The multi-platform Microsoft Band came out about a week ago in limited quantities and only in the US for now and irregardless of funds, I decided to pick it up. Microsoft's first attempt into the fitness tracking / smartwatch world was not going to be missed by me. The fitness tracker / smartwatch hosts a slew of sensors that measure you're every move throughout your day from sleep to workout and everything in between really. The Band features smartwatch like notifications from your phone, and if you have a Windows Phone you get voice control features as well with Cortana. You can check out my unboxing and first impressions here.
I've worn it all week, and I got to try out almost every feature on the Band. The only thing I couldn't do was test the Cortana integration, as I currently have an Android phone. But I slept, awoke, got my coffee, ran and even tried the built in workouts on the band and this is how it went down.
Comfort and Design
The Microsoft Band is not a tiny fashion friendly device by any means. It's a medium sized solid black device with sensors all over the place. Personally I like the way it looks. It has a relatively thin (as in thin strapped) form factor, and with the "Watch Mode" turned on, it actually does look pretty cool. The UI is very nice looking and does make the Band stand out when it's on. You can customize the background color and wallpaper with a fair number of preset ones. It would be nice if later down the road they allowed users to create their own backgrounds however. It's has a pretty responsive screen. I've rarely had to double tap anything of the tiles to get them to launch. You can fit at most 13 tiles on it, which you can select through the Microsoft Health phone application.
For the most part it still has the heart of a fitness band though. It needs to be able to put up with all kinds of physical activities throughout the day. However, it fits fantastically well. I've typed, written, driven, worked out and ran with it so far and it stays in place thanks to the adjustable latch that it comes with. Even sleeping with it is no problem at all. I wake up and it's just as I had it when I went to bed.
The important part is to make sure that you get the exact size for your Microsoft Band. I have a relatively small wrist so I knew that "S" wouldn't be a problem, and I was right. But when in doubt you can go to a Microsoft Store and they'll find your correct size.
Unfortunately for me, I don't have a Windows Phone so I can't make use of the built in Cortana features. I would imagine that it's somewhat like the "OK Google" features that are found in Android Wear. You can create notes, reply to texts, add to your calendar events, etc. With non Windows Phone OS's it still has some limited features that you can use however. You can reply to a text with a series of pre-written options, which is a nice touch. You can also view your calendar events from the default calendar on your phone. When a new SMS comes in you get a vibration alert and are shown the text immediately and the option to dismiss or reply. If you're driving let's say and you get a text, you can send an automated reply with the touch of a button.
Around the house I've actually been surprised at how useful the vibrating notifications have been. Usually my phone is in some far off place charging and I forget to pick it up every now and then. And while I can't currently reply to my incoming messages, I can read them in full and choose whether to ignore accordingly. You can opt to turn on all phone notifications and have them get sent to your Band but I would assume that this causes a larger drain on your battery and also when I turned that feature on, I ended up getting more than I could chew. I got vibrating alerts for all kinds of notifications, from new Wifi connections found to Android Wear disconnections. So for now, it's probably best to leave that feature off.
This is the first sleep tracking hardware that I've used, and it is pretty nice to have this kind of data. It gives tons of info on my sleeping habits, including my resting heart rate throughout the night. Other phone based sleep trackers have you leave your phone next to you on your bed, and then calculates metrics based on your movements throughout the night. I'm not too sure how accurate that is and knowing me that phone would end up half way across the room in tiny pieces. The Band however can tell you your heart rate every hour from sleep to awake, how many times you woke up, and the amount of time you spent in "Restful Sleep" all on detailed charts on your phone.
As I'm still new to sleep tracking I'm not too sure how this info could help me really, but it's good to see that my sleep is averaging a 85% efficiency rating. That's like a solid "B", which is good enough for me. This is really where Microsoft did a fantastic job. The Band can collect all kinds of metrics and help build a personal health profile, if you will, in Microsoft's Health platform. I've heard some reviews mention that the data seems pretty useless to them and is kind of gimmicky. But I assume that if someone noticed they were waking up 30 times per night and getting only 4 hours of sleep, they'd cut down on that last cup of coffee at night perhaps.
