Microsoft Band 2 review: All the pieces for a killer fitness tracker, but not a complete fit

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.

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This is how the display looks when you're working out.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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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.

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Finding and syncing a workout, via the phone app.

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Weird workouts, and where's the coaching?

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?

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Useful charts and valuable data from Microsoft Health, but they're mostly only available via the Web dashboard.

Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

Microsoft Health app: Better on the Web than phone

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?

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The Microsoft Health phone app is a little too minimal.

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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.

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Insights available on the Web dashboard compare stats with those of men in my age group. I want this on my phone!

Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

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.

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Microsoft Band next to Fitbit Charge HR and Jawbone Up3, which both cost less.

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Not a bad fitness band, but why get this one?

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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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