Acumen Hydra-Alert HRM

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Nearly two years ago, we reviewed the first version of this watch, then called the "Dehydration Watch," that was intended to let you know how much fluid you had lost during exercise to keep you safe and well-hydrated.

Great idea and super intentions, but the Dehydration Watch just wasn't very user-friendly. You had to carry around a separate watch-like thing to measure current humidity and temperature and then reset the watch if those changed…. See? Not too friendly. Not to mention the name was a bit negative.

Now comes the next generation of this watch, this time called the Hydra-Alert — thankfully, a much better name. We were sent the Hydra-Alert HRM to test (HRM standing for heart rate monitor). Still, a great concept, super intentions and a huge leap forward from the first version, but even this second and much-improved watch has a ways to go before it'll become what it can and should be. We hear Acumen will make improvements to the current models, which will be available in late 2005 or early 2006, and we heard those changes will in part "fix" some of the issues with the current one described and reviewed here. But the company couldn't get specific. Meanwhile, the Hydra-Alert's four models (Jr., PC, HRM, and HRM PC) are in stores.

Let us say strongly, again, that the concept is a superior one: That a small and convenient device like a wrist watch can take your heart rate, measure your effort level, and tell you how much fluid you are losing due to exercise (calculated by reading heat and humidity, and factoring in effort level based either on your heart rate, if you have a version that measures that, or on an effort level you manually input based on charts.) In addition, the device buzzes to remind you to drink, tells you if the "Heat Index" (a combination of heat and humidity) is heading you into a danger zone, and times your workout. Plus, higher-end models give you interval timers and the ability for wireless download to your computer. There are enough features to keep a tech weenie happy for a very, very, very long time.

We adore the idea of a Heat Index to warn you if things are getting a big dangerous; we love the ability to set a timer that buzzes you as a reminder to drink (too many people just plain forget); we think being able to get your heart rate, time your workouts, and all that jazz all in one package is one that could and should be on wrists all over, outside and inside.

The problem, therefore, isn't so much the concept as the way it has been imbedded into the watch, partly thanks to engineers who don't seemingly understand the consumer, and marketers who tried to jam too much into this unit.

Without getting terribly technical, let's try to explain:

  1. The sensors for heat and humidity in the watch are thrown off by being next to your body. That's why the first model we mentioned above had a separate thing to carry around, but who wanted to do that? With this, we found that the humidity would go way up once we started exercising since it sensed the sweat. Take it off during a workout, and it immediately dropped. Put it back on, and it went up again. Heat too was higher than it should have been, but not as bad. This is a feature we hear will be modified so the sensors know to make the readings more realistic.
  2. Based on the above, the Heat Index therefore will be higher than it should be, showing you are in a Danger or Care zone when you may not really be. Nothing like an electronic gadget telling you are in danger to elevate the fright meter.
  3. When the chronograph is running, the Heat Index number isn't flashed on the screen if it reaches danger levels, which seemed like a no-brainer feature to us. Users have to fiddle with buttons to see it, and then fiddle again to get it back to the chronograph and/or heart-rate modes.
  4. The effort level in the one with the heart rate monitor appears to be using a formula that is accurate if someone is exercising at VERY intense levels and not the easy or moderate levels most of the world will be working out at. So it's great for hard-core athletes, but moderate fitness buffs may be shown higher fluid losses (partly based on effort) than reality and not know it. Could be a bit scary.
  5. We also found the fluid losses, called "Fluid Check," needed a reality check. For example, during one tester's workout – an easy outdoor run with temps in the low 60s and humidity in the mid-30s – the watch indicated she had lost the equivalent of four cups of fluid after a mere 50 minutes, and more than 5.5 cups (45 ounces) after 70 minutes. The indicated fluid loss in this case is highly suspect, as it was at other times during different length runs in different temperatures and humidity.

However, even if the loss were correct and our tester attempted to dutifully replenish the fluids as instructed by the watch, we have two more problems: First, the watch itself can't be reset when you do drink, so it continues to show accumulated fluid losses at an alarming and seemingly inaccurate rate. Second, there is a physiologic problem. You see, even if our tester had lost 5.5 cups of fluid in a 70-minute run, there is no way physiologically for her stomach to absorb that much fluid even if she did drink it. So the watch was, in essence, telling her to do something her body wasn't going to be able to accomplish.

We were told that the watch is an "educational tool" and isn't necessarily meant to tell people they should drink as much as is shown by the fluid loss display. Unfortunately, we couldn't find that description anywhere in the literature.

Despite our criticism, the tech weenies out there — and you know who you are — could actually enjoy this thing and its opportunities for number-crunching, not to mention the somersaults in getting it programmed to start. And elite or hard-core athletic types out there will also find it more useful because of the plethora of data, not to mention that the calculation is more accurate for those working out pretty hard (at so-called "threshold"). But the masses may not find it welcoming or too helpful.

Bottom line is, the company and its designers and developers are onto a great tool that can offer a practical education and resource for many exercisers. It still just needs some tweaking before we're ready to say it is suitable for the masses. We look forward to the new product. And we hope the informational brochures that go along with it explain even better the in's and out's, cautions and alerts, and what some of the tech lingo means.

SNEWS® Applause Meter: 3.5 hands clapping (1 to 5 hands clapping possible, with 5 clapping hands representing functional and design perfection)

Suggested Retail: Hydra-Alert HRM $200 (Others range from $150 to $350)

For more information:
www.acumeninc.com or 1-800-852-7823

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