Getting detailed data about your workouts is great and all, except there's so much cumbersome gear involved. A chest strap for your heart rate, your phone to track distance and play music, some headphones so you can listen to music in the first place and hear your training app's voice prompts.
The iRiver ON was supposed to replace the tangle by combining an advanced heart-rate monitor with Bluetooth headphones. Unfortunately, it can only be as good as the app that powers it, and oh boy...
What Is It?
It's a pair of stereo Bluetooth headphones and a heart-rate monitor in one. It works with the iRiver On both iOS and Android. This is the same Valencell technology we got a preview of early this year, but this is the first time it's been licensed into a consumer-available product.
Why Does It Matter?
Aside from the convenience-factor of having multiple gadgets in one, the iRiver On claims to be able to give an accurate estimate of your VO2 max, which is pretty much the holy grail of workout data. To get a real reading you generally need to be hooked up to a large contraption with a hose attached to a mask so you can measure your actual oxygen consumption when you're running on a treadmill. It's probably impossible for any small device to give you results that accurate, but Valencell claimed the results would be within a seven-percent margin of error, which would be incredible if it bears out.
It's kinda funky looking. It's, essentially, a semi-rigid plastic collar in the shape of a C with two earbuds coming out of it. The earbuds are where the magic lives. In the earbud is, essentially, a pulse oximeter. It basically shines a little light into your ear and the sensor can see the rate at which your heart is pumping by detecting the subtle changes in the color of your blood. Blood flow to your head is generally (hopefully) very good, and, because there isn't much room for the earbud to move inside your ear, it can give a very good reading of your heart rate.
On the collar itself are controls for volume up/down, play/pause, track forward/back, and voice commands (which don't seem to work with Android, presently, but auto-dials the last person you talked to). It charges via micro USB port on the bottom. When it's laid out it looks a bit like one of those creepy drones from The Matrix, or this squid.
When you first install the app, it asks you to put in your age, height, weight, and gender, so it can get a better idea of what zones you "should" be training in. Then there are a bunch of fitness tests you can take, the most interesting of which is the Rockport Test which will supposedly give you a look at your VO2 Max. The test instructs you to walk a mile at a comfortable pace. Once you hit a mile, it tells you to stop and calculates your score. Unfortunately, results are all over the place. First of all, a "comfortable pace" is extremely vague, so there is all kinds of room for interpretation here and that is going to skew your results.
But, more damning, one week it said my VO2 Max was 24, which would essentially mean that I am a human tub of silly putty. I'm pretty sure I'm in better than average shape for my age, so this made no sense to me. I took the test again the next week, and scored a 33.9. Better, but that still seemed low. After all, back in January, I took Valencell's test at CES, which involved stepping up on a block for several minutes, and it said my VO2 Max was 49. These are the exact same sensors, and while I may not be in as good shape as I was then, I'm not that far off.
The app, in general, is a hot mess. When you try to do the "Calibration Running" test so it can get a better idea of your stride and cadence, it instructs you that "You must running [sic] 0.1mile [sic] (160m) on a measured track." First off, have you ever seen a track that is sectioned off into 0.1 mile pieces? No, they don't exist. So I used another app to gauge how far I was running, but guess what, if you're slightly over or under 0.1 miles it says the test failed. It took me 8 tries before it accepted my result. This is beyond stupid. For starters, this app is capable of measuring distance! It does it in the VO2 Max test, so why not just do it here? Second, once calibrated, it doesn't do anything useful with the data. It would be great to see your cadence while you're tracking your run, but nope, it doesn't show it.
In fact, using the app to track your runs is truly awful. The only audio feedback it gives you is what heart-rate zone you're in, and if your heart is beating harder than it thinks it should it will tell you to slow down. It doesn't give you any info about your speed, pace, or distance. It doesn't auto-pause when you stop at a red light. Despite selecting that I wanted imperial for my units of measure, it only displays metric. It also has a tendency to crash in the middle of a test and lose your data. It's a nightmare.
The hardware itself is comfortable and it seems to take accurate readings of your heart rate. It would be fantastic if it could share that heart rate data with a good app, like Runkeeper, Runtastic, or Endomondo. But nope. It's isolated to that terrible app. Let's hope they open it up somehow.
It's pretty comfortable to wear, and it does indeed seem to get an accurate heart-rate reading. It's certainly better than fumbling with a chest-strap. It's also hand to be able to skip tracks and adjust volume without having to dig out your phone. It's got potential.
The app is a complete and utter fiasco, and because you can only use the hardware with the app, this thing a nonstarter. Also, audio quality (for music playback) is lousy. We expect better from Bluetooth headphones. It's a bit weird looking, and makes you feel like you're wearing a dog collar at first, but you get used to it. The app, however, is unforgivable.
Should You Buy It?
Nope. Not right now. Especially not for 200 freaking dollars! If they set it up so it can work with your favorite running app, and bring the price down closer to $100, then yes. Or if they do a complete (and I mean total) overhaul of the iRiver On app, then maybe. But right now, this is a pretty good piece of hardware with no brains to run it, making it, essentially, useless. We had high hopes for this device, and we'll be hoping that either iRiver gets its act together, or than someone else licenses the Valencell technology and does it right, because this has huge potential, but it's utterly unrealized in the iRiver On. [iRiver]