I’ve gotten into running over the past two years or so, though since I’m still into eating and drinking you might not know it looking at me in profile. Long a team sports kind of guy and never a runner, the recent advent of smartphone apps and wireless stride monitors finally got me interested enough in tracking my times, distances, and splits that before I knew it I actually liked putting one foot in front of the other over and over again for an hour at a time. It’s not like I’m setting speed records for my age class or training to run the NYC Marathon, but being able to track my ability to run a little further, a little faster has proven to be a steady source of motivation in between jogs. Apps like RunKeeper Pro and the Nike+ system also offer social features galore, but frankly I couldn’t care much less. I just like looking at the data by myself.

One fitness technology I’ve never really messed around with is heart rate monitoring. So it was with great interest that I unpacked iHome’s new NB639 “Fitness evolved headphones with one-touch heart rate monitor and pedometer.” Developed in collaboration with shoe maker New Balance, the NB639 package bundes a pedometer (distance tracking), chronograph (stopwatch), and heart rate monitor with in the ear, sweatproof earbuds. The idea is that for the reasonable price of $99 you get a single, small unit that tracks pretty much all of the fitness data you need and displays it on charts and graphs via the included computer software. Sounds like a good idea … but is it actually a good use of your hundred bucks?

NB639 Pros

  • Small, lightweight unit tracks time, distance and heart rate
  • Inexpensive for all it does
  • Sweatproof earbuds

Amaze 4G Cons

  • Earphones sound lousy
  • Earbuds are uncomfortable (at least for me)
  • Difficult to get heart rate during workout
  • Very limited stopwatch controls
  • Very limited software functionality
  • Out-of-box distance readings were wildly inaccurate

The Particulars

For your $99 you get a pendant-sized unit that plugs into your smartphone or mp3 player’s headphone jack and clips onto your clothing. The unit has a front-mounted touch sensitive control and clickable button, a somewhat difficult to reach voice prompt button, and an audio-out jack into which you can plug the included earbuds or a pair of your own choosing. Also included are snap-on plastic hooks that allow for “over the ear” wearing of the earbuds, three sizes of silicon ear tips, a 3.5mm to USB adapter for data syncing and charging, and a cloth carrying pouch. You also get a CD with HeartPal software that can be installed to a Mac or PC.

Using the NB639 goes like this: Charge it up via USB. Clip it on to your person – the included diagram shows the unit positioned along the collar of a tank top with a scoopneck, so I just clipped it to the collar of my t-shirt. Turn the thing on and listen to the female voice that greets you; voiceovers trigger audio ducking of your music (or whatever you’re listening to), which makes it easy to hear the data without the need for abrupt volume shifts. Take a heart reading if you like by laying a finger over the front sensor. Start your workout. At any point during your workout, take your heart rate again or get a progress update by double-tapping on the touch sensor (or pressing that hard-to-reach voice prompt button). Progress updates include steps, mileage, calories burned and workout time. Finish your workout. Press the button to end your workout. Plug the unit into your computer via the USB dongle and sideload your workout data for viewing in the HeartPal app.

Buying Advice

As great of an idea as a sub-$100, do it all, fitness tracking system developed with a leading athletic shoe company may have been, the NB639 is not a very good product. The earbuds sounded mediocre like the kind that get packed in with an mp3 player or cell phone, and the right one kept slipping out of my ear no matter which size tip I used. I also wound up with a little scratch in my right ear thanks to a piece of plastic on the housing/speaker seam that wasn’t smoothly finished.

The heart-rate functionality seems pretty accurate, which is great, but I found it really difficult to take a reading while running with the unit clipped to the neck of my shirt. Trying to do so, I inadvertently triggered several progress updates, which was kind of annoying. Also annoying was how incredibly inaccurate the unit was out of the box. My first real test of the NB639 was on a six mile run I do pretty regularly. Google Maps, RunKeeper, and the Nike+ SportBand all agree that the length of this particular route is just under 6.50 miles. The NB639 measured just over nine miles, and because I couldn’t figure out how to pause the stopwatch function when I stopped to stretch after the first half mile, I didn’t even wind up with an accurate time for the run.

Oh well, at least I had the heart rate data I’d worked so hard to capture during the workout, right? Nope. HeartPal doesn’t save heart rate data. Why doesn’t a product called “HeartPal” tell me anything at all about my heart? What kind of Pal is that? Not the kind my heart wants, thanks. HeartPal – forever renamed in my head as “Pedometer Pal” – shows graphs indicated distance traveled, steps taken, time of workout, date of workout and so on, but no heart rate data at all. The software is relatively easy to use, but pretty crude in both design and functionality when compared to something like RunKeeper Pro, which is $9.99 and works off of your smartphone’s GPS and processing/storage power.

I was able to use HeartPal to tweak the unit’s settings to better match my age, stride length, and preferred pedometer position (where I clipped the thing on my shirt), which resulted in more accurate distance readings the next time I ran with the thing. But considering my Nike+ SportBand was about 95% accurate right out of the box, and apps like RunKeeper require no calibration at all so long as you have GPS lock, why even bother fiddling with the iHome New Balance unit?

Can’t think of a good reason, frankly. If you want to track time and distance while working out, look into a smartphone app or either Adidas’ or Nike’s sensor-based systems. If you want to track heart rate, get a dedicated monitor that actually saves your data or at least doesn’t require awkward mid-workout thumb scans. Whatever you decide, just don’t buy the iHome NB639 – it’s not worth the money, period.