The wearables business is hard, especially if you’re a small startup with a device you could, perhaps uncharitably, call “niche.” Oura, which makes activity-tracking rings worn endorsed by a number of celebrities, recently released its third-generation model. This new hardware is a technical marvel, packing many of the features that most wrist-worn devices take for granted. But the need to keep the cash rolling in has seen Oura, like Fitbit, Apple, Wahoo and others, pivot to a recurring-revenue model. Oura says that this is key to shift from the idea of buying a device that never changes, to supporting its broader goals of building an evolving fitness ecosystem.
Before we get into the specifics of this new Oura ring, let’s take a moment to remember that this device is still a marvel of engineering. Taking the sensors from a smartwatch or fitness tracker and shrinking them into a ring is worthy of enormous praise. For all of its imperfections, it’s amazing to see Oura push the limits of what is capable in such a small form factor. And there’s much more tech crammed in this time around, despite the size and weight remaining the same as the second-generation version. The headline features these new sensors enable include continuous heart-rate tracking, temperature monitoring, blood oxygenation and period prediction.
The sizing process is the same for pretty much every smart ring I’ve ever tried: The company sends you a set of plastic dummy rings you have to wear for a couple of days. Once you’ve determined the correct fit, which is tight and secure around the base of your index finger, but not to the point where it’s uncomfortable, you can order the real thing. This actually was the most stressful part of this review, since I felt that one size was too loose, the other too tight, but I opted for looseness rather than sacrificing a digit to the gods of fitness tracking. Oura says that the index finger is the best place for its ring, but you can stick it elsewhere if you prefer.
Unfortunately, the one thing you can’t do much about is the size of the ring itself which is a bit too big. I’m a big-ish guy with big-ish hands, but it feels a bit too ostentatious on my fingers, enough that people notice and ask me what it is as soon as they spot it. If you have more slender hands, I’m sure you might have a similar issue with folks pointing it out. I suspect that the smart thing to do is visit Parts Of 4 to get some more adornments to balance out the look.
Without a screen, Oura is yoked tightly to the iOS or Android app where all of this data will be displayed. The Oura app is clean and tidy, only giving you the deepest data when you go looking for it. The app breaks down all of the information generated from your finger and compresses it into three scores, which are shown on the homescreen. These are for Readiness, Sleep and Activity, representing how prepared you are to face the day, how well-rested you are and how much exercise you’re doing.
The only other thing you’ll find on the homescreen is a breakdown of your heart rate across the day, showing you where the peaks and troughs are. You’ll also get advice on your ideal bedtime, which is useful when you’re working late nights and need to juggle sleep with getting things done. You’ll also get periodic reminders to move if the app detects you’ve been still for a while, and advice when it’s time for you to wind down for the day.
Go into one of the categories, like Readiness, and you’ll get scores for your recovery index, sleep, as well as your HRV balance, body temperature and resting heart rate. You can also see that my figures dropped quite substantially during a three-day period when I got food poisoning from a New Year’s Eve takeaway meal. During that period, I was given plenty of warnings telling me I wasn’t rested or well enough to do much else – not that I felt like I was gonna go for a run or anything.
As part of Oura’s plan to add extra value to its platform, the company is adding a series of video and audio guides for meditation, breathwork and sleeping. These guides, which are essentially guided meditation audio tracks, can be backed with a white noise option of your choice. You can pick the hum of a train station, the crunch of a forest stroll, the sound of the tide lapping at the land or rainfall, amongst others. These are a thing for people who find those things useful to fall asleep and feel restful but I, personally, do not find them that great.
That said, where Oura differs from its rivals in this space is that it’ll break down your vital signs during your meditation. If you’re wondering how to get better at meditating then you’ll be guided to more appropriate tracks that’ll help prod you toward nirvana.
Oura is working on adding more features to the Ring v3 over the next year, including more content as well as more accurate sleep and period tracking. These will not actually appear as new features so much as they are behind-the-scenes improvements in the underlying systems. Finally, at some point this year, the ring will be able to identify your blood oxygenation (SpO2) while you sleep in order to help detect disorders like sleep apnea.
The best thing about the Oura ring is that, once you’ve worn it a few days, you quickly start to ignore its presence. And while you’re not paying attention, it begins worming its way into every corner of your life, learning your working patterns and getting ready to make helpful suggestions. If you feel like crap in the morning but don’t have the mental wherewithal to comprehend why, you’ll be told as soon as you look at your phone. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing here that other platforms don’t do as well, but this is certainly an elegant implementation of the idea.
