What to Look for When Shopping for an Alarm Clock

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In some ways, finding the right alarm clock is a pretty low-stakes endeavor. Does it wake you up when you want it to? Then good. It does what it’s supposed to do. That said, as the science of sleep becomes bigger and bigger business, so too do our options for how to rouse from that sleep. Welcome to the wide world of waking up.

For SELF’s product reviews, we wanted to know: what should you actually look for when buying or testing an alarm clock? That’s why we spoke to several sleep experts to develop criteria that would help us when testing an alarm clock or a sleep device with an alarm functionality, like as a sunrise alarm, and then used that expert criteria whenever testing a relevant product. Read on to find out what we learned, which may help you when shopping for an alarm clock yourself.

The experts we spoke with agreed that what you should look for in an alarm clock is personal—it depends on your specific preferences and needs. If you’re the kind of person who hits snooze a million times and still can’t drag yourself out of bed—possibly to the detriment of functioning, like it means you’re late to work all the time, or aren’t able to tend to your children when they need you—then you should look for an alarm clock that really forces you to wake up and jolts you out of your stupor. Some alarm clocks shake your bed. Others force you to do math problems in order to turn them off. Others make really loud obnoxious noises. If you need a clock to do some really heavy lifting, you should look for one with these features.

On the other hand, if you have an easy enough time getting out of bed but find that waking up in an unpleasant way really impacts your mood for the day, then you’ll want to look for an alarm clock that has a gentler approach. The kind that wakes you up with sweet music, or sounds that slowly get louder over time. Or with light—there are some clocks that grow brighter the closer you get to the time that you’re supposed to wake up, which some people find makes for an easier and less stressful experience, probably because it’s easier to wake up in the light than in the dark.

Do you suffer from insomnia that’s exacerbated by stressing out about what time it is and how little sleep you have left? Then one expert recommended a clock that doesn’t show you the time at all. Meanwhile, if you’re like me, and you do want to know the time but hate having to do any work at all to check it, then an alarm clock that projects the time on the ceiling might be exactly what you need. Again: It’s all a matter of goals.

And then there’s this: One of the experts we spoke with said that, in an ideal world, you’d be getting such high quality and sufficient quantity of sleep that you wouldn’t even need an alarm clock. In that sense, there are some alarm clocks that also come with bells and whistles meant to help you improve your overall sleep hygiene. Good sleep hygiene includes things like limiting blue light before bed; minimizing time you spend on your phone before bed; going to bed and waking up at a consistent time every day; minimizing distractions while you sleep; and establishing a pre-bed routine that helps you get into the mood for sleep. Any contraptions that can aid in the sleep hygiene department get high marks (as long as the bedtime assistance they offer is genuinely evidence-based, that is.)

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So with all that being said, here are the expert-suggested criteria that SELF tests for when evaluating alarm clocks for our product reviews.

Alarm Clock Evaluation Criteria

Functionality / Ease of Use

How easy is it to set up? How likely are you to actually use it every night, as opposed to, say, the alarm on your phone? An alarm clock is only helpful if you actually use it. Beyond simple ease of use, it’s also important to scrutinize the marketing language—this is true for all products, but particularly relevant in the sleep industry, which is a very exciting space without a ton of regulation as of yet. So are the bells and whistles attached to your alarm clock evidence-based? Or is it making claims that it has no business making? An analysis of the research into the claims should be informative here. (Note: Some of those bells and whistles can be judged entirely on their own—like if your alarm clock also contains a white noise component. If that’s the case, see what criteria you should look for with white noise machines here.)Usefulness

In other words: Does it help you accomplish your sleep- and wake-related goals? If you’re looking to stop snoozing so much and actually get out of bed, does it help you do that in a measurable way? If you’re looking to feel more peaceful in the mornings, does it help you with that? The best course of action here is to log your feelings and experiences for a few mornings before using it, and then track how you’re feeling (or how quickly you get out of bed) for the next week or so while using it. And then compare. Did it help you do what you wanted?Cost

Given that most people on the planet have a free alarm clock built into their phones, an alarm clock needs to be pretty special in order to be worth spending money on it. So is it worth the price? That’ll likely depend on what exactly your goals are when it comes to sleeping and waking, and how unsatisfied you are with your phone alarm. But ideally you won’t be spending a ton of money on the clock.

How SELF Tests Alarm Clocks for Review

  • Five days of using the alarm clock to wake up at your regular time, and then another five days of using the alarm clock to wake up at unusual times.
  • Before you test, you should spend several days tracking your current alarm clock situation and measuring specific things: How are you feeling right after you wake up? How many times did you hit snooze? How long did it take you to actually get out of bed? What do you like about it? What do you hate about it? What are your goals?
  • Maintain this measurement and tracking system when you’re using the new alarm clock so that you have something to compare it to.

Experts Consulted for These Guidelines

  • W. Chris Winter, MD, sleep medicine and neurology specialist and author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It
  • Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist and both a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

Product Reviews Using These Guidelines

This is a buying and testing guide for SELF product reviews. See all our reviews here.

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