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Tech Buzz: First Look At Advanced Earphones, Fitness Trackers And Apps

This month we review new smart earphones from Life-Beam, the Garmin Vivosmart 3, and a brand new Runkeeper app.

Life Beam Vi

Life-Beam Vi BioSensing Earphones and Personal Training System, $249

iPhone and Android apps required. Available now.

Vi is the most funded fitness wearable on Kickstarter, raising almost $1.7 million to date. Life-Beam’s bio-sensing earphones combine sweat-proof performance with outstanding sound by Harman Kardan. They also have built-in sensors for in-ear heart rate, barometric altimeter, and accelerometers. The most unique feature, though, is a sophisticated artificial intelligence based training system driven by speech recognition. Life-Beam started in bio-sensing for military pilots, special forces and astronauts, so they have extreme condition sensing experience.

Vi is a collar style earphone. The earbuds are very light, comfortable and easy to quickly put on and remove. When not in use, magnets keep the earbuds fastened to each other and to the ends of the collars. The collar is covered in a soft neoprene-like material and sits comfortably on the neck without much slipping or bouncing. The battery life rating is strong compared to most wireless headphones, especially given the sensing. It can last up to 8 hours in active/training mode and 12 hours in music/answer calls mode.

Music and phone controls on the right collar arm are easy to reach. The Harman Kardan sound quality is outstanding, clear crisp and rich. Although it lacks a bit in bass, Life-Beam told us a bass boost option is coming in May.

The first generation release of Vi’s artificial intelligence is a bold new approach to run training, with a clear initial focus on beginner runners—simplicity and lots of friendly feedback. Runners can choose an overall goal, such as Run Faster, Lose Weight, Maintain or Improve Fitness. After an initial 120 minutes of running, Vi will define Effort Zones based on heart rate and other parameters such as age. These zones will change as your fitness progresses.

On the run, a phone is required to hear splits and other stats, such as the effort zone you are currently in. A very friendly, enthusiastic personal trainer responds to questions and talks you through the workout. Her chattiness level is configurable. By touching the right earbud and speaking after the tone, you can call up your heart rate, ask Vi to coach you on cadence via a pleasant beat over your music, get an update on the run, start a Spotify Premium radio station based on the current song, or start/stop the effort level guide. In our testing, we found that the earbud touch did not function in driving rain but touch with sweaty fingers was generally fine.

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The voice recognition cue, a descending tone, can be hard to hear. The Vi frequently missed our commands, especially in windy seaside conditions. This issue is being worked with an update in the May-June timeframe.

The in-ear heart rate sensing was decently accurate, but we did have occasional spikes and low readings. Vi is working on an interactive fit guide, key to reliable in-ear sensing, for an upcoming release. The earphone tech was designed so that firmware updates, even extensive ones, can be delivered “over the air.”

Life-Beam CEO Omri Yoffe told us his team of physiology-oriented data scientists are working hard on incorporating new insights into Vi’s artificial intelligence, with a focus on data already being captured by your phone’s built-in health and other apps. These could include sleep, weight, heart rate trends, overall steps and weather. With this data, Vi will try to tailor its workout advice and coaching to a more personalized picture of your status and environment. While Vi is focused on beginner runners in its first release, future releases will provide the option of training plans and more data options.

Garmin Vivosmart 3

Garmin Vívosmart 3, $140

iPhone and Android apps required. Available now.

The Vívosmart 3 is a great smartband. It is discreet and a marvel of highly functional miniaturization. For Garmin fans, it can serve as a 24/7 compliment to workout-focused Garmin GPS watches.

The new Vívosmart 3 goes head-to-head with the Fitbit Alta HR. The Vívosmart costs $10 less, with a thinner, lighter band and a slightly wider activity and heart rate display. It also packs in phone notifications, answer/find phone, movement based sleep tracking, and music control. The Alta has seven days of battery life versus five for the Vívosmart. But the Garmin is swim-ready, whereas the Fitbit is not. Unlike the fashion-forward Fitbit, the Vívosmart does not try to be a thin accessory or watch. It is all about being a discreet presence on your wrist. The band is only available in black or purple. The OLED display is protected by a matte material that was easy to scroll and touch when testing. It blends into the wrist band with no seams or metal accents.

Garmin has clearly intended the Vívosmart to be a complement to a more full featured Garmin watch. Data from both Garmin devices is synchronized via Garmin Connect. This means you can use a Garmin watch to track your runs and then wear the smartband to track everything else, with all of the data ending up in one place.

The band will estimate your VO2 max and stress levels using Garmin’s 24/7 Elevate heart rate sensing. We especially like viewing and learning the overall daily stress score, which is determined by sampling heart rate periodically throughout the day and continuously in workouts. Like the Fitbit, the Garmin also has a breathing exercise widget.

The Vívosmart will attempt to automatically detect your activity using Move IQ. Strangely, it kicked in 2 miles into a run, but did not detect the very start of it. The band also thought our up-tempo pace was “Strength Training.” Strength Training is a new tracked activity which is supposed to include automatic rep counting, although we have not tested this yet.

Most runners will use something else to track distance and pace, given the band has no GPS and the screen is hard to see in sunlight. If you own a Garmin watch without heart rate on the wrist, or you dislike chest straps, you can rebroadcast heart rate from the band to your Garmin watch screen. You can also use heart rate zone alert. Set a heart rate zone prior to activity and the smartband will alert you with a vibration when you enter or leave that zone. We find that this type of cue keeps us from constantly staring at a screen and allows us to run more by feel.

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Asics RunKeeper Pace Academy

Runkeeper ASICS Pace Academy Challenge, Free

iPhone and Android

ASICS, through its Runkeeper app, recently introduced Challenge Workouts, a well-thought-out series of speed workouts designed to help you improve your 5K time. While 5K’s are not as popular as they used to be, competitors at any distance, even ultra runners, need high intensity speed work to build strength and leg turnover. From a benchmark 5K time, the app outlines your paces for a variety of speed workouts: surges, short fartlek, progression, 400-meter repeats and ladder fartlek. The workouts include warm up and cool down and have audio cues. It only takes 30-35 minutes per workout. This is meant to be a compliment to the rest of your training. It is not recommended to do the entire speed series but no other running.

A cycle may take around 3-4 weeks to complete. At the end of a cycle, test yourself in the 5K, whether it is an actual race or a time trial. From the results, a new benchmark is set and then runners can repeat the cycle with new pace goals. We like the relatively short time focus of this training plan, as well as its goal of improving short distance speed.

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