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The Surprisingly Comfortable Mio Alpha Heart Rate Watch Does Away With Those Pesky Chest Straps

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The Mio Alpha made a bit of a splash on Kickstarter earlier this year when it promised a heart rate-sensing watch that didn’t use chest straps or similar encumbrances to measure your exertion. They went $200,000 over their goal of $100,000 and just started shipping in time for pre-marathon season.

The watch offers two basic functions. You can tell the time, obviously (but not the date) and you press the right button to toggle heart rate mode. You can set a target heart rate by holding down the left button. You end your workout by holding down the right button again.

The real trick is how the device senses your heart rate. Rather than sensing using EKG technology, the watch uses a pair of LEDs to sense blood volume under the skin. The green LEDs light up and another LED begins pulsing when it grabs a reading. Compared to a Polar EKG watch I’ve used, the heart rate reading was accurate. The Alpha is rechargeable and includes an oddly-shaped USB dongle that snaps into the bottom of the watch. The battery lasted about two weeks of semi-regular use but your mileage may vary.

The watch also transmits data via Bluetooth so you can connect the Mio to a smartphone for more precise recording. Users of EKG watches will immediately see the benefits: you get a continuous readout without having to wear anything around your chest and the watch itself is light and comfortable so you will barely notice it. Could it have more features? Sure, a timer and stopwatch would be nice, but as it stands at $199 you’re getting a very solid heart rate monitor. The Nike+ GPS watch, for example, costs $169 and tracks distance but the monitor is $70 extra. Better heart rate watches from Suunto and Polar can hit the $300 and higher range, so this very basic watch is just about all you need if you’re only looking for accurate heart rate measurements without much fuss.

The Alpha is surprisingly light and simple to use which makes it great for folks who don’t want a huge watch strapped to their wrist while running. While there is something to be said for a wrist computer that can tell you pace, distance, age, weight, number of mailboxes passed on your run, and lucky lotto numbers, something like the Mio is refreshing in its simplicity.