Product Review: Nokia Steel HR Hybrid Smartwatch

I’m addicted to my smartwatch. It wakes me on time in the morning, it keeps me on schedule, it tells me when someone wants to contact me, and it’s a tiny, informational multi-tool. Unfortunately, it’s also a five year old Pebble, the company that made it is defunct, and it’s starting to break down, so for some time I’ve been looking for a newer solution.

The one thing I’ve never been pleased with about my current smartwatch is that in the attempt to be a multi-tool, it is less than ideal as a watch! It’s big and blocky, lacks physical hands that can be seen in low light without backlighting, and it stops being a watch when the smartwatch functions have exhausted the battery.

To make a better choice this time, I decided to go with a hybrid smartwatch. I settled on the Nokia Steel HR. It’s a sleek, beautiful watch with physical analog hands and an uncomplicated face, but still provides notifications, a fitness tracker, and alarms. It even has a fancy feature called ‘smart wakeup’ that lets you pick a wakeup window, rather than time, and wakes you at your lightest sleep cycle during that window.

Having used the watch for a week, I was devastated to be forced to send it back for a refund. It is surely a beautiful watch, but fails in virtually every other way. Other than the appearance, I was looking for three features:

  • An analog watch that worked well and looked and felt like a real watch on my wrist
  • Notifications from my phone, so I would be made aware when messages or appointments came up
  • That super-cool smart wakeup feature

What I found:

  • The watchface, while delicate and beautiful in good lighting, has vanishingly thin hands that are utterly unreadable in anything less. Not only that, it has no backlight you can activate, so it’s effectively unreadable a lot of the time. Now, you might think, as I initially did, that since it has a screen that can show the time, I could use a gesture control to turn the screen on as needed, but you (and I) would be wrong. The screen can only be activated by pushing the stem/button. This means that unless you are outside in daylight or in a well lit room, if you want to know what time it is, you need two hands!
  • The notifications on the watch suffer from several defects. First of all, the power of the notification vibration is so low, you basically never feel it unless you happen to be very still in a very quiet room. Second, while the notifications *do* inform you of calls, calendar events, and messages, the only calendar it will use is the stock google calendar, ignoring all others. Third, literally the ONLY messages you get notifications for are SMS messages, and even then, only if you are using the stock text-messaging app. No WhatsApp, no Signal, no Facebook Messenger, no Google Hangouts, nothing. Effectively, this watch is utterly useless at the single most important function a smartwatch can provide!
  • The smart wakeup feature depends upon the watch’s alarm. They aren’t joking about the “Alarm” part, either. There is literally only one alarm on the watch. You can’t even set different wakeup times for weekends! Over and above this, during the course of a week, the “smart” wakeup woke me every single day at the earliest possible point in my wakeup window. Yet again, useless in every possible way…

I wanted to love the Steel. I *still* want to love it. It’s beautiful and elegant, and is billed with great features. It just doesn’t HAVE those features yet…