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    Healbe GoBe review: Can a fitness band really track your calorie intake?

    James Trew , @itstrew
    02.09.15
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    In 2015, a simple activity-tracking wearable just doesn't cut it. Unless, perhaps, it's cool-looking, or dirt cheap. Being able to keep tabs on how active you've been (or not) is certainly helpful; the problem is it's only one part of the picture. A fitness tracker might know I hustled my way through a 5K run this morning, but it doesn't know about the waffle-mania breakfast I enjoyed straight after. Some products work around this by letting you log your food intake. I'm prone to "forgetting" to log my meals, though, including the guilty, post-run carb-fest breakfasts. The dream fitness wearable, then, would be one that tracks your activity, auto-logs your sleep and knows what you've eaten without you telling it. Enter GoBe, by Healbe, a $300 wearable that promises to do exactly that.

    Gallery: HealBe GoBe review | 24 Photos

    Engadget Score
    Poor
    Uninspiring
    Good
    Excellent
    Key

    Pros
    • Excellent sleep tracking
    • All-day heart rate tracking
    • Slick, easy-to-use app
    Cons
    • Calorie counting -- the device'ssignature feature -- doesn't work as promised
    • Bulky design
    • Poor battery life

    Summary

    If Healbe can demonstrably improve the calorie-counting abilities of GoBe, it would be the health product of the year -- even with poor battery life. Improve that too, and it's health device of the decade. Unfortunately, while those problems persist, it's just a $300 activity tracker in an already competitive market.


    "GoBe You" is the product's marketing tag line. The idea is simple: a wearable that can provide a complete picture of your daily "health." A device that can tell if you've consumed more calories than you've burned (or vice versa), judge the quality and duration of your sleep, count water intake, measure stress levels and more. The idea being it provides you a single number that represents your daily calorie balance (how many over or under you are) based on all the key metrics, and not just one or two. If you're at all into health, fitness, dieting, well-being or just taking good care of yourself, this probably sounds too good to be true.

    Unsurprisingly, there are a number of vocal critics that say it is too good to be true. Healbe's big claims have been questioned, with many saying that it's just not possible to measure calorie intake the way the company says it does (more on that later). These boasts even led some people to think GoBe was an outright crowdfunding scam. But, the product is here. It exists. I'm wearing one right now. Controversy aside, there's only really one way to find out if it works: by putting it to task. I ate in the name of science (well, gadget reviews at least) to see if it can prove the critics wrong.

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    Background

    I'm here to test the actual product, but it's worth knowing a little bit of background for context. Healbe launched an Indiegogo campaign for GoBe back in March 2014. It raised over $1 million by the time it finished. Many were (rightly) worried about the company meeting the ambitious summer launch window. The product caught the attention of doubters in the media. Automatically measuring calorie intake would be kind of a big deal, so it's not surprising eyebrows were raised when these unknowns claimed to have cracked it. Healbe says it works by using an impedance sensor that detects fluid levels in your tissue. The theory (broadly) being that as you consume food, your body converts it to glucose, and cells release water as they absorb it. GoBe measures this movement of fluid and uses algorithms to reverse engineer that into a number of calories. For a more in-depth explanation from Healbe go here.

    The controversy stems from the fact that several medical professionals think measuring calories this way just isn't possible. Not only that, but also if this device can non-invasively measure glucose in the blood, then there's a whole world of diabetics that would probably like to know (and in turn, provide the makers with a life relaxing on a beach in the process). PandoDaily, in particular, took Healbe to task on the validity of its claims (repeatedly), which you can read for yourself in full here. But, there's a difference between four-minute mile "impossible" and faster-than-the-speed-of-light "impossible." It's our job to give the product a crack at proving people wrong.

