2021 Smart Rings: what, why, and who for?

There was a time, early in the Covid-19 pandemic, when smart rings were the hot new thing. June 2020, when the NBA conceived plans to end its season in a controlled bubble at Walt Disney World in Florida, was probably the first time many of us in the general public – myself certainly included – first heard of smart rings.

The NBA chose the Oura Ring, pitched first and foremost as a wearable device that could “mitigate the silent spread of Covid-19 by flagging potential onset symptoms,” such as rising temperature, variations in heart rate, and variations in respiratory rate.

And yet, a year on from those surreal NBA playoffs – during which an estimated one in four basketball pros used the Oura daily, and after which the device was named one of TIME magazine’s best inventions of 2020 – it’s still pretty rare to see a smart ring in the wild. 

I bought and briefly used one (more on that later), and I personally know of several people who have seriously considered one, though none, in the end, have yet to make the switch.

Smart rings are here to stay, though. Apple is reportedly designing one of their own, as is Fitbit. 

For many of us, however, questions remain: why choose a smart ring over a smartwatch or band? Who are smart rings for? And what is it about the data they collect that sets them apart from other daily wearables?

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Why buy a smart ring instead of a smartwatch or band?

Our first question is the simplest. Whoop bands and Fitbits make a pretty definite statement: the person wearing this pays attention to their fitness. Or, at minimum, counts their steps. Or – well – at least had good intentions when they bought the thing. However you cut it, most wrist-strapped wearables bring one word to mind: fitness.

A smart ring, on the other hand, is inconspicuous (at least in theory.) We’re talking about metal, as opposed to the breathable silicone of fitness bands. 

A smart ring has no lit-up digital screen. 

Where smartwatches and fitness bands are purposefully designed to depart from the look of traditional watches – feeling high-tech is a selling point here – smart rings are broadly conceived to resemble everyday jewelry.

the Oura rings looks like any other ring and is often mistaken for jewelry
The Oura rings looks like any other ring and is often mistaken for jewelry

The Oura ring, for instance, is a thick titanium bolt, at first glance impossible to distinguish from many modern men’s ring bands, as are the majority of the competition. 

So, on the face of it, you can think of smart rings as fitness wearables for the customer who doesn’t want to noticeably center their look around a fitness wearable. 

You probably aren’t going to be wearing an Apple Watch and a traditional watch, and there’s something uncomfortable about rocking the fitness-band-on-one-wrist-watch-on-the-other look like you’re the Genie from Aladdin. 

But you can wear a smart ring and leave your wrists free for any other daily accessory, and go through your life without most colleagues, clients, or family members noticing your wearable and calling attention to it. For many (my wife, for instance), that’s a win in itself. 

What sets smart rings data collection apart from other wearables?

The second selling point emphasized by most smart ring manufacturers is a subtle but meaningful one. 

Whereas Apple or Samsung Galaxy watches are still very much extensions of their smartwatches – conceptually if not necessarily in practice – and whereas Fitbits and Garmins and the like are first and foremost fitness devices, smart rings are being pitched under a broader, more accessible remit: as wearable health awareness tools.

Sensors on Oura ring
The Oura ring offers two infrared LED sensors, two negative thermal coefficient body temperature sensors, a 3D accelerometer, and a gyroscope

It’s right there in the Oura ring slogan, for instance: Accurate Health Information Accessible to Everyone. 

When the NBA bought two thousand Ouras for their players, the league’s press office didn’t emphasize the ring as a performance aid, but as a health-tracking tool that would keep its professionals safe during a pandemic. 

Smart rings, a bit like a Whoop band, want to make your health vitals accessible to you, as a user, daily, using advanced sensors to collect your body’s data and synthesize it into insight. Spike in body temperature Oura Ring

Because a ring fits more snugly to the skin, and because the finger is a more accurate place to read a pulse than the wrist (this is why hospitals use finger-clip pulse oximeters), the idea is that a ring is better suited to recording health data than a device you wear on your wrist. 

And because ring designs are smaller (none of the aforementioned screens and buttons) and focus on sensors (none of the aforementioned screens and buttons), they’re pitched as more powerful, more accurate, and longer-lasting than other wearables. 

An Oura ring can go five to seven days between charges. Meanwhile, my Apple Watch needs a little nap on its magnetic stand once a day, like a toddler.

This combination of power, precision, and durability, manufacturers say, helps deliver a genuinely helpful and accurate suite of health insights. 

