Healthy Obsessions The Adventures of a Mild Obsessive Compulsive

Sleep Tracking: Looking at the Zeo

If your goal is accurately tracking your sleep, the Zeo is your best bet. Let’s look at why.

The Tech

The tech on the Zeo is completely different from the actigraphy of the fitbit and Sleep Cycle. Instead of focusing on movement, and then deducing sleep phases from that (which is helpful, but has a greater margin of error), the Zeo focuses on brainwaves. Based on the same tech as EEGs, it tracks the phases of your brain activity. Well, it tracks the electrical impulses of your brain activity and then deduces from that your sleep phases. This is also not *perfectly* accurate, but neither is an EEG. As my ENT told me today (hi, Robson!) there are several different phases that can look like REM.

In a sleep lab, it takes more than just monitoring, it takes interpretation. You’ll have sleep specialists looking at your EEG read outs and making their own analysis of your brain activity during sleep. EEG is probably more accurate than the Zeo, but it’s also a lot more cumbersome. Witness:



With the EEG, you get sensors taped to your face and scalp (and chest, if I’m recalling my sleep study correctly). Then you have the fun of washing out the glue the next day, which is likely easier for short haired folk, but we long hairs have a heck of a time with it. Those sensors must be plugged in to the EEG machine in order to work, which does limit movement to some extent. You can unplug to go to the bathroom, but again, cumbersome.

The Zeo, on the other hand, is just a headband that communicates remotely with an alarm clock base station. It is far more comfortable and far easier to use in the home. Which is the point. It can’t give you as much data as the multitude of sensors from an EEG, but it can give you useful data and you’re far more likely to use it on a regular basis.

The Competition

Sleep Cycle


The ZEO is far more accurate than Sleep Cycle. It seems to coincide with the fitbit more frequently, but that might just be that the folks at fitbit were clever enough not to try to deduce sleep phases using an actigraph (instead just deducing levels of activity).

Both Sleep Cycle and the Zeo promise to wake you at a more opportune time in your sleep cycle, which is really a fascinating thing. If you’re woken during the wrong phase, you end up groggy and miserable most of the day. A regular alarm clock wakes you when it wakes you; there’s no concern for sleep phase.

In theory, the Zeo and Sleep Cycle track your sleep, determine an optimal waking point, one at which waking you will be easy and leave you feeling more rested. They both have a window of time in which they can wake you (pre-set as 30 minutes). If they don’t find an optimal time, they’ll go ahead and function as an alarm clock waking you for whatever time you set. Sleep Cycle has, several times, decided to make the alarm go off while I’m in the midst of a dream, because it thinks I’m already awake. Zeo, on the other hand, has me in REM at that same point. So, you can see why I’m less than thrilled with Sleep Cycle.

There have been days when the Zeo doesn’t go off until the time set, which I also dislike. I’m not sure if that’s a malfunction of some sort, or if it’s that I’ve set my wake window too short (lowered it to 15


minutes instead of 30). I’ll have to experiment further. However, the actually data the Zeo gives me has been fairly accurate.

The fitbit isn’t quite competing with the Zeo (although the audience is the same). They both purport to track sleep. They both do a good job tracking the elements of sleep they lay claim to. The Zeo can make more precise distinctions than the fitbit can, but the fitbit is pretty honest about the info it can give you, and that info is very useful. Fitbit, however, doesn’t really aim to change your sleeping patterns. Zeo does.

Sleep Coaching

Zeo Sleep Graph

I thought I’d find this part of the Zeo irritating.

The online interface provides you with graphs and statistics, yes. But it also asks you questions and makes suggestions for changing your patterns. Truthfully, you won’t get much out of that unless you whole-heartedly cooperate. If, however, you do cooperate for even a week, you’ll learn something about your own sleep patterns.

Zeo points out some standard issues, like not eating before bed, but it actually can give you data to back it up.  The Zeo makes real all of the abstract advice and information you’ve heard about sleep. Which makes it much easier for you to actually change.

Also worth noting, there’s a Zeo app for the iPhone, which allows you to access your data on the go (assuming you’ve already uploaded to the website). Convenient for showing friends and doctors.

There are only two things that bother me with the Zeo.

1. Using the Zeo while sharing a bed

Aside from the music sounding like muzak and reminding me of new age meditation tapes that get played in stores that sell you crystals, it also wakes up everyone in the room. Which means your boyfriend/girlfriend, dog, kid, etc. This is par for the course with most alarm clocks, so shouldn’t dissuade you from the Zeo. But. Your bed partner’s sleep pattern is unlikely to be identical to yours. So, on those mornings when the Zeo alarms at the perfect time for you to wake refreshed, but jolts your beloved from a sound sleep, condemning them to daylong grogginess, you feel kinda like a heel.

It would be far better in such situations to use light instead of music as the alarm. Dawn simulators are great alarm clocks, because they only wake you at appropriate points. You’ll only notice them if you’re in a sleep phase that’s close to waking.

Zeo + Dawn Simulator = Awesome*

The folks at Zeo have no plans to incorporate a dawn simulator at present, however, they were awfully enthusiastic about the possibility of a tech savvy user making that kind of modification. This is one of the reasons that they’re taking the Zeo open source.

2. Using with a CPAP

This is completely dependent on the type of mask you have. Some masks will fit beautifully with the Zeo, others… not so much. The folks at Zeo can’t take into account every CPAP mask shape, since there are so many different masks; you can’t really blame them for that. But it is problematic as things stand. I have it on good authority that they’re trying to find a way to accommodate a larger range of CPAP masks, so this is something to watch for.


  • Easy to wear/use
  • Accuracy
  • Alarm feature
  • Sleep coaching
  • Solid user interface
  • iPhone app
  • Supportable claims
  • Friendly & responsive staff
  • Sound science backing the claims
  • Open source


  • Awkward with some CPAP masks
  • Not good for sharing a bed
  • Muzak instead of light (and this is such a minor quibble, really…)
  • Expensive at $199

The Zeo is the most expensive of the trackers (again, with the iPhone owner caveat):

  • Zeo $199
  • fitbit $99
  • Sleep Cycle $0.99 (or $260, if you have to buy the iPhone)

That said, if your primary interest is sleep tracking, the Zeo is your best bet. If you’re more interested in fitness in general, and don’t need quite so much sleep detail, the fitbit’s for you. If you have an iPhone already… you ought to have Sleep Cycle, because it’s so darned cheap. However, it’s not worth investing in an iPhone.

If I had to choose between the Zeo and the fitbit… it would be a tough choice. But since sleep is one of my biggest concerns… I’d probably go with the Zeo. As is, I don’t have to make that choice. Instead, I can look at the data from both the fitbit and the Zeo, much like a sleep lab looks at the data from an actigraph and an EEG to come up with a complete picture.

Zeo Personal Sleep Coach

*If you, or someone you know, are the sort of innovative programmer/techie who thinks combining the Zeo with a dawn simulator is awesome… Please, please, please, pretty please? I’ll bake you gluten free cookies. Also, I will love you forever. In a non-upsetting to my boyfriend kinda way.

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