Review: Updated: Microsoft Band

Introduction and display

Update: The Microsoft Band 2 is available now, but how does it stack up with the first Band? So far, it seems like there are a lot of improvements and we’re glad to see Microsoft has taken all the critiques of the first fitness tracker to heart.

The original Microsoft Band hasn’t been totally outpaced by its successor in terms of feature updates and speed, but as you can see in our latest photos, it hasn’t handled normal wear-and-tear all too well.

Regardless of its looks, the Microsoft Band still holds up as a good purchase for both new and current owners alike. If you’re a fitness nerd who loves tracking multiple metrics with insane detail, you can’t go wrong with Microsoft’s debut wearable. What’s better is that it’s cheaper than ever now that it has a successor.

Read on for our full review of the Microsoft Band.

Microsoft Band

Microsoft quickly and quietly launched its Microsoft Band when no one was really expecting a wearable. The company promptly released the sensor-intensive Microsoft Band after its announcement (without much fanfare, with a price tag of $199 (£170, around AU$230).

Despite the high cost, the ninja release and the Microsoft brand seemed enough to keep people curious and ravenous for the Redmond ware, which sold out quickly at its initial US launch.

Sneaking into a growing ocean of wearables, Microsoft has a long way to go if it wants to remain a top contender in the fitness tracking competition.

Jawbone already has the successful UP24, plus the UP3 coming out soon. Fitbit also has a lineup that’s gotten the masses in a running frenzy, including the newest three of the brood – the Fitbit Flex, Fitbit Charge (and Charge HR), and Surge. Whew. Not to mention every smartwatch has some version of fitness tracking built in.

With the space inundated, what’s to keep everyone interested in the Microsoft Band other than brand name recognition? The answer is health, health, health.

Display

The 1.4-inch TFT (320 x 106 pixels) full color display screen is crisp and bright with no pixelation in sight. Its 11mm x 33mm is much smaller than the Samsung Gear Fit‘s curved 1.85-inch AMOLED screen.

But you don’t need a huge screen, since the fitness tracker isn’t going to be showing off any intensive graphics. If you want this to be your smartwatch for reading and responding to emails, however, that display real estate might be a bit limiting.

Microsoft Band display

The Band’s display is big enough that I can read everything clearly but small enough to remain unobtrusive. Not many fitness trackers even have screens, let alone colorful screens – except the aforementioned Gear Fit.

The Fitbit Force, Surge and Razer’s Nabu have simple OLED displays which are far less fancy than the Microsoft Band’s. In most cases, this is perfectly sufficient considering a lot of fitness trackers are also simplified notification hubs. The Band also fits in this category but like the Gear Fit, it lets you read and reply to messages with generic pre-written responses – but not on the iPhone.

Design and comfort

The Microsoft Band isn’t going win any prizes for being the most attractive fitness tracker – the display is rigidly flat, while the band isn’t – but it’s not the most hideous either. It could just do with being a bit more comfortable.

However, despite the amount of tech packed inside and its 11mm x 33mm screen, the band retains a relatively slim form factor. It’s a little thick where the clasp is, but it doesn’t jut out too far. The Band also looks bulkier and feels heavier in the hand than it really is, mostly because of the sensors taking up a lot of space.

There are only two buttons on the device – a power button and an action button. I’m used to just tapping on the center portion or touch screen of other fitness trackers, so pressing the power button took some getting used to.

I found myself wishing that a simple tap could activate the band. The action button, however, isn’t too bad. Basically, it starts or stops workout session timers, sleep tracking and the stopwatch.

Microsoft Band

So far, the band only comes in black and isn’t interchangeable. It’s made of a thermal plastic elastomer material and is pretty comfy against the skin. The band can get a bit linty, and became annoying to dust off, while the screen can be easily scuffed up.

Unfortunately, the bezel around the display has taken most of the damage, and I honestly don’t even know how. Despite that it doesn’t feel delicate – it could probably survive a few drops.

