Counting your digital sheep: 10 apps and gadgets to track your sleep


Adam Cecil

Adam Cecil

Former Staff Writer

Adam Cecil is a former staff writer for Policygenius, a digital insurance brokerage trying to make sense of insurance for consumers. He is a podcast producer, writer, and video maker based in Brooklyn, NY.

Published November 16, 2015|15 min read

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People love sleeping and they hate waking up. It’s the reason the snooze button was invented, the reason Folgers is the best part of waking up, and the reason that there is an alarm clock that has wheels and runs away from you so you’re forced to get up out of bed to turn it off.

But a lot of adults don’t get enough sleep – the CDC goes so far as to say that "insufficient sleep is a public health problem" – including our own Chris Walters, who wrote about his trouble sleeping (and what he’s done to fix the problem) this past March. Chris’ article has a ton of tips about getting sleep, including advice like not using your smartphone before bed.

There is one good reason to use your smartphone right before you doze off, though, and that’s to turn on your sleep tracking app. Why use a sleep tracking app or dedicated device? Awareness. Sure, maybe you kind of know you’re not getting enough sleep, but nothing throws it in your face quite like an app telling you you’re only sleeping five hours every night.

Beyond that, some apps and gadgets claim to help you figure out why you’re not getting enough sleep. Maybe it’s the fact that you’re not doing enough physical activity during the day, or maybe it’s because you’re watching two hours of Netflix on your iPad every night before bed.

They can also help you wake up. Instead of sounding an alarm while you’re deep in a dream, these apps and gadgets can attempt to wake you when you’re in the lightest stage of sleep. This leaves you feeling fresh, not groggy.

Start with the basics: cheap, easy smartphone apps

There’s no reason to rush out and buy an expensive sleep tracking bracelet when you’re just getting started, especially since you there are many cheap alternatives that use your smartphone’s built-in sensors. Sleep CycleiOS, AndroidFree (w/ $1.99 annual subscription for data backup)Sleep Cycle was one of the first apps to take advantage of the iPhone’s accelerometer to track sleep. Using Sleep Cycle is super easy: open the app, set your desired alarm time, and put the phone on the mattress behind your pillow.

Well, that was the way you used Sleep Cycle for years. But now, in a recent 5.0 update, there’s an even easier way. Using your iPhone’s microphone, Sleep Cycle can analyze your sleep using just the sounds you make tossing and turning on your mattress. If you have a sleeping partner, both of you can use Sleep Cycle and your phones will actually talk to each other to judge who made which sound.

This is great for people who don’t want to keep their phone on the mattress (either because they’re afraid it’ll fall onto the floor or because they don’t want radio waves near their brain). It also makes tracking sleep even easier – you can keep your phone on your nightstand like usual, lowering the barrier of entry for budding sleep trackers.

Sleep Cycle also has two snooze modes: intelligent and regular. Regular works, well, regularly: you set a desired snooze time and that’s how long it will delay the alarm for. Intelligent snooze is a lot cooler – it lets you sleep until the end of your "wake up phase," allowing you to gently wake up over a short period of time.

If you’re just getting started with sleep tracking, definitely download Sleep Cycle. It’s free, so you really have no excuse not to. Chris (you know, from earlier) just started using Sleep Cycle and he is amazed at well it works – he says it’s the only alarm he’s ever had where he doesn’t "wake up feeling groggy, weak, or annoyed."

PillowiOSFree (w/ $4.99 premium one-time upgrade for advanced features)

I recently downloaded Pillow after being a long-time user of Sleep Cycle because of one killer feature: Pillow syncs up with Apple’s HealthKit to compare your sleep data with other Health data like steps walked, caffeine consumed, and calories eaten. It’s a neat feature in an app full of neat features.

Besides the HealthKit data sync, Pillow uses your data to serve up insights in its "Snooze Lab." In the Snooze Lab, I discovered my optimal bedtime is 11:16 PM (Pillow offered to send me a notifications thirty minutes before bedtime) and that I’m a lark. It’s very reminiscent of Jawbone’s UP apps, which use your health data to provide sometimes useful insights.

Pillow can also record audio. Instead of using the microphone to track you sleep like Sleep Cycle (you still have to put Pillow on your mattress for it to work), Pillow uses the mic to record loud noises that may have disturbed your sleep. During the summer, Pillow frequently recorded the sound of my air conditioner turning on.

Pillow is also prettier than Sleep Cycle. It’s more fun to look at the sleep data, which tracks your sleep states on a multi-colored timeline. In general, it fits in with Apple new iOS aesthetic that it pioneered two years ago with iOS 7. Sleep Cycle isn’t ugly, by any means, but it does feel more utilitarian.

There’s also an iPad version of Pillow – not useful for tracking sleep, but occasionally fun to use to look at your sleep data.

Unfortunately, Pillow does require a $4.99 one-time upgrade in order to get its most interesting and unique features. It’s hard to recommend Pillow when there is a free alternative, especially since none of its features are "must haves" (at least in my book). But if you’ve used Sleep Cycle before and are looking for a solid alternative, Pillow is your app.

