Review

Microsoft Band Review: A few instruments shy of an orchestra

The Microsoft Band is here and it is the Redmond company's first wearable device in many years since the SPOT watch. The new device, that is designed to be a fitness companion, can also serve as a notification center on your wrist too. But, it is quite clear that Microsoft built this device with fitness and health first, everything else second.

This is a new segment for Microsoft and they are positioning this device as a premier product for their new Health apps too. Health, which is likely a bigger story than this band, is a new cloud-based system that is designed to track, well, your health, by monitoring vital statistics on a frequent basis.

The Microsoft Band is only the start of the Health story for the company as other devices are able to tap into the platform if they choose to do so. In fact, UP by Jawbone, MapMyFitness, MyFitnessPal and RunKeeper are already taking advantage of working with Health to integrate their data in to the platform.

Like so many things Microsoft is doing these days, Health is open for anyone to use from an OEM perspective and the app works on iOS, Android and of course, Windows Phone. Think of Health as Microsoft's hub for your personal data and it's a strategic move to keep Microsoft in the health and fitness conversations.

This review is about the Band and the software that comes with it, but it's important to know what the Band is and isn't. The reason I say this is that there are two types of people who will look at the Band; those who think of this is a fitness device, and those who think this is a smartwatch.

From a fitness perspective, the device covers all of the basics and then some. It can handle all of your daily movements and collect data in ways that help you better understand your lifestyle. This includes your sleep, as well as your physical fitness, and at the same time, it can provide you notifications about your calendar and deliver messages to your phone as you go through your day.

And then there are those who think of this as a smartwatch, which it is not. The Band is best described as a notification center on your wrist and that's it from a productivity point of view. You can't send messages back to your phone, you can't tweet or respond to email. If you have a Windows Phone, you can communicate to Cortana with simple actions but this is far from full smartwatch functionality.

It's important to figure out what category you fall into before buying, because if you are expecting some sort of revolutionary Microsoft smartwatch on your wrist, you will be disappointed. But if you are expecting a device to track your health and provide you with notifications on a one-way street, then you are closer to the target market for this device.

Hardware

The Band comes in one color, a dark gray, but in three different sizes with small, medium and large. Microsoft does have a sizing chart on its website if you are ordering online, but we recommend making a trip to a Microsoft Store in-person to find the right size for you.

The device comes with a 320x106 1.4 inch touchscreen, GPS, Bluetooth 4.0 LE, a UV sensor, a heart rate monitor, a galvanic skin response sensor, gyrometer, 3-axis accelerometer, ambient light sensor, skin temperature sensor, and a capacitive sensor - all of which ensure that it captures a fairly complete profile of your well-being.

The Band is powered by two 100 mAh batteries that Microsoft says can get you 48 hours of use. Depending on how you use the Band, you can get more than this. In my experience, if you keep GPS off during your runs and the display brightness on low, you can easily obtain the 48 hours. GPS will drain the battery quickly, so if you turn it on while running, expect less battery life.

The Band charges using a proprietary magnetic cable that is easy to attach to the device. While it clearly seems like using microUSB would work and be more consumer friendly, the problem is that it reduces the ability to be water-resistant. So, the option was to build a proprietary cable to make the device be more robust or to go with USB at the expense of protecting the Band from water.

There is a metal clasp that holds the Band together that locks firmly in to place with a reassuring 'click'. To un-do the clasp, you press in both buttons on the side of the Band and it will unlock the device.

In the center, on the side, is a large button that turns on the screen. Next to the large button is an 'action' button that allows you to cycle through various settings.

One aspect that would improve the Band is that you have to use the center button to turn on the display or leave the Band in a 'watch' mode that has the display on all the time. There needs to be a middle ground and if they could steal a feature from the Lumias - double tap the display to turn it on - this would be a welcome feature.

And even when you are in 'watch mode' tapping the screen does not turn on the device, you still have to hit the center button to activate the display.

Comfort

It is worth the time to try and wear a Band before buying one if at all possible. Some will find the device comfortable and others will complain about it. While this is an obvious statement that some will enjoy it and others will not, the debate is quite heated.

First off, you have two options for wearing the device: with the display on top of your wrist; or on the 'inside'. I like to wear it inside the wrist because when on top, it feels too wide and is not ergonomically shaped to contour to your arm. The screen also feels quite wide on the top as well, it's hard to explain until you try the device on but for me, it's on the bottom or bust.

Being on the bottom has some issues, specifically when trying to type. When your hand is placed on a flat surface, the Band works well but if you try to roll your arm left or right while typing (and I had no idea how much I roll my hands/arms while typing until I got the Band), it gets in the way. It's not the most comfortable experience, and I have to use the Band on my left arm as using it on the right arm with a mouse is even more cumbersome.

The Band is noticeably bigger than many of the other fitness devices out there, and we can see how some will think it is too large for them. It's not the softest wearable either as the sides of the band have hard plastic spacers that sit on your wrist too.

With all that being said, I have personally gotten used to the device being on my wrist and have not had any major issues with it so far. But, this will not be the case for everyone as the hardware is a bit bigger than I expected when compared to other fitness devices.

Software

If you have used any recent Microsoft software, the Band will feel familiar. The device uses tiles to navigate but they are not true Live Tiles like we see on other Microsoft devices. While the tiles will update with the number of notifications for each app, they do not flip or rotate to bring forward new content.

On your phone, you download a companion app that allows you to interact with the Band. Microsoft has made a wise move here and lets the Band work with any major mobile platform. By including apps for iOS, Android and Windows Phone, the market for this device is massive - unlike Apple and Android devices that are locked to their ecosystems.