Band

Almost all the trackers in the wild have their own unique way of fastening around your wrist, and the Microsoft Band is no exception. So far I’ve seen a simple wrap-around like the Jawbone, pinholes like the Misfit Flash and different variations of both. The Band has chosen a sliding clasp route that is both easy to use and easy to adjust.

Microsoft Band

Comfort

The Microsoft Band fits on the wrist like a Jawbone UP24 in the sense that both are a little rigid, and don’t completely wrap around small wrists. But the adjustable clasp helps the Band fit better; people with larger wrists shouldn’t have this issue.

There are three base sizes (small, medium, large) that fit snugly once you fiddle around with the clasp.

Microsoft Band

There are two ways you can wear the band, and I found myself switching between both. When typing at my desk, if I wasn’t charging it, I would have the screen on top because I didn’t want it constantly hitting the desk. When I wear it out and about, I like to have the clasp on top with the screen on the inside of my wrist.

Admittedly, I can see people feeling annoyed at switching, but I enjoy that you can wear it whichever way you want. For some people, wearing the Band on the inside is much more comfortable, though seeing the clasp on top isn’t as visually appealing.

Specs, performance and interface

As I mentioned earlier, the Microsoft Band has a whopping ten sensors: an optical heart rate sensor, 3-axis accelerometer, gyrometer, GPS, ambient light sensor, skin temperature sensor, UV sensor, capacitive sensor, microphone and a galvanic skin response sensor.

To crunch the data from the sensors, the band has 64MB internal storage and an ARM Cortex M4 MCU processor.

Sadly, the band isn’t waterproof, though it claims to be “splash resistant” meaning light rain and hand washing it is A-OK. Everything else, showering, swimming and submerging it in water is off the table.

Performance

The sensors are pretty self-explanatory, but accuracy is a whole other story.

The heart rate monitor has worked consistently for the most part. I’ve only experienced one occasion so far in which it randomly spiked from 75 to 140 beats per minute, then back down to 78. I wasn’t doing anything but sitting on a stool watching the most boring concert of my life, so I’m not sure why it would have suddenly jumped.

Microsoft Band

The sleep tracking has felt consistent as well. The first night I used it, my “actual sleep” was five hours and I woke up only twice. I felt great the next day despite the short duration. The next night I slept for eight hours and felt horrible. The app told me I woke up 10 times which seems like an accurate assessment of why I was so tired even though I had a full night of sleep.

Microsoft Band_sleep trackingI think I would have to keep using it more and comparing the graphs – which incidentally are really easy to read – and all the metrics. The sleep function has now been updated to automatically track you without needing to push the button.

Step tracking, like the other pedometers in all the fitness trackers and smartwatches out there, is dubious at best. There were times when I felt like it wasn’t tracking my steps because the counter wouldn’t change. But for the most part, the band’s sensor kept up with my mental calculations. I reset the steps and walked the same distance – one block – at about the same speed – two steps per sidewalk crack – with the resulting number remaining consistent every time.

On the whole, the band runs quite smoothly with its platform-agnostic operating system. Interestingly, Microsoft decided to use a wearable architecture that has been optimized for low-power micro-devices, instead of Windows 10 or a modified version of Windows.

There’s been no lag, and the touchscreen is super responsive. At times, it was actually a little too sensitive; I would be scrolling through the apps and it would open one, falsely registering that I had selected it.

Two of the best features of Microsoft’s wearable are the GPS and the band’s ability to download workouts. This basically means you don’t have to lug your phone around if you’re exercising or going for a run. You still need a phone at the end of the day to sync your info though. Still, I liked how I didn’t have to worry about carrying around a phone for the band to function.

Band

The second function allows you to “download” workouts from the Microsoft Health app to your phone over Bluetooth. Similar to the GPS, you won’t have to carry around your phone to start exercising.