Intermediate Gadgets: on your body 24/7

While sleep tracking apps can be great tools, they don’t work for everyone. Maybe you don’t want to keep your phone near your bed, or the way you sleep makes it difficult for your phone to pick up your movement. Or maybe you want to pick up a fitness tracker for other reasons, like tracking your steps, and sleep tracking is just an added bonus. No matter your reason, these wrist-worn gadgets can be much better sleep trackers than your average app.

Misfit Flash $29.99

Here’s why I’m suggesting the Misfit Flash to you: it’s thirty dollars. Three. Zero. Dollars. For most people, that’s throwaway money. You’ll spend more on a movie date then you will on this fitness tracker (at least in New York – the movie ticket prices are too damn high!).

How does the Flash track your sleep? Easy – strap it to your wrist and go to sleep. It’ll automatically detect your sleep, so there’s no need to mess around with your phone or switch a flip on the device. If you’re already wearing your Flash 24/7, as Misfit hopes you will, your sleep will be tracked with no extra effort from you.

Besides tracking your sleep, the Misfit Flash can count your steps and calories burned. Misfit claims this thirty dollar wunderkind can track a number of sports, including running, tennis, cycling, basketball, and soccer. All of it syncs over to your phone using the Misfit app.

Unlike other fitness trackers, you don’t need to wear the Misfit Flash on your wrist – you can use the included clasp to hook it on a pocket, your belt, or another piece of clothing. The Flash doesn’t offer advanced features like heart rate tracking or a screen, but again: it’s thirty dollars.

Misfit also makes a nicer looking metal version of the Flash called the Shine. The second-generation Shine can be purchased for $99.

Fitbit One / Fitbit Flex$99.95 each

If you’re willing to pay more than thirty bucks for a fitness tracker, you should look at the Fitbit One or Fitbit Flex. You’ve probably heard of Fitbit – they make a wide variety of fitness trackers for everyone from your grandma to your co-worker who wakes up at 4:45 every morning to run a half-marathon.

The Fitbit One and FitBit Flex are the two cheapest products that Fitbit makes that offer sleep tracking. Both retail for $99.95, which is a significant investment over Misfit’s cheaper offering.

The Fitbit One is, in my opinion, the weaker option. It has a built-in clip and no wrist-strap, so you have to clip it to your belt or pocket. This can make it more difficult to deal with at night – instead of just jumping into bed, you have to remember to remove the Fitbit from your day-clothes and onto your night-clothes. And if you don’t wear pajamas?

(You can buy an optional armband from Fitbit to clip your Fitbit One to at night, but I think my earlier point still stands.)

The Fitbit Flex, on the other hand, is a wrist-worn device that you’re meant to wear pretty much 24/7. In general, this makes the Fitbit Flex a much easier fitness tracker for most people, and when it comes to sleep tracking, this gives it a serious edge over the Fitbit One.

So why even mention the Fitbit One? Because some people think that clip-style trackers like the Fitbit One are better pedometers – when you wear a wrist-worn step tracker, you risk counting random arm movements as steps.

Ultimately, the decision is up to you. Which style do you prefer? Do you care about getting the most accurate possible step count, or do you prefer ease-of-use? For the vast majority of people, the ease-of-use is probably the most important factor to consider.

A few notes of caution on the Fitbit: if you’re an iPhone user and already using or interested in using their HealthKit platform, you might want to stay away from Fitbit. They don’t integrate with Health, which means your data is stuck in their system and their approved data partnerships unless you want to use a third-party solution.

You also have to manually put your Fitbit into sleep tracking mode – it doesn’t automatically detect it like the Misfit Flash. Chris (you know! Chris!) also found that the Fitbit is terrible inaccurate, both with steps and with sleep tracking, so you may want to avoid paying $100 for one.

Anything from JawboneIf you’re considering one of Jawbone’s UP fitness trackers, you probably shouldn’t. Nothing against Jawbone – I owned an UP2 for a while and thought it was pretty good! – but the company is losing money and flailing around, suing Fitbit for "stealing secrets" while Fitbit is busy making more money than they expected. So unless Jawbone turns things around, I would stay from buying one of their products.

Bonus Section! Apple Watch apps

They’re kind of like iPhone apps in that they’re cheap or free, but you already paid at least $350 to get a cool little wrist-worn device. Confused on how to wear the Apple Watch 24/7 (because, you know, you need to charge it every night)? Check out this article by developer David Smith. Sleep Pulse 2$3.99

Sleep Pulse 2 tracks your heart rate and your motion using your Apple Watch. It’s a good amount of data – more than an iPhone app and those other wrist-worn devices. The iPhone app doesn’t do anything except sync your data over and show you the results, so there’s no under-pillow tracking or audio recording. Early versions of the app were extremely buggy, though they seem to have worked themselves out after watchOS 2 came out.


Sleep++ uses only the accelerometer in your watch to monitor your sleep. This means it records less data than Sleep Pulse 2, but then again, it is free. Of course, if you’re willing to spend $350+ on a first generation Apple device...