This is a bit of an oversimplification, of course. Not only are some smart rings better than others, but several of them don’t concern themselves with health awareness at all. 

The McLear Ringpay is intended for the customer who dreams of paying over a hundred dollars for a cheap-looking ceramic band that will allow them to tap their own hand, rather than a bank card, to make contactless payments (full disclosure: I have not met this customer, and doubt they exist.) RingPay smart ring by McLear

And Orii is banking on the appeal of a chunky, square, Star Trek-looking voice assistant you wear on your hand. (And yes, it does look as cool as the massive Bluetooth-earbud-and-belt-phone-holster combo your dad rocked for a while in the early 2000s.)  Orri voice assistant smart ring

But those, frankly, are gimmicks, attempts to carve out a niche in the market that none of us actually need and few of us want.

Using a ring to pay by tap is only a draw if the ring does other things, too. While a voice assistant on your finger is an attractive suggestion, it’s not attractive to outweigh the tedium of seventy-five people a day asking you what that metal tag is on your finger and why do you keep touching your ear like a bodyguard. In a bad movie?

Who, then, are smart rings for?

With all of the above in mind, this is how I think about it:

My dad’s in his sixties, and he’s fitness-obsessed. He runs triathlons, and he trains every day. His Strava account updates more regularly than a commercial airline’s flight tracker. He’s the guy for a Whoop band and the bag of Polar gear. 

My brother’s less hardcore, but fitness is still important to him. He runs or bikes or swims, or takes a yoga class every day. He’s got that big Garmin on his wrist. 

My best friend, whose fitness regime stops at “I run 5K every couple days, I walk a lot on my commute, I have a standing desk, and I try to get my eight hours’ sleep”, is a Fitbit guy. 

I, myself, am a deskbound regular Joe in my mid-thirties. I go from packing my Strava calendar with runs that are slower than most people’s walks to not doing any exercise for weeks at a time. 

And I like being able to just tap my wrist and start tracking a bike ride. Still, I’m just as keen on using the same device to check what my next appointment is, press pause on the TV show I’m watching, or check what time it is where my mom lives without having to do the simple time difference math. I am – you’ve guessed it – the perfect Apple Watch guy. 

But then there’s a whole other group – my wife, for instance, or my writing partner – who aren’t too hung up on their fitness habits or performance.

They are increasingly interested in, especially after a year of public health measures, rising anxiety, and playing, is this Covid or do I just have hay fever, to understand their bodies better. Readiness score on Oura ring

They would love reliable data on why they feel the way they feel when they feel it, along with gentle nudges towards behaviors that can improve their overall health and wellness. And they don’t want to have to put on a wearable that screams “FITNESS!” to get them. 

For these people – who, frankly, are most people – smart rings make a lot of sense. 

They’re discreet and increasingly accurate, they don’t require the paid subscription needed to use a Whoop band (which provides similar insights), and their focus on health awareness, at least for now, means they present their data in a format that isn’t centered around the pressure of performance.

It’s a still-developing field, so the choices out there are few and far between, but new smart rings will continue to hit the shelves soon.

With that in mind, here are the Three Best Smart Rings currently on the market – and A Few Gimmick Rings, if you’ve got spare cash to burn:

The Oura Ring

Honestly, the best of the lot, and by some measure. 

The Oura’s sensors include an infrared pulse measurement (to monitor heart rate), a 3D accelerometer (to measure sleep stages at night and activity when awake), and an NTC sensor (to log body temperature).  Casual dress with Oura ring

It looks like a “normal” ring, it’s waterproof, its heart rate and body temperature measurements are nearly as accurate as those of a medical device, and the app personalizes insights to each user, delivering the data in three clear measures: 

  1. Readiness (an overall measure of the state of your body)
  2. Sleep (calculating your sleep quality and duration)
  3. Activity (how much you’re moving and how much energy is being expended in the process).

Together, these provide an easy-to-grasp look at where your body’s at, and you can keep an eye on specific vitals for any concerning trends. And the ring syncs with Apple Health or Google Fit, too.

It comes in two designs – flat-top or pointed – in silver, gold, or black finishes, all in durable titanium. 

The one downside? It retails at $299 ($399 for certain finishes), so you’re paying about as much as you would for an Apple Watch Series 6. 

If that is more than you are willing to pay, you can purchase one second-hand (preowned). Just be mindful that Oura estimates the life of its battery to last about 2-years, and the original owner’s warranty does not transfer.