Interface

Microsoft Band login

The set up is easy enough on the band, but you’ll have to sign up for a Microsoft account right off the bat if you don’t already have one. This made for extra faff, but it’s necessary for Microsoft to glean all that Health data from you that will be constantly syncing with the Cloud.

It takes an extra five minutes or so and then another couple of minutes for the band to sync and pair up with your phone over Bluetooth. I used my iPhone 5S to start with, which worked perfectly fine. We also tried it with Android Lollipop – no problems.

If you don’t like the thought of using anything remotely Lumia-esque or reminiscent of the Windows 8 tiles, you’re out of luck. The interface of the Microsoft Band is essentially a simplified Windows platform. But instead of a bunch of resizable, colorful squares you get… a fixed number of small, non-resizable, colorful squares. It’s not as awful as it sounds, though. The interface actually works really well with such a small amount of real estate.

Microsoft Band with iPhone 5S

If you’ve enabled the always-on watch face, it will show the time and date. Pressing the power button takes you to the home tile which displays the time in color; you can replace the date by pressing the action button and customizing it to show your heart rate, steps taken, calories burned, or miles from the day.

You can also pick from 12 different wallpapers for the home tile alone, with 10 colors that will also deck out the tiles, plus three “discreet” options – or dark grey solid colors with three different font colors.

Microsoft Band

Scroll horizontally to go through the list of apps and vertically to read messages. Tapping on the main watch face (after pressing the power button) takes you to a list of your fitness goals, like steps taken, miles walked/run, calories burned and the heart rate monitor. Holding down the home watch face and pulling to the right will display battery life (no percentages though), show whether you’ve enabled the heart rate monitor and your Bluetooth connection.

BAnd

Notifications were easy to read, but if someone sent an extra long text message, you’d have to read it off your phone. You can’t reply with non-Windows devices; all you can do is read social media messages, texts, calls and so forth delivered to your wrist, which I guess is sufficient enough for a fitness tracker.

Though a little unsettling at first, Quick Read has become a staple in my daily Microsoft Band usage. Essentially, any message you get can show up as fast one word messages on the screen so you can quickly eyeball without needing to scroll.

All you need to do is simply press the action button and incoming texts, emails and other notifications, like Facebook and Twitter, will be scanned and “read” to you.

Microsoft Band

It’s an extremely straightforward interface that isn’t hard to grasp at all, which I appreciate since I find Microsoft’s Windows 8 interfaces tend to be cluttered and difficult to figure out. The only change I’d make is to include the option for continuous scrolling.

It’s a little thing, but it would have been ideal if I didn’t have to scroll all the way back to the home screen to see the time or another feature. I can also see the perk of having vertical orientation like the Gear Fit but reading messages wouldn’t work well on the band’s small screen.

Apps and fitness

More apps would be a boon for the Microsoft Band, because there aren’t very many right now. It’s nice how you can sync up so much data from other apps, but do I really want to have five different app accounts along with all my Band fitness data? Not really. I wasn’t using the partnered apps in the first place and I didn’t really feel like downloading them.

Microsoft Band

Microsoft offers 17 stock tiles, or apps, you can mix and match from the Microsoft Health app. Of the 17, you can choose 13 to display on the band.

Microsoft Band weather

Your options are the run of the mill apps: messaging, mail, calls, calendar, run, exercise, sleep, alarm/timer, guided workouts, cycling, weather, finance, UV, Starbucks, Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Twitter and a notification center. You can also sync up the UP by Jawbone app, Runkeeper, MapMyFitness and MyFitnessPal so Microsoft Health app has more info on you.

Microsoft Band starbucks

There are a few random ones, like UV which takes a reading – low, moderate, high, very high, no UV – of the UV rays when you’re outside. While fun to try, it gets old after using it once. It seems a little unnecessary since it doesn’t really do anything – it’s pretty obvious if you’re being exposed to too much sun.

