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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 Withings health ecosystem , and Jawbone Up . I had high hopes for the second coming of Microsoft Band.
In 2014, I noted that Microsoft's first fitness band was 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 Jawbone Up3 and Fitbit Charge HR . 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
To do all this, you pair your Band 2 with either an iPhone, Android phone or Windows phone. And you need to download the Microsoft Health app to do this, which acts as the band's syncing hub. Microsoft Health lives in the cloud, and you can access it via your phone app or a far more detailed Web dashboard.
Microsoft has been steadily updating its software and features for the Band over the last year, adding automatic sleep tracking, golf tracking that works via GPS and syncs with a golf app by TaylorMade, and some basic insights gleaned from the health data the band's collecting. It even takes a stab at VO2 Max, a test of your blood oxygen level, and a recognized measure of cardiovascular fitness, which the Band 2 estimates via heart-rate measurements.
That's fine, but what does it all feel like on a daily basis? I wear the band, go about my life and occasionally check it from time to time to see what my step count or heart rate is.
The Band 2 lasts about two days on a single charge via its specialized USB charge cable, which magnetically snaps onto the back of the band's buckle. Half an hour will give it enough juice to last a chunk of the day in case you forgot to charge, which I often did. You can skip a night of charging, but that makes remembering to charge again the next day oddly difficult. If you run every day, as my colleague Dan Graziano does, you'll end up needing a daily recharge.
The long display doesn't seem used to its best advantage. If I want to check steps or heart rate or anything else, I have to keep swiping or tapping. Why not show all stats at once across that big, pixel-dense screen?
As a running device, the Microsoft Band 2 performs the basics well. It tracks pace, distance, total time, elevation and heart rate, all of which is on par with devices from Garmin and Polar. The Band 2, however, doesn't include features like interval training or auto pause, which are fairly common in similarly priced running watches. It can also be difficult to see your data on the display mid-run. While it remains on by default, it only shows pace, distance and elapsed time. Heart rate information was included on a cramped second screen, which required a swipe on the touchscreen to access.
Microsoft has made a big deal out of workouts on the Band since last year: pick one, schedule one, be productive. But these workouts are not easy to set up, they don't educate and train you enough, and if you don't use them, you'll have no idea they're there. And they're really not much better, one year later.
Even getting to workouts means finding a buried part of a side menu in the Microsoft Health app. Various partners like Gold's Gym and Men's Fitness offer plans: Gold's Gym Plyometric Workout. Tabata Squat Thrusts. Couch to 5K in 14 Days. Clicking one brings up basic instructions and a video, then you need to download one of the various sessions to your Band 2. You also need a Workout Tile mini-app installed. Tap the app, and you're in the workout: it's basically a set of timers, recording your heart rate, distance, GPS and calories for each session. And that's about it.
Once you complete a workout, you'll see how you did and, yes, Microsoft's Health app will tell me to take a break if I've done a lot over a few days. But that coaching feels buried. It doesn't appear right on the face of the Health app when you launch it, or on the band itself.
I didn't get any feedback on whether I was doing something right, because the Band 2 doesn't sense that, really. It wasn't easy to jump to the next challenge. And the Band 2 didn't guide me as to which of these dozens of workouts I should start with, or which would fit me best. This isn't helpful. I need a gentle, helpful hand with fitness...this isn't it.
Wearables can do more: for instance, the Moov Now uses its sensors to track your motions and analyze accordingly. The Microsoft Band 2 is studded with sensors: accelerometer, gyrometer, GPS, galvanic skin response, UV, barometer. Can't it be smarter than this?
There's much to learn from the graphs and charts in Microsoft's Health dashboard on the Web, but will you ever go there? No, you'll want to use your phone. Microsoft Health's phone app, while clean, is too minimal. I'm greeted with four numbers on a blue screen when I start up, which are my daily stats. If I tap steps counted, it opens up into a nice daily or weekly readout. Same with sleep, or calories burned. But why can't all of this be synthesized into an easier-to-read look at your progress?
I was hoping that Health would give me more analysis, like the Jawbone Up does, encouraging me to accept daily challenges and adjusting my goals. The Band 2 allows for goals to be set and reached, and you can see your all-time bests in various categories, but I was hoping it would have social functions, connecting to friends and working on challenges together, like Fitbit. It doesn't. All I really get are basic stats, which I can get from a lot of other bands, too. And the app doesn't have any built-in tracking for food, water or caffeine, although it hooks into MyFitnessPal for those functions.
The deeper you dig into Microsoft's Web dashboard for Health, the more comparisons and stats you'll discover. Again, I'd rather have ways this information can end up being seen on the band and phone, too.
The Microsoft Band 2 isn't a failure. It's a solid fitness band that measures its steps, heart rate and other data well versus other top-end bands I compared against, and its rich data collection for running (splits, heart rate, GPS) could make it appealing for some people. But it's not what it could, and should, be. Microsoft is smart. It's collecting data and collating it. This should be used to make a band that really helps me actively, coaching and observing, helping me grow into a more healthy person.
You can get a lot of good fitness trackers that do similar things: the Fitbit Charge HR, or the Fitbit Surge , while lacking the extra smart functions, have better battery life and more popular apps. Jawbone's bands have better lifestyle coaching and more connected apps. The Apple Watch is a better watch, although it lacks GPS and sleep tracking. If the Microsoft Band 2 had better battery life and more coaching, I'd be really interested. Or, if this were a $150 device, like the Fitbit Charge HR. But $250 feels like too much for something that's not quite a good smartwatch.
Am I expecting too much out of a rechargeable piece of glass, rubber and metal I wear on my wrist? Maybe I'm the failure. Maybe I need to motivate myself better. But then, why get a fitness band at all? Fitness trackers are meant to be carrots on a stick. There are too many fitness bands, and Microsoft hasn't given me a big enough carrot. Maybe down the road, the Microsoft Band 2 will get there. I think it will. But this version isn't there yet.