The Facebook commercials trying to get me to buy a Swiss watch finally worked when Alpina marketed their new heart-rate monitoring fitness watch at 50% off with custom configurations. That merely made it ludicrously expensive, as opposed to unattainable.
It took a good while to receive it, but I’ve now lived with it for a week, and can share my experiences.
The watch came in one of Alpina’s typical cardboard / leatherette display boxes with a little pillow. The charging clamp came in a hard case which was also in a very classy cardboard box, and the spare straps came in… a torn envelope? Regardless, the quality of the packaging was fine for this category of watch, and definitely a bonus if giving it as a present. Very much something from a watch company, not a tech product.
Ease of Use / Manual
This is where my critique starts. The watch came with a couple of thick booklets, which consisted of very generic instructions for multiple calibers/watch models in multiple languages, and were pretty much useless for this model. There was a little card insert with a link to a FAQ in tiny print; the FAQ was fairly useful. Otherwise I had to Google a manual for the watch, and the manual doesn’t really do a particularly good job at describing the watch or its functions, and both it and the FAQ seem to be flat-out wrong in some cases (claiming that some functions are performed with the buttons when they’re actually only possible with the touch screen), and they miss some other features I had to figure out with trial and error.
This is a brand new product which I ordered before it was even made in a crowdfunding campaign, but the documentation definitely fell short of what I’d expect of any fitness watch, let alone a premium one.
To nobody’s surprise the watch comes with a smartphone app. In fact, you cannot set the time of the watch any other way — which also means that if you, on purpose, would like to set your watch some minutes fast, you can’t.
In general the app is quite good. I find it more pleasant to use than the FitBit equivalent. The information I want is right there when I open it. You can use it to configure which watch screens are available and in which order, but beyond that the configuration options are meager. For example, each of the screens is what Alpina defined, you cannot configure the layout or elements at all. Luckily they’re all great, and I haven’t found a particular desire to change anything.
One bummer is that the sleep data isn’t automatically available in the morning, it takes a few minutes from when you look at it before it gets downloaded and analyzed.
One fantastic feature is a charge notification — once your watch is fully charged, the app gives you a notification of this, so you don’t forget the watch in the charger for the entire day.
In general your heart rate etc. are immediately available on the screen, some of the watch-specific things, like battery level, require you to navigate to a screen which is a bit laggier as it forces a resync of the watch.
The app has integration with FitBit and Withings and Apple Health; just what this nets you is a bit unclear to me yet.
This is not an active sport fanatics watch with a gazillion features. It tells the time (plus a “world time” from another city you choose), date, your heart rate, weather, potentially some sleep statistics, and for exercise your speed and distance, and that’s pretty much it. The ads kept mentioning VO2, I’m going to have to ask whether that will be added later or if I’m just too dense to find it.
The big news here is that this watch actually accurately and reliably measures my heart rate. There’s not even a competition vs. either my FitBit Charge 2 or my earlier Microsoft Band 2. The Alpina just works.
Under normal operation, it apparently measures your heart rate every minute or so; during exercise it goes into a more frequent mode (I read somewhere that it would be every 10 seconds, but can’t confirm that.) Regardless of how it does it, when chilling I get my heart rate, and when going up a hill and huffing and puffing I get my heart rate, and they match reality.
The exercise mode can also use a built-in GPS to track your run/walk/hike, and keep the AMOLED display on, and… will drain your battery in a hurry. I’m not sure how much of it is the GPS and the screen, but you’re only getting 3-4 hours with the screen and GPS on. Not really usable. As to exercises, there are a myriad of varieties, and they come in the way Alpina deemed fit to give you, and you can neither narrow down the list nor change the order. However, due to the stateful nature of the UI, this isn’t a huge deal if you tend to stick with one kind of exercise.
It does have an auto-detection feature (at least in the app) where it figures out if you did something resembling exertion, and suggests to you that you can flag it as a workout.
A feature that the FitBit didn’t have is a measurement of your breathing rate (respirations per minute) which is available through the app.
One bizarre omission is the floor counter. The watch does count distance/steps, but it does not count stairs climbed / elevation. This is something I quite miss from the FitBit.
There is a chronometer, a count-down timer, an alarm (tactile only, the watch makes no sound), an alternative second time zone, weather report, an interactive breathing exercise, a reminder to get active, the possibility to show incoming WhatsApp, SMS and several other kinds of messages on the watch screen, a hydration counter where you can log your water intake, a calorie consumption extimator, and step counter. What it’s missing from some other models are altimeters, UV sensors and really any other sensors.
As solid as the watch is, the user interface seems like a bit of an experiment. You have a crown which actually does absolutely nothing except for being a button. You can’t set the time or pull it out or achieve anything by turning it. Then you have two push buttons, which do almost nothing; you use them for the chronometer function, and… really almost nothing else.
The crown turns on the AMOLED screen and cycles through the screens.
