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: the Samsung Gear Fit and 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 Basis Peak , and not far off what the Fitbit Charge HR and Jawbone Up3 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 Nike FuelBand , 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 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.
During your run, the device displays the duration, your current heart rate and the number of calories you've burned. To see your pace and distance, you have to swipe from the top of the screen down. Considering these are the two most important data fields for most runners, they should really be displayed on the main screen. Swiping down during a run isn't as easy as a quick glance. To make matters worse, the display also doesn't respond well to sweaty fingers.
The duration of your run, total distance and average pace, along with calories burned, max heart rate and average heart rate are displayed when you complete your run. More information, such as elevation, personal records and a detailed map of your run, can be accessed in the mobile app. You can also connect to RunKeeper and MyFitnessPal, but only the calories you burn while running are synced to MyFitnessPal, rather than your total daily burn.
While the tracker will automatically mark a lap when you reach each mile, it doesn't include more advanced features, such as auto-pause and interval training, found in dedicated running watches.
Despite being accurate for tracking both running and walking, the tracker fell short with its heart-rate sensor. It seemed fine when sitting around, showing Dan's heart rate at a resting level of between 45 to 55 bpm, and Scott's at around 70 bpm. Things weren't nearly as accurate when we began to lift weights or go for a run or brisk walk. These activities would cause the sensor to spike to levels we should never be able to reach. The band also sometimes had problems getting a lock on heart rate, but once heart rate was found, continuous readings were available at the quick press of a button.
Not very automatic
Other than steps and heart rate, which are automatic, every other feature has to be specifically triggered. For sleep, tap on the sleep mode and press the second, smaller button before going to bed. To check UV levels, enter the UV-sensing sunshine icon and press the second button. For a walk or run, tap on exercise mode and press the button. For a workout...you get the picture. Tapping and swiping can get a little tedious, especially since the Band's horizontal display makes reading and navigating hard on a wrist. You can bend your wrist, or wear the band with the display underneath. Maybe a future vertical mode, like the Gear Fit added, will help.
Notifications pop up all the time if you have them activated, but to see them again you'll need to tap on the individual icon: text messages, incoming calls, email, or Facebook, Twitter and so on. You can't respond to messages, but you can read a chunk of the text.
The Band only has 13 available slots for apps, yet there are 17 app features in the Microsoft Health app to add and remove. If you want Facebook Messenger, you might have to remove UV sensing or Mail. It's a little weird that all the features weren't included all at once. Customizing and removing apps feels like a little like app-swapping on the Pebble watch.
Microsoft Health App: Clean, and yet confusing
Install Microsoft Health on Android or iOS and your phone will instantly feel like a Windows Phone. The Health app has a clean, seemingly easy-to-use interface: steps taken, calorie goal, miles walked, sleep taken. But each subzone needs to be tapped open, graphs are shown with daily progress, and suddenly navigation becomes confusing. Where is the app making fitness recommendations? How do I customize the band? How do I even set fitness goals?
A tiny pencil-shaped icon needs to be tapped to adjust or edit goals or other settings, like in a Customize Band submenu, if you want to add a Starbucks card to your account, or enter your Twitter log-in info.
There's a lot of data in the Microsoft Health ecosystem, but I got the sense it wasn't being served back to me in a way I could easily understand...and I've used a lot of these connected bands.
The few insights Microsoft serves back to you are odd tangential bits of statistics, versus habit-forming or goal-related suggestions. Jawbone's Up app suggests when I should get to bed for the type of sleep I should be getting. The Basis Peak encourages me to walk a little more or get more rest to hit my habit goals. The Microsoft Band doesn't do much, other than let you set and meet basic step and calorie goals.
Smart notifications galore
There are a lot of notifications that this little band can serve up: so many, in fact, it's a bit of a miracle it can handle them all. Twitter, Facebook, Facebook Messenger, weather, stocks, mail, text messages, incoming calls, calendar appointments...and, if you so dare, just turn the fire hose of all notifications on, and get everything your phone gets.
Most fitness bands struggle to just get incoming calls and text messages. Some add general notifications. But all these smart functions worked really well when paired with an iPhone 6 running iOS 8.1, and with a Nexus 5 running Android 4.4.4.
It makes the Microsoft Band very nearly a smartwatch, but one that's hobbled in its shape and design. It's not easy to read or browse notifications, but it's awfully impressive they work on iOS, Android and Windows Phone alike.
Microsoft Windows Phone 8.1 owners get an extra perk: Cortana connectivity. A built-in mic listens when you hold down the smaller side button, and in theory allows you to take notes on your Windows Phone, use it to search or take actions like you'd normally do with Cortana. We tried it with a HTC One M8 for Windows, and found voice recognition and transcription to be very slow; so slow, in fact, you'd probably reach for your phone rather than wait for the Microsoft Band to spin its wheels.
Keep that charger nearby, and remember to recharge frequently; the Microsoft Band lasts about 48 hours on a charge, but we found that number varied.
With a mix of light running (20 minutes or so a day with the GPS turned on) and daily activity tracking, we got about 50 hours of usage, which is right around Microsoft's estimates. That's far better than many smartwatches that barely last a day, but it lags behind comparable GPS running watches that can last up to 2 weeks. With continuous GPS tracking enabled during a walk or run, overall battery life drops to roughly 5 hours.
If you're tracking sleep and doing a lot of round-the-clock fitness tracking, that battery life will start to feel pretty limiting. Battery life this short doesn't make the Microsoft Band very practical as an everyday device, but if you're using this band as a targeted exercise accessory you remove after the gym or a run, it might be acceptable.
Microsoft has taken the first step toward a promising fitness wearable, but throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the Band has resulted in a product that does some things well, others not so much, and ends up feeling too uncomfortable, too high-maintenance and too confusing to use easily.
There's hope for a next generation of the Microsoft Band: better battery life, better live suggested coaching, and an app that serves insights more usefully could make the next Band a real winner. It's an interesting experiment, and runners who want a smart band might want to take a closer look, but those who want to add a little more fitness to their lives will probably find this isn't the experience they're looking for.