The phone apps allow you to see comprehensive data about your health with charts and graphs that show daily and weekly activity. This information includes things like heart rate, calories burned, steps taken, average pace and recovery time.

You can also see your activity mapped over the week at a high level, and the app does a good job of giving you detailed information on your well-being.

But, to put it bluntly, the software on the phone and Band is about two large updates from being at a level that would better serve its users.

Starting with the Band, interaction is done with swipes, buttons and taps. To get to your health data, you have to hit the center button and then tap on the display and to get to your notifications, you have to hit the power button and then swipe from right to left.

Each interaction with the Band - other than when a notification is pushed to the Band and you catch it before the screen turns off - begins by pushing the power button. This is true even when the watch face is turned on which is a bit odd.

What we mean is that when the watch face is showing, you should be able to tap (or double-tap) on the display to turn it on, and not have to hit the power button. Speaking of the watch face, it does not show if you have new notifications or any other data than the date and time. This seems like wasted space that could add value to the Band when in this mode by adding your step count or a basic way of showing you have un-read notifications.

Of course, there are battery considerations, but I was already used to charging this device each night even though I rarely drained the device fully. Besides, if these are power draining options, let the user decide what is important to them, and let them have the ability to add or remove the content.

On the software side for you phone, it's not as bad of a story but there is still room for improvement. For example, to find your data related to heart rate, it is buried inside the 'calories' tile for some odd reason. It would seem to make more sense to have its own tile for heart rate rather than having to click on the tiny heart to see the tracking information from the 'Calories' view.

There is also the issue that read notifications do not sync up to the Band. For example, on iOS, if you get a Twitter notification on your phone and view it on your phone, it will still show as un-read on your Band.

It's clear that the software on both the Band and the phone is still early, and knowing Microsoft, they will push out updates quickly (there has already been one pushed out for the Band) to clean up the UI and improve the user experience.

Tracking

An important aspect of the Band is its ability to accurately track your steps and other metrics. I put the device to the test by using a Fitbit One and a treadmill.

The Band seemed to consistently show more steps taken than when tracking with the Fitbit One; so I decided to try and create a standard scenario to compare a fixed number of steps to the reported steps taken by each device.

For this test, I took exactly ten steps in a straight line while wearing the Band on my wrist and the Fitbit One clipped to my shorts. You can see the results in the chart below.

Test number Band Fitbit One
1 14 12
2 16 10
3 16 12
4 14 10
5

16

11
6 18 12
7 14 9
8

16

10
9

12

10
10

16

8

The results show that the Band seems to be more aggressive in counting steps that did not occur while the Fitbit was closer to reality.

These results are a bit discouraging and we are not the only ones to see differing results. Neowin user experience designer, Tim Kimberl, had the opposite results with his Band showing less distance traveled. And when searching around the web, you can find others who are showing a discrepancy when tracking the step counts as well.

The conclusion here is that the Fitbit One appears to be closer to reality than that of the Band; but the data is inconclusive until we see a much larger data sample. We say this because we are seeing data skewed both above and below step counts when comparing the Band to Fitbit devices.

The GPS tracking was accurate on my test runs, and the watch kept true time. As for the UV and heart rate sensors, they are consistent in their readings and when checking the heart rate with my pulse, it seemed reasonable to me, although there were odd spikes in the readings on the Band that seemed to be outliers compared to manual counting.

Battery Life

Here's the deal: when we talked to Microsoft after they launched the device, they quoted the 48 hour run time using a 'typical' scenario that uses all the features of the device. But, if you turn GPS tracking off while doing your runs, you can get longer than 48 hours out of your Band.

I received the Band on Friday morning and fully charged the device. It was not until 3 PM on Sunday that I had to put the Band back on the charger, roughly 52 hours after it was last charged with continuous use.

During this time window, I used all of the device's features except for the GPS tracking, had the watch face turned off and the display and vibrations set to 'low'. I had all of the desired notifications turned on, heart rate monitoring and even slept with the device too. After all that usage, 52 hours was the final point when the device ran out of battery.

While there are other dedicated devices that do less but can run longer, this is about twice as long as you would get on a typical smartwatch. In short, you don't need to have multiple charging cables if you are planning on leaving GPS and the watch face off, as the Band can easily last two days with a single charge based on my own testing - as long as you're willing to accept that compromise.

When you turn on the watch face and use GPS while running, the battery life does come up well short of the 48hr claim with the device lasting about 24 hours.

Clearly, your usage will vary depending on how much you use the GPS, as that feature, which you turn on while doing a run, will significantly impact the battery life of the device. The watch face also degrades performance as well, and turning the brightness up will shorten the life too.

Conclusion

Microsoft's first play into the wearable segment is a device that needs a few more minutes in the oven. The ideas and execution work well together but it's the little things that keep the Band from being a truly remarkable device.

The hardware is exceptionally well built, but not the most comfortable on your wrist. The software gets the job done but is lacking some basics like a 'clear all' for notifications that would improve the user experience. Also, unless your Band is plugged in, you can't find the percentage of battery left, there is only a vague battery icon that gives you the absolute basics.

Despite the Band's shortcomings, it has a lot of potential as the software is an easy fix for Microsoft and once you get used to the Band on your wrist, the device does provide you with data that paints a picture of your vital statistics.

While the hardware needs to have improved ergonomics for those who choose to wear it on the inside of their wrist, it's good enough for now, that I will still continue to wear the band on a daily basis.

Is the Band right for you? That's a tough question, but the device does offer a lot of functionality in a sort-of-small package. We highly recommend you get your hands on a Band before spending $200 - but we certainly like where this device is headed; and after it gets a few more software updates, I can see myself liking it a whole lot more.

 

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