This is probably the most I've been excited for a new gadget in quite some time and Microsoft did a fantastic job at keeping the entire thing under wraps until it was released. We all heard the rumors that Microsoft was working on a multi-platform wearable device, but that's all we had to go on it. Then suddenly hours before the official launch date, Twitter goes crazy at the Microsoft Health app that started to appear in app markets.
Twas confirmation that the rumors were true. And it wasn't really a leak, but more like a 4 hour headstart for those that were curious enough to keep tabs on it. Hours later the official webpage was up and we got to see what the fuss was all about. And I for one was very excited for this product. Kudos to Microsoft for keeping everything under wraps on everything. It's currently in the US only in limited supply and I managed to snag one up when the website went live. It came with a complimentary Starbucks gift card, which you can actually pair with your band so that you can pay with the onboard Starbucks app. I'll show more on how to do that later.
Microsoft could of taken the easy route with this device and created a round-faced watch which many people would of drooled over. They also could of just created a fitness band like Jawbone or the Gear Fit. But they didn't. They took it up a notch, by incorporating aspects of both a smartwatch and a health band, and more importantly by making it work on Android, IOS and Windows Phone so that anybody could benefit from it. If you want to read more on how it came to be, check out this great story here. You can see that it wasn't just a trial and error to test out the wearables market, but an attempt and huge leap in what a wearable device should be and equally as important an introduction to the world to Microsoft's Health platform.
The Microsoft Band has more features than I know what to do with. Being pushed strongly as a healthy lifestyle and fitness device, it pretty much covers the gamut in terms of sensors. It has in total 10 sensors to help monitor many aspects of your daily lifestyle from your heart rate to the amount of UV light hitting you. A major part of the sensors is also in determining what kind of workout you are currently participating in so that it may better track your stats during your sets. The Band makes use of preset workout routines and will keep track of every move you make in order to better measure your health and perhaps suggest improvements. You can use the phone app to find new workout routines and sync them to your phone as well, making it more of a workout personal assistant in a way.
Here is a quick list of noteworthy features in no real particular order:
- Always-on heart rate sensor
- Built in GPS
- UV light sensor
- Sleep tracking sensor
- Relays phone notifications
- Calorie burn counter
- 2 (3 for me) day battery life (important if you own any current smartwatch now)
- Alarm with vibration notification
- Starbucks payment app
And this is really just a generalized list. If you're pairing your Microsoft Band with your Windows Phone 8.1 then you will also have your own "Personal Assistant" with Cortana. You can set appointments, reminders and a slew of other things which unfortunately I can't make use of since I'm using my Band with an Android phone. Further down the road it looks like you'll be able to download even more workout routines to it and use it to pay for many more things than just your morning latte.
Built in GPS
One of the big features is built in GPS, which means you can leave your phone at home when going for a run, which is huge for me as my phone isn't the tiniest of things. Nowadays in order to get that feature you'd have to pay a pretty high price on a dedicated health band and you'd probably end up without many of the features listed above.
Always On Heart Rate Sensor
The Microsoft Band measures your rate around the clock and still manages to pull out 2 days worth of battery life. I work out several times per week, and as of now in order to get constant heart rate monitoring the main option was to wear a sensor around your chest which was then linked to a fitness watch of some kind. Needless to say, I didn't always have time or feel like taking this step. The Microsoft Band is designed to take your heart rate continuously in any of a number of situations.
Paying For Coffee
If you're like me, you like your coffee, alot. A Starbucks app is thrown in also into the band. Just wow, is all I can say. It almost feels like you can just leave your phone in your car or at home, and you'd be just fine. You can actually enter multiple cards it looks like through the phone app and the Band will display the matching bar code that you select.
It's good to see Starbuck support on the band, and I would imagine that many more retailers will jump on board soon with their own Band apps. It's these little features that make the Microsoft Band much more than just a fitness/health tool, and more of a daily life can't leave home without it device. I usually take off my current LG G Watch when I get home, as it has finished it's job for the day. But the Band however feels a bit different. It feels like I can and should leave it on all day, and just have it chart my daily life to see how healthy, or not healthy, I may be.
Any of these features would be great to have on a typical smartwatch or band and Microsoft managed to throw them all into one small package on your wrist, what I would consider to be, relatively cheap price, seeing as how many of the current gen smartwatches are going for $200 and up dollars.
