I’m not an insomniac. Not really. I just picked up an unfortunate habit in college of not getting to sleep until 3am, and I haven’t quite managed to get rid of it yet. Partly as a result, I’ve been wishing vaguely for a FitBit for some time now. $100 is a bit much to spend just to feel guilty for not exercising enough, though, so I haven’t acquired one yet.
Then a friend told me about Sleep Cycle, an app that claims to track your sleep patterns and wake you at the optimum moment in your sleep cycle, resulting in a more natural and restful awakening. At $.99, testing it was a no-brainer. Here’s what I found.
Sleep Cycle uses the accelerometer in the iPhone to track your movement as you sleep, so it needs to be on your bed to get anything approaching useful results. Since the app can’t run in the background or when the screen’s locked, it’s best to leave the iPhone charging. A charging, running iPhone can get hot if it’s covered—and sometimes even if it’s not—so it’s important not to accidentally stifle your iPhone with a heavy blanket or pillow.
Once you’re confident that you won’t drain your iPhone’s battery overnight or cause it to burst into flame, setting your iPhone up for the night is pretty straight forward: set your alarm in the ‘Alarm’ tab, read the helpful reminders, and place the iPhone face down on your bed. Simple and done.
How It Works
A momentary digression into science: there are two main kind of sleep, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid eye movement sleep. In REM sleep, which is when most memorable dreams occur, the eyes move rapidly—surprise—but the rest of the body is effectively paralyzed by a phenomenon known as “REM atonia”. Without getting into the details, this means that the body is generally still during REM sleep. In NREM sleep, dreaming is rare and the muscles aren’t paralyzed.
Comparing this information to the graphs produced by Sleep Cycle suggests that the “Dreaming” level of the graph is probably mislabeled. That movement level probably represented NREM sleep, while the lower levels of moment should represent REM sleep and the accompanying paralysis.
While Sleep Cycle is good for getting you up at the right time to minmize grogginess, if you insist on gettng a small amount of sleep, there’s only so much Sleep Cycle can do to help you. In apparent recognition of that fact, the app refuses to even track amounts of sleep less than three hours, so don’t try to use it to track a nap.
Since being awakened from REM sleep often results in grogginess, Sleep Cycle should try to wake you at the most movement-intensive part of the thirty minute window preceeding your set alarm time, and in my experience it does exactly that.
The alarm can be one of several built-in sounds; in accordance with Sleep Cycle’s goal of a relaxed, natural awakening, the sounds it uses are in general much less jarring than those used by the iPhone’s built-in alarm clock.
What You Can Do With It
If you’re curious, you can track your past nights’ sleep in the Statistics panel. This is especially helpful if, like me, you find that the positive reinforcement of well-formed graph encourages you to keep up a normal sleeping pattern.
You can also email your graphs to someone else, which might be especially useful for those tracking a sleep disorder under the supervision of a doctor, or even share your sleep graphs on Facebook (if that’s your thing!)
There are several competitors in the App Store. Sleep Phase Wakeup Clock by Tuomas Artmen also offers the ability to track your sleep patterns with the microphone instead of just the accelerometer, but comes packaged with an icon that seems to include a reversed but otherwise identical version of the arrow/clock from the Time Machine icon.
The Absalt alarm clocks by FreeTerra are ten and fifteen times more expensive, but allow you to set multiple alarms rather than just one.
Several others offer similar price points to Sleep Cycle, but all of the apps in this category seem to share Sleep Cycle’s main weakness: the interface. While the other apps mainly struggle with the uncanny valley—some use unnecessary custom UIs, while others use standard UI features in bizarre ways—Sleep Cycle at least has an agressively non-standard but self-consistent UI.
For me, the benefits of Sleep Cycle have been two-fold: first, I’ve been slowly increasing the amount of sleep I get to avoid feeling guilty when Sleep Cycle refuses to accept the 2-hour-and-fifty-minute supernap that’s sometimes all that stands between me and tomorrow. Second, even on days when I get five hours of sleep or less, Sleep Cycle can sometimes wake me at the right time to avoid the terminal grogginess that can otherwise result.