Pedometer / Step Counter
I compared the results of the Microsoft Band with other step counters that I currently have such as my phone and my LG G Watch, and for the most part the numbers matched up just fine. You hear tons of complaints that "the sensors are inaccurate" and such, but pedometers have been around forever and a half now so I'd imagine that Microsoft didn't skimp in that region. It looks like they did alot of work in order to reduce the amount of false positive steps.
24/7 Heart Rate Monitor
This is also another cool feature that kind of sold the Band to me. Because the heart rate monitor is always on you get more accurate caloric burn measurements throughout the day. Every workout pretty much relies on your heart rate. Whether calculating average, max or min throughout your run, it helps to make sure that your caloric burn is more accurate and that you are working out at your best pace.
It's interesting to see that old heart rate jump up as soon as I take down a cup of coffee or three.
Running with Built-in GPS
For me this is a huge huge feature as I enjoy a good run a few times per week. Normally I use my phone to track my runs, and it's a hassle. On top of carrying my car keys on one hand, I also have to carry my LG G2 in the other. Many times I choose to not track my runs and I leave the phone at home. With the Band though, I don't have to favor convenience over function any more. It's one button away and it's accurate. On the first big run I clocked in 5 miles and it didn't skip a beat. As soon as I got back home, the Band synced up with Microsoft Health and I got all of my workout metrics immediately.
Currently if you want a fitness band with built-in GPS you're going to get just that, a device that can only do that. If you want a sleep tracker, you'll have to purchase one on the side. If you want a heart-rate monitor, you'll probably have to strap one on to your chest before your workout, and before you know it, you ran out of time for that workout.
A very cool feature that I haven't seen anywhere else on the Band is built in workout routines directly on your wrist. You can think of it as a workout video on your wrist without the video part. It keeps track of the set times for you, the rest periods and also give an estimated count of how many repetitions you have completed for the set. I've noticed that on some workouts the rep counter isn't always 100% dead on however. I think it's more of a matter of figuring out how the Band will read the move and then doing it that way. On a set of 30 squats I tried, the Band only registered 10. You can't currently see how many reps you are on however on the Band, which makes it difficult to calibrate yourself accordingly.
Here is a basic workout plan for example, that I'll try and stick to to see how it works out. It has a different workout for each day of the week, including rest days. This particular workout for example runs for 3 weeks. And there's plenty more to choose from, and I'm guessing plenty more will be added in time.
Microsoft promised around 48 hours of battery life, and less if using the built in GPS and so far it's kept up with that promise and then some. I've been using the Band daily and I'm getting about 3 days of use out of it without the GPS. That is with the "Watch Mode" feature turned off. Having to charge 2-3 times per week is not bad at all though. Current smartwatches with full displays can run for maybe a full day before they need to be recharged again. Currently the Band can give you a full battery with 90 minutes plugged in, which isn't half bad for everything that it does.
What I Like
- The built in GPS is a must for me now, I can't go back to strapping a 5 inch phone on my arm
- The battery life is, for such a device, is great. With minimal use I can get 3 full days out of it. With heavier GPS on, guided workouts, constant email checking I would estimate 2 days easily.
- And having a Starbucks card right on the wrist is surprisingly convenient for when I leave my phone in the car or at home after a run.
- Tons of features all packed into one conveniently sized package that would normally require 3-4 separate devices.
What Needs Some Work
- I would like to see the number of workout repetitions right on the Band. Right now you'd have to finish a workout, and then get that data on your phone, which is fine, but having it on the Band would let me know if it was registering it correctly.
- Phone notifications would be a great feature without much of the current spam that appears, such as wifi spots and services disconnecting.
It is awesome to see a company finally building something that's actually usable and not just a gimmick that will work for a few months then die out eventually. Microsoft just took wearable technology up a notch with the MS Band. This is coming from someone that works out a fair amount during the week however. Which is important, as it makes up probably 80% of the features on the Band. If you're an active person on your phone 24/7, then you need this band.
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Walter Guevara is a Computer Scientist, software engineer, startup founder and currently mentors for a coding bootcamp. He has been creating software for the past 15 years.