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Microsoft Band review: Microsoft's ambitious fitness band tries to be everything

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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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Dan Graziano/CNET

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.

Scott Stein/CNET

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.

The charger's well-designed. You'll need it. Sarah Tew/CNET

Battery life

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Conclusion

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.

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