I'm staring at the screen on my Microsoft Band 2. I want it to tell me something. I want it to help me.
Is this too much to expect out of a fitness band? Possibly. It's probably my fault. I'm overweight. I have high blood pressure. I've known about these things for years. I cover wearables and many fitness bands, and despite trying to get a routine going, it's hard to get anything to stick.
I want guidance, coaching, someone to prod me and poke me. I've joined Weight Watchers several times in my life, and it worked...but I stopped attending once I started losing weight. I'd love it if some wearable offered me the type of constant motivation that those meetings did. Some have come close: for example, the, and . I had high hopes for the second coming of Microsoft Band.
In 2014, I noted thatwas ambitious. It was, and still is: heart rate monitoring, sleep tracking, activity, the capability to load workouts on-band, plus full smartwatch-like notifications and mini apps like Weather and a way to pay for things at Starbucks. There's even a UV sensor! And Microsoft's cloud-based health data dashboard offers a lot of information to pore through, collected from your band automatically.
The pieces didn't come together, though. The Band wasn't automatic enough, or helpful enough, to seem like a device I'd use all the time.
The new Band -- the Microsoft Band 2 -- is available now for $250 in the US, AU$379 in Australia, and £200 in the UK from November 19. It really is a slight design revamp, with an added barometer for stair-climb counting, improved UV and heart rate sensors, and a more comfortable design sporting a curved OLED screen.
It's also a $50 or £30 increase from the original. I've worn the latest band for several weeks: on its own, next to an Apple Watch and compared with the and . And, while Microsoft has improved the Band both in terms of design and software, it still remains a proposition that's neither the ultimate fitness band nor the ultimate smartwatch. It's a lot of things, but it's not everything I want or need. And it hasn't gotten much better in the key areas I wanted it to improve: battery life, automatic smarts and coaching.
What's new, exactly?
Not all that much, compared with the previous, first-generation Microsoft Band. There's an improved heart rate sensor, according to Microsoft (it seemed fine for me, and about as good as the ones on the Apple Watch and Fitbit Charge HR), and a newly added barometer that tracks stair-climbing. The UV sensor now can automatically measure your exposure over time, showing estimated minutes over a workout. The rest, for the most part, is similar.
In that sense, this isn't a "whole new" band, but the latest revision of Microsoft's health strategy, which has been evolving over the past year. The Band has received consistent firmware updates, and Microsoft's been tweaking its apps and Web tools over time. So, in the end, you're just getting a better-feeling band.
It does, however, have an all-new design that's somewhat more comfortable and ergonomic.
New curves, comfier fit
The Microsoft Band of 2014 was a stiff black band with a color touchscreen. Its battery was part of the band design, giving it a thick, cufflike feel that was far from cozy.
The newly redesigned Microsoft Band 2 is more curved, and softer and comfier to wear. But only by a bit. The rubbery band that extends from a now-curved OLED touchscreen is still really wide compared with other fitness bands. The battery's been moved down to a bulge in a chunky metal band clasp, making that part thicker.
The clever pinch-and-adjust clasp design allows fit adjustment, but the whole band still gives off an aura of "Fitness Cuff." The curved OLED screen is vivid and a clear improvement, but the way I interact with it remains the same. I still need to press one of two buttons on the side to turn it on and start swiping around and tapping apps, or even to check my activity progress.
A curved screen on top and a chunky metal clasp on the bottom make this a band that you'll either worry about scratching, or worry about having it scratch something else. I kept taking it off as I was typing and accidentally leaving it in my office.
Band as smartwatch (kinda)
The Microsoft Band 2 is really, practically, Microsoft's Smartwatch. It can get notifications from your phone. It can check the weather, or your calendar, or stocks, or your Facebook messages, or Twitter updates (not tweets, but notifications and messages). It can do even more with a Windows Phone, using a microphone and Cortana for voice dictation and responding to messages (or with a built-in onscreen keyboard of sorts, too). I can set alarms. I can pay at Starbucks with a mini app that stores my barcode.
But it's not a great smartwatch. The wide screen, and the way it lies perpendicular to my wrist, means I have to twist my arm awkwardly or wear the Band 2 on my inside wrist to read messages easily. A speed-reading mode flashes large words at the press of a side button, which helps a bit, but there's no way I'd pick this over Android Wear or the Apple Watch (or the Samsung Gear S2) as my watch of choice.
Also, just like last year's version, the Band 2 has a number of mini-app "tiles" that can be pulled on or off the Band, but you can't have all features at once. Each feature gets a tile: Twitter, Facebook, Weather, Facebook Messenger, Biking, Golf, Workouts, Exercise, Calendar. It's odd, because there aren't that many tiles, and who knows, maybe I'd suddenly like to ride a bike or start a workout, and realize that tile needs to be re-added via my phone app, and just give up.
For fitness: All-day living (with recharging)
The Band 2 is meant to stay on your wrist all the time, much like a Fitbit or Jawbone Up band. It tracks steps, estimated calorie burn, heart rate, sleep and stair climbing. And, like many other fitness trackers, it can specifically time and track dedicated exercise sessions.