Tuesday January 31, 2023

Whoop’s Next-Gen Wristband Is Smaller, Smarter, and Still UnnecessaryWhoop’s Next Generation Wristband is Smaller, Smarter and Still Not Necessary

Photo: Brent Rose/Gizmodo

Whoop has always been a wearable marketed to the most hardcore of athletes. It’s been seen on the wrists of athletes in the NBA and other pro sports leagues, which is fitting, because it’s designed to maximize training. Personally, I’ve always been hung up on one thing: I don’t want to wear something on my wrist that can’t even tell me the time of day. Call me old-fashioned, but it’s true.

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But Whoop just released the fourth generation of its popular wristband, which is 33% smaller than its predecessor and also has more sensors, so I figured it was finally time to give this thing a whirl. It turns out it gets a lot of things right.

No Screen, Just Band

Whoop has always been unique in the world of wearables. For starters, it’s not something you can just buy. Instead, it’s a service you pay for: $30 a month, though it can be as cheap as $18 a month if you buy in an 18-month chunk, and the company sends you the band for free. This means that if you’ve been using Whoop for years, they’ll just send you a 4.0 band to replace your 3.0, and the new band doesn’t cost any more than the old one.

The Whoop 4.0 has a sleeker design than prior versions. At two-thirds the size of the 3.0, it’s noticeably less prominent and more comfortable when it’s on your wrist. It also claims to be the first to use a new type of battery from Sila, which has a silicone anode that boasts 17% more energy density. So, despite being smaller, the 4.0 still promises five-day battery life (though I found that sometimes it would only make it four days).

The way the Whoop recharges is extremely slick. It has a small battery pack that you just slip onto the Whoop while it’s on your wrist, so you basically don’t ever have to take it off and you don’t end up with any gaps in your data. The charger for the 4.0 is now waterproof, so you can shower or swim with it while charging if you want (or if you forget). It’s a very clever system.

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The charging solution is extremely clever.Photo: Brent Rose/Gizmodo

The Whoop is generally worn on your wrist like a watch, but there is now a line of clothing called Whoop Body. This is a collection of shirts, shorts, bras, underwear, and bands that allow you to wear the sensor elsewhere on your body. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to test these, so the Whoop 4.0 stayed on my wrist for a month, and I found it to generally be comfortable. It’s fairly low-profile, so it didn’t catch on my sleeves very often, and the woven, stretchy band is soft to the touch, though it does take a little while to dry, which caused some damp cuffs.

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What Whoop Tracks

The band doesn’t have an accelerometer to count your steps or an altimeter to count the flights of stairs you ascend every day. Whoop neither knows nor cares about such trivial frivolities! It does, however, pay a lot of attention to your heart. The 4.0 band now has five LED lights (three green, one red, and one infrared) up from two in the previous generation, and it now has four photodiodes, up from one.

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So many LEDs!Photo: Brent Rose/Gizmodo

Using all the data the comes from those sensors, the Whoop platform is really only interested in two things: Your strain level and your recovery level (and your sleep, but that’s effectively part of your recovery). Your strain score is, essentially, how hard your heart had to work. When you do a workout, manual labor, or anything that gets your heart pumping, the band keeps track of your pulse. Afterward, you’ll see a strain score for that specific activity in the app. All of this is cumulative, and you also get a strain score for your entire day, which is on a scale from zero to 21, for some reason. Each day when you wake up the app will give you a recommended amount of strain to aim for based on how you’ve recovered from your last bout of strain.

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Recovery is the other big thing Whoop looks at, and it examines how much rest you’ve gotten post-strain. As you might expect, the main way to recover is to sleep. Each evening Whoop gives you a notification about how much sleep it thinks you need to fully rest and get yourself a recovery score of 100. (Yes, the strain score is from 0-21 and recovery is 0-100 and no I don’t know why.) The band estimates when you’ve fallen asleep and when you wake up, and it does so with very solid accuracy, in my experience. While you’re sleeping it monitors your pulse, as well as heart rate variability (HRV), respiration rate, and blood oxygen levels. When you wake up, it gives you a sleep score and tells you how you’ve recovered—or how well it thinks you’ve recovered, anyway.

