Background Smartphone manufacturers offer mobile health monitoring technology to their customers, including apps using the built-in camera for heart rate assessment. This study aimed to test the diagnostic accuracy of such heart rate measuring apps in clinical practice. Methods The feasibility and accuracy of measuring heart rate was tested on four commercially available apps using both iPhone 4 and iPhone 5. 'Instant Heart Rate' (IHR) and 'Heart Fitness' (HF) work with contact photoplethysmography (contact of fingertip to built-in camera), while 'Whats My Heart Rate' (WMH) and 'Cardiio Version' (CAR) work with non-contact photoplethysmography. The measurements were compared to electrocardiogram and pulse oximetry-derived heart rate. Results Heart rate measurement using app-based photoplethysmography was performed on 108 randomly selected patients. The electrocardiogram-derived heart rate correlated well with pulse oximetry ( r = 0.92), IHR ( r = 0.83) and HF ( r = 0.96), but somewhat less with WMH ( r = 0.62) and CAR ( r = 0.60). The accuracy of app-measured heart rate as compared to electrocardiogram, reported as mean absolute error (in bpm ± standard error) was 2 ± 0.35 (pulse oximetry), 4.5 ± 1.1 (IHR), 2 ± 0.5 (HF), 7.1 ± 1.4 (WMH) and 8.1 ± 1.4 (CAR). Conclusions We found substantial performance differences between the four studied heart rate measuring apps. The two contact photoplethysmography-based apps had higher feasibility and better accuracy for heart rate measurement than the two non-contact photoplethysmography-based apps.