A note on that, however: I’ve used an Oura ring, as has my wife, and we’ve both loved the experience. 

Sure, it does sound like the Apple Watch gives you a lot more features for comparable money. Still, one of the most attractive parts of the Oura experience is its focus on purpose – or, to put it another way, its lack of unnecessary features. 

The Apple Watch sends me notifications, but it turns out it’s better for me, mentally and when I work out, not to be bothered by notifications. 

I liked not being continually nudged about random things. I liked wearing one of my beautiful watches, looking at it just for the time, and not continually checking the weather, the battery level, or the next appointment on my calendar. 

And I liked using a fitness wearable no one really notices me wearing – which isn’t the case with an Apple Watch or a Fitbit. 

The Oura freed me up of my phone’s demands, and having a piece of tech that is so useful as a health awareness device and helped me be less continually available was a plus worth paying for, particularly when everyone else is racing towards more constant connectivity, rather than less.)

The Motiv Ring (awesome if you can find it)

Arguably the most discreet of the rings on this list, the Motiv ring doesn’t just look subtle. It looks good. person wearing Motiv smart ring

Its sensors measure heart rate, sleep, and activity 24/7, though the ring doesn’t record body temperature as the Oura does. It’s also titanium, and it’s also waterproof. It also links up with Apple Health and Google Fit.

The battery life is just three days to the Oura’s five-to-seven, so you’ll need to take it off and plug it in for ninety minutes every seventy-two hours. 

The Motiv has impressed users for a long time. While the company has just been bought up by a San Francisco start-up named Proxy, which is discontinuing manufacturing the ring. At the same time, they develop new models (these, we’re told, to include a “digital identity” proponent), you can still purchase a Motiv Ring from eBay and local retail stores. Plus, the app is still available for download, and Motiv continues to support health tracking app for existing owners.

The Motiv costs around $199.99 and less if you purchase pre-owned. So if you’re not too hung up on the body temperature part of it, and if you’re after the most fashionable and un-techy smart ring you can get, it’s a decent bet. 

The Circular Smart Ring (crowdfunded start-up)

The Circular Smart Ring is a Paris, France-based start-up with a working prototype but not a final product. If you’re willing to wait and want to support a start-up, this smart ring might be for you. The Circular Smart Ring

The ring provides 24/7 activity, sleep, and wellness monitoring. Still, it throws in a few extra features more commonly found in smartwatches: a silent alarm clock, push notifications, and a small side button that can be customized to mute phone calls or skip your phone’s music tracks.

It doesn’t measure body temperature, as the Oura does, and its sensors aren’t quite as fine-tuned. 

Its battery will only last you about a third of the time an Oura needs between charges. And while waterproof and durable, it’s also a tiny bit more unusual-looking than the Oura, and its companion app, at least for now, is much more stripped to basics. 

It still currently lists at around $250, though, and considering how close in price it is to the Oura, you might as well get the proven best ring on the market instead. Unless you’re really keen on your finger buzzing to let you know you’ve got a text.

…And the smart ring gimmicks Tesla ring alternative keyless use of Tesla car

  • Have you ever wanted to feel someone else’s heartbeat on your finger? Maybe your wife, or your husband? If so, for just $699, the HB Ring is for you. Although the proper luxury models cost $2,990 and, well, it doesn’t really do anything else. 
  • If you’re an Elon Musk reply guy and/or have already sunk your life savings into dogecoin, CNICK makes a Tesla Ring you can use as a car key to your Tesla. Prices range from $99 to $200, and they look just like the kind of rings you would buy for five bucks at a beach holiday stall, which – who doesn’t want that?
  • The Token Ring pairs with your fingerprint, and it’s all about security and convenience. Pair it with your bank card to use the ring for contactless payments. Hook it up to a compatible smart lock security system and use it for home or office access. And in the future, it even promises to replace your passwords. For now, though, it bills itself as a contactless, keyless, “passwordless” solution in the making, though it also feels a little… pointless. And for $349, no less.

Final thoughts

Smart rings are more than a gimmick – and, as time passes, they are quickly doing more and more.  And smart rings free you up from the tyranny of your smartphone and chatty smartwatch at the same time.

If you’ve never been quite sold on having a personal trainer strapped to your body at all times, or if you’ve been longing for a way to stay on top of how you feel without being tethered to your notifications, a smart ring may be perfect for you.

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