Not Exactly Accurate

Over the years I’ve had various friends and colleagues get somewhat obsessed with their Whoop scores, so I was excited to finally try it out for myself. The results were interesting, but they left me underwhelmed. I found Whoop’s strain metric to be somewhat inconsistent. You start off with a zero when you wake up, but I found that on many mornings it gave me a score in the low 4s before I had done anything beyond make myself breakfast (which definitely did not spike my heart rate). It seemed to work pretty well for cardio, and my strain score would scale up as expected on longer/harder runs, but Whoop doesn’t really know what to do with strength training. Doing bodyweight exercises and lifting weights is an important part of training for a lot of people, but it barely registers on the Whoop because it doesn’t cause your heart rate to spike like longer-duration cardio does. This could leave you with exhausted, twitching muscles but still a very low strain score.

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The valleys are where the heart rate-tracking dropped out.Screenshot: Brent Rose/Gizmodo

I checked the Whoop against a chest strap heart rate monitor and against other wearables, and generally the heart rate was accurate, though there were instances where my reading would just drop out unexpectedly, as you can see from these random sharp valleys in this run I recorded.

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Basically, I would put it on par with other current generation wearables from companies such as Polar, Suunto, and Garmin, but not above.

I had issues with the way the Whoop scores sleep and recovery, too. Sometimes my recovery score would match the way I felt in the morning, i.e. the band gave me a 75, and subjectively, yes, I felt like I was at about 75%. Other times it was inexplicably way off, and that could happen in either direction. After a very poor night of sleep, it informed me that I was well into the 80s in my recovery and primed for a day full of strain. I was exhausted and felt like a husk of myself. Another time it rated my recovery as way down in the 50s, but I actually felt great and was ready to put some work in. I did some digging, and I think the problem may be that Whoop weighs your heart rate variability (HRV) much more than it does that actual duration or quality of your sleep. HRV is certainly an important metric, but people who are in good shape typically have higher rates of HRV (which is a good thing), and I think that may skew the numbers.

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Whoop vs. Garmin

It’s also worth noting that while Whoop may have been the first to really laser focus on recovery, it’s not the only wearable that does so now. Garmin, for instance, has a metric called Body Battery, which is effectively the same thing as Whoop’s recovery score, and I found it to be slightly more accurate compared to how I actually felt, subjectively. Garmin doesn’t make this number as prominent as Whoop does, but it’s right there for you if you want it.

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And that brings us to the crux of the issue here. The entire time I wore the Whoop 4.0—more than a month—I also wore a Garmin watch called the Enduro. The Enduro does everything the Whoop can do, but it can also do so, so much more. Steps and altimeter? Check. Track all kinds of different indoor and outdoor sports/activities from lap-swimming to snowboarding? Yep. Do it all with GPS and the ability to show me the weather and phone notifications? Yessir. Contactless payments? Sure. And last, but not least, I don’t have to pull out my phone to find out what’s going on. If I want to see my heart rate in real time, I can just look at my wrist. If I want to set an alarm, I can do it on my wrist. If I want to know the flipping time and date, or my Body Battery level, or the number of calories I’ve burned today, it’s all right there. Several weeks of battery life? That, too. Now, the Enduro is not a cheap watch, costing around $800, but Garmin makes much cheaper multi-sport watches that do basically all of that and those watches are liable to last you many years. With Whoop costing around $30 a month, the cost would very likely become comparable in just a couple years.

The most important bit is that the Garmin can fully replace the Whoop, but the Whoop can’t at all replace the Garmin. Even if I really loved the Whoop (and I sort of did at times), I’d still want to have the Garmin on for basically any activity that I did, and wearing two watch-sized wearables is just a non-starter for me. It looks like I’m in geek-shackles.

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Worth Buying?

The Whoop 4.0 isn’t “bad,” it’s just limited. It is good to see it evolve and do things the 3.0 couldn’t. For instance, if your blood oxygen suddenly drops below safe levels (which could be a sign of a real health problem, such as a covid-19 infection), it can alert you. When I got my Moderna booster shot, I woke up the next day to an alert that said my HRV had dropped, my skin temperature had risen above my average, and my recovery was very low. Yep, I felt like crap for a day. Also new in the 4.0 is a vibrating motor which you can use to set a silent alarm. You can set it to a specific time, a “sleep goal,” or when the Whoop senses that you’re in the green (i.e. you’ve reached a good level of recovery). I do not recommend that last one, as it woke me up an hour earlier than I’d hoped and I was still completely exhausted.

