Hands-on: A closer look at Microsoft's Band 2

My very first impression of Microsoft’s Band 2 – the first thought that flashed through my mind as I picked the device up for the first time – was simply: Oh!

I was rather unprepared for the highly flexible – and perhaps more watch-like – wrist strap of the new Band, compared with the much more rigid version on the original model, which I’ve been using for the last few months. The new version will be immediately familiar to those who have seen the first-generation device – but as with the wrist-strap, Microsoft has also attempted to refine other elements of the design with its latest model.

Amazingly, the Band 2’s strap managed to feel like a step backwards in usability. The more flexible version feels like it's made from high-quality materials, including stainless steel elements – but the clasp on the strap is now a little more fiddly to attach. This was much easier with the stiffer strap of the old Band, which practically guided the clasp into place, but with the new strap lolling around a bit while you’re trying to find the attachment point, this doesn’t feel like an improvement for ease of use. Still, once you’ve actually got it on, it’s generally very comfortable to wear.

But the improvements that Microsoft has made to the construction of the device are very welcome indeed. The higher-quality materials make it feel far more premium than the first Band did – and it’s just as well, given the surprising decision to launch the Band 2 at an even higher price than its predecessor.

Note the grey area exposed on the original Band (left) where the coating has peeled away

When chatting to a couple of Microsoft representatives about the new device, I showed them my current Band, on which the black exterior coating is literally peeling away, despite my every effort to take the best care of the device. This is a problem I’ve seen on several other first-generation Bands, most recently from Neowin contributor Michael Gillett – and it’s one that the Microsoft folks I spoke to quietly acknowledged.

Thankfully, this ‘peeling’ problem will be a thing of the past on the new device, thanks to the improvements in materials and build quality.

Of course, the most obvious change over the older model isn’t the clasp design or even the materials used – it’s that enlarged curved display. Personally, I’ve never had any major complaints about the quality of the display on the first Band, but upon taking my first close-up look at the Band 2, I think I may have let an “ooh!” audibly slip out. The display on the new Band is undeniably an improvement, with much more vibrant colours, improved brightness, and of course, that stylish curved glass.

All of this combines to offer a device that’s undeniably more sleek than its predecessor – but there was one other usability issue that I wanted to take a quick look at. The rather bulky design of the Band’s strap can sometimes be a bit of a hassle, especially when typing – and the problem is particularly acute for those who wear the device with the display on the wrist side of their forearm. While this style of wearing works very well for glancing the unusually wide-display of the device, compared with the more ‘traditional’ style of wearing a watch with the face on the outer forearm, the flat display of the first Band can cause problems while trying to type or move the mouse across your desktop.

Microsoft seems to think this problem has been solved with the Band 2 and its curved screen. Frankly, I’m not even slightly convinced of this. I tried typing on a Surface Pro 4 with the Band 2 on my wrist, and faced exactly the same issue as before. The bulkiness of Band's primary module (the bit with the screen in it) along with the secondary sensor array on the opposite side of the clasp immediately presented the same challenges for this kind of desktop usage. We’ll have to put this to the test in the real world before we can judge it fairly, of course, but I’ve not seen any evidence so far that Microsoft gave this issue any serious consideration when designing the new model.

Looking through the old Band to the new one

As far as the interface goes, it will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s seen the first Band, with a tile-based UX, and the same two physical buttons below the screen. The larger display improves legibility, as does the added brightness of the new panel, and the tiles do look rather lovely sliding across that beautiful curved screen.

So if it wasn’t immediately obvious at first, the Band 2 represents an incremental evolution of the formula established with the first-gen device – but it’s not yet clear if Microsoft has satisfactorily addressed all of the issues that owners of the earlier model raised.

But while the company decided not to rock the boat with its new hardware, Microsoft is continuing to making improvements to its Health platform – some of which we detailed earlier today, while others will take longer to implement.

As I discussed with a couple of the reps at Microsoft’s event yesterday – mirroring similar conversations with some of Microsoft’s UK team in recent months – the company intends to put the health data that it collects from you to better use. That means not just keeping a record of your heart-rate, or your sleeping patterns or whatever, but also considering how to turn that stored data into meaningful insights – actionable insights that may help to improve your health.

The long-term goal is to have a Microsoft Health platform that is more proactive in helping users to improve their health across the board – from diet and exercise to every other component of healthy living. The new UV sensor warnings in the Band 2 are one tiny example of this – rather than relying on users to manually check UV levels, the device can now do this itself and alert users to the danger of prolonged exposure.

Somewhere down the line, perhaps, Microsoft Health might one day warn you that that giant steak you’re about to eat is likely to give you the heart attack that will finish you off. There’s a long way to go before that kind of proactive health management becomes a daily reality, of course – but between its latest improvements to Health, and the new version of the Band, Microsoft is already taking its next steps towards ensuring a healthier future for its customers.

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