Sleep tracking is generally fine, by which I mean it works by tracking movement and therefore can’t tell when you’ve been rudely awoken but haven’t moved. As part of this new pivot, however, Oura is promising that the sleep tracking will soon become vastly more accurate as a consequence of behind-the-scenes changes. This will not be readily visible to users, however, since all you’ll get is a pop-up telling you that things just got more accurate. Still, it offers a fairly good indicator for how the night went, although I find the activity tracking to be a little more on the generous side. Yesterday morning, for instance, it told me that my morning shower was a strength training workout with plenty of burned calories for my trouble. Similarly, it’ll tell me around lunchtime that I need to take a half-hour brisk walk to finish my activity for the day, and then by early evening, having done nothing more than stand at my desk, make dinner and put my kids to sleep, it’ll tell me I’ve completed my goal.
One of the features that Oura is tempting its users with is Workout Heart Rate, which I find inadvertently amusing. Because the ring is so chunky, and it has such a hard edge, that I really don’t find it comfortable to wear during workouts. For instance, if I’ve got a pair of free weights, or I’m doing an incline push up on a Smith machine bar, the ring just pushes into the fleshy parts of my hand. For most of the proper “gym” workouts I’ve done, the ring has had to come off, lest I tap out too early or draw blood from the chubby parts of my fingers. But for more ring-friendly jobs, like running, walking, or cycling, you should find this to be a big help.
In terms of vital-signs tracking accuracy, I think it’s always wise to remember that wearables will not be as inch-perfect as a clinical-grade device. But in a number of random spot-tests, the Oura offered the exact same figures as the Apple Watch on my wrist. In fact, Oura’s reputation for accuracy has always been pretty high, and one of the reasons that the company hasn’t released some of these features is to ensure they’re ready to go when they do arrive.
Oura quotes battery life at seven days, although I rarely managed to get past five without having to drop it on the charging plate. Certainly, real-world stamina is a bit far from what the company is saying, but then it’s hardly a deal breaker since you can charge it full in two hours. It’s become common for me to take the ring off while I’m standing at my desk on Monday and Friday mornings and let it re-juice while I’m working.
The third-generation Oura ring will set you back $299, which gets you the ring in one of four finishes: Silver, Black, Stealth or Gold. In the box, you’ll receive the charging plate and a USB-C cable, and as part of the deal, you’ll get a six-month trial of Oura’s subscription service. Membership, which costs $5.99 a month for new users, will entitle you to “daily health insights,” “personalized recommendations,” as well as more video and audio sessions. Any existing Oura user who upgrades to the new ring will get a lifetime membership thrown in for free.
I want to be fair here and say that I understand why Oura is pivoting to this recurring revenue model. It’s not as if other companies in this space, like Fitbit, aren’t doing the same in the hope of bolstering their bottom lines. And that’s before we get to talk about how much lock-in the Apple Watch gets as a consequence of Fitness+. But I also think there’s a difference between the sort of product that those rivals are offering compared to Oura’s product.
After all, Apple and Fitbit can both offer coaching both on their devices and on bigger screens, which Oura can’t. Not to mention that Oura is really only able to offer guided audio clips (and short videos) through its app. And that while Apple and Fitbit are selling their devices as (having the potential to become) Capital-F Fitness gear, the Oura really isn’t. But, then again, that’s not what Oura is pitching here – it’s for the meditator, the runner, the cyclist, who doesn’t want to strap something beefy to their wrist.
Here’s the problem with reviewing Oura: It’s not a device that every fitness person will love. If you want something with more versatility, you’d buy a smartwatch and have done with it. Oura is more of a subtle product, for people who want to be less ostentatious about their health, or simply want something that slips into their lives and does the job. Honestly, since I’m not a gym bro, I really like the data the ring offers me without any fuss or muss.
As for the subscription, it’s likely that Oura will have to keep squeezing as many new features and insights as possible out of this new hardware. Between that, and vastly improving its currently slender content library, it’s worth it if you’re a paid-up member of the Oura family. But, and this is more a comment on the industry as a whole rather than a slight against Oura itself, I do find this need for every company to squeeze some rental income out of their users to be a little bit grating.