A few weeks ago Microsoft simultaneously announced and released the company’s first entry into the wearable technology market. Part fitness band, part smartwatch, the Microsoft Band tries to be a bit of everything. The $199 Band immediately sold out online and at Microsoft Stores, providing a rare hit for the Redmond based firm. Realizing how low the market penetration is for Windows Phone, Microsoft wisely made the Band also compatible with iOS and Android devices. Unsurprisingly, when used with a Windows Phone, the Band offers additional features such as Cortana integration. Cortana is an important feature of the band, allowing for interaction with the information displayed on the Band, but more on that later. The real question is whether the Microsoft Band offers a compelling alternative compared to a true fitness band or smart watch?
The first thing you realize when looking at the Microsoft Band is that it is a bit chunky. Between the screen, battery, haptic engines, and sensors there is very little unused space. The Band is one of the few activity tracking devices on the market to feature a full color screen and it is the standout feature when you first look at it. It is a large rectangular TFT touch screen that measures in at 1.4″ (.43″ x 1.30″). It is bright, crisp, has excellent viewing angles, and is very responsive. Because of the size and shape of the display though, it is significantly more comfortable and easier to use the Band with the screen on the inside of your wrist.
The abundance of sensors are the other standout feature of the device. The clasp has an integrated optical heart rate sensor. The sensor runs periodically all day and while you sleep, creating a record of your heart rate as you go through your daily routine. The sensor’s measurements seem to be very consistent and appear to be more or less accurate. The device also sports an UV sensor, ambient light sensor, accelerometer / gyrometer, GPS, microphone, and galvanic skin response (GSR) sensor. The purpose of the GSR sensor is to see whether or not you are wearing the device, so that battery is not wasted with the heart rate monitor. GSR can also be used to determine emotions (for example, fright or stress) but is currently not being utilized for that.
With such a large collection of sensors, I do wish Microsoft would make better use of them. The company has promised that more features will be added in future software updates but there is no word on what those will be. The UV sensor, for example, only activates when you tap the button for current UV conditions. It is a shame that the UV sensor doesn’t run all day, monitoring your total daily UV exposure and alert you when you need to seek shade. Also it would be nice to see Microsoft use the accelerometer / gyrometer to determine when you are turning your wrist to look at the device and automatically turn it on, similar to the Apple Watch. Currently, the screen can be set to always show the time (which is a huge battery drain) or it is turned off until a notification is received or you press a button.
The band itself is fairly stiff, but more flexible than a Nike FuelBand. Like the FuelBand, Microsoft has placed some of the electronics inside the curved parts of the band. I don’t find that this causes any discomfort and really isn’t noticeable, but do I have a fairly small wrist. The clasp on the Band is unique and effective. It consists of a peg with two metal teeth that point left and right. When inserted into a slot on the opposite band, the teeth lock the device into place. It allows for a large degree of adjustment and is one of the best latching mechanisms of any fitness band. As far as charging, the Band ships with a USB cable featuring a proprietary magnetic interface on one end. The magnetic interface snaps into place on the backside of the face.
The Microsoft Band runs specialized software that borrows the “tile” concept from Windows Phone, but otherwise feels like an unique piece of software. As you scroll through “tiles” and dialog boxes, the software tries to gently snap things into place. It looks great and sometimes this works very well, other times it just ends up slowing down the user experience since you cannot successfully tap any buttons until the screen has “settled.” All in all, it feels very polished for the launch version of the software. That isn’t to say that it does not need more streamlining. The interface requires a significant amount of taps and scrolling to accomplish things that should be easier, for example, putting the band into sleep mode. My band arrived with version 1.1.1933.0 09 R (I don’t understand why some companies refuse to utilize more friendly software version numbers).
When you wake the Band, the time is always the prominent information displayed. Along with the time you can specify whether you want it to also show you the date, distance traveled, calories burnt, heart rate, or steps taken. By tapping on this screen, all 4 of those measurements are shown full screen, with progress meters when applicable, and you can scroll through them one by one.
By swiping right from the main screen, a small window reveals itself displaying battery level (graphical only), whether the heart rate monitor is working, and the status of the bluetooth connection. When you let go, the main screen rubber bands back to center. It would be nice if there was an option to show the percentage of battery remaining as the device only alerts you to recharge the device when it is a few minutes from dying.