The Starbucks app is pretty neat in that it stores the barcode of a gift card for easy access when you’re the cafe. You can only store one card at a time though.

Fitness

This wearable was basically made to make you an exercise machine. There are so many sensors and apps dedicated to fitness, it’s kind of crazy, if verging on excessive. However, it’s definitely been fun using them all (and painful realizing how out of shape I am).

Microsoft Band tiles

My favorite fitness feature is the guided workouts app. In the US Microsoft partnered with Gold’s Gym, Shape, Men’s Fitness and more to compile a series of workouts that you can “download” to your band. For the UK it’s teamed up with Nuffield Health.

It’s not as fancy as it sounds, but it gets the job down. Essentially you pick whatever workout you want from the Microsoft Health app under “Find a workout.” These range from activities under running, bodyweight and strength categories that last for five minutes to an hour and incorporate different reps.

Microsoft Band guided workouts

I chose a 14-minute beginner’s crunch and plank routine to start with. The app synced with my band and after choosing the tile, it would start the timer and I would begin the workout. After each rep, the haptics would buzz, letting me know there would be a moment to rest, then it would buzz again beginning the next set.

If you aren’t sure how to do an exercise, there are short videos that accompany each workout that you can watch from you phone beforehand. It’s a barebones way to exercise, but easy and great for people like me who prefer to keep an already arduous chore as hassle free as possible.

Since launching, five new indoor biking workouts have been added to the Guided Workouts app, including: Indoor Bike Tabata Sprints, Indoor Bike Hour of Sweat, Indoor Bike Total Body, Indoor Bike Pyramid and Indoor Bike Intervals.

A completely new Bike app has been added to the band’s exercise-heavy roster as well. It lets you track your rides outdoors, or indoors if you prefer, hence the new guided workouts. When the Bike tile is active, the heart rate monitor becomes “optimized specifically for biking activities.”

It can also track elevation and elevation gain, distance and duration and calorie burn which is viewable in the Microsoft Health app. Plus, you map out your ride via GPS, track your current and average speeds both on the band and in the mobile app, and review your custom splits and see an estimate for how long it will take your body to recover from the ride.

The running app is even simpler. All you have to do is select it, and it begins a timer. Keeping the GPS on measures the distance you’ve run and tracks your pace and route. the app can also retrace your steps, so you can challenge yourself later. The metrics then show up on the band under the Run app and on your mobile device.

You can also measure yoga sessions, weight lifting and cycling. Basically, Microsoft is trying to say the Band can do everything to make you the most macho, buff, fit person ever.

In fact, the Microsoft Health platform has been touted as being an actual service that uses a series of algorithms to collect the data you input from the Band, and even Jawbone or Runkeeper, etc. It then continuously changes up routines, tells you different things and so forth to help motivate you.

Most of the sensors are used when you’re exercising to give you the fullest picture of well, you. But it’s not quite there yet … I was expecting a lot more from what Microsoft has plugged about the platform. I even downloaded and signed up for the partnered accounts, but it’s been disappointing so far.

Band

Just like the lack of apps, it’s too early for the Health app to really work. Where are the suggestions to help motivate me? I was expecting some sort of creepy AI to be my personal trainer and yell at me (through haptic feeds and text messages or something) to get my lazy bum away from Netflix binging and into a pair of running shoes. OK, maybe that’s wishing for too much, but Microsoft did promise “valuable, personal insights” to help me reach my fitness goals.

The Microsoft Band webpage reads, “Built in the cloud, Microsoft Health will continually evolve to offer you better experiences and more valuable data over time. The more you share with Microsoft Health, the more accurate and helpful your insights will become.”

Again, what insights? The graphs that charted my sleep and exercising have been great so far, but where’s the part where Microsoft said it would help me be a healthier person? Apparently it’s not ready yet.

