Sadly, the sleep tracking company Zeo Inc quietly closed its doors back in May and stopped manufacturing what was the most accurate sleep tracker on the commercial market. But there’s now plenty of new devices and apps trying to fill that void.
What you lose in accuracy, you gain in convenience. Today’s most popular sleep tracking devices don’t directly measure your brain activity. In fact, some of them don’t even touch your body at all.
What is sleep tracking?
Sleep tracking is what it sounds like – a systematic way to keep track of your sleep patterns. As the aficionados of the Quantified Self Movement like to say, “what is tracked, improves.”
By taking a look at your sleep data, you can easily see how your sleep is related to other factors such as diet, stress, and -–not pointing any fingers here -– those three glasses of wine after dinner.
It’s shocking actually how much our sleep is affected by everyday habits and lifestyle choices. Sleep is not a dead zone of activity but a very subtle period of brain recharging and cellular recuperation for the entire body. And because sleep is the third pillar of health (diet and exercise being the other two), when we sleep poorly, other aspects of health decline as well.
How Sleep Tracking Works
By and large, these devices and smart phone apps work by actigraphy, which is the detection and analysis of muscular movement while you sleep. The movements can determine the corresponding stage of sleep, because the different phases of sleep each have telltale markers. Actigraphy can also differentiate movements made while awake versus asleep.
It’s nowhere near sleep-lab quality data–this method is hardly used clinically alone– but it’s still pretty good for discovering secret periods of sleeplessness that you may not remember and for tracking your sleep totals over varying lengths of time.
So let’s review the best players!
This article is a round-up — I haven’t tested these devices myself, nor am I getting paid to review them. Also, I should mention that none of the sleep trackers on the market today have done any third-party validation to back their claims for accuracy in sleep staging, or for the physical and psychological benefits of using their products.
Sleep Tracking Hardware
FitBit. There are two types of device here: Fitbit One is a clip-on, the Flex is a wristband. Both use actigraphy to log sleep, giving you information on total sleep time and awakenings by analyzing your movements throughout the night. This is key, as you learn about your sleep quality, not just hours laying down. A “smart alarm” also wakes you with non-intrusive vibrations when it determines you are in the lightest sleep stage close to your target wake up time. (I’ll discuss smart alarms more in a future article). Users rave about how the devices upload the data automatically via Bluetooth whenever you happen to pass close enough to your docking station.
JawBone Up – It’s a sexy, flexible bracelet pedometer at first blush, with lots of features including sleep tracking via wrist-actigraphy. Up uses the data to gauge light sleep versus deep sleep (that is: Stage I and II is considered “light” and Stage III and REM is called “deep.” I have a problem with this grouping, but I’ll save it for another article.) Its smart alarm features 10, 20, 30 minute windows near your target wake up. Up doesn’t auto-synch (yet) – you upload to the iPhone manually to export and analyze your data.
SleepTracker – Before the big boys joined this party, we had SleepTracker. Thanks to Time Magazine calling it the invention of the year in 2009 and to a spot on Dr. Phil, SleepTracker is selling very well, even though it costs over $150. One of the first wrist-actigraphy-based sleep trackers, Sleeptracker is designed like an old-school digital wristwatch. I am a fan of all things that remind me of the 1990s, so I had to include it. It also has advanced sleep tracking tools if you want to spend more.
Lark – Lark is unique because it has more community and information support than any other sleep tracking device. Lark also was developed with the expertise of a Stanford University sleep researcher. The product features wrist-actigraphy and a smart alarm on a somewhat bulky-looking bracelet, combined by an iPhone app. It also has a subscription-based business model for those who really want to go deep into their sleep tracking, including a nice journal system and an exercise, diet and sleep coaching program.
Melon. This device isn’t available yet, but I’m really excited about it because it may just fill the void of Zeo. Their team just finished a very successful Kickstarter campaign—raising almost $300,000—and is currently in development. Melon is a lightweight headband that tracks your brainwaves via EEG so you can track and optimize your conscious states. It’s the next generation of biofeedback: cheaper, practical and more elegant than ever. Applications include more efficient studying, exercising, meditation, and (supposedly) sleeping. And yes, that is drool.
Zeo. I know, I know, Zeo is dead, and the MyZeo.com website is down, but, as of this publication, the Zeo API is still running, which means you can still extract your old data from the cloud and conceivably, continue taking in new data with your old Zeo device. Check out this article as well as Eric Blue’s data extraction tool for more updates on this.
