When we first received the press release for the Withings WifiScale — distributed locally by PC Range, better known as being the local face of Billion routers — jaws dropped in the CNET offices. Surely somebody, somewhere, was having a laugh at our expense?
But no — the Withings WifiScale is a real product. It is, as the name suggests, a weight scale with integrated Wi-Fi compatibility.
We can't say that we're genuinely au fait with the latest and greatest in design chic when it comes to bathroom scales per se. That having been said, the glass and steel design of the Withings Scale is pretty nice as these things go. The scale comes with four tiny optional feet to stick on if you're going to be using it on carpet. Otherwise, it just floats on four tiny stubs on your bathroom floor. It runs from four AAA batteries inserted on the base of the unit, right next to the unit's USB port. The top of the scale has a small greyscale LCD display and a four-way cross pattern to allow you to evenly place your feet with ease.
At a purely aesthetic level, the glass surface of the Withings Scale makes it not only a magnet for the same kind of fingerprint muck that befouls any "piano black" TV frame, but also the crud that may or may not accumulate on your feet on a daily basis. It's easy enough to wipe clean — but it isn't all that pleasant a reminder of the cruft that can accumulate on your feet on a daily basis, especially if you're sharing the scale with others.
It's a scale. It weighs things, but that should be pretty obvious. Beyond impressive industrial design, however, any scale's going to have to work pretty hard if it's going to justify an AU$249 price tag, or even its "$225 until Christmas 2009" introductory price tag.
The Withings Scale certainly tries. Yes, it'll measure your weight, and the weight of up to eight other people, albeit not all at the same time. It'll also deduce your lean mass, fat mass and BMI based on the figures you provide to it. All this data is stored on a secure website and graphed over time for up to eight users, so you can see how your weight's fluctuating on a by-the-minute basis if you really felt the need. You can set weight goals and see where your weight sits on a normalised curve based on your height and gender.
There's even a free iPhone App, so if you desperately wanted to see your weight graph on the go you could do so. Not content with appeasing the iPhone owning masses, it's also possible to get the Withings Scale to automatically tweet your weight, either weekly, daily or every single time you weigh yourself. There's all sorts of interesting social factors at play with that particular bit of technology integration. Would you be happy telling the world how heavy you actually are?
Many Wi-Fi products can be a bit obtuse when it comes to the amount of time it takes for installation. The Withings Scale isn't one of them. Installation involves popping in four AAA batteries and optionally the four feet if you're going to use the scale on carpeted surfaces. You've then got to create a user account at www.withings.com, which will also allow you to download client software for your PC or Mac. We were somewhat concerned that we might have to tap in our wireless network's WPA key with our feet, but this is what the client is for. Connect the scale up to a spare USB port on your PC and it'll handle Wi-Fi account details for you, prompting you to select a network and enter the security details from the comfort of your keyboard.
Once installed the scale itself is very simple to use. Stepping on it switches it on, and it'll start weighing you. A full weigh-in takes about 25 seconds, and at the end of it the scale switches itself off and quickly transmits the information to Withings web portal.
For what it's worth, we discovered almost by accident that the Withings weight scale isn't precise below certain weights, as it totally failed to detect a house cat sitting on its cool glass surface on a hot day. Those with a pressing need to monitor their pet's weight will have to look elsewhere. We tried to adjust for that minor flaw by having one user pick up the cat and weigh both, but the difference between the user's weight and the cat was enough for the scale to incorrectly identify the user as a much heavier legitimate user, who then had that weight added to their graph and, as it turns out, tweeted out to the world. More on that shortly.
The Withings portal itself is well laid out, and the more you weigh yourself the more information you'll have to hand. This can be important as the average person's measured weight can fluctuate quite a bit depending on the time of day, stress factors, meals and even the way they stand on the scale. You can easily see your calculated BMI, lean and fat mass against an "advised" scale of what you should be aiming for. This is a little more contentious, as other factors, including body shape, ethnicity and muscle mass can lead to quite varying measurements of what is or isn't "healthy" weight. The arguments around that debate are long and varied, and to its credit Withings does note that the ideals it presents are merely guidelines, not hard and fast rules.
It's also possible in this social media age to set up your Twitter account to automatically tell your social media circle exactly how chubby you are. We set this up and discovered pretty quickly that while it does work, there's a few little quirks in its implementation that we wish were better handled. For a start, each tweet includes a mandatory link to the Withings product page, which is pretty sneaky stealth marketing. More worrying was that we found it actively difficult to switch it off properly, and thus told the world repeatedly how heavy we were. There's no way to delete Twitter account details once they've been entered. You can update them by overwriting with another Twitter account, but you can't just enter gibberish, as it only saves these details if it verifies they're correct. After much fiddling, we eventually set up a dummy Twitter account to bypass the problem.
The Withings Scale does an awful lot to try to justify itself, and on the interesting gimmicks scale, it scores well. We can see how you could use it to track weight, keep yourself on target and ultimately improve your health. At the same time, however, we can't ignore the fact that with a little self discipline, a $20 analog scale and a notepad, you could do exactly the same thing but a whole lot cheaper.