When you swipe to the left from the main screen, you are presented with the “tiles.” These tiles are the primary way to interact with the device. They allow you to browse messages, emails, upcoming events and voice mails, access sleep mode, running mode, guided workouts, and more. Settings are also accessed through a “tile,” but other than connectivity settings, the options are largely limited to software on the Band versus settings for the band. For those you will need to connect the device to your phone.
You will also need to connect the device to your phone to utilize guided workouts. These workouts have been curated by Microsoft, Gold’s Gym, Shape, Men’s Fitness, Muscle & Fitness, and Benchmark WOD. You can browse them by provider or type of workout. Select the work out you want to sync to your Band and it will transfer. You can only store one workout routine on the Band at a time. When you run the guided workout on your device it will use the sensors and haptic engines to monitor what you are doing and alert you to when and what activity you should be doing next.
The primary issue I have with the Microsoft Band’s software is with the notifications, especially the email and text notifications. I am not sure how global these issues are across other mobile operating systems; my Band is connected to an iOS device. I have my phone setup for a POP, IMAP, and Exchange email account. I receive notifications for every email received to my Exchange account. With my IMAP account, I sent 3 test emails and only received a notification for 1 of the messages on the Band. POP is obviously a disaster since the iPhone seems to only pull down mail from it once I have opened the Mail app. With text messages, some get pushed through t the band and some do not; it appears to be random.
Without a doubt this is the weak point of the Microsoft Band. There are two primary issues that need to be resolved to make this a much more compelling device. First is reliability of the connection. Second is how limited the connectivity is with your device.
If you are purchasing the Band first and foremost to receive notifications from your phone be prepared to suddenly stop receiving those notifications at some point. Both the phone and the Band will show that there is still a Bluetooth connection, but neither device is able to communicate with each other. The phone app will even tell you to do a factory reset on the band and repair it. If you are lucky that won’t be necessary and simply restarting both devices will resolve the issue. The rest of the time, be prepared to do a factory reset on the Band. The devices are still connected and phone call alerts still show up on the Band, but otherwise they are unable to communicate without the reset. This is a critical issue that Microsoft needs to sort out ASAP. Although I am connecting to an iOS device, looking online the issue seems to be prevalent with all mobile operating systems. When you attempting to sync your Band with your phone, sometimes you receive a very vague error stating that a communication error has occurred. This can happen due to the above mentioned Bluetooth issue, but also when Microsoft’s servers are misbehaving. It seems that when you sync your Band, the information is simultaneously beamed to your Microsoft account. As such, if there is an issue communicating with Microsoft’s servers, you will receive the same vague message that a communication error has occurred. This leads you to having no clue what the issue is and potentially doing a factory reset out of desperation and loosing all of your unsynced information.
Microsoft is to be applauded for crafting such a full feature device that works with 3 of the major mobile operating systems: iOS, Android, and Windows Phone. The downside of these multi-platform acrobatics though is that the Band has very limited connectivity with your phone. In fact the only way currently for the Band to communicate back to your phone is if you have a Windows Phone and utilize the built in microphone and Cortana (think: Siri). This means that your phone has no idea that you have already seen notifications on the Band (even if you press “Dismiss” on the Band). Also you cannot respond to a text, even with pre-canned responses. The lack of two way communication leads to one of the largest missing features on the device, a “tile” for music. There is no way to see what music is currently playing on your phone or play/pause/skip tracks. Hopefully Microsoft is able to improve the richness of the connected features of the Band in the very near future.
If Microsoft can sort out some of the underlying issues, which seem to be mostly software based, the Band is a compelling daily-wear device. It actually does a great job of tracking your entire day’s activity and presents the information back to you, through your phone, in a very clear, detailed manner.
Battery life with wearable devices is consistently the Achilles heel. Given the current state of batteries, it is a delicate balance of device size, screen technology, and features offered. With a small, relatively thin wrist band and full color screen, it is no surprise that the battery life of the Microsoft Band is not stellar. That said, it fares a lot better than most of the true smartwatches on the market. You can expect to eek out around 2 full days from the Band. If you have the Band set to always display the time, expect something closer to 1 day. Comparatively to other full-color-screen device, this isn’t horrible but the key word is “comparatively.”