I spoke with Zulfi Alam, General Manager of Personal Devices at Microsoft about the lack of solid data from insights. He said that the new update with the Band is the first step in creating a wider net to catch more information because the “back engine needs rich data, and thousands of users are needed to generate this.” In other words, the more people who use the fitness tracker and fill it with data, the more we’ll actually see the insights with heightened accuracy.

One of the ways Microsoft plans on helping you glean more information? The Microsoft HealthVault – which is now connected to your Band. Data from the wearable, including workout and sleep info, is automatically uploaded to the HealthVault account – which you should be able to log into with the same credentials used for the Band. According to Microsoft, the HealthVault is supposed to help you organize your health information in one place, and help gather, store, use, and share information and records with healthcare providers. To link a Microsoft HealthVault account to Microsoft Health data, simply go to “Connected Apps” in the menu of the Microsoft Health app.

Microsoft Health Web Dashboard

Microsoft Health Web Dashboard has also been added as an upgrade. The web dashboard is basically a bigger version of the information stored in your mobile app but it can be accessed through any web browser.

Compatibility and battery life

It’s such a little luxury, but the first world problem of having too many devices really is a hassle. That’s why it’s fantastic that the Microsoft Band is compatible with iOS 7.1, iOS 8, Windows Phones 8.1 and Android 4.3-4.4 devices through Bluetooth. Most fitness trackers are cross-platform, but there are still a few out there that aren’t. The majority of smartwatches are in the Android Wear camp, meaning you can only use Android phones. Then there’s the Samsung-only Gear series.

Microsoft Band

Despite the cross-platform support, the band works best with Windows Phones, thanks to Cortana. Using the Halo-inspired virtual assistant requires a data or Wi-Fi connection, but with it, you can use voice commands to set alarms, dictate short voice notes, create time/location/people based reminders, ask Bing questions, create calendar events, play music through your phone, and tell it to call or text message people.

You can also respond to notifications with short, pre-written responses but again, the band only lets you do so with Windows Phone devices.

Battery life

Microsoft says the band should last two days with regular usage; prolonging battery life means going into your settings and turning off watch mode (so the display is blank), setting the brightness to auto or low, shutting off the GPS when running and toggling off the display when exercising.

Microsoft Band settings

Despite the recommended settings, I was actually able to get two full days with almost everything on after fully charging the band. I received notifications from Facebook Messenger, Twitter, other app notifications (Instagram likes, LinkedIn requests, etc), phone calls and text messaging. I kept the heart rate monitor running, left the GPS on, had the brightness on high and had the clock face showing constantly – except at night when I was sleeping though the band was still on tracking my sleep. I didn’t exercise for long amounts of time during the first two days though.

I attached the little magnetic end of the USB charger in the afternoon on Monday for a full charge and, like clockwork, it died at the same time on Wednesday. The band powered down a bit sooner from Thursday to Friday after using it for multiple exercising sessions – two 20 minute guided workouts – and having the GPS on while running, but it still managed to last a day and half, opposed to a full two days.

Microsoft says it takes about an hour and a half to get a full charge. This matches up well with my experience. The band was in the red low battery warning stages when I plugged it in after the first two days of usage, and after 60 minutes it was at 80% which was faster than I expected. It took the full hour and a half after exercising and using more of the band’s features.

Microsoft Band syncing

At the end of my week, I was pretty pleased with the band’s battery life and charging time. It did what I expected, and there are reasonable ways to conserve its energy.

Trying to figure out how to keep the batteries alive as long as possible is a huge sore spot for wearables, but something a lot of companies are making headway in solving. Misfit’s Flash and Shine fitness trackers last up to six months and the Garmin Vivofit lasts a year by using old fashioned watch batteries. However, both are pretty simple devices, with neither screens nor the ability to give you notifications.

Using Cortana with Microsoft Band

Since the Band is slightly different with Cortana, I decided to add an extra page dedicated to the little voice assistant.

As I mentioned before, you can do several things with a Windows phone and Cortana, like use voice commands and respond to notifications with short, pre-written responses.

