There are tons of dedicated fitness bands. There are tons of smartwatches. The Microsoft Band aspires to be the best of both: a "smart fitness band." We've seen other devices that try to do this: theand the Fitbit Surge, for instance. The Microsoft Band is trying to be the best of that bunch: it has a ton of fitness modes, standalone GPS, can download workouts to do on the go, and gets more notifications than some smartwatches.
At $200, it's competitively priced to other fitness watches, too: it's the same price as the, and not far off what the and will cost. It's only available in the US for now, but it's coming to the UK in April for £170. That converts to around AU$330, although expect its final Australian price to vary considerably.
Sounds like the perfect product? In some ways, yes. But it's not a slam-dunk; far from it. Its design, battery life, and a sometimes awkward interface make it more of a hassle than you might think. And, its various modes and features, while deeply layered, aren't automatic or easy to use.
We wore the Microsoft Band for a week: Scott Stein tried it for everyday use, and Dan Graziano gave it a whirl for some serious fitness and exercise tests. Here's how we felt afterward. In short: Microsoft's got an ambitious platform and nails some things well, but this first version of the Band might have bitten off a bit too much this time around. These problems could get fixed in the future, and we hope they do, but for now it's just not good enough to be great.
Like a fitness shackle or a handcuff: there's no other way to describe the weird fit of the Microsoft Band on our wrists. The black band has a somewhat generic look, and while it's small, it's also thicker than you think. The sides of the Band are stiff, and even the underneath buckle houses the optical heart-rate monitor. It's stuffed with tech and batteries, and feels a bit chunky as a result. It's most like the, but a little less comfortable.
Because the band basically has no give, it'll either fit or it won't. Each of three different sizes is adjustable, but on the largest band size I found I had to tighten it up.
A wide OLED color touch display sits flat on the top. It's not curved like the Samsung Gear Fit, but it's a similar idea: notifications pop up like texts and emails, and you navigate by swiping and touching. Two small, flat buttons are on the side edge. One turns on the display and the other activates specific exercises, workouts or sleep tracking.
To charge the Microsoft Band, you use an included magnetic charge adapter, not unlike ones found on Apple's MacBook line or the Microsoft Surface. It snaps on easily, but like all proprietary wearable charging dongles, you'd better be sure not to lose it.
The wide, thin display looks sharp, but having to turn it on using a side button gets annoying fast: there's an ambient always-on watch mode, but it kills battery faster. The band doesn't turn on automatically when lifted up, like Samsung's Gears or Android Wear watches do. And the plastic design is a scratch magnet: in just a few days of use ours was covered in little scuffs. We're not sure how it'll hold up over months of use.
The Microsoft Band isn't waterproof or water resistant, either: you have to take it off when showering or swimming. Other bands and watches like the Pebble, Basis Peak and Jawbone Up3 are immersion-friendly, and frankly, an activity band shouldn't have to be removed. While the Microsoft Band came off my wrist, the Basis Peak, another fitness wearable, stayed on as I was testing the devices in parallel. And that staying-on factor made me want to use the Basis Peak more.
Tracking and fitness
Despite an array of smartwatch features -- call, text, Twitter and Facebook notifications, weather updates, and more -- the Microsoft Band is first and foremost an activity tracker, or better yet...a training partner. In addition to tracking your steps taken, distance traveled, calories burned and sleep, the device has GPS to track your runs and a 24-hour heart-rate sensor for monitoring your overall health.
Microsoft touts the Band as a device that can be used by an experienced gym rat or someone who might not be familiar with most exercises. The mobile app is home to dozens of "expert-designed" workouts that will guide you to achieve your fitness goals. Once a workout has been downloaded to your device, the Band will inform you of the amount of reps you must do and then countdown your rest time. For newcomers, the mobile app offers instructional videos that will teach you how to do the exercises in each workout.
Finding a workout that is tailored for you is easy. There are workouts for beginners, intermediate and experienced individuals. There are ones that are designed to improve your chest muscles, ones for your legs and another for your arms. Maybe going to the gym isn't your thing. There are also workouts to help you train for your first 5K and getting the perfect abs.
Of all the workouts, provided by Microsoft, Gold's Gym and magazines such as Muscle and Fitness, Men's Health and Shape, we found the so-called stay-at-home workouts to be the best ones. At a local gym we found it hard trying to keep up with the Band's routine because we had to wait for different machines and weights. The app tends to count down time for reps versus actually tracking your progress: this isn't really a coach on your wrist as much as it is a Post-it Note reminder of activities and a countdown timer.
Besides downloadable workouts, there is also a basic exercise mode included with the tracker. Once enabled, it will track your calories burned, heart rate and the duration of your workout. It's relatively bare bones, and the heart rate seemed to jump around a bit.
As a running watch, the tracker is much smaller than the competition. The similarly priced Garmin Forerunner 15 and Polar M400 both offer activity tracking and GPS in a much larger form factor, although this gives them vastly improved battery life.
The tracker is offered in three sizes: small, medium and large. Dan's wrist was somewhere in between a small and a medium, which made it more difficult for the large band to get an accurate heart-rate reading. This also made the Band uncomfortable to run with. An easy fix would have been for Microsoft to use a traditional watch band rather than the current snap and clip design, although the heart-rate sensor would have also needed to be relocated. On Scott's larger wrist, however, the band often felt uncomfortable too, and the heart-rate readings also varied. Readings tended to fall in line with those on the Basis Peak but tended to skew very low or high during active exercise.
Acquiring a GPS signal was relatively fast, ranging from near instant to a minute in New York City, which is rather impressive. The signal was strong throughout runs and it was spot-on with its accuracy. On multiple runs with the GPS enabled, the Band tracked within 0.04 mile compared with routes mapped on MapMyRun's website. These results are in line with other running watches.
Not only was the GPS accurate, but so was the pedometer. To test this, Dan walked on a treadmill for a mile and compared the mileage from the treadmill to the mileage recorded on the tracker. We performed this test three times to ensure accuracy. We also made sure to use the same exact treadmill each time and walked at the same exact speed (3.5 mph, to be exact, about a 17-minute pace). You can view the results below:
Microsoft Band tracking data
|Test||Steps||Distance (mi)||Difference (mi)|
These results put the Microsoft Band in the top of the pack for activity trackers when it comes to accuracy.