    Hardware

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    It's a wrist-worn device. That much you probably figured out. Unlike other slim, discreet(ish) activity trackers, GoBe is a huge metallic token embedded in a plastic strap. There's one button, and a perforated top section hides a rudimentary LED display. The bottom of the GoBe has two contacts for charging, and the metal sensors that touch the skin. While wearing it, more than one person told me it looked like a GPS tagging device, the kind you might attach to criminals out on bail. The strap is kinda chunky, and (on my sample at least) the pin is prone to poking out, occasionally catching my skin, or rubbing against my laptop, et cetera. It's not the most handsome device, but it's inoffensive, and the dark gray strap can be swapped out for an included, and showier, purple one if you so choose.

    GoBe contains three sensors: that impedance sensor, an accelerometer and a pressure sensor. Together, they measure calories, activity and heart rate, respectively. The latter two combine to measure your sleep (i.e., when you're not moving and your pulse goes down). The data connectivity is done over Bluetooth to your phone (there's a companion app as you probably imagined). While charging is handled by a proprietary cradle with a micro-USB connection. GoBe is also waterproof to three meters making it shower- and swim-friendly.

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    When it comes to wearing, it's not uncomfortable, but the size of the actual tracker/sensor part means it stands out from the wrist by well over a centimeter, almost two at the thickest part. I also found that after showering, it could get a little itchy where the sensors make contact with your skin. If you've ever had a similar experience with a cheap digital watch, it's very much like that. As for the battery, Healbe claims you'll get three days use out of it when you buy one. However, I was told the one I received was an early version, and had a less-capacious battery. It shows, too. We've asked that we get to try the final retail battery, but until we do, we're just reporting on what we have, with the caveat that Healbe claims it's not representative of the final product.

    Software

    The hardware may be a little bulky, but the companion app is slick. Available for both iOS and Android, the app is where you'll set up your device and see all your stats. The pairing process was relatively simple; the app asks you to switch on your GoBe, and once it spots it, you pair just like any other Bluetooth device. You'll then be prompted to tell it your vitals so that it can better measure your calories burned and whatnot (based on size, age, gender and all the usual stuff).

    Once you've taken care of the formalities, you'll be handed over to the main interface of the app, which includes five sections: Energy, Water, Heart, Sleep and Stress. As you can see, GoBe does more than just measure food intake. Swipe each section's icon over to the left, and you'll get a brief summary -- total calories consumed, hours slept, etc. Swipe over again, and you'll get a deeper dive. Below is a breakdown of the information GoBe serves up.

    The main section is called "My Energy Balance." A circular icon at the top serves as a kind of visual shortcut. The circle starts half-filled, and the amount inside will grow or shrink depending on your calorific intake (whether you're over or under the amount needed to balance what you've burned). Below this, in a big font, is the number showing your current deficit or excess in KCAL. Basically, how far over or under your daily requirements you are. Keep scrolling down and you'll get a macronutrient breakdown (or GoBe's guess at it). This is how many grams of protein, fat and carbohydrates you've consumed. It'll even give you a number for how many of those you've converted back into energy.

    Beneath the hard numbers, you'll find a graph broken down into hourly increments. It'll show pink upward spikes/blobs when you've logged food, and darker declines representing when you've burned calories. All of the info in this view represents one day. Swipe right to see your data from the previous days. There's no option to sort the view to weekly or monthly, and the app only lets you go back over the last six days. You'll have to log on via the Healbe website if you want to look back further (and still, without any alternative ways to represent trends in your data). This screen is also where you'll find information about your activity/daily steps.

    No medals for figuring out what the "My Water Balance" section is all about. GoBe can't detect when you drink liquids, so you have to tell it manually. It's easy: Just tell it your glass size, and it'll calculate how many you need a day, divided into glasses. Drink one; go to the app; tap one glass; and it'll go from full to empty. The main screen for this section also has an interactive icon that goes from empty to full as you progress toward your goal. The big number here shows the number of ml/oz needed to go before you hit your target. You can't manually change the figure it thinks you need. Currently, it tells me I need 3.4 liters (about 115 ounces) a day. That's quite a lot.

