Review showdown: 4 'un-alarm clocks' that make you a better sleeper

I have never been a morning person. Just ask my nutritionist — I quit breakfast for over 10 years just so I could sleep 10 minutes more in the morning. But as I continue my goal to be a healthier person, I need that valuable time in the morning before work for breakfast, maybe a run, etc.

With that in mind, I did what I always do when I want to improve my life: I turned to technology. I found I couldn't blame my bed anymore (especially now that I have a nice, cold pillow). So join me as I blame something else — and attempt to ditch — my conventional, obnoxious alarm clock and its daily blaring.

Over the last several weeks, I've been testing what can only be described as un-alarm clocks. Most of these devices attempt to wake the user in ways other than a loud, piercing alarm — which is what I've been using since the days I overslept through alarms constantly in college. They also monitor your sleep and provide analysis in a way to help you become more smart about the way you sleep so you can maybe make some better decisions when it comes to catching some zzz's at night.

So, how do these actually wake you up? Three of the four devices (Fitbit, Lark and WakeMate) monitor your wrist motion and use what's called actigraphy to translate motion data into sleep data. Zeo, meanwhile, monitors your brainwaves. All the devices will monitor how many times and for how long you wake up at night, as well as how long it took you to fall asleep. Using that information, you may learn you woke up way more times than you remembered, and can then try to identify what might be causing that.




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1. Fitbit

The Fitbit, which I've mentioned previously, is an amazing pedometer. It also can track your sleep if you wear it on your non-dominant hand at night.

The Fitbit uses the built-in hardware that it uses to track every step you take to monitor how much you're moving around at night. So while it can track how many times you woke up, how long you were asleep for, and so on, it is not a sleep-centered device like the other three here — it won't be able to tell if you were in deep sleep or light sleep, for instance. The FitBit does not use an alarm, but this kind of data, used with your alarm clock each day, could still prove invaluable in getting a better night's rest.

The Fitbit comes with its own charging stand, which I usually keep tethered to my computer so it can upload my steps data (or sleep data) automatically via a wireless connection.

Using FitBit: Aside from being somewhat difficult to fit into the supplied wristband, I did find it comfortable to sleep with the Fitbit at night. It's a great bonus feature, but for someone like me who needed alarm clock functionality, I quickly moved onto the other three devices.

The FitBit typically goes for for $99, and you can read more about it here.




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(You wear this on your head.)

2. Zeo

The Zeo Personal Sleep Coach consists of a wireless headband and a set of online analytical tools — the latter of which, coupling your alarm clocks with a digital suite, is getting more and more common. It's two biggest unique features are an email-based personalized coaching program and a bedside display that looks very similar to a normal alarm clock.

The headband uses the company's "SoftWave" sensor technology to "accurately measure the electric signals naturally produced by the brain." The other devices here use accelerometers and other tracking tools in their wristband components to track your sleep, but Zeo actually does it by measuring your brain. Scary and awesome at the same time.

A robust back-end: The coaching program is very thorough and — I'll admit — a little daunting. I didn't personally find the deluge of data particularly useful for me, but it is the most comprehensive of the bunch. However, you have to unplug the included memory card, plug it into a USB adapter and then upload it into your computer to have your data included in the analysis. All other devices do it wirelessly, but the Zeo model I reviewed did not.*

*Editor's Note: Zeo has a new version of its sleep system, Zeo Mobile, that is indeed wireless. Look for more on Zeo Mobile, which launches this Wednesday, October 26.

Sleeping With Zeo: When you're asleep, you're always alternating between light and deep sleep. The problem with traditional alarms is they could awaken you in a deep sleep making you groggy; but Zeo's SmartWake Alarm attempts to wake you when you're in a light sleep period. So let's say you want to wake up at 7:20 in the morning. You choose an interval — I find 20 minutes works best — and within those 20 minutes, Zeo tries to wake you up between 7:00 A.M. and 7:20 when you're at your most awake so you feel the least amount of lethargy.

I wanted to love SmartWake, but I'll be honest, it never woke me before my fail-safe — the last time before the regular alarm goes off. I also found the headband uncomfortable — but this is a personal preference as I personally don't like to wear anything on my head but hair, so you may find you don't mind it. It is also extremely convenient that you charge the headband by docking it into the bedside unit.

Bumps in the night: I was disappointed that the bedside Sleep Manager's accompanying app was not iPad-based and offered little functionality. Most of the data you want is either on the computer or on the bedside display. If you're not a mobile user, that bedside display is amazingly brilliant — but if you are, I found it unnecessary when compared to the competition. That said, this gripe seems like it'll be directly addressed by Zeo's upcoming mobile offering.

The bedside Zeo Sleep Manager goes for $150, and you can find out more on it here. The aforementioned mobile version will be sold for $99. Zeo wasn't a perfect fit for me, but I would recommend it to anyone that wants the bedside table, the email coaching program or likes the fact that Zeo integrates with many more online tracking apps like Runkeeper compared to their competitors.




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3. WakeMate

WakeMate, like the next device, the Lark, consists of a wristband that you wear on your non-dominant arm when you sleep. It uses Bluetooth to wirelessly transmit your sleep data to your iPad, iPhone or other mobile device.

WakeMate's big claim to fame like Zeo is that it will attempt to monitor your movements and map out dips and peaks in your sleep cycle so it can find the most ideal time to wake you — within a 20-minute period. Unlike Zeo, I definitely found on mornings when I set my alarm for say, 7:20 A.M., I might be woken up at 7:20, I might be woken up at 7:15, and I might even be woken up right at 7:00. And I did feel slightly less groggy than I normally would, regardless of what time it was.

