Sleep is always a hot topic. There is a growing body of evidence of how important it is to a healthy lifestyle and feeling good throughout the day.
If you’re anything like me, you don’t get enough sleep (I’m drinking an oversized Monster Energy drink while writing this). So I thought it was time to dive into the Play Store and test out the many different apps designed to assist in getting some ZZZs.
I landed on four solid options that tackle this problem in different ways. Sleep trackers measure your movement throughout the night and produce data about how much sleep you get and how restful it is.
Also, I tested out white noise apps that soothe you into dreamland with ocean sounds, rainstorms, or white noise (or a blow dryer noise if that’s your thing). Finally, Timely innovated what an alarm clock can do, with a lot of smart options that go beyond the default Clock app on Android.
While none of these apps should substitute for medical attention if you have serious sleep issues, they can help those of us who just need to get a better night's sleep.
Get plenty of data from Sleep Better with Runtastic
Sleep Better with Runtastic relies on measuring your sleep and combining that with contextual information you provide for an overall picture of your restfulness (or lack thereof).
As it’s obvious from the name, this app is from Runtastic, which makes a considerable portfolio of health-and-fitness apps. In fact, you could probably use Runtastic apps to track every type of physical activity.
You’re going to need to get cozier with your Android phone in order for the app to work right. It goes in your bed (the recommended placement is near your pillow) and uses the accelerometer to track how much movement you make overnight.
It then takes that and combines it with what you tell it about how your day was and the quality of your dreams to analyze your sleep and restfulness. Before hitting the sack you can hit a button to indicate if you’ve had caffeine, exercise, alcohol, or a stressful day.
It took a couple of different nights for me to find the right phone placement. While "just by the pillow" probably gives the most accurate reading, it also buried it too far under the pillow one night and muzzled the alarm. Fortunately, my wife’s phone was blaring at the time we needed to wake up.
The other issue is that Sleep Better recommends charging your phone overnight so as to not drain the battery. This is probably a good practice, but it limits where you can put the phone depending upon the wall charger placement in your bedroom. The app has a calibration option for determining its position for an “at rest” state.
The app also includes a Smart Alarm, which is supposed to wake you up at the optimal time in a window of up to 45 minutes. I didn’t feel this made a major difference for me - probably because I don’t go to bed early enough.
A lot of research says you shouldn’t hit snooze and go back to sleep, so a feature like this could be another piece of a sleep-better toolbox.
Sleep Better also aggregates your statistics into a sleep diary, taking into account your movements, lifestyle details, and dreams. You can rate your dream each night with a happy or angry ghost icon.
Most of the more detailed analysis requires the in-app upgrade, which is $2. It’s recommended if you try it out and want to find out as much about your own sleep patterns as possible.
Track your dreams and more with Sleep Cycle
My other favorite sleep tracker is Sleep Cycle. There is a lot of crossover with Sleep Better with Runtastic, as it also tracks your movements, features a smart alarm, and has the ability to add in lifestyle details.
It does a really good job at taking a long view of your sleep patterns, with charts for anything from five days to its entire data history. Interestingly, I ran it simultaneously with Sleep Better one night where I must have not moved at all, as both apps showed a long period of deep sleep.
However, Sleep Cycle featured a warning about “very few movements” the next morning. It’s always nice for an app to take a passing interest in whether or not you live through the night.
It will also tell you when your best, worst, and longest nights were, which can be helpful if you’re trying to form some good habits. Not surprisingly, in my case the “worst night” was one with less than six hours sleep and a lot of tracked movement.
It also does background noise, with a rather pleasant rain sound. However, it skips and repeats about every five minutes, which is a little awkward. Other sounds were good also, but the cabin humm was rather odd, sounding more like a vacuum cleaner.
The persistent sound also adds to the battery drain, so follow the advice to keep the phone plugged in if possible. When you add in all the data, contextual information and background noise, it’s an excellent little tool for $1.
White Noise can let your mind rest and go to sleep
Some people need some kind of background noise to sleep well. White Noise was my favorite, standing out above the limited selection of others for its variety of choices and ability to mix up various sounds.
Grab the pro version for $2, as you get the ability to mix sounds together and create custom playlists. Nothing beats a combined thunder and rainstorm sound for an optimal sleeping experience (well, for me anyway).
Some of the choices are a little odd, as I wouldn’t find a hair dryer or crowd noise as soothing, but they’re there if you want them.
There are a ton of different customizations, such as changing the audio buffer or looping your custom playlist. However, I just liked to turn it on and then go to sleep, pretending there was a storm outside.
The interface could use a Material Design facelift, but it gets the job done. I’ve come to rely on White Noise as a great way to drown out the racing thoughts in my head.
Timely is a smarter alarm clock
Sure, your phone comes with its own alarm clock app. But there’s a smarter way to rise and shine with Timely Alarm Clock, as it packs in way more useful options.
One of Timely’s best features is forcing you to solve a puzzle or math problem to turn it off. While I found both of these a little frustrating (I tend to wake up grumpy) it did give my brain a little cognitive kick start and pushed me to stay awake instead of hitting snooze.
It also is smarter about the begrudging wake-up process. Timely cranks up the alarm volume progressively louder until you finally get irritated and want to shut the thing up. When you grab the phone, it lowers the volume so you can concentrate on solving the puzzle (or just turning it off normally).
The way you create a new alarm is also rather clever. You swipe in from the left, and move your finger up on the screen for an earlier time and down for a later one. I liked how Timely innovated with the alarm interface, instead of just the usual set of options and dials.
Google clearly thinks Timely is great, because it acquired the company and its Android app earlier this year. Nonetheless, it’s still in the Play Store, with the developers pledging the app will live on.
Sometimes this doesn’t turn out that way, but in the meantime it’s a great alternative alarm and has become my go-to app for this purpose.
The right tool depends on your goals
Your needs for a digital sleep kit will vary on your situation. If you want to know more about your sleep habits, then try out one of the trackers. Or if you think things are fine and you just want a better alarm or some background noise, then go with one of those instead. Data collection can only go so far, as sometimes it’s intangible factors like your overall health or happiness that also can make the difference.
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