    The three other sections let you monitor heart rate, sleep and stress levels (respectively). Each of these has fewer metrics, giving just a broad overview of information. Heading to the heart rate screen, you'll be able to see your current pulse, and take a blood pressure reading. I found this relied heavily on the base blood pressure metric you tell it on sign up (I had to guess; it's been a while since I had mine checked). The sleep section will show you when, and how deep you were sleeping, with a few other metrics (more on those later). Lastly, the stress section will tell you how, well, stressed you appear to be. This is gauged based on your sleep, heart rate and other general data (e.g., height, age).

    While the software is attractively designed, simple to use and offers an easy view of your personal data, it doesn't offer you much insight beyond that. There are currently no ways to compare your data week on week, month on month. Nor is there a way to manually enter food if, for example, you weren't wearing the GoBe while you consumed it. The app also only shows the last six days' worth of data. So, as I mentioned earlier, you need to head over to the Healbe website if you want to look any further back. Even then, that's more or less all you can do. There's no way to export or import anything. These are, of course, all problems that can be solved easily enough. Right now, however, there are some pretty big gaps.

    In use

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    "Tell it nothing. Know everything." It's the message you'll see on Healbe's website, when referring to its GoBe device. While this is the dream, it's only true in the minds of Healbe's marketing department right now. Yes, you don't need to log food manually. But, you do still need to tell it when you've eaten, or else you'll get no data. In fact, beyond whether the method for calorie tracking actually works or not, this is the GoBe's biggest problem.

    Ideally, you're supposed to give a short two-second press of the GoBe's sole button to let it know you're about to eat. The idea being that the GoBe knows any data from the impedance sensor from that point on, for the next 15 to 30 minutes, will be affected by what you just ate. That's fair enough, but it rather spoils the idea of it being automatic. I forgot several times in my testing, usually about halfway through a meal.

    There is something of a backup plan, but it presents its own challenge. When you open the app (which triggers a sync with the device), if it logged any impedance data, it'll ask you to confirm whether you were eating or not at that time. The idea is that it won't miss the snacks you "accidentally" forgot to log, et cetera. The problem is, it's a little overzealous. Sometimes you have to clear more than a dozen pop-ups asking if you ate at a certain time. Confusingly, these times can even be overlapping. ("Did you eat between 12:00 and 12:25?" "Did you eat between 12:15 and 12:35?" and so on.) When you do this at the end of the day, even with the best of intentions, you forget at what time you were eating that pretzel, or that you had a pretzel at all.

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    The next biggest problem is battery life. I'm being kind here. Really, this problem trumps all the others, because it made the GoBe almost unusable. It's only because I have been confidently informed that the retail product has a bigger battery that I am mentioning it lower than the repeated nags from the app about when you ate. I had to basically make a choice: Log my sleep, or log my food. Getting it to last long enough for both wasn't possible. The battery would run out during sleep, or just before a meal, and you'd need to be near the proprietary charging cradle to quickly top it up. In the end, and for the purposes of this review, I took to leaving it to charge overnight, so that I could start the day fresh. Even then, it'd run out before my evening meal (I eat around 8 or 9PM).

    What about the real-world results? Mixed at best. Below are three sample days of food I consumed, manually calculated calories and what was logged by the GoBe.

    Calories: Manually calculated Logged by GoBe
    Day 1
    Meal 1 290

    456

    Snack 190

    436

    Meal 2 410

    367

    Meal 3 450

    574

    Daily total: 1,340

    1,833

    Day 2
    Meal 1 480

    417

    Meal 2 1,015

    488

    Meal 3 562

    431

    Daily total: 2,057

    1,336

    Day 3
    Meal 1 545

    437

    Meal 2 1,860

    743

    Meal 3 I just... couldn't.