The Microsoft Band will monitor your movement and heart rate all day without you needing to do a thing. Just put it on and go. The heart rate sensor will turn on and off on its own, doing its best to accurately track your vitals while preserving battery life, while the other sensors constantly gather information about what you are doing. But, if you want it to track an activity such as your sleep or a run, you have to tell the device to start doing so. It feels like this step shouldn’t be necessary, especially for sleeping. Devices such as the Basis Peak have automatic sleep detection so that you do not need to remember to place your device into a special mode. It also would be nice, even as an option, to have the accelerometer automatically sense when you begin to run.
There is a GPS included in the Band to more accurately track distance and to provide a visual record of where you ran. The pedometer does a dismal job of tracking distance during a run, so you will really want the GPS. The GPS is turned on when you tell the device you are starting a run. The device gives you the option of waiting for the GPS to connect or starting the run while it finishes connecting. From my experience, the Band will not connect if you don’t wait for it to get a GPS lock before you run. This is frustrating as it takes a little bit for the device to connect. Once connected, the GPS on the Band seems to work great and to be very accurate. I ran with the Nike+ Running app on the my phone, which also uses GPS, and they reporting basically identical information. Over the course of a 6 mile run the GPS on the band also used about 50% of my battery in that time.
Microsoft has made two companion apps available for the Band. The first is a sync-only app for your computer. Through a direct USB connection, it uploads your data to your Microsoft account which can then be viewed on your phone (very useful given the connectivity issues). The computer based Microsoft Band Sync app also allows you to update the firmware on the device. Other than update your profile, this is all you can do from the Microsoft Band Sync app. It is, as the name suggests, only a sync app.
The phone-based companion app, Microsoft Health, is significantly more robust. It allows you to change settings on the Band, and customize the display and how information is presented. It also provides detailed records of your activity. The Microsoft Band needs its phone-based companion app to be a useful product. Without it, the device presents very little information about what it has tracked and is extremely limited in settings.
When you launch the app (and it hopefully syncs), you are presented with information at a glance about your day so far. By simply tapping on any of these panes, it expands to display more detailed information. For steps taken, this means a chart of your activity, broken down by hour, with an overlay of your heart rate. For sleep tracking, you are shown a step graph which indicates when during the night you awoke, had light sleep, or had restful sleep.
The Microsoft Heath app is also where you head to expand the band’s capabilities. This is where you can add your Starbucks account information, download a workout routine onto your Band, or connect the information the Band gathers to other apps. Currently Microsoft allows your to connect to RunKeeper and MyFitnessPal. Connecting with RunKeeper allows you to pass along your workout information to your RunKeeper account and linking with MyFitnessPal will allow Microsoft Health to communicate calories burnt to your account.
Other than the irritating connectivity issues, the Microsoft Health app is an impressive piece of software for a device that just launched. It is very full featured, easy to navigate, and presents a lot of information in a very clear manner. The most glaring omission with the app is the inability to get detailed information about steps and calories from days that have already passed. There is a Week view but it does not allow you to drill down into those previous days.
The Microsoft Band is a pretty unique product. In the quickly flooded market to compete for your wrist space, the Band seems to be only comparable to the Samsung Galaxy Fit, FitBit Surge, and Basis Peak. These are all fitness devices that aim to be more. Not simply an activity tracker or smart watch, the Band floats in this odd middle ground that is both compelling and frustrating. Having worn a Nike FuelBand for years, it was very satisfying to replace that device with something more full featured (although I did miss the community that Nike+ offers). To gain information such as heart rate, calorie burn, and sleep tracking felt like a huge step up. Adding in the ability to be alerted to and view notifications from my phone made the device even more compelling. But in the end I wanted to do more. I wanted to see what song was playing, I wanted to fire off a quick response to a text, I wanted to be able to trigger playback of voicemails. In the end, despite how much more the Microsoft Band offered than my FuelBand, I wanted more. This combined with the connectivity issues, battery life, and troublesome GPS has left me with mixed feelings. Will I continue to use the Microsoft Band after this review? Probably. Am I already looking for something more full featured? Yes.