Amazon’s Halo fitness tracker is now available for anyone to buy for $99.99 (plus $4.99 a month). So should you get it? Unless you want to avail yourself of the body scans and feature that tracks your tone of voice, or you want access to a variety of short workouts and services aimed at making you more fit or helping you sleep, then this product is probably not worth it. I’d instead suggest a Fitbit or even a Wyze device. If you are a hardcore fitness fanatic, this also isn’t for you. But despite the scathing reviews in some media outlets, there’s a place for this product.
The device received those scathing reviews on tech blogs and in mainstream news outlets because of the two truly unique features the band offers: a body fat scan and an analysis of the wearer’s tone. In the month and a half I’ve been wearing it, I tried all of the features and struggled to decide how to review this device.
In the end, I asked myself if it made me more active, and if I was comfortable with the personal health data that was going to Amazon. It definitely pushed me to be more active overall, and I am willing to share my heart, steps, and sleep data with Fitbit, Garmin, Google, and a variety of other third-party companies that Fitbit works with, so I didn’t see a compelling reason to leave Amazon out of the mix.
I may change my mind on that as new information comes to light, but when it comes to the exchange of customer data for insights, this is the sort of trade-off consumers will have to make and continue assessing. It’s all part of the relationship.
Amazon has been the victim of its own success and a sea change in how citizens judge the companies they want to do business with. Amazon has spent decades sucking up data about the users of any of its services and using that data to make recommendations, launch new products and determine where to invest. It’s cutthroat and when something gets too big for it and yet serves an important niche Amazon wants to control, it buys it.
In the wake of the anti-trust backlash against big tech, concerns cover algorithmic bias, concerns over surveillance, and concerns over monopolistic practices, Amazon is a tank hitting landmines in multiple aspects of its business. It’s trying to avoid some of them with transparency and others it just rolls over assuming its size and the market will protect it. With this in mind, let’s talk about the Halo.
Two controversial features
Mine arrived in September and I promptly put it on and started playing with Tone, the feature that records your voice to match the tone of your speech before dumping the recording. Tone is measured on an axis of high energy to low energy and from positive to negative. I spent most of my day smack in the middle, sounding confident, knowing, and opinionated. However, the moments that Amazon pulled aside and labeled as “notable” in the app were mostly times it thought I sounded disgusted, sad, or sarcastic. In the week I tried the tone feature it told me that I was in the negative area about 16% of the time.
You cannot go back and check what was actually said during the “notable” moment because Amazon doesn’t keep the recordings. They are analyzed and then dumped in a nod to privacy. I was surprised at the reviewers who wanted it both ways. I was also surprised at reviews that called Amazon out for bias when analyzing tone based on if a woman or a man was speaking.
Melissa Cha, VP of Amazon Halo, said that the company built the tone algorithm by letting groups of people hear and classify different speakers. Tone is a measure of how you sound to others, so the key is that Amazon’s focus group had a wide variety of others to listen to and classify, which might mean that Tone comes across as biased. In this measure, the algorithmic bias reflects the actual bias that people hear when you speak.
I didn’t find Tone all that useful and it sucks the battery something fierce, so I turned it off. I might turn it on as a novelty or every now and again, doing a Live view if I feel myself trying to convey something important, where I might get too emotional.
Now, on to the other controversial feature: the body scans. It took me two weeks before I gathered the courage to take a full-frame almost-naked picture of myself in order to get a body composition scan. Amazon says this scan is as accurate as medical scans such as DEXA and a BodyPod scan. It being a pandemic and I’m unwilling to take up a doctor’s time or visit a medical establishment without need, I didn’t check this against my own scan, but the New York Times questioned its accuracy. But I do have a scale that measures my body competition and Amazon’s body fat numbers were 4% above that. Based on Amazon’s algorithm I am in the too high category, which I already knew based on my muffin top, but still, seeing the number I cried.
Heck, seeing the photos I cried, and then promptly deleted them from my phone. I also didn’t take Amazon up on the offer to save the photos and scans in the cloud. Everything must go, I thought, while frantically punching the buttons to erase the knowledge that I was a huge quivering blob of fat. It was even worse two weeks later when I took the scan again to see if I had made any progress. Reader, I had not.
And yet, that scan, accurate or not, was the sort of shame-inspired motivation I needed to realize that my 40-year-old body probably needed a new fitness and eating routine. I did strength workouts three times a week and made sure I walked at least 35 miles weekly. Clearly, I need to ramp up my efforts in middle age and lay off the cookies and drinking. Maybe I should eat a salad?
Activity Score as a metric
So let’s get to what I think is the meat of the device, the activity and sleep tracking. All fitness trackers have some sort of metric that’s designed to motivate people and give them something to work for. Maybe it’s steps or the rings on your Apple watch. I remember how the early Fitbit devices had a flower grow as you moved more. Amazon’s metric is Activity Points. Amazon wants wearers to get at least 150 activity points a day, basing the metric on the number of minutes the American Heart Association says people should move each week to be healthy.
But, you get two points for minutes spent in intense activity and 1 point for moderate activity. In a fun twist, I like how Amazon takes away points for every hour you are sedentary after eight hours in a single day. In a somewhat confusing bit, the activity points are displayed in the app based on the week, and the week starts on Monday. This confused me because I can get about 90 points a day on Mondays and Tuesdays which are days I spend interviewing and can take time away for walks. Two days in I had achieved my weekly goal. This made the goal feel pretty lame, and I probably would have chucked this device if I hadn’t had the call with Amazon to point out the Labs feature.