    0

    Daily total: 2,405

    1,180

    While some individual meals come close, it's pretty clear that over a whole day, the differences add up. On each given day, there's a difference of no less than 500 calories -- that's an entire meal. I do have to take into consideration the fact that it could be the manual count that is wrong, and perhaps GoBe is on the money. I tried to be as accurate as possible with weights, and sourcing calories from Calorieking.com. That's why, on one day, I made a point of going the extra mile, and packed in a lot more calories than usual (mostly via waffles and KFC). The idea was to go to more of an extreme, hoping that the GoBe would follow. It did log more calories for that mega-lunch compared to others, but only just.

    Here's a second issue. That big lunch took me longer to eat. Healbe advised me to push the button on the GoBe again if there was a 15-minute gap in "meals." I did have to take a break, so I pushed the button again. I'll be honest: It feels a bit like just pushing the button will cause it to log about 400 to 500 calories. None of the macronutrient amounts (proteins, carbohydrates and fat) really tallied either. This is less important than total calories, but being even less accurate (some meals were almost all protein, and still showed as mostly carbs), it becomes pointless.

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    This measuring episode taught me another thing: Going back in history and seeing how many calories were logged for individual meals is difficult. You only get a total for the day, or you can work it out by hovering over the graph, seeing all the small amounts logged every five minutes and adding them up. All of this is made worse by the fact that the battery kept crapping out, meaning I'd have to put it on charge again just before a meal (and remember to do so, et cetera). Very frustrating.

    How about some good news? When it comes to logging your sleep, GoBe does it better than any fitness tracker I've tried. Best of all (unlike the calorie counting), it truly is automatic. It was kinda creepy to wake up, check the stats and see that it logged my entire sleep almost perfectly. Even naps. Unlike most other trackers, GoBe knows your heart rate throughout the day (something else it seems reliable at measuring). Combine this with movement data from the accelerometer (and, dare I say, a guess that people mostly sleep at night), and the device is armed with more robust data to track when you're in the land of nod.

    Beyond this, GoBe offers insights into the quality of your sleep, including worrying data about when you experience bradycardia (resting heart rate below 60), arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat) and -- the more worrying-sounding -- heart blocks (a term that covers a variety of conditions). I had a few nights where I experienced quite a lot of bradycardia, and anecdotally (I have no idea if this is related), those were days when I woke up feeling like I hadn't slept well.

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    There is, of course, good old-fashioned fitness/activity tracking in the mix, too. Again, GoBe appears to do a decent job of this, logging steps taken with adequate accuracy. Once more, the fact that it has your pulse also means that it does a great job of knowing when you were running that distance, and the impact this will have on your metabolism/calorie expenditure. In theory, all this data would combine to paint a really detailed overview, if the calorie tracking had shown stronger signs of consistency (even being consistently 20 percent above or below would help).

    Wrap-up

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    GoBe's main crime? It doesn't deliver on its most exciting feature. I sorely wanted GoBe to work. I wanted it to blow my socks off, and allow Healbe to silence its critics, dismissing them as overcautious naysayers. For it to be a Roger Bannister among products. Sadly, when it comes to counting calories, I have no reason to believe that's the case. In its defense, Healbe claims it will continue working to improve the software, but right now, it doesn't provide useful enough data. The second problem is that it's still a device you need to interact with, despite claims to the contrary. You can't just let it do its thing; you need to constantly tell it if you are about to eat, or remember so you can confirm via the app later. Suddenly, the gap between manually logging your food and using the GoBe doesn't seem as vast.

    On a more positive front, those harshest critics who thought this product was just a scam should have cause to be less quick to judge. It may not deliver on the calorie-counting feature, but Healbe did deliver a product. It's clearly spent time, money and effort to design something that tries to do what it claims. By all the other standards, it's not a half-bad activity tracker. If it somehow bridged the auto-calorie part with some manual food-entry options/shortcuts, it might even be able to claw back some merit as a great holistic proposition. At least in the future. But right now, it's not. There are too many other rough edges for it to deal with. Poor battery life, limited software options and a bulky design could be forgiven if it excelled at something. In combination, however, those flaws conspire to disappoint. Backers who receive theirs won't have a useless device, but it's not the panacea they'd bought into.

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