Will the Floome Portable Breathalyzer Blow Away the Competition?

As a techie with creds going back to the 1980s (ahem…), I relish the chance to mash together two of my loves–gadgets and spirits. So when I was contacted by Floome recently to see if I was interested in trying out their smartphone-based breathalyzer, I couldn’t respond fast enough. As a denizen of bars around Seattle (Hey, we have a lot of top notch bars here, OK?), I Uber whenever possible. Nonetheless there are still unforeseen times when I need to question my current blood alcohol content (BAC). My wonky ethos was all over this no-risk opportunity to try out a breathalyzer and put it through the paces.

Before diving into the Floome’s performance, here are the obligatory disclaimers:  If you’re unsure enough about your BAC and ability to drive, you shouldn’t be driving. End of story.  Breathalyzer readings often vary widely between consecutive tests. Simply put, don’t base any decisions solely on a breathalyzer reading.

The Floome (pronounced “flume”) enters a crowded market of small, personal breathalyzers, most costing between $40 and $130. Many are standalone devices, while a few like the Floome plug into your smartphone. There are advantages to both: A dedicated device doesn’t require a functioning, charged smartphone and can offer one-button simplicity. Smartphone-based devices have the edge with regard to more interactions such as calling a cab for you, viewing prior readings, or taking a selfie with your reading. Sadly, I kid you not on that last one.
The Floome hardware is stylish, sleek and curvy; its Italian design origin isn’t surprising. If it were made of rock, it would be perfectly shaped for skipping across a smooth lake surface. Compared to other personal breathalyzers, the Floome is by far the most fashion forward. My unit is black, but it’s also available in red. It connects to your smartphone via the headphone jack, rather than a USB or Lightning port like you might guess. The headphone plug pivots and tucks away inside the Floome unit, keeping it protected when not plugged in. At the top, a jelly-bean sized hard rubber piece covers the tube where your breath enters the unit; on the side is a circular hole where your breath exits. By pivoting the rubber piece from the closed position, it creates a small, stubby mouthpiece to blow into. A second mouthpiece is also included, for you germophobes. Have a friend join in the fun!

The Floome is a “fuel cell” type analyzer, meaning it uses a small amount of energy to burn alcohol molecules present in your breath. While some breathalyzers need something like an AA battery to power them, the Floome has an internal battery good for 5,000 tests. That said, there is the issue of calibration. Floome states: “To always get the best performance and most accurate estimates from your Floome, re-calibrate it after about 500 tests, and in any case no later than 12 months from the first use.” You simply send the Floome to a facility for re-calibration and they mail it back.

The Floome’s software component is a downloadable app– iOS, Android and Windows Phone are supported platforms. Annoyingly, the app requires you to register an account before taking a reading. The app also provides quick access to contact your (very lucky) friends, call a cab, find nearby restaurants, or for those with no shame, share your most recent results overlaid on a photo of your choice – selfie time!!! If that weren’t enough, there’s a “diary” of your prior readings. I’ll let your mind run wild with the ill-advised uses of that feature. Don’t have the Floome with you? The app gamely offers to estimate a BAC for you, based on your body size and what you’ve eaten and draaaanked recently.

The centerpiece of the app’s functionality is, of course, taking a breathalyzer reading. To start a reading, first plug in the device, then select “test” in the app. You’re then prompted to swipe up or down – not sure why this differs between iOS and Android. The app prompts you to wait a few seconds, then blow into the mouthpiece. You’ll hear a whistle as you blow, the frequency varying depending on how hard you blow. A few seconds later the app tells you to stop blowing: On Android, the phone’s screen rapidly flashes several times, indicating completion, while lucky iOS users get an EDM-worthy strobe show as your phone’s flash fires rapidly – a splendid way to attract attention in a dark bar. Before displaying your reading, the app asks you to confirm you’ve not had a drink for at least twenty minutes prior. If you choose to fib and take a reading immediately after a big drag on a Manhattan, you can create ridiculously high readings. If you measure above the legal level, the app also suggests an estimated time you should wait before testing again, hopefully with better results.

Not my actual blood alcohol level

To put the Floome through a more thorough evaluation process than simply knocking back a few drinks while taking random readings, I invited my friend Kevin over to join in. Kevin is a long-time techie like me and owns a BACtrack S75 unit himself. By testing with two people, each taking multiple readings on both units at similar intervals, we should (in theory) be able to determine if either unit provided wildly different results from test to test and, if the units were in general agreement, a very rough implication of accuracy. Again, in no way up to rigorous scientific snuff, but more meaningful than just me, Floome, and several rounds of Jet Pilots.

Kevin and I started and finished our drinks at the same time, then waited twenty minutes before testing. We each took multiple readings on both meters. Let’s call that a “round.” Twenty minutes later we took another round of measurements. After consuming a second drink and waiting twenty more minutes, we measured again.  Looking at the results the next day, a few things become apparent:

Neither the Floome nor the S75 were rock solid within a round. In Kevin’s third round with the S75, he measured 0.017, 0.035, 0.021, 0.028, and 0.022. That’s a hefty deviation. In my third round with the Floome, I measured 0.033, 0.024, and 0.028, also a somewhat surprising variance.

When comparing the S75 to Floome side-by-side within a round, both devices returned approximately the same value, with the Floome typically coming in just a tad higher. The similarity in results is reassuring.

Lastly, the relative change in our BACs over time was surprising. We both started at 0.0 and ended around 0.025. However, Kevin’s BAC rose roughly linearly, whereas mine spiked at the second round, but it didn’t increase after another drink. By the end, neither of us felt capable of driving, despite being well below the 0.08 legal limit.

BACtrack S75 and Floome

One place where the Floome stands out is its speed compared to the S75. The Floome gives you results relatively quickly: A five-second warmup before you blow, five seconds while you blow, and your results are available almost instantaneously. The S75 has a much longer warmup time, a longer blow interval, and a seemingly interminable wait for the results.

When I first received the Floome, on at least three occasions I consumed a stiff drink, waited 20 minutes, and measured a 0.0. I knew the Floome was functioning because measuring immediately after sipping on some rum yielded a 0.4 reading. I subsequently received an app update that promised more accuracy, and after downloading it, saw more reasonable results. All the above tests were after this update.

Occasionally the Floome fails to make a measurement, giving hints as to why it failed. One of the reasons, surprisingly, is a noisy room. Huh???? Why would noise level affect the amount of alcohol in your breath? Fun story, it turns out: Remember earlier when I mentioned the whistling noise? Kevin was able to fake out the Floome and get a 0.0 reading simply by whistling rather than blowing into the mouthpiece while the test was underway. Our theory is that the software uses the unit’s whistle pitch to estimate the air flow rate.

Since Floome makes you register an account to use, Kevin inquired about Floome’s data privacy and retention policies; for instance, are my results stored on a server somewhere? And if so, where and for how long? We both spent a lot of time searching Floome’s web site and the app for answers to this and didn’t find anything conclusive.

While the Floome is small enough that I could keep it with me all the time, I’m loathe to just stuff it in my jeans pocket, given the open hole on the side – wouldn’t want pocket lint to get in there. I wish the Floome came with a small, form-fitting case so that I pop it into any pocket for safe travels. My other peeve is firing off my iPhone’s flash during testing. I can easily see the screen while blowing into the unit, so don’t need the flash to fire, and I didn’t see any way to disable that.

All things considered, I’m more happy than annoyed with the Floome and will keep using it. Its core functionality seems to work as advertised, however, as mentioned above, there are opportunities to make it even better. Devices from other manufacturers have similar capabilities and price points. If you’ve tried them out and have anything to share, be sure to add it to the comment section below.

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