Hallelujah, the chest strap is dead.
The heart rate monitor with strap is now part of cycling folklore, old school technology, a soon-distant memory like toe clips and down-tube shifters.
The Mio Alpha ($200) wrist heart rate monitor says finito to the strap. That irritating, constricting and often stretched-out and barely functional strap has been replaced by a new technology and life is instantly better.
The Mio Alpha utilizes two green LED lights and an electro-optical cell mounted under the watch body (and up against your wrist ) to sense tiny changes in the color of your skin. That trick details your blood flow which then deduces your heart rate.
That sounds almost too clever but essentially it’s the same tech as medical oximeters only tweaked for your wrist. We were skeptical that the Mio Alpha would truly be accurate so we tested it on bike rides with a Polar and chest strap, then we dug out our old Sports Instruments monitor and strap. With the Mio Alpha on one wrist and a control on the other, we can state that both were consistently within a beat of each other.
Interestingly, the chest straps models reacted a second faster up and down but the Mio Alpha always followed immediately with the same reading. That’s cool and maybe worth the price of admission right there. For plenty of people, no chest strap sounds like freedom itself.
A word on fit. Mio says make sure the watch isn’t on too loose and one reviewer felt he had to crank it down too tight to get an accurate measurement. We didn’t experience that issue and in fact, tried it on two punch hole positions and the heart rate registered just fine. The strap itself is kinda cool and holds really well.
That said, the Mio Alpha keeps things pretty simple on the data downloads. You get heart rate, time in and out of set zones, average heart rate and yes, you always know what time it is. There’s no split lap timer, no alarm and it doesn’t calculate calories or determine how far you are from making a WorldTour pro cycling squad. As a platform, there’s room for development and the 2nd gen Alpa should enrich the deliverables.
What else rocks about the Mio Alpha? Well, it’s wired for Bluetooth 4.0 so it can communicate in real time with iPhone 4S and 5 and selected Androids with apps like RunKeeper, Endomondo, Nike+. There may or may not be an ANT+ variant in the works. We can’t comment on Android but the integration with our iPhone 5 was a snap.
For personal anecdote, we downloaded the Strava Ride app, launched it and in three taps it paired with the Alpha and displayed my heart rate. Doesn’t get better than that. When we went to our Strava account on the web, the iPhone had already posted our ride and heart rate. A sweet bingo moment.
On looks, the Mio Alpha has clean lines and a snazzy strap — some will find the appearance a little plastic, others will like the understated personality. The display is easy to read in daylight but one drawback is that if you’re riding at night, there’s no illumination. That seems like a curious oversight. (You might potentially solve by using the lighted smartphone display.)
Setting up the Mio Alpha is a snap, in part because it’s so basic in terms of functionality. There are two buttons, one on each side of the watch face. Hold the right one down and in about ten seconds it finds your pulse, tap the button again and you trigger the stopwatch.
The recharge on the Mio Alpha is a USB hookup to the laptop or, we’re assuming, whatever else you own with that jack. You simply drop the back of the watch into the charger pad with a slight magnetic grab. A blue light come on and the charge is on. By the way, Bluetooth 4.0 is supposed to be swell on battery life for both smartphone and Alpha. The company claims about ten hours of “monitor” time and so far that’s proven true.
Potential drawbacks? Other than limited function list, not much. We judge the Mio Alpha on two measures and everything else is less essential. It’s a highly accurate heart rate monitor WITHOUT a chest strap. That’s benefit with cap B. Second, in our non-Android, iPhone 5 based experience, it pairs without a hitch or hassle with our Strava phone app.
For us, that covers the bases well and justifies the $200 price tag. While the list of functions isn’t exactly robust, there is perhaps the possibility (we hope) of upgrades. We’ll see what happens on that front.
End verdict. This is the best heart rate monitor watch on the market but it’s also $200. So in the end, it comes down to how much you hate that irritating and cumbersome strap. We found the Mio Alpha to be highly accurate with excellent iPhone and app integration. If you want to lose the strap, then shout Hallelujah.