Advanced sleep tracking: turning your bed into a smart bed

You know what’s better than an app and a wrist-worn gadget? An electronic device that always stays with your bed, ready to track your sleep whenever you plop your body onto it. For people who find wrist-worn devices uncomfortable or just don’t want to remember to wear one, these gadgets can be a sweet solution. Unfortunately, they’re all pretty expensive, so you should be pretty dedicated to serious sleep tracking if you’re looking in this section.

Misfit Beddit$149.99

Hey, remember these guys? Besides making a thirty dollar fitness tracker, Misfit also makes Beddit, a sleep monitor that goes underneath your sheets. Beddit is paper-thin and sticks to your mattress. You can cover it with your normal linens, and no one will ever be the wiser. Unless this is a princess and the pea situation, you won’t be able to feel the Beddit underneath you while you sleep.

The Beddit may be a bit of an eyesore for some – while the actual strip is paper-thin, the same can’t be said for the bulky plastic box that hangs over the side of your mattress. This box holds most of the important electronics, like the Bluetooth antenna and the power supply. Oh yeah – you need to run a cord from this plastic box over to the nearest power plug. And because the Beddit needs to be placed around chest-level, you can’t just hide the cord behind your bed.

For $150, the Beddit offers some neat features. Besides monitoring your sleep, the Beddit can also track your heart rate and how many breaths you take per minute. This is way more advanced than the smartphone apps and wrist-worn devices that rely just on movement data to judge the quality of your sleep.

There are a few caveats – according to some Amazon reviewers, the Beddit often just doesn’t work. (Some reviews are from before Misfit acquired the company that makes Beddit, so maybe Misfit has made some improvements since those reviews were written.) Other reviews have noted that the sensor strip that goes on the bed is too short – fine if you sleep close to the edge of your bed, but not great if you sleep in the middle. There are also multiple complaints about Misfit’s app, which showcases all of your data but doesn’t help you analyze it.

Sense$129 (optional $49 upgrade to track two people)

Note: Sense shut down in 2016

Misfit’s Beddit is all about tracking your body, but what about the environment around it? That’s where Sense comes in. Sense is a tiny sphere that sits on your bedside table. The sphere can measure temperature and humidity. It knows when your lights go out and when the sun rises. It can hear loud noises and test your air quality. It is, in other words, a really fancy ball of sensors.

Combine your Sense with the Sleep Pill – one is included, another one can be added for $49 – and your movement during the night can be tracked as well. The Sleep Pill is about the size of a quarter and is clipped to your pillow.

Unlike the Beddit, which collects a lot of data but doesn’t really tell you what to do with it, the Sense app is all about teaching you how to change your environment to make sleeping easier. You may surprised at how temperature, humidity, air quality, and light levels are making it more difficult for you to fall and stay asleep.

Sense doesn’t track heart rate or how often you breath, so you’re not going to get much medical data out of it. But if your goal is just to get better sleep, Sense is one of your better options.

Withings Aura$299.95

Want to spend a lot of money on a fancy alarm clock and a sleep monitor? Check out the Withings Aura. The Aura is really two devices: a super fancy "connected alarm clock" for your nightstand and a sleep sensor that goes underneath your sheets, like the Beddit. Withings used to force you to buy the two together, but now offers the connected alarm clock separately. Unfortunately, you need to purchase the full $299.95 set to track your sleep at all.

The Withings Aura Sleep Sensor is similar to the Beddit, but different in a few key ways. For starters, you can actually put the Sleep Sensor underneath the mattress. Withings claims that the Aura is so sensitive that it can detect your heart rate and breathing cycles through the mattress, which I guess is why it’s so much more expensive than the Beddit.

The Connected Alarm Clock is where the fun is at. It does some of the stuff the Sense can – monitoring the temperature, light levels, and sound levels – but also features a speaker and a lamp. The Alarm Clock can use the lamp to gradually wake you up with a simulated sunrise, plus use the speakers to stream your favorite Spotify playlist.

In short, the Withings Aura is a $300 super sleep monitor that combines the best of the Beddit and the Sense. Most people will probably balk at the price – for good reason – but if you’re serious about having the best sleeping and waking-up experience, the Withings Aura is the best in the space.

There are a lot of things to consider when purchasing a sleep tracker. Do you want to connect with your other fitness devices? Do you want it to be your one-stop shop for all fitness data? Do you want advice on how to get better sleep or do you want to analyze data on your own?

Most importantly, how much money are you willing to spend?

Some people think that sleep is the next big lifestyle fad, like jogging or meditation or yoga. I would say that even having the option to spend $300 on a fancy connected alarm clock proves that there is a market of people who really care about their sleep.

But for most people just trying to get a little shut-eye, a free smartphone app can provide just as much data as a $100+ dedicated gadget. Ultimately, better sleep is possible for just about anybody, with no need to spend a small fortune. If the CDC is right about there being a epidemic of insufficient sleep, we should be able to cure it with just a few million downloads.

Image credit: Max Robinson