Sticking with the alarm: WakeMate wakes you up with a traditional alarm and you can choose from a variety of sounds. The one I chose slowly grew louder and louder until it reached a peak; I found that soothing and also found it contributed to my less than normal grogginess, and it's a feature you can find in a lot of smartphone alarm apps.

WakeMate conserves battery power by turning off the Bluetooth; it turns back on shortly before the alarm is set to go off or if there is a lot of movement from your wrist.

Some bad with the good: Unlike all three competitors, WakeMate does not come with a charging station. I usually charged it every two days via USB. While this might not seem like an issue, Lark and Zeo encourage you to charge every night with the provided station to ensure a full battery. I did forget to charge WakeMate on some nights and it lost all its battery in the middle of the night. Luckily, the iPad alarm still comes on — you just miss out on all that data it could have collected that night.

I found WakeMate's wristband not as comfortable as Lark's, mostly because it's made of a stretchy material that conforms exactly to the size of your wrist, plus a little breathing room. I wish I had the option to loosen it or tighten it beyond that. It's also a somewhat flimsy material and the letters spelling out WakeMate quickly rubbed off after only a week or so of use (as seen above). But the software on the iPad seems the furthest along of all other competitors and I did find it held true to its claim of waking you when you're about ready to wake up anyway.

The WakeMate asks for $59.99 and you can read more about it here.




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4. Lark

Lark is the only device on this list that actually bills itself literally as an "un-alarm" clock. Like its competitors, it monitors your sleep patterns, but more importantly, it's designed for people who want to avoid waking their partners.

A good start: It has a Velcro wristband that you wear on your non-dominant arm and you can adjust it to your comfort level — something I was missing with WakeMate. Setting the time you want to wake up is easy on an iPad or smartphone. During the day, you'll want to dock the WakeMate into its stand to charge the battery; that dock can also fit an iPhone so you can have that charged as well, which is a nice touch and easily makes it the best and most convenient of all the included charging stations.

The app seems designed for the iPhone, even though there is an iPad app which I used for purpose of testing. It was pretty bare bones as the focus seems more on the mobile version, and more importantly, on how Lark works.

Using Bluetooth, the Lark receives its marching orders for when to wake you up, as well as for transferring data it collected during your sleep when you wake up in the morning. As with all its competitors, the Bluetooth can be finicky — most devices tend to power it off in the middle of the night to save on batteries — so I found it best to leave the Lark in its charging cradle, then pull out my iPad and turn on the alarm before unplugging it and putting it on my wrist. It found the Bluetooth signal every time that way.

No loud alarm: So how does Lark wake you without waking your partner? It's very simple: the wristband vibrates. I was very skeptical at first, and even set up a fail-safe, normal ear piercing alarm, but sure enough, 10 out of 10 tests, the vibration woke me up, even before Lark's fail-safe was supposed to kick in after two minutes of not waking.

In addition to not waking your partner with the noise from a traditional alarm clock, Lark claims it does not cause the "jarring experience and subsequent crash from the adrenaline caused by regular alarms." In my tests, I didn't necessarily find that to be the case, because — as opposed to competitor WakeMate — Lark does not attempt to find the most awake state to wake me. It wakes me up at a specific time, and I could potentially be in a deep sleep when it does.

Lark retails for $99 and is available here. You can also sign up for a week long assessment and personal sleep coach, which includes the Lark device for $159. That personal Sleep Coach will help train you with "personalized goals, content and reminders" to hopefully improve your sleep score.




Which to Choose?

I mentioned earlier that each device tracks the amount of times you wake up in the middle of night, how long it took you to fall asleep, etc. It can be hard for me to tell whether or not those devices are being accurate because, well, I don't remember how many times I woke up the night before--it's not just counting times I rolled around in bed or even got up, it's tracking the times where my brain wasn't fully resting.

The only way to test it? I had to wear all four devices at once one night. What I found was, aside from small differences, each device came back with relatively the same conclusions about how long I was asleep for, how often I woke up, etc. I attribute the differences not only to the technology of course, but because having three difference on my left arm and something on my head, probably messed with my sleep. At least a little.

FitBit:

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Zeo:

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WakeMate:

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Lark:

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While I'm sleeping alone these days — sadface — I definitely see the appeal in Lark from a partner perspective and it was the device I tended to use the most. Even though I wish Lark adopted WakeMate's idea of rousing me when I'm at my most awake state, I found the vibration an easy way to get up, the wristband the most comfortable to wear at night and the convenience of the charging station right by my bed too hard to pass up.

Lark's built-in wrist sensor felt more rugged and well put together than the cheapiness of the WakeMate. But combine WakeMate's tech with Lark's and you've got an amazing device on your hands.

I am intrigued by the new Zeo Mobile device mentioned above and may look to try it out in the near future. But for right now, I'm going to continue to use the WakeMate and hope it wakes me up early enough for a run. If however, I meet a special someone, then perhaps, it's time to look at purchasing a Lark for certain mornings too. (Watch out for Alan Danzis in DVICE's "blogger bachelors" auction, happening sometime somewhere someplace. — Ed)




About Our Guest Blogger

Alan Danzis is a lifelong technology enthusiast, which is something he inherited from his father. He's an early adopter: he had the first generation Sony TiVo and had to buy a special device just to plug the analog DVR into his digital phone line in college, further showcasing his nerdiness. His fast typing skills can be attributed to playing Sierra games as a kid and he currently lives in Hoboken, N.J., where he usually plugs too many things into one outlet. Keep up with him on Twitter @adanzis.

For this review: The WakeMate and Fitbit used for these tests were purchased by the reviewer; Lark and Zeo provided review units for testing purposes, and are being returned.

Full Disclosure: Alan Danzis works at Ketchum Public Relations, which is his day job. His opinions here are his own and do not reflect the opinions of Ketchum, nor the clients Ketchum works with. His DVICE writing is wholly unrelated.

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