And now to the best part of buying any new gadget. Cracking it open and trying it out. I ordered the Microsoft Band online through the Microsoft Store sometime after midnight on it's release day on Oct 30 after convincing myself that just maybe I needed another gadget to wear. And I am glad I did I might add. I received it on the 31st with free shipping. The Band also came with a complimentary Starbucks giftcard to try out on the Band. Very cool. It comes in 3 sizes, Small, Medium and Large. If you purchase your Band at a Microsoft Store you can get fitted for it there, however there is a fitting guide online. The Band is adjustable a certain amount however. I chose small based on the given suggestions and it fits perfectly fine.
It came with the usual manuals, which were kept short and sweet, unlike those 200 page ones you get when you buy a toaster. And a USB charging cable which attaches magnetically to your band. There actually isn't much to knowing how to use it. You plug in the magnetic charger to the base of the watch, and you have your power button and your action button, which has various functions depending on the context.
And the Microsoft Band itself, in all of its awesomeness.
My particular Band came with about 80% battery power in the battery out of the box. You will need to plug it in to the charger the first time you use it however in order to begin setting it up.
After putting in some basic info, such as your weight, height, gender you are good to go.
The first thing I noticed was how well it fits on the wrist. I also own the LG G Watch, and believe me you feel that thing. The G Watch is kind of bulky and heavy and really stands out. Even on the higher notches, the LG G Watch moves around quite a bit on my wrist. Mine even begins to make my wrist tingle after about an hour, not too sure what that's about. But the MS Band fits snug if you need it to, with a pretty snazzy locking mechanism that you can adjust to many sizes. The other thing I noticed was that you really can't wear it with the screen facing upwards because of the horizontal orientation of the tiles. I have no complaints with that however as it's a perfectly fine experience having the screen wrist facing up. All promo shots feature it wrist up, however Microsoft does mention that the heart rate sensor will work with it facing either direction.
The screen is very responsive on this device. Again, on the LG G Watch, not so much as it requires a few taps in order to have it register what you're trying to gesture to it. With the Band button presses don't feel too forced and swiping does what you'd expect. The display is pretty bright and clear and it's fully customizable through the Microsoft Health app on your phone. By default the display times-out after a few seconds of inactivity, however you can set it to Watch Mode by going into the band settings tile and selecting the solid white circle icon. In "watch mode", the display stays on however dimmed on a black background. Battery life will of course be reduced but the display is so light I'm not waging that by much.
The Microsoft Health app that you install on your phone is pretty important if you want to fully use your Band correctly as it offers a wide range of ways to configure the screen and tile placement. You can remove tiles, reorganize them, or turn them on through the application. Some of the tiles also have their own properties that you can configure, such as the Starbucks app. More importantly, it's how you will be getting all of your data metrics. You'll see your sleep pattern results, your workout results, calories burned, steps taken etc etc. You can even choose and upload different workout routines to your band coming form Microsoft, Gold's Gym and a few others. Excellent feature that I haven't seen anywhere else. The Band will keep track of the different workout routines and inform you when it's time to move on to the next workout.
I spent a few days with the Band in order to write my follow up impressions and my thoughts haven't changed. It is better than my first impressions above actually. I want to point out that I don't hold any affinity to any one brand. I own an Android phone, use a Kindle Fire, with a Windows laptop. If it's good I will give it a shot. And the Microsoft Band is good. Very good. Personally I work out 5 out 7 days a week and I run whenever I get a chance so maybe that's why it speaks to me more, but so far as my day to day walking around watch/band it can easily replace anything else on my wrist. After 3 days, the Band still has battery life from when it was first unboxed, although it will probably need to be charged later on today. But coming from having to charge my LG G Watch about twice a day sometimes, this is much welcomed.
The most noticeable difference is that you can indeed wear the band 24/7 and you kind of want to actually. My normal watch and my smartwatch are a going out tool. Once I'm home they have zero purpose. The Band however can continue to keep track of things even while I sleep. It can serve as my alarm clock too and it can both track my sleep habits and wake me up in the morning. Once I wake up, I can go to the coffee shop, and scan my Band and pick up my morning pick me up. Then I head off to work, while the Band tracks my daily steps and caloric burn, and then guide my workout at the end of the day. I've only taken it off so far to shower and to cook and that's a new for me. I can only imagine that with more adoption in different market places that it will only become a bigger part of my day to day activities.
Kudos to Microsoft once again. One, for keeping the entire project under wraps for as long as they did, and two for creating a platform and a tool to accompany it that can be used by anybody with a phone.
Walter Guevara is a software engineer, startup founder and currently teaches programming for a coding bootcamp. He is currently building things that don't yet exist.
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