Withings ScaleDo you remember the  good old days, back in the late 90′s, when it was fun to sit around and laugh at people who talked about Internet-connected everything?  ”The Internet-connected toaster!” you’d shout, and your friends would laugh.  If you were all geeks.  Just hypothetically speaking.

Well, it’s 2010 now, and we just expect everything to have Internet features at the least, and iPhone connectivity is a big plus.  Enter Withings, with their WiFi-enabled, body-fat-percentage-detecting, iPhone accessible bathroom scale ($159 direct).  Yes, a bathroom scale with an IP address.

I’ve been using the Withings scale for about six weeks.   On the whole, it’s performed well, and I would give it a qualified recommendation.  It is certainly better, fancier, and more helpful than the generic digital scale I had before.   But there are quirks, both technical and psychological.

Unlike pretty much any other bathroom scale, you need to go online to get the Withings scale set up.  It’s easy and quick, and just involves setting up a free account on the website, getting the scale connected to it, and entering the names, initials, and heights of the people who will be using the scale (height is used to compute lean mass and BMI).

The weight portion of the scale acts like any other digital scale — you stand on it, it gets close to the weight right away, and it bounces up and down by about 0.3lbs as you shift your weight slightly.   After a few seconds it settles on a weight.  The bright, large VFD display is easy to read here and a great improvement over the LCD display on my previous scale.

Then the cool part happens — invisible electrodes embedded in the scale’s glass surface measure the impedance between your feet. Because lean tissue conducts electricity better than fat, the scale can combine the results with your weigh-in to calculate an approximate percentage of lean and fat mass.  Pretty cool, eh?

It gets better:  the scale uses its built-in WiFi connection to go online and talk to Withings servers.  The servers log your weight and lean mass — and even automatically detect which user has just weighed in, in multi-user households.   The detected user’s initials are sent back to the scale, which displays your weight, fat mass, and initials.  All of this happens in about ten seconds.

How could that be any cooler?  Well, throw in an iPhone app, complete with push notifications.  When there are new weigh-ins to report, a numeric badge appears on the scale application’s icon on your phone.  The app itself shows details from the most recent weigh-in when held in portrait orientation, and a chart of weight and fat mass over time when in landscape orientation.  The same graphs are available after logging into the Withings website from any browser, if you don’t have an iPhone.

Withings Scale iPhone App

The iPhone app is pretty slick, and gives you an incentive to actually use the scale daily.

After living with the scale for six weeks, I definitely wouldn’t go back to a plain old scale.  Maybe I’m just a geek, but having historical graphs available makes me more likely to use the scale in the first place.  I don’t want  a gap in the graph!   And having the lean mass metrics gives me day-by-day feedback on whether to indulge that craving for a half pound of cookie dough.

Or so I thought.  It turns out that the nature of electrical measurement of lean mass makes it fairly erratic.  For instance, if you want to feel really good about yourself, weigh in after stepping out of the shower.  Warm, damp feet seem to be good for about a 2% reduction in fat mass, at least for me.  Somehow, even knowing that, I can’t resist stepping on the scale after a shower (note the ridiculously low dips in the screenshot).

As with any scale, time of day also matters.  You can’t compare weight in the morning to just after dinner.   But the combination of natural weight variance and fairly significant swings in the lean mass measurements could panic scale-centric users, like dieters.  I’ve had days where I barely ate, worked out quite a lot, lost two pounds, and gained 3% fat mass, according to the scale.

The charts available online and on the iPhone help to mitigate this issue by clearly illustrating the overall ranges of the measurements, and how they change over time.  I’ve learned to just look at those bands for a general idea of which direction I’m going (and whether I can eat that half pound of cookie dough).  It would be nice if the system would automatically adjust values for time of day, so a periodic weigh-in at an usual time wouldn’t result in a huge spike or valley in the charts.

On the whole, the Withings scale feels ahead of its time.  From slick industrial design to a solid technical implementation and a pretty iPhone app, it’s clear these folks know what they’re doing.   The scale could stand some improvements in its measurement and presentation of results, but that may come with software updates.  If you’re an early adopter, or if you’re looking for an incentive to actually get on the scale every day, I’d definitely recommend giving it a shot.

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