(As an aside, when you achieve the 150-point goal it shoots up to 300 points, and once you hit that goal it moves to 600 points Most weeks I achieved a 450-point score, but a lot of that activity was moderate.)
When I first saw the Labs that are directly under the main data screens in the app, I thought they were ads for services that could help me achieve my goals. The Labs offered workouts from OrangeTheory, mediation from Headspace, and other options. I thought it was super cheesy, almost insulting. But the labs were what actually unlocked the benefits of this device for me. I focused on the workout options and selected a three-week muscle definition program using the SWEAT service. Once I opted in, I was reminded each morning with a notification and at the top of the app when I logged in to see my stats.
The program was a super-fast (25-minute) leg or arm workout that required a mat and dumbbells. It called for Burpees. And split jumps. And jump squats. It was challenging, but so short that I could handle it and move on with my day. I didn’t do all four of the workouts each week, but as long as I did two the Halo accepted it. After that Lab was done, I did another from Adaptiv to boost my endurance. I even still go back and do two of the SWEAT workouts back-to-back as a strength day routine when I feel the urge to get some plyometrics in.
The best bits
And this is where I find the Halo to be most valuable. It’s the fact that my monthly subscription gives me a variety of workouts and programs that I can pick and choose from to help me move more and stay interested. I currently subscribe to a Pilates service and in the past subscribed to Fitbit Coach and the Nike Fit Club services for a bit of variety in my workouts, so I’m no stranger to paying for exercise classes delivered via an app.
Amazon’s Halo app also lets me play my own Spotify playlist as opposed to using the class music or limiting me as the Nike Fit Club app did. The range of programs is nice for a beginner, but I imagine after a few months I will find the Amazon options dull unless new ones are constantly added. These are also not designed for the super-fit or those dedicated to a particular style of exercise.
So let’s talk accuracy. That’s always an issue with these devices since they take a rudimentary sensor and perform algorithmic magic to come up with a number of steps, a sense of when you’re sleeping, and even your heart rate.
The Activity Points metric is based on your heart rate, which the Amazon app measures as a little higher than my normal rate. I compared it to my Fitbit, a pulse oximeter, and by counting my pulse during exercise (since that’s when these bands tend to get wonky). It tended to measure my resting heart rate as 2-3 beats higher compared with my Fitbit and pulse oximeter tests, and would track my highest heart rates at 20 beats higher compared to my other devices. So my Activity Score is probably higher than it could be.
It also errs on the high side for sleep. It consistently said I had more light sleep and more overall sleep than my Fitbit (and when I wore it with the Whoop band, it also tracked higher sleep than Whoop did). It also introduced me to a new metric: sleep temperature. After a few days of wearing the device, it will show you within a tenth of a degree if your body temperature went up or down at night.
Mine is all over the place and Amazon doesn’t really explain why I might want to know this metric or how it might affect my sleep or health. Maybe it’s supposed to help determine if I have a fever? Maybe if I were in the middle of hot flashes it could tell me? I don’t know.
The lived experience
Finally, a word about the practicalities of the Halo. The device is unobtrusive and doesn’t have a screen, which frustrated me since I like having a watch to glance at. The strap is comfortable, but a bit of a pain to take on and off as the clasp gets stuck on the ridges of velcro that keep it closed. The band is water-resistant up to 50 meters, although I take mine off in the shower and haven’t been swimming since the pandemic started. The battery life is about five days when you don’t use the Tone feature and one or one and a half when you do. It takes about an hour for the proprietary charger to bring the band from almost empty to fully charged.
Getting the device on the charger is a bit of a pain since there’s a front-back orientation and a top-bottom orientation to deal with. But I’m sure most people can work around that. The app itself is a bit cluttered with the data, a belt of labs running underneath that, and then more data, but it’s fine. Finding the privacy settings and deleting things like your body scans is very easy to do, which is a plus.
You’ll see your heart rate, steps, calories burned and activity points easily, but there’s no way to track your miles. Because the app is designed around a weekly activity score, it takes a bit of effort to find a breakdown of calories burned on a given day or whatnot. For those who like to see graphs of these sorts of things, the Halo app doesn’t provide them, but it will offer “insights” such as “Your activity score was 35 points higher this week than last week.”
That wasn’t super helpful. Broadly, I think the Halo isn’t the right tracker for a die-hard fitness buff or that friend who hates Amazon. I do think that it will drive people to move more, either through shame or through providing new workouts and opportunities for them to move. And the activity score seems pretty easy to achieve (even on my most sedentary days when I am chained to my desk recording shows and can’t work out, I log about 25-30 minutes of activity making dinner, tackling laundry, and getting the mail).
As for accuracy, I think most of these devices should be used for a while to track changes over time, which means that I am not sweating the differences between them overmuch. If you need a formal medical device or are a hardcore athlete this isn’t the device for you. If you want to encourage someone to get off their butts and make some gentle changes, then the Halo will be worth it.
And if someone is worried about the body scans, they don’t need to take them, nor do they need to use the Tone feature. However, if you aren’t really interested in those features and think you might not want to use the labs, then I’d stick with a Fitbit or even a Wyze band or Wyze Watch. They’ll cost less and give you more on the insight and information side.