Sleep Tracking Apps
Besides devices, there are a number of apps for smartphones that can track your sleep. These apps take advantage of the accelerometer in the device, so you just have to place the phone on your mattress when you lay down your weary head.
Caveats: sleeping with a partner will affect its readings, and so does memory foam. But people who sleep on memory foam with a partner probably don’t need to track their sleep because they have already won the game of life.
Sleep Cycle – this 99 cents iPhone app won the Lifehacker award earlier this year as the most popular sleep tracking gadget. Mattress actigraphy plus some limited journaling. It also has a white noise feature for helping you relax before sleep.
Sleep Bot – iPhone and Google app. This is more of a sleep recording app – you punch in when you’re about to sleep, and it “punches you out” when the alarm goes off in the morning. So it doesn’t actually record awakenings or anything else, but is very user friendly.
Sleep as Android – An app for Android phones. Free version gives you the basic sleep tracking and smart alarm features that are common to the devices I’ve described above.
Like JawBone’s Up, it lumps deep sleep and REM sleep together, therefore waking you in “light” sleep only. The $2.99 version offers enhanced coaching and sleep tracking features. Also has other paid add-ons like lullabies and a stats manager.
There are more, but I think I covered the basic landscape. Do let me know if I forgot your favorite, or just to share your experience with sleep tracking devices below!
Daniel b. says
I wish I could afford any of these. I don’t even have a smart phone. :^(
Ryan Hurd says
just wait Daniel, soon we’ll just implant some nanobots in the bloodstream to get this data.
Nice review, Ryan. Would love to see some vids of you personally using these devices 🙂
Ryan Hurd says
haha OK, as long as I don’t have to record how long it takes me to get up a flight of stairs too.
Chris Weber says
I was really looking forward to Melon, but it appears they decided to go with a hardshell headband instead of a soft/neoprene style. Is that what it looks like to you? The cool thing about Melon is that they are working on an open API, so the device will be a neutral EEG that you can build any type of app you want on top. Sleep, meditation, exercise, study, are all game.
Olli Erjanti says
There is also non-wearable (and non-disturbing) Beddit with Pro tracker and iPhone version to come. It measures sleep by non-distruptive highly sensitive pressure sensor strap placed under your bed and tracks sleeping patterns, heart rate, breathing, snoring, movements and environment.
Ryan Hurd says
hey Ollie – thanks for that! I hadn’t heard about Beddit, sounds really exciting.
Chris Weber says
Ryan have you tested any of these devices and played with their software? I looked closer at Fitbit, Basis (which you didn’t cover), and SleepTracker and Lark. It seems like they’re all very primitive when it comes to sleep tracking. That is, they really only track a “quality of sleep” metric based on when you went to bed, when you woke up, and how many times you were awoken in between. I don’t see anyone doing more interesting tracking of metrics like times spent in each phase of sleep, esp. time spent in REM, reporting when REM periods occurred throughout the night and for how long.
I don’t suppose any of these could accurately do that with simple actigraphy technology. But Basis includes many more monitors which makes it interesting – heart rate, body temp, actigraphy, and perspiration. Unfortunately they don’t seem to be doing anything useful with sleep tracking beyond the high-level “sleep quality” metric. Do you agree?
Chris Carde says
I came across this article and your comments on devices for sleep tracking as we’re in the process of launching a new product in this space: Bedscales.
We also use a pressure sensor, but place one under each leg of the bed. This results in a hassle-free, clean installation that can be neither seen nor felt from in bed. Interestingly, not only can we track sleep but we also get a very clean measurement of body weight. If you have an environmental sensor like the Netatmo product, we’ll even overlay environmental characteristics (like CO2 and noise) to let you see how this affects your sleep.
We’ve validated our algorithm against polysomnographic studies in a sleep lab and are very excited about the quality of the data we’re providing.
It’s still early days for our product… We’re trying to bring it to market through a Kickstarter campaign. If this sounds like something you’d like to see on the market, we’d benefit from having a few more supporters!
I just heard about the Aurora Headband by iWinks. I’ve been wanting to try something to assist in Lucid dreaming. It’s not out yet as it’s kickstarter campaign is about to end but didn’t know if you’ve heard anything about this or have “inside” info or input on how this would compare with what the other options you’ve posted above. Thanks for all your info!