Despite some app issues, the Flow air quality is one of the most essential and vital devices you can buy today.
It’ll come as no surprise to you that every day we breathe polluted air. The air quality varies wildly by climate, country, and even street. Poor air quality can cause a whole range of complications, not least to yourself and your family’s health.
But what if you could monitor the air quality where you are right now? That’s the objective of Plume Labs, a French startup who have just launched their first mobile air quality tracker: Flow, available now for $180.
Flow is a small, palm-sized device designed to monitor air quality on the go. It represents Plume Labs first hardware product, but it doesn’t show. It’s an attractive device that has had a lot of attention paid to the design.
The upper portion of Flow has many small holes located all around the device to allow air to pass into the sensors beneath. However, those air holes result in the device not being waterproof, so you need to take extra care in rainy conditions. Flow’s inconspicuous design means you won’t feel embarrassed to carry it around with you.
The attention to detail continues with the vegan leather strap attached to the top. The strap is soft and isn’t a struggle to open or close. Flow is relatively unique in that the device is portable. Most smart or connected air quality monitors are designed to be left at home or the office, not carried around with you throughout your day.
The lower portion of the front of the device is dedicated to a touch sensitive pad, which acts as the only button. Pressing down on the pad activates or wakes Flow out of its passive collection mode. A circle of LEDs around the pad illuminate in response to the surrounding air quality.
The charging port is at the bottom of the device, which sounds quite awkward. However, Plume Labs have thought this through too. Included is a small docking station for you to pop your Flow into. It’s not fiddly or difficult, and the spacing on the dock has been designed so that Flow slots perfectly onto the USB-C charging port. This is especially useful as battery life is around a day, so you’ll need to charge the device quite frequently.
How It Works
Flow collects and stores air quality data throughout the day, no matter where you take it. Pressing the pad on the front of the device will light up the LEDs different colors depending on the air quality around you. The colors are mostly what you’d expected: red for bad, green for good, and … blue for somewhere in between.
Since there is no universal standard measure of air quality that combines all the different particulates, Plume Labs has developed their own. But they first need data to feed into that model. The holes around the outside of Flow allow air to enter into the sensors, and the air is distributed using a 5mm internal fan. A laser fires at the air, and the dispersed light is converted into electrical energy.
To measure the Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) and volatile organic comound (VOC) particles, the air is passed over a heated membrane which allows those particles to pass. The energy required to keep the membrane at 350 degrees Celsius is then recorded. Plume Labs has developed a neural network to process all the incoming data and to convert it into useful air quality readings.
Whatever environment you’re in, you are unlikely to want to pour over mountains of data to work out whether the air is dangerous or not. That’s where the Flow Air Quality Index (AQI) comes in handy. It turns that data into a single number that will indicate the quality of the air around you. It’s this number that is used to inform the colored LEDs on the front of the device.
Flow App & Setup
While it’s great to be able to get a quick overview of the air quality directly from Flow, the data behind the AQI may help inform how best to protect ourselves. Plume Labs developed an app to go alongside Flow, and the device’s initial setup is initiated from there too.
The hardware has been meticulously designed, but unfortunately, the app experience doesn’t quite live up to those heights. Once you’ve created an account and set up your device, the app is mainly used for viewing Flow’s data. Unlike some other wearable devices, there doesn’t seem to be any background Bluetooth connection between Flow and your phone. This isn’t a problem in itself as background sync can drain the battery. Also, Flow doesn’t need a permanent connection since it isn’t receiving any data.
However, it does mean that when you open the Flow app, you need to wait for the data to download. This is a somewhat slow process, hampered further by difficulties maintaining an active Bluetooth connection with the device. Sometimes, no matter what I tried, I couldn’t get the app to acknowledge Flow. I use the Google Pixel which has been known to have Bluetooth issues. However, Flow would always be shown in the available Bluetooth devices, but just not on the Flow app.
The only way to resolve the issue was to disassociate Flow from my account, a process that should allow re-connection. Unfortunately, to reconnect Flow, you have to factory reset it, permanently deleting all the data stored on the device. As there is no background sync, any data recorded since you last synced your Flow is lost.
Viewing Air Quality Data
For the most part, the data synced properly between Flow and the app. Once there, you have the opportunity to browse historical data. Any readings taken while your Flow is connected to the app will be geo-tagged too so you can get an insight into where air quality varies.
The app’s home screen is a timeline of days your Flow has recorded data. The top of the page shows today’s data while connected. Scrolling through the list takes you through older entries. Each day is summarized with a location, the average AQI, and a severity rating. Tapping on an entry allows you to see the day in more detail, with average PM2.5, PM10, NO2, and VOC values displayed.
A graph underneath these average values shows how the AQI varied throughout the day. If you tap and drag on the chart, the values will change to show you the precise readings at those times of the day. This works, but it doesn’t seem to be the best way of browsing the data. There is no way to compare days, locations, or exposures. The timeline is a nice way to present the data, but opening each day’s readings is a little tedious, and doesn’t help you to identify trends in the data.
An Essential Device
Air quality is a concern no matter where you are. From cars to planes, to electricity production pollutants are all around us. This makes Flow, and the insights it provides, invaluable. It is a well-designed, portable air quality monitor that can keep you informed about the air you breathe at the touch of a button. The positive thing here is that Plume Labs got the crucial part of the experience right; the hardware.
The connection issues and in-app data analysis are frustrating for those of us that want to drill down further into the data, but software can be updated and improved. Given the time they’ve spent developing the Flow, it seems likely that Plume Labs will iron out some of these issues.
The air we breathe is vital to our health. Many of us pay close attention to or at least have an awareness of the health merits of the food we eat, and air quality should be no different. Flow marks the first time that data is readily available to you whenever you need it. For that reason alone, the Flow may be one of the most essential and vital devices you can buy.