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Whoop’s goals in and of themselves are good. The idea of calculating strain and recovery (and sleep) so you know how hard to push on any given day makes sense. The problem is that the Whoop 4.0 doesn’t absolutely nail this, and considering that’s really the only thing that it does, it needs to be effectively perfect. In contrast, there are tons of sports watches out there who do about as good of a job at addressing the strain/recovery equation, but then also do so much more. A good multi-sport watch just makes more sense for virtually everybody.

Photo: Brent Rose/Gizmodo

Whoop was always a wearable that was targeted at the most dedicated athletes. It has been seen on the wrists pro athletes in the NBA and other professional sports leagues. This is fitting because it was designed to maximize training. Personally, I have always been focused on one thing: I don’t want something on my wrist that doesn’t tell me the time of the day. It’s true, even though you may call me old-fashioned.

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Whoop has just released its fourth generation wristband. It is 33% smaller than the predecessor, and has more sensors. I decided it was time to give it a try. It turns out that it does a lot of things right.

No Screen, Only Band
Whoop is a unique wearable brand. It’s not something that you can buy. It’s a service that you pay $30 per month. However, it can be as low as $18 per month if you buy in an eight-month chunk. The company will also send you the band free of charge. If you have been using Whoop for years, they will send you a 4.0 band to replace the 3.0. The new band is not more expensive than the old one.

The Whoop 4.0 is sleeker than previous versions. It’s only two-thirds as large as the 3.0 and is therefore less obvious and more comfortable on the wrist. It claims to be the first to use a Sila-developed new type of battery, which boasts 17% higher energy density. The 4.0 promises a five-day battery life, even though it is smaller. However, I found that it sometimes only made it four days.
The Whoop’s recharge process is very simple. The Whoop’s battery pack is small and can be slipped onto your wrist. This means you don’t have to remove it from your wrist and there are no gaps in your data. The charger for the 4.0 has been made waterproof so you can take it with you to go swimming or shower, or if you forget. It’s a clever system.

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The charging solution is very clever. Photo by Brent Rose/Gizmodo

The Whoop is usually worn on your wrist as a watch. But, there is now a Whoop Body line of clothing. The Whoop Body collection includes shirts, bras, underwear and shirts that allow you to wear your sensor anywhere on your body. These were not available for me to test, so the Whoop 4.0 stayed on mine for a month. I found it to be comfortable. It is quite low-profile so it didn’t catch on my sleeves too often. The woven, stretchy band feels soft to the touch. However, it takes a while to dry which can cause some damp cuffs.

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What Whoop Tracks
The band doesn’t have an accelerometer or altimeter to count how many flights of stairs you climb each day. Whoop doesn’t care about such trivialities. However, it does pay a lot attention to your heart. The 4.0 band now features five LED lights (three red, one green, and one infrared), up from two in previous generations, and four photodiodes instead of one.

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So many LEDs!Photo: Brent Rose/Gizmodo

The Whoop platform uses all data from these sensors to determine two things. Your strain level and recovery level (and your sleep, although that’s part of your recovery). Your strain score is basically how hard your heart worked. The band tracks your pulse when you exercise, do manual labor, or do any other activity that stimulates your heart. The app will show you the strain score for each activity. This is cumulative and you will also see a strain score for the entire day. It is a scale of zero to 21. Based on how well you’ve recovered from the last strain, the app will recommend the amount of strain you should aim for each day you wake up.

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Whoop also looks at recovery, which is how much sleep you get after a workout. Sleep is the best way to recover, as you might expect. Whoop sends you an email each night with information about how much sleep you need. You can also get a recovery score (100) from Whoop. (Yes, the strain score ranges from 0-21 to recovery is 0-100. I don’t understand why. The band estimates when you fall asleep and when your body wakes up. It does this with solid accuracy, according to my experience. It monitors your pulse while you sleep, heart rate variability (HRV), respiration speed, and blood oxygen levels. It gives you a score on your sleep and tells how well you have recovered.
Not exactly accurate
I have seen my friends and colleagues become obsessed with their Whoop scores over the years. I was eager to finally give it a try. Although the results were interesting, I was not impressed. Whoop’s strain metric was inconsistent to me. Although you start the day with a zero, it gives you a score of 4 to 5 before you do anything other than make yourself breakfast. It worked well for cardio and my strain score would increase on longer/harder runs. But Whoop doesn’t know how to handle strength training. Although lifting weights and bodyweight exercises are important parts of training, Whoop doesn’t register them as they don’t cause your heart rate or blood pressure to rise like longer-duration cardio. You might feel tired and twitchy, but this will not result in a high strain score.

