Sleeping is something we all need, though many of us aren’t able to get as much of it as we’d like. In a world where the workday continues to stretch far beyond the traditional nine to five, too many of us aren’t getting the recommended amount of sleep per night. In spite of the fact that some companies provide places to catnap, and while naps in general have been proven to help the ranks of the sleep-deprived, the best place to get some shut-eye is still at home, at night, in your own bed. Problems arise when that place fails to provide a good night’s rest.
For those of us burning the candle at both ends, making sure that we get high-quality sleep is vital. That’s where sleep apps come in.
How Sleep Apps Can Help You Amp Up the Zzs
Why does anyone use sleep apps? Don’t they just tell us things we already know? When I get a bad night of sleep, believe me, I don’t need an app to tell me. However, sleep apps are meant to do more than record how much you sleep each night. They are meant to help you find ways to get high-quality sleep.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with sleep apps, there are some facts to know. In order to effectively collect data, these apps usually require you to place your phone close to you in bed while you sleep — typically next to your pillow. If you sleep with a partner, there should be no interference with your app’s ability to track your stats, provided your partner stays on his/her side of the bed.
How do sleep apps work?
Most standard sleep apps track your sleep movement using a sensitive accelerometer capable of detecting slight motions. Many apps also use a smart alarm to wake you during the lightest point in your sleep cycle. This is intended to reduce grogginess and make you feel more rested, even if it ends up waking you well before your alarm would normally go off. All the apps listed below include these two functions, so we don’t list them in the apps’ features.
We tested a handful of the most popular sleep apps to see how they performed.
iOS, Android; Free
- Tells you how much sleep debt you’re in, a feature which can help you be more mindful of getting to bed early.
- Counts down how many hours of sleep you have until you have to get up, which may be stressful to some.
- Records any sounds you may make during the night so you can play back the recording to hear all the snoring or other sounds that may have clues to a poor night’s sleep.
- Has multiple alarm capabilities.
- Option to play ambient music while you fall asleep.
- Provides graphs and long-term stats on all data collected. You can even make notes on individual nights of sleep to look back on later.
- Ability to export a complete sleep history for your doctor or for personal use.
I tried Sleepbot for a week. The “Sleep Debt” reminder was really helpful. I tend to get sucked into things on my computer and having that nudge to get to bed probably got me another 30 minutes to an hour of extra sleep. I found the graphs interesting, but they mostly showed me what I already knew — that I’m not sleeping enough, and that I occasionally snore.
Notable features: I did try the ambient music, which I appreciated because there is quite a lot of construction happening at night right across the street from my complex.
Dislikes: I have to confess it stressed me out that my sleep performance was being judged each night, and my sleep was pretty fitful the first few nights I used the app.
Bottom line: The biggest benefit of the app was the reminder to get in bed earlier. Aside from that, I wasn’t crazy about waking up earlier than my alarm, nor did I feel as completely rejuvenated as the smart alarm technology advertised.
iOS, Android; $1
- Alarm clock
- Use your iTunes library to wake you up with your song of choice.
- Up to a 90-minute customizable wake-up window to ensure you wake up at the best point in your sleep phase.
Heather tried Sleep Cycle for a week. She says, “It’s interesting to see your sleep quality (shown as a percentage) and the graph showing your movement throughout the night. I appreciate that it allows you to set the alarm window (five, ten, 15, 30 minutes, etc) instead of just being set on one time.”
Notable features: “The Sleep Notes. I was thinking it would be nice to know more about what you did before going to bed, to see which habits give you a higher or lower quality of sleep. It would be more helpful if the ‘Sleep Notes’ feature were more prominent (you find it under Settings).”
Dislikes: “In general I don’t like the idea of sleeping with my phone IN the bed. It made me a little more anxious, and I worried about knocking it off.”
Bottom line: “Now that the test is over, I won’t keep using the app. I didn’t see any improvement in my sleep and having to keep your phone plugged in at night — while also under the fitted sheet to prevent it from moving around — is kind of a pain.”
Sleep Time+ (Sleep Time Smart Alarm Clock) by Azumio
iOS, $2; Android, Free
- Monthly and weekly graphs help you visually track your sleep data
- Full history of stats available
- Fall asleep listening to selected soundscapes or white noise
- Link to your iTunes or wake up with the built-in app alarm
- Compatible with Apple Health
- Detects your pulse immediately after you wake up
Caitlin tried Sleep Time+ for a week. She says, “I can only assume this app is tracking my sleep based on my sleeping movement. However, I’m not sure it was accurately tracking my sleep all of the time. One night it said I was awake for one to two hours in the middle of the night. From my perspective I slept like a rock that night. So I don’t entirely trust the app’s measurements.”