For Cortana to work with your Microsoft Band, it needs to be installed on both your Windows Phone and our Microsoft Band, though it should show up automatically on the wearable if you have Cortana.

After holding down the Action button for a couple of seconds, Cortana uses the mic on your Microsoft Band to “listen” when you speak, and it displays answers and requests on the phone. I noticed shorter responses can be displayed on the actual band.

Asking “What’s the weather in San Francisco?” will pull up the full report on the phone and a short “Right now, it’s 62 degrees and sunny in San Francisco” from Cortana directly on the band.

Microsoft Band Cortana

Using Cortana hasn’t become something that’s completely necessary to fully enjoy the band especially since my usual handset is an iPhone.

Notes I’ve created are also stored in OneNote, another service I don’t always use. Now if I was able to choose where my notes went (say, Evernote?), I’d feel more inclined to use it.

Telling Cortana to send someone a text has been handy (or relatively handless) as well as vocally inputting calendar reminders. The AI will listen for a certain amount of time then revert to “thinking” as it processes your request. It will then ask if your message is correct to send, prompting you to press the action button.

A tiny keyboard pops up as another option you can use to send messages, or to correct your voice dictated one. It actually works pretty well and has been quite intuitive. Compared to other itty bitty wearable keyboards I’ve typed on, this one has been the best.

If Cortana makes it to other devices, I’d definitely use it all the time. It’s a service that puts the Microsoft Band on a higher level compared to other fitness trackers but it still seems firmly stuck in the Microsoft ecosystem. I’ve already become surprisingly dependent on my wrist for notifications so performing tasks, even simple ones, would be an amazing bonus.

Verdict

Time and again, Microsoft has been known to throw curveballs, or enter markets prematurely – Microsoft Tablet PC, anyone? – and it’s rarely been good for the company.

The Microsoft Band didn’t necessarily release prematurely, but there’s definitely work to be done. None of this is to suggest that the tracker won’t be excellent one day, but this is what you should know before hitting up the Microsoft Store.

Microsoft Band

We like

The battery life isn’t spectacular, but for something running a lot of programs, lasting a full two days, or nearly so, isn’t too shabby. The fitness-centric ecosystem is also so intensive, you probably wouldn’t need any other fitness tracker after the Microsoft Band.

It’s also been a really comfy device to wear – it has practically become an extension I don’t even notice anymore.

The GPS function also helps the band be a little more independent and helps it feel untethered even though it’s not.

We dislike

I really wish the Microsoft Health app was as good as it claimed to be. I was looking forward to a device that could send me motivational messages or tips straight from the tracker. A variety of apps is also sorely missing from the band.

Having Cortana and quick replies on iOS or Android would have been really neat too, but the appeal of cross-platform has been slightly squashed because of the Windows Phone favoritism. That said, this is also likely because the CPU inside the Band likely isn’t capable of running Cortana on its own.

Also, for how jam packed the band is for active types, I’m really surprised it’s not waterproof.

Final verdict

There is so much potential here it’s killing me. I love the Microsoft Band, but it’s breaking my heart knowing it can do so much more.

It seems as if Microsoft thought cramming fitness, fitness and some more fitness would make the band a feasible tracker. It’s not a bad idea, but it would be nice to do something with all that data. I can see the Microsoft Band reaching Jawbone UP24 levels of awesome once the Health app really gets going.

The company has struck a fine balance between fitness and functionality, but I’d like to see it executed better, and I feel like Microsoft can definitely be 100% amazing – heck, it’s practically 80% there in my book.

For now, the price is a little too high a price to pay for a fitness tracker. That’s especially knowing you can find a device among the hordes of other trackers out there that is, dare I say, just as good as the Microsoft Band in a lot of ways.

With more improvements to Microsoft’s Health platform, the Band could easily become one of the strongest contenders on the market. There’s promise inside, Microsoft just needs to make it happen.

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