How to find the way out of the jungle of sleep trackers?
Tracking sleep is an amazing experience. You learn a lot about your habits and how they affect sleep quality. For example, what happens if you drink or eat anything before going to sleep? What if you exercise? And what about checking your social media newsfeed? It is different for everyone, and thus optimizing sleep is absolutely not easy. Not even for me, although I have been tracking my sleep pattern, stress level and other health parameters for more than two decades through various methods, even in a thorough excel spreadsheet.
And let’s not forget that the possibilities for sleep tracking are multiplying faster than the fans of Pokémon Go did recently. It is due to the fact that built-in health apps started to reshape the way we think about our phones – we are getting more and more into the direction of having smart healthcare assistants in our hands – and the market of healthcare wearables and sensors started to boom – around a hundred million wearable units were purchased to measure health parameters in 2015, while it is predicted that 245 million wearable devices will be sold in 2019. As a consequence, a lot of people are puzzled what to choose for their needs. Some ask me about using simple apps for tracking sleep while their phone is next to them. Others want to know which sensor to use for detailed tracking.
Thus, I decided to conduct a week-long experiment where I sleep with a different method of tracking every night, so you do not have to test every one of them and my advices might help you find the way out of the jungle of sleep trackers. Here is what I learnt.
For the first night, I used an app alone – with ambivalent results
While there are many apps available for sleep tracking – every iPhone has an in-built healthcare application with a sleep tracking option and many apps such as Sleep Cycle, Sleep Bot, Pillow, Sleep Better or Jawbone Up are available for download just to name a few -, my choice is the Sleep as Android app for sleep tracking.
One of the most crucial questions with sleep apps is where to place your phone in your bed to get optimal results. The Urbandroid Team behind developing the app says that your phone should be about 30-40 cm away from you, not in close contact. However, it is different when your phone is able to use the Sonar; which utilizes the speaker and microphone available in every smartphone to produce ultrasonic signals. It is mind-blowing that Sleep as Android is able to detect the small discrepancies between emitted and received signals created by movements during sleep. Unfortunately, not every phone is able to use it. So you might want to check out the placement tricks here depending on the capabilities of your smartphone.
Concerning the sleep tracking procedure, it is quite comfortable that using an app does not require any preparation. I just opened it, decided when to wake up and put it on my night table. Surprisingly, it measured my sleep cycles quite accurately, and as my phone is using the Sonar, it was in line with how I felt in the morning. Cheap, fast and simple method, although the biggest disadvantage was the lack of accurate smart alarm. Without the sensors, it is almost impossible for the app to find the best time when it should wake me up. It could not. Grade: B+
For the second night, I tried the sleep sensor alone – with even less success
Although generally I did not recommend the Fitbit Surge for sleep tracking in my review, I decided to give it another chance and enlisted it as a participant in my week-long sleep tracking test. I decided to use the Fitbit Surge smartwatch which I also use for fitness tracking. Not like usually, I just kept on using it during sleep and told the Fitbit app when I went to bed and when I want to wake up. Unfortunately, I got disappointing results.
Not only the sleep analysis was useless but it did not wake me up so I see no reason why I had to set that time on the app. In Fitbit Surge’s defense, it is one of the greatest fitness activity trackers on the market. Still, I believe the company should consider concentrating on strengthening this side of the gadget, while letting the other, less well-developed features, such as the sleep sensor go (or improve that further). Grade: D-
What happened when I accompanied the sensor with an app?
I used my jackpot combination for this: the Sleep as Android app paired with the Pebble Time smartwatch. This is a combination that has been working for me for 2 years. What matters here is that the app is the primary source of algorithms, it is the brain here. The sensor is just measuring my movements. For this task, I use the Pebble Time because it is supported by the app and its battery time is amazing.
The tracker, developed in collaboration with researchers at Stanford University, measures your sleep, when you go to bed, displays sleep, deep-sleep, and the times when you fall asleep and wake up. Pebble Time is small, easy-to-use and very useful. It has hundreds of other different applications as well. Late November 2016, Fitbit has acquired Pebble, and I was sorry to hear it will stop developing the product. Moreover, since the transaction happened, my tracker unpairs with my phone randomly which is very disturbing. Still, the app measured detailed sleep quality and the Pebble could wake me up at the best possible time in the morning. Pure joy as my day started the best way possible. Grade: A+
How does a sensor and its own app function as a combo for detailed sleep tracking?
For this experiment, I chose the Viatom O2 sensor and its accompanying app. I recently reviewed the Viatom O2 Sleep Monitor; and I found it quite useful for measuring heart rate and blood oxygen levels. It is especially useful for people with sleep apnea and snoring; as it buzzes gently if their blood oxygen level is too low during the night, and they should switch their sleeping positions.
So, I put on the smartwatch-like device and connected it to a sensor, which is a ring-like soft, comfortable and small device. Setting it up was not super easy but I managed to do it. Its clear advantage is that the O2 is able to see blood oxygen saturation which is really useful when diagnosing sleep apnea. Its biggest disadvantage is that there is no smart alarm. I could not use it for permanent sleep tracking, although checking my pulse and oxygen saturation once in a while is definitely useful. Grade: B
Going wild: what happened when I used a multi-sensor?
Viatom has a Checkme Pro sensor which I recently reviewed in details. It is a one huge leap towards the all-mighty medical tricorder. It functions as a health tracker (just like a wearable sensor), it records your electrocardiogram (electrophysiology of your heart), measures your blood oxygen saturation, the number of steps you take a day, serves as a thermometer, a blood pressure tracker, sleep monitor and a reminder. It’s quite an all-in-one package. So, I decided to test its sleep tracking abilities.
I put the device into a big pocket that had to be strapped to my forearm. I attached a pulseoxymeter sensor to the device and put my index finger into it, then I went to sleep. Its advantage is clearly the chance to measure vital signs in details. It might be even more accurate about oxygen saturation than the O2 Sleep Monitor. Its clear weakness is that it has to be fully charged before going to bed. Also, you have to go to bed with a huge device turning you into an unearthly person having a cyborg-arm. So, I would not recommend it for couples in early-stage relationships… Grade: C+
It has been an exciting experiment and my overall take-away is that everyone will definitely need personalized solutions for accurate sleep optimization and comfortable sleep tracking. But people will only keep on using these methods if the app or the sensor provides them with suggestions about how to improve their sleep and how to wake up the most relaxed in the morning.
If you use a method for tracking your sleep, please let me know your experience and also feel free to ask me questions. I’ve tracked my sleep for hundreds of nights and I plan to keep on doing so for a long time.