minute and relay that to a GPS watch or running watch with ANT+ capabilities. Garmin, Timex, Polar and a host of other GPS watches and then a whole other host of running watches without GPS all can provide the platform to track heart rate with the chest strap. But, what if athletes hate having that strap around their chest for upwards of 12 hours? It can chafe. It can lose contact unless lubricated. Nothing’s more frustrating than looking down at the monitor and seeing a flatline, and hopefully it’s just due to equipment malfunction. The strap can wear out. The strap can fray. The connection points can pop off when adjusting on the fly and require stoppage of motion to re-attach. All bad situations.

Fear not, there’s a new kid on the block. The company isn’t new as much as their product is new. The MIO Alpha promises to deliver comfort, quality and reliability without the chest strap. Their claim to be different than other strapless monitors is that they can provide continuous monitoring at performance speeds allowing high intensity and precise training.

MIO recently zipped over an Alpha for review. Sit back and revel in the glory of the MIO Alpha strapless heart rate watch review.

Since this MIO Alpha was a prototype at the time, it did not come with the standard packaging and printed material that retail watches will come with. Upon initial inspection, the watch has style and is compact. It could pass for an everyday fashionable watch if users wanted to just leave the watch on at all times as it is smaller and more compact that the Garmin 910XT. And, users could use it for any occasion since the MIO Alpha doubles as a real-time watch when the heart rate feature is turned off. It can be set to 12 or 24 hour and worn at all times. Wearers will have to set the time manually, as the Alpha will not sync with GPS (makes sense due to it not being a GPS watch) nor will it sync with a computer when charging.

Setup is pretty straight forward. After initial charge up and setting the time and some heart rate zones, after 15 minutes, the Alpha is ready to hit the streets. Triathletes in a hurry and with no patience should find the MIO Alpha a welcomed addition the training arsenal. The only catch with this type of heart rate monitor is that it must be turned “on” to start monitoring.

The whole premise for the Alpha is to get heart rate information without needing the sometimes cumbersome strap that most athletes would have to wear in the past. The chest straps have come a long way since the original inception of the hard plastic straps with the bulky and inconvenient heart rate sensors built in. Nowadays they come in adjustable fabric with the receiver either being the attachment point or even more advances, just snaps on the strap and the sensors are built into the strap in small plastic sections. Don’t like the chest strap? Alpha says no problem. Just cinch on the Alpha to your wrist, hold the feature button down to start monitoring and GO.

The wrist strap on the Alpha is a soft supple rubber that has elastic properties. It needs to be flexible in order to get the strap tight enough to allow the sensor to function properly. What’s also a nice is their is the absence of the loop for the end of the strap to stop it from flapping around. An ingenious design has little rubber pegs on the strap end that snap into holes on the strap, essentially holding the end of the strap secure onto itself.

The Alpha sensor works off two light beams and an electro-optical cell to "sense" the volume of blood under your skin. It’s a bright green light that emits from the back of the watch onto your wrist. It’s similar to the technology used in hospitals for the finger clips that measure heart rate. It’s not new, but it is newer in the watch form for endurance athletes. The small catch is that the sensor needs to be in direct and firm contact with the wrist above the wrist bone. It’s not the most natural watch location and if a triathlete likes a loose watch strap, it might be uncomfortable. Wearing it for this review, the amount of pressure required to get readings was not unreasonable, but the watch and strap will be firm on the wrist.

If users had a way to record data in the pool, the watch is water resistant. Once the watch found the pulse, swimming 2500 meters didn’t shake it loose. The only issue with the ANT+ version is finding a training device to mate the readings to. If swimmers wanted to simply monitor their heart rate while swimming, mission accomplished. If wearers wanted to have that heart rate picked up by a GPS watch, Polar might be the only watch that will accomplish this.

Speaking of ANT+, Athletes MUST pair the Alpha with an ANT+ heart rate recording watch or a Bluetooth smart phone with the appropriate app installed. The particular Alpha tested was the ANT+ version. It could be used with a smartphone paired with an ANT+ dongle device. Alpha is either compatible with all smart phones featuring Bluetooth 4.0 or most ANT+ enabled devices. It’s either-or, not both at this point. Mio is also working on their own app for smartphone, but have a list of apps that will work on their web site.

The Alpha will only monitor heart rate. It will only show the average from the last workout and will not record data for download and analysis. The Alpha must be paired with a phone or ANT+ device to record the heart rate for download for analysis. Garmin connect and Training Peaks works great with the Garmin 910XT the Alpha was tested with. In that regard, the Alpha has the same limitations as any other heart rate strap. It merely records, but the Alpha stands above the straps since it can display the heart rate without another device.

The MIO Alpha touts other features such as a timer in the absence of a running watch, user settable heart rate zones with visual and audible alerts and data review (total exercise time; average heart rate; time "in zone") in addition to the clock, Bluetooth Smart connectivity and continuous heart rate display

The charger is unique in that it only interfaces with a USB plug. It has a short tether cable that folds back into itself. The actual charger connection to the Alpha is magnetized to connect to the back of the Alpha which is nice and secure. These days a lot of phone chargers accept a USB cable, so using a wall plug to charge the Alpha in the absence of a computer would work in a pinch with a phone wall plug-to-USB charger. Speaking of charging, the Alpha can survive a long time with a full charge. This particular device for this review has been worked 3 to 4 times a week at an hour or more per workout for 2 months and has yet to need a new charge. That’s longevity!

A key point to consider is the connectivity to the heart rate. Straps sometimes will lose contact with the skin if they are not lubricated or if the weather is dry and cold. That could cause a drop in data distorting overall averages and other metrics. The Alpha was more reliable in that regard. Very rarely did it ever drop signal or give inaccurate readings like a chest strap might do. It was used on trainer bike rides, long runs, short runs, high intensity intervals, hill work and long droning runs. Compared to heart rate data from previous runs, there is virtually no difference in the peaks and averages in solid data that had no drops.

Here’s the kicker, it’s retailing for $199. That’s a far cry from the average heart rate strap that goes for $35ish. That’s not the best news for a triathlete on a budget.

Overall it’s a fascinating product. It has a lot of possibilities for future GPS watches where the heart rate monitoring could be built in and eliminate the need for straps or other monitors. On its own, it would be hard to warrant the price tag for heart rate monitoring since users will need the right phone and app or an ANT+ device that will record heart rate data. It will measure with more reliability that a lot of chest straps and will keep up with high intensity work giving highly accurate readings. The Alpha will not die. After 2 months of tinkering, it’s still well over half a charge left. The whole concept eliminates the need for chest straps and that skin line that every triathlete comes away with after peeling off a chest strap. For what it’s advertised to do, it has no competition. The issue is really the price tag, but hopefully as MIO moves along, the price will go down or the device will be licenced to be incorporated in popular GPS watches.

* Writer’s note - MIO provided a prototype ANT+ version of the MIO Alpha for this review and in no way influenced this review.
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