Notable features: “I get curious about when and how long I am in deep sleep or light sleep, so I enjoy seeing the graphs of the previous night’s sleep. I can then compare them across the week or month. I also like the average bedtime and sleep duration numbers. Before you set the app for sleep, it asks you to tag your sleep with things like ‘not in your own bed, ate late, alcohol, etc.’ However, after setting your tags you don’t really see them again. I would think they would tell you something about your sleep based on the tags. ”
Dislikes: “I don’t like that my phone had to be plugged in and the screen unlocked and on all night. I usually sleep with my phone on my nightstand next to my bed. I move around a lot and kept swiping my phone and the phone cord. I could also feel my phone get super hot during the night. Seems like that wouldn’t be good for your phone over a long period of time. Also, I understand the concept of the app waking you up in a window that will fall in your light sleep pattern. However, my sleep is precious to me and I found being woken up before I actually needed to get up made me feel more grumpy and annoyed than refreshed.”
Bottom line: “I don’t think I’ll keep using this. It didn’t help me sleep better, give me insights on my sleep habits, or wake me up feeling refreshed. I’m not even sure it was tracking my sleep very accurately. I’d look at my sleep graphs and think, ‘OK, is this good? Is this bad? Should I be doing something differently?’ There is a General Insights button, but that doesn’t come with this version.”
Sleep Better by Runtastic
iOS, Android; Free
- Choose from a variety of alarm sounds
- Tracks not only movement but duration, cycles, and efficiency of your sleep
- Share your sleep log on social media
- Log your stress level, caffeine intake, alcohol consumption, and exercise info to complete the picture
- View stats in weekly or monthly form
- Filter out variables to see the effect on your sleep history stats and pinpoint what helps you sleep best
- Set a custom wake-up time window
- Integrated with Apple Health
- Dream diary
Danny tried Sleep Better for a week. He says, “I don’t feel like the app offered any insight into what factors might be contributing to a poor night of sleep that I could then change. It was more like an alarm clock. I will say it’s beautifully designed and I’m curious as to what the paid model gets you.”
Notable features: “This app has so many features — a diary, a statistical roundup, insights into moon phases — but I mostly use it as an alarm clock. (Anecdotally, the tune it wakes you up to sounds almost exactly like Train’s ‘Hey, Soul Sister.’) On the main page where you go to set the general timeframe in which you want to wake up (it gives you a thirty-minute window), you can note if you worked out, had a stressful day, were not in your own bed, ate late, had caffeine, or drank alcohol. I like that there is a way to capture some of the things that happen in your day.”
Dislikes: “Beyond the app capturing statistical data, I don’t think there’s really a way for my phone to know when it’s optimal for me to wake up within a 30-minute timeframe. For me, it seemed like if I made any movement in the bed the alarm would immediately wake me up. I’m not sure if movement is the best indicator of best times to wake. Other than my general skepticism, I would say the thing that I disliked the most is that the app chose the thirty minutes prior to the time I set as my “wake-up window.” I would have preferred 15 minutes prior and 15 minutes after. I also felt like the app tended to wake me up on the earlier side of the 30-minute window nearly always, so I found that annoying.”
Bottom Line: “I did like the information that the app provided and that it asks you how your dreams were upon wakeup. But without any tips, the information isn’t very useful. I needed more guidance to make use of all of that data.”
Smart Alarm Clock by Sport.com
iOS: $2 Android; Free
- Records sounds while you sleep that you can play back later
- Use an iTunes playlist to fall asleep, or in-app soothing sounds
- Weather forecast when you wake up
- Customizable sleep screen
- Set a custom wake-up window
- Cloud backup of your stats
- Six sleep tracking modes to choose from
- Graphs of your sleep cycles and patterns
Keith tried Smart Alarm Clock for a week. He says, “I have a four-month-old baby in the same room, so I knew that I was not getting great sleep. Seeing my sleep patterns over time, notably the lack of long deep sleep, emphasized that I should try to get to bed earlier to compensate.”
Notable features: “I like the variety of modes, that I can do sleep tracking with or without being woken up by an alarm, and I appreciated the clear, intuitive interface. The included gentle alarm sounds are a nice way to wake up.”
Dislikes: “None, besides the power-outlet issue. You have to keep your phone plugged in overnight and I don’t have any outlets near my bed.”
Bottom Line: “I’ll keep using this. I felt that the combination of smart alarm clock, relaxing sounds, and sleep tracking was a lot of value for the money. I would recommend this app to someone who was not sleeping restfully.”
Better Sleep Takeaways
Overall, our team was pretty unimpressed with the apps we tested. They give you a lot of data, but most stop there without giving you the tools you need to interpret that data. That said, if you’re the type of person who likes to parse data, finds it helpful to be reminded of bedtime, or likes a wake-up window, these apps could be helpful.