I tried four of these apps over a period of a few weeks: Sleep Cycle, SleepBot, Pillow and Sleep Time. All are sleep-tracker and alarm apps, which are designed to help you track your sleep, as well as read sleep patterns to wake you up at the best possible time. To use them, just call them up on your phone, keep the phone on and plugged in so the app can register your movement, and make your way to dreamland.
Each has its own unique features, in addition to the tracking capabilities. SleepCycle ($1.99, for iOS and Android devices), is one of the most full-featured ones, offering a comprehensive look at your sleep patterns over time and lots of day-to-day information. SleepBot (Free, for iOS and Android devices) gives you specific stats such as how much "sleep debt" you're in, or your average bedtime. Sleep Time (Free, for iOS and Android devices) has some soothing ocean and rain sounds to send you off to sleep; you can also pick a playlist from iTunes. Pillow (Free to download for iOS, $4.99 for all features) gives you great options for setting alarms for naps; premium features also let you pick songs from your iTunes library to wake you up. All try to give you a basic idea of how well you're sleeping, whether it's how "efficiently" you sleep, or just by way of a quality rating.
I started off very skeptical of these apps. After all, having my phone -- with my work e-mail, video apps and, um, the entire Internet -- next to my head isn't exactly my idea of the best way to unwind. And there definitely were problems. My cat, for example, frequently knocked my phone off the bed because of the dangling cord. I often forgot to turn on the apps, or to turn them back on when I remembered something that I just had to use my phone to look up from bed. I also found that the apps weren't always accurate, particularly when compared against each other; they provided more of an overview than a clear picture of what my sleep looked like. And they aren't as comprehensive as fitness trackers such as Fitbit or Jawbone; I don't wear my phone at the gym, for example, so my step counts on these apps aren't accurate.
But over time, I did learn some things about my sleep patterns that were useful. For one, no matter how early I try to go to bed, I found it's rare that I actually fall asleep before midnight, which means lots of hitting the snooze button in the morning. That helped me realize, for example, that it's better for me to pack lunch the night before than try to get up to do it in the morning. I found out that I tend to wake up every hour or so unless I've had a good workout that day, in which case I sleep a lot better. And having the data around encouraged me to experiment with my sleep settings a little -- particularly with Pillow, SleepBot and Sleep Cycle, which let you take notes on your sleep. Now I know that, contrary to what I'd always thought, I don't sleep better with the windows open, but I do sleep better with the curtains drawn.
And that's really the best way to use these apps: as part of a larger effort to fix how you sleep. They aren't stand-alone solutions for fixing whatever it is that makes you wake up tired. They'll only tell you that it's happening.
If you want to put in the work to making over the way you sleep, they're worth it. For me, having all that data to parse about my sleep kept me up at nights -- I'm happier when I banish my phone from the bedroom altogether.