by Stephanie Powell and Julie Vader
Of course there’s an app for it—search the application store for “sleep” and at least 2,200 smartphone programs pop up, all promising to make that mysterious one-third of our lives even better. But is sleeping with a smartphone all that smart?
There are four basic functions of sleep apps:
• Monitoring sleep and recording “light” and “deep” sleep as well as time spent sleeping.
• Playing sounds to help you fall asleep and sounds to help you wake up.
• Recording the sounds you make during the night.
• Sounding alarms during the night when snoring is detected so that the snorer wakes up and is, supposedly, eventually “trained” to roll over and be quiet.
Neither of us felt we needed or wanted to try that last category, but here’s a sampling of some of the applications we did “test sleep.”
Sleep Cycle ($1.99) This app “senses” your sleep patterns by using the phone’s “accelerometer” to record movement. There are instructions on how to place the phone, face down, near the corner of the mattress. Then, during the night, according to the instructions, “you move differently in bed during the different sleep states.” The alarm goes off when it senses you are in a “light” sleep phase up to 30 minutes before your designated wake-up time, and you can choose from 15 different alarm sounds (from “Warm breeze” to “Metro mind”) or music already on your phone.
Clearly this is not a real scientific instrument. One night I was wide awake but kept very still—my phone recorded this as a “deep sleep” phase. It’s also unclear what the charts really mean; after five nights it gives you a “sleep quality” number, as a percent, but a percent of what? Are there people who get 100 percent? Are they dead? It also uses the phone’s camera to record your heart rate upon awakening (the app warns that this “is not an actual medical device”). And for only $9.99 a year all your sleep information can be uploaded to a secure server so you’ll never lose it, which seems something like saving fingernail clippings in a bank vault.
Still, it was amusing to see my sleep charts every morning and this app did make me a more mindful sleeper, if that’s not an oxymoron. Plus it was a far more pleasant way to wake up than the usual routine: with KCBS clicking on and announcing that 101 south is jammed from Rowland Boulevard to Central San Rafael.— JV
Sleep Time (Free): I was suspicious about Sleep Time. A giant analog clock that looked awfully like the clock already provided in my iPhone stared back. What will this alarm clock do for me? I set an alarm, put the phone face down under my pillow and drifted off. The next morning I woke to the soft sound of a xylophone slowly approaching (if xylophones had legs). I looked at the clock. It was 6:45—an entire 15 minutes before my alarm needed to go off. Normally I’d be disgruntled and feel bamboozled out of a well-deserved 15 minutes of extra sleep. But whether it was the xylophone, the fact that I charted 9 hours and 35 minutes of sleep or perhaps because I woke up at the most fitting time, my shift of consciousness seemed a bit easier. A quick click of the button over to the “Sleep Lab”—it broke my sleep down into percentages and three categories: light sleep, deep sleep and awake. The app and charts included did not help me gain sleep or guide me into it, but it created a burning interest in my sleeping patterns—and it was straightforward enough to operate while I was still a little groggy.—SP
24/7 Motion X (99 cents): This app does all of the standard alarm and monitoring sleep functions, but it also records “sleeping sounds” for you to listen to when you wake up. According to 24/7: “It’s fun, and very helpful.” Or horrifying. In several nights I heard mostly covers rustling and one brief stint of demure snoring. But there were also some very unladylike sounds (blame the vegetarian chili), and one stint of hard-core snoring (blame the dog?). The app encourages one to tweet or Facebook results (yeah, right). And 24/7 is also well named. In addition, during the day, it monitors step counts, calories burned, and tells you when the sun sets and rises. If you’re “not active” for an hour it tells you to get up and move. During a walk it will tell you how long you’ve gone and how fast. I fully expect future upgrades will remind you to call your mother and save more for retirement. It’s all too much and very draining, on the psyche as well as on the phone’s battery.—JV
SleepBot (Free): SleepBot analyzed everything I’d never contemplated about my sleep and myself. I set an alarm and woke during a light sleep phase—the best time to wake according to the app. The sound of the gradual alarm was soothing compared to the banging of bongos I normally use as my iPhone alarm setting. It even gave me the option to rate my own sleep and share my motion, nighttime noises and sleeping charts with my Facebook friends. (I declined.) If you’re a numbers type of person, this is an app with no shortage of charts from stem plots to bar graphs.
I must admit I’ve never been interested in the sounds I make while I sleep, but on the second night I let it record sound. When I woke, I was excited and somewhat frightened to hear the results. Rather than hearing bumps in the night or snoring, all I heard was the rustling of blankets. This portion of the app proved to be incredibly useless for me, however, if you want to prove that your partner snores, this is the app for you.—SP
Relax and Sleep Well with Glenn Harrold (Free): Self-improvement recordings have been around as long as there have been recordings. Glenn Harrold, who touts himself as “the UK’s best selling self-help audio author,” has a mini-empire on the app store, selling 58 separate audio recordings to help you lose weight, gain inner wisdom, be happy, experience spiritual healing and, of course, to get to sleep. The free version (the pay version is $6.99) is touted as a “high-quality hypnosis recording,” and the first time I listened to it the biggest barrier to sleep was to stop giggling. He never says “You are getting sleepy” but he comes damn close many times. It also took a while to figure out the accent—it’s British, but not posh. More like Eliza Dolittle’s father talking through basic breathing and relaxation techniques with echo effects. The first night I fell asleep pretty fast, but woke up feeling tired. Same on night two. The third night I stayed awake to listen to the whole 27 minute tape and was surprised to hear that at the end he brings the listener “out of trance” and declares that one is now fully awake. Huh? Now I have to get another smartphone to track if I wake up or not, and, if so, what I’m doing. Singing and dancing to “Get Me to the Church on Time”?—JV
Sleep Pillow (Free): I’m not one to count sheep and I like falling asleep to the sound of absolutely nothing. The forced croak of a toad in a creek or the forecast fakery that is an occasional bolt of thunder in a gentle “rain storm,” isn’t for me. Regardless, I decided to see what Sleep Pillow had to offer. Blending the best assets of social media, it lets you “like” your favorite sounds with a slideshow of Instagram-inspired pictures. You find your favorites from a buffet of sounds—it’s the Fresh Choice of sleep apps. I decided to go with the singing humpback whales and tinder gently burning in a fire. The two opposite elements blended rather nicely, and after I muffled the deep whale calls with a pillow, the subtle mixture served its purpose and I drifted off. If you’re looking for an app that will tune out snoring, kids or animals, Sleep Pillow has you covered. However, I think with or without the metaphorical whales and burning embers, I somehow would have found myself asleep just as easily.—SP