Review: MIO Alpha Heart Rate Monitor

Gear Pro Reviews

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 finger tip 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 are 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 a 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. One small highlight of the Alpha is its longevity when compared to normal HR chest straps and there sensors, which I personally find to wear out quickly, requiring an entire replacement.

Their high tech sensor system uses two light beams and an electro-optical cell to monitor your heart rate, giving accurate readings 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
  • Longevity – normal HR chest straps and there sensors wear out quicker
Cons
  • Expensive
  • No Ant+ option
  • No backlighting

MSRP: $199
Overall Rating: 4 Flamin’ Chili Peppers

Review: MIO Alpha Heart Rate Monitor Gallery
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MIO Alpha Wahoo Fitness App

MIO Alpha using the Wahoo Fitness iPhone app
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MIO Alpha Kit

MIO Alpha kit contents
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MIO Alpha Sensor

MIO Alpha - showing closeup of sensing monitor on back
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MIO Alpha

MIO Alpha being worn - note large easy to read display
About the author: Brian Mullin

Brian has been part of the Mtbr team since 2007, where he has become an integral member of the review and test staff, specializing in technical articles. He likes to push the limits in all the sports he obsesses in, whether it's mountain biking, whitewater kayaking, extreme skiing, or sport climbing. He takes those same strengths and a good dose of insanity to his reviewing and writing on mountain biking products, creating technical, in-depth and hyperbolic articles. Whenever he's not on the bike, he might be found watching MotoGP racing, otherwise look for him out on extremely technical singletrack.


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  • Shawn McAfee says:

    That is pretty cool, but if I’m monitoring my HR I want it on my display along with my speed and distance. With this it would mean one extra device to plug in after a ride.

    Still, I dig the no-chest strap design.

  • water bottle says:

    Same as Shawn. It be great if it could work with Runkeeper on my 5s (maybe it can) as well as my edge unit for STRAVA/Garmin uploading and possibly come down in bulk.

    Anxiously awaiting 2nd Gen or licensing of its HR detection tech to other companies.

  • dean says:

    sold mine, used 1 week. not enough features for an active/dedicated athlete

  • Rider Joe says:

    If they use the same technology as my Schoche MyTrek, then we’re in for a problem. I really wanted to love the MyTrek – Essentially, a handband which measures HR using what’s looking like exactly the same idea as the Alphs – but found it’s reading to inconsistent, especially while cycling. The HR would lose reception every now and then, and then it took forever to get it back. Has someone measured the Mio Alpha to check if its long-term durability is better?

    • Brian Mullin says:

      I would think the the armband design of the Schoche MyTrek would have a poor connection? The MIO Alpha’s watch design adheres well and gives consistent results, though I must admit while mountain biking I am not constantly scanning the output. I never had reception losses that I was aware of. I have used the Alpha for around 5 months, and it’s still going strong without any issues (no reliability problems as yet).

  • Drew says:

    I use mine mostly for swimming and plan to add cycling once the snow is gone..its great the MIO! I don’t have Iphone and need something to connect with on my road bike.

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