MIO Alpha Heart Rate Monitor Review

by Brian Mullin on November 17, 2013

I have been using the MIO Alpha HR monitor since last winter, and I rarely ride without it, and I have found it an extremely useful instrument to gauge and track my heart-rate during a ride. It’s comfortable, gives accurate readings and doesn’t require an annoying chest strap.

The high tech ALPHA from Vancouver based MIO is the world’s first strapless, continuous heart-rate monitor you can wear on your wrist. It uses light beams and electro-optical cell technology to calculate your heart rate, so no need to wear a chest strap monitor that always seems to droop downwards during a workout. You can use the readout from the watch and also wirelessly transfer the data to a smart device via Bluetooth. It’s a simple watch, with only two buttons, an LCD display and a tri-color LED. It comes in Black and White and retails for $199.

How Does Alpha Work?
Two light beams and an electro-optical cell “sense” the volume of blood under your skin. Because the blood volume pulsates in the rhythm of the heart, so does the signal from the electro-optical cell. This signal is processed by an advanced electronics circuit and passed on to a highly specialized computer program that is embedded in the ALPHA. To date, the stumbling block with this type of technology has been the arm movements while walking or running strongly interfere with the electro-optical signal to the point that it is no longer possible to extract the heart rate from it. In order to solve this problem, the ALPHA has been provided with a separate motion detector. The computer program is able to use the information from this detector to compensate for the disturbance that is generated in the electro-optical signal by walking or running motions. As a result, the ALPHA can display an accurate heart rate even during motion-intense activities. This is just like the HR monitor they stick on your fingertip when you’re at the doctors or the hospital.

MIO Alpha

The Alpha has just a few features, including telling the time, a timer and of course, an HR monitor. As a watch, it was slightly on the bulky side of things, but it was comfortable enough to work just fine. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a backlight so you can’t see it at night or when its dark out. It’s supposed to be safe for swimming (not tested) though it doesn’t record your heart properly underwater due to the nature of the LED lights.

It has a decently long battery life of eight to ten hours, and then its lithium polymer battery must be recharged using its USB dongle. The dongle is a pretty strange entity and has a very short USB cable which then magnetically couples onto the back of the Alpha. I sometimes found that the Alpha would accidentally decouple ever so slightly from the charger when it was connected to a power supply, preventing a charge from occurring, though it did alert you of that issue with beeps, a blinking light and the displaying of an error.

It’s a pretty simple task to get your heart rate monitored in what they call Exercise mode; you fasten the Alpha on your arm snugly as tolerable, press and hold the HR button (right side) until FIND is displayed, and it blinks for 5-15 seconds until your heart rate value appears along with a blinking heart-shaped icon. Hit the HR button again to begin recording your workout using the timer (hours:minutes:seconds). You can cycle between viewing the timer, the time of day and your HR reading using the left-side toggle button. To exit the Exercise mode, press and hold the HR button until END is displayed. The HR digits are large and easy to read, and a quick glance at the watch is all that is needed to judge your current value.

It can monitor your target heart rate zone, bounded by a lower HR limit and an Upper HR limit, which is based on a percentage of your maximum heart rate. Once those values are manually set within the Alpha, start the timer, and you’ll be alerted by visual and audio cues depending on where you’re currently residing within the zones. Those alerts include an LED that blinks, an Up or Down arrow on the display and a beep, all of which were helpful for monitoring your target locations:

  • 10 bpm above target: double-blinks Red and double-beeps, and displays an Up arrow
  • Above target: blinks Red
  • In target zone: blinks Green
  • Below target: blinks Blue
  • 10 bpm below target: double-blinks Blue and double-beeps, and displays a Down arrow

You can review some basic statistics from your last timed ride or workout; the length of time of the ride, the average heart rate and amount of time spent in the target zone. Once a new workout is started, it overwrites the previous memory in the Alpha, so it doesn’t have any long-term memory outside of the last one.

The Alpha can pair with fitness apps on an iPhone 4S, 5, 5C and 5S smartphones via Bluetooth Smart 4.0. I tested the Wahoo Fitness and Map My Ride apps and primarily used the Wahoo Fitness since I liked its interface the best for monitoring my heart rate. Most of the fitness apps have the capabilities for workout history, so you can view multiple rides and easily view detailed information in a more robust format. I do wish they had an Ant+ version of the unit since I tend to use my Garmin Edge units more often than my phone. In many cases, I just used the Alpha by itself and monitored my heart rate in real time via its screen.

Bottom Line

At $199 for a heart-rate monitor its pretty expensive, but if you dislike using chest strap monitors the Alpha is a real winner. Toss in its ease of use, the ability to pair up with iPhone fitness apps via Bluetooth Smart 4.0, and its extremely accurate readings, all which combine to make the MIO Alpha a feature-laden and functional heart-rate monitor. The watch with its silicone band is soft and wide, making it comfortable to wear, and it didn’t cause any pinch spots, even when worn snugly as per their instructions. If you ride extremely rough terrain for long periods of time, such as a day at a lift-accessed bike park, the hard plastic of the sensor area might cause irritation and bruising, especially if you have skinny arms. Otherwise, in normal situations, I never had any problem with comfort levels. The watch was decently sized, with large easy to read digits, which was especially nice when bouncing along the trail. I really enjoyed not having the silly chest strap HR monitor, which besides being uncomfortable, tends to give spiking and sometimes inaccurate readings, and always seems to droop down out of place while riding.

Their high tech sensor system uses two light beams and an electro-optical cell to monitor your heart rate, giving accurate reading no matter how rough the trail got.

Pros

  • Accurate heart rate reading
  • Easy to use
  • Large easy to read digits
  • Ability to pair with iPhone fitness apps – via Bluetooth Smart 4.0
  • No uncomfortable chest strap
  • Clock and timer
  • Heart rate zone alerting – visual and audio

Cons

  • Expensive
  • No Ant+ option
  • No backlighting
  • Firmware updates are only factory installable

MSRP: $199

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