Pretty much everything else you do with the “touch screen,” which basically just means swiping left or right, and for certain things (dismissing displayed WhatsApp messages, starting and stopping exercise etc.) get an OK/Cancel or Start/Stop buttons on the screen, and you just press on the glass. I’m not sure how this works, I certainly hope it doesn’t mean that the sapphire glass is extrasuperspecial
Overall the touch screen, to me, is a bit annoying and occasionally unresponsive. There is also a tactile feedback feature; if you’re trying to swipe past the end of the list, or do similar things, the watch vibrates. This is however so faint that I’m having trouble registering it, and that means I’m poking at my watch like an idiot. I’d definitely love to make more use of the physical buttons or even a turnable dial on the crown.
As an aside, a cute / annoying feature is that to make the AMOLED visible when the hands are in the way, the watch will rotate the hands out of the way before turning on the screen, so at 6:30 you have to wait a few seconds for the hands to get out of the way before you get a display, whereas at 12:00 the screen turns on immediately.
One area where this differs from the FitBit and some other similar trackers is the memory of where you were. When you turn on the AMOLED, it shows you whatever screen you were on when it turned off. Within those screens, for example for activity selection, the same holds. You only have to sort through the gazillion activities once to find walking, the next time you go to start an exercise, it defaults to walking. Compared to my FitBit this makes the Alpina more pleasant to use.
Battery and Charging
One of the reasons I went for this watch instead of, say, an Apple Watch, was battery life. Similar to my FitBit it’s supposed to last ~5 days, and so far that seems relatively accurate. I can also get a very accurate reading in percent through the app, which makes it easier to decide whether to charge it or not.
The charging is another area where Alpina needs to rethink their approach. The watch comes with a rather bulky clip (with a USB A connector; you have to provide your own power source). The clip and cable are very well made, and the clip has a silicone pad for the glass, but the whole thing is bizarrely finicky to get a good contact, and twice now I’ve set the watch to start charging, as indicated by the screen, and as soon as I set it down something jostles and I come out of the shower to find it hasn’t charged at all. Not cool, Alpina.
That said, whether the watch is charging or not is clearly indicated by a charging screen which stays on during the charge duration, and the default setting is to enter a “demo mode” after the watch is fully charged and connected to power, where it cycles through the AMOLED screens. In addition to the app notification, this makes it very easy to tell whether it’s still charging or done.
Fit, Finish and Design
The watch comes in a dark blue specialty glass fiber / plastic case, or a stainless steel one. I wanted something lighter, cheaper, and more forgiving of scratches, so went for the plastic case. It’s very solid and feels like great quality. The bi-directionally rotating bezel is way too easy to rotate for my taste, as it’s easy to knock it around.
Overall the body, face, bezel and entire package are very much a high-quality product, and you can feel the value for price here.
The watch is fairly large, but to my surprise it is actually much more comfortable than the FitBit. I can wear it higher up on the wrist, and it just stays put without having to be tightened down excessively. The heart rate monitoring works perfectly while the watch is at a normal, comfortable level of pressure you’d use for a normal wristwatch, unlike the FitBit which required uncomfortable levels of tightening to have any hope of a reading.
There are multiple kinds of straps available; because of incentives I opted for a weird carbon-fiber-style leather affair, a more sporty fabric version, and a claspless velcro fabric strap. I skipped the diver-style rubber option. While good quality, the straps were fairly stiff, so opening and closing them to take the watch off for showering was a bit of a pain, and I am for now using the velcro one. It should be noted that this is very fancy velcro, the strap has specific fine pads that grip the strap, and so far it looks like it’s not going to cause the usual velcro fraying. Fundamentally, I put it on in the morning after my shower, and I don’t fiddle with the adjustment until the next morning. Even sleeping with it is fine.
I sleep in the dark, and the FitBit worked quite well with its wrist motion detection; if I woke up at night and wanted to know the time, I would just lift my hand and it would show the time. The Alpina does have luminous hands and markers on the bezel, but the glow after five hours is too dim for me to reasonably see, and then I have to press the button and wait for the display to turn on. Not as handy..
Alpina makes a different women’s watch where the digital screen is hidden behind a seamless face, and you can only tell it’s there when it’s on. I would have greatly preferred that, the ana-digi cutout (especially in some other outrageously expensive Swiss watches) always struck me as a bit of a cheap cop-out. That said, everything else looks great, I love the design, and the screen is vibrant and bright and contrasty, and works well both at night and in sunlight, and the heart rate and weather screens make most of the resolution. (It’s certainly not a high-DPI display, mind, but sufficient to cram a few lines of text in.)
This was a complete luxury / pamper myself purchase after our annual performance pay came in; it’s hard for me to justify the price otherwise. That said, I’m very happy with the price-performance ratio. It’s comfortable, it does what I want it to do far more reliably than any heart rate monitoring device I’ve had before (including chest straps!) and I like the look. Certainly not worth the list price, but at 50% off, if you want to go for luxury and are after something that looks more like a real watch than an Apple Watch or one of the Garmin/Suunto style ultra-athlete tools, it’s not a bad choice. It’s been on my wrist pretty much continuously after I received it, which says all there is to say in the end.