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The valleys are where heart rate-tracking stopped. Screenshot by Brent Rose/Gizmodo

I compared the Whoop to a chest strap heart-rate monitor and other wearables. The readings were generally accurate. However, there were times when my readings would drop unexpectedly as you can see in these random sharp valleys that I recorded.

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It would be on par with current generation wearables from companies like Polar, Suunto, Garmin, and Garmin.
I also had issues with how the Whoop Scores sleep and recover. Sometimes, my recovery score would match how I felt in the morning. The band gave me a 75 and subjectively, I felt like I was at 75%. Sometimes it was way off. That could happen in any direction. After a poor night’s sleep, it told me that I was well into my recovery and ready for a day of strain. I felt exhausted and like a shell of myself. Another time, it rated my recovery at 50. However, I felt great and was ready for more work. I did some research and found that Whoop may be weighing your heart rate variability (HRV), more than the actual length or quality of your sleep. Although HRV is an important metric, people in good health tend to have higher HRV (which can be a good thing), which could cause the numbers to be distorted.

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Whoop vs. Garmin
It’s worth noting that although Whoop was the first wearable to focus laser on recovery, it is not the only one. Garmin, for example, uses a metric called Body Battery that is similar to Whoop’s recovery score. I found it slightly more accurate than what I actually felt subjectively. Although Garmin doesn’t make this number as prominently as Whoop, it’s still there if you need it.

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This brings us to the core of the issue. The Enduro Garmin watch was also worn by me for the entire time I wore my Whoop 4.0, more than a month. The Enduro can do everything the Whoop can, but it can also do so much more. Steps and altimeter Check. You can track all types of indoor and outdoor activities, from lap-swimming up to snowboarding. Yep. Yes. Yessir. Yes. Sure. Last but not least, I don’t have to pull out the phone to see what’s happening. My wrist can be used to instantly see my heart rate. My wrist can be used to set an alarm. It’s easy to see the date and flipping times, my Body Battery level, and the calories I’ve burned, all from my wrist. Do you have several weeks of battery life? That, too. The Enduro is expensive at $800. However, Garmin makes cheaper multi-sport watches that can do all of this and are likely to last many years. The cost of Whoop at $30 per month would make it very affordable in a few years.
The important thing is that the Garmin can replace the Whoop, but not the Garmin. Even though I loved the Whoop, which I did at times, I would still want the Garmin on for almost any activity. Two watch-sized wearables are just too much for me. It looks like I’m in geek-shackles.

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Is it worth buying?
The Whoop 4.0 isn’t “bad,” it’s just limited. It’s great to see it grow and do things that 3.0 couldn’t. It can alert you if your blood oxygen levels suddenly drop below safe levels. This could indicate a serious health problem such as a covid-19-related infection. My Moderna booster shot was given to me, and I woke up the following day to find that my HRV had dropped and that my skin temperature had risen. I had very low recovery. Yep, I felt like crap for a day. The 4.0 also features a vibrating motor that you can use to set a quiet alarm. It can be set to a time, a sleep goal, or when the Whoop detects that you are in the green (i.e. You’ve reached a good recovery level. I don’t recommend the last one. It woke me up an extra hour earlier than I had hoped, and I was still exhausted.

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Whoop’s goals are admirable in and of itself. It makes sense to calculate strain, recovery (and sleep) in order to know how hard you can push yourself on any given day. This is the problem with the Whoop 4.0. It doesn’t quite nail it, and that’s a problem considering that that’s all it does. There are many sports watches that do a better job than the Whoop 4.0 at dealing with strain/recovery, but also do a lot more. A multi-sport watch is more practical for almost everyone.

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