When I first strapped on the Microsoft Band a week ago, I felt like I'd been given new power over myself. The company's first wrist-borne activity tracker packs 10 sensors into a discreet package, and to my hopeful eyes the wristable's powerful specs added up to potential. I thought, this gadget might really get to know me, and inch me towards a better version of myself. Which is why it's disappointing that the Band doesn't meet that goal.
I'm not a total waste of humanity, but I could be healthier. I ride bikes, and run around, and I play friendly sports, but I'm not a triathlete. My diet is OK, but if there's bacon I'm eating all of it. I sleep irregularly—I'm a writer—and even when I get a full night, I'm plagued with anxiety.
My body is a hugely complex chemistry experiment I'm running day after day with no methodology or controls, and I'd like to change that. I really believe that by monitoring myself systematically, I can glean insights that make my life better. I haven't found a way that works. But the Microsoft Band is supposed to be different than the competition. Smarter.
What Is It?
Microsoft's first activity tracker, which is also kind of a smartwatch because it can read texts and tweets from your smartphone and display the weather. It costs $200 and packs a impressive list of sensors. There's an optical heart rate sensor, accelerometer, gyrometer, GPS, ambient light sensor, skin temperature sensor, UV sensor, capacitive sensor, galvanic skin response sensor, and a microphone. It measures common metrics like steps and heart rate, and calculates some second order metrics like sleep quality and calories burned.
But beyond the basics, Microsoft Band comes with the promise to make the metrics it captures actually useful to you by pulling them into the cloud-powered Microsoft Health platform. Microsoft claims it can smash your data together with everybody else's, process it, and spit back "actionable" information. I put "actionable" in quotes for a reason: you're supposed to be able to do something with the information.
Why Does It Matter?
Personal health tracking is huge. The gadgets that do it are blowing up, and Microsoft's not just playing against excellent activity trackers from the likes of Fitbit and Basis. It's up against everyone from Apple to Google to Samsung who are racing to build the software of choice for parsing the data these gadgets collect. That the Band doubles as a smartwatch only makes it more attractive.
The tracker is a semi-rigid plastic band that locks together at a clever adjustable clasp. The clasp slides along a little track, so that you can easily loosen or tighten the band's grip on your wrist in a jiffy. It's actually quite useful: I kept the band loose during the day, and tightened it up before getting on my bike.
Interestingly, the Band seems to be designed to be worn with the display on the inside of your wrist. I say that because it's way more comfortable to wear it that way because the 1.4-inch LCD display is totally flat. Flipping it the other way is fine, but awkward, particularly while resting your wrist on a desk.
The display is totally adequate for viewing information even in sunlight, but it's dull compared to the beautiful AMOLED screen on Samsung's Gear Fit. I didn't encounter any trouble interacting with the Band's capacitive touch screen.
The watch has two buttons that do different things depend on which screen is displayed. In some places the buttons have both tap and double-tap functions for starting timers, denoting splits, replying to messages, etc. If I wrote out all of the possible commands it would sound confusing. But I found it relatively intuitive, if not at all elegant.
The UI is basically a swipeable stack of tiles that look like simpler versions of the ones you'll find on Windows Phone. In addition to dedicated tiles for texts, email, Twitter, and Facebook notifications, there are also a series of activity-based tiles for running, workouts, and sleep tracking.
Pressing down a tile opens up what are basically very simple single-function apps. You can hold up to 13 tiles at a time, which means you may need to swap some of them out. You can do that, as as well as customize their order, the color of the display, and even wallpaper, using the Microsoft Health app. And early next year, Microsoft will release an SDK for app developers, letting them tap into the wearable's sensors.
The band is slightly pliable, and feels like it'll hold up pretty well, but the display is definitely susceptible to scuffing, so beware. Probably the biggest knock against the Band's design is that it's not waterproof. You can wash your hands, but you can't take a shower.
When you're not using it, the Band does what every good watch should: it displays the time and date. Give the screen a tap, and you'll be guided through a series of cards that show your primary fitness tracker metrics: daily steps, calories burned, and your heart rate. You can also set any one of these to appear next to the time, so you can keep tabs with a flick of the wrist.
The Band tracks loads of metrics and it does a pretty good job at the basics: The pedometer is very accurate, and doesn't register false positives. The sleep tracker, which you need to activate each night, measured identical motionless sleep time as the Samsung Gear Fit. Heck, you can even take an on the spot UV measurement, though, I wasn't too worried about my sun exposure because it's fall and New York was rainy and gross this week.
Having an always-on heart rate monitor was particularly enlightening. I was surprised to learn that listening to crazy music makes my heart race and writing breaking news barely affects me at all.
So far, that's nothing too crazy, but when tracking workouts the Band starts to show its potential. You've got three little tiles to choose from: running, workout, or guided workout.
When you fire up the running tile, it prompts you to turn on the built-in GPS, which is the main difference between running and the general workout function. In both modes the app tracks your heart rate from beginning to end as well as calories burned, but the GPS can also map your run. It's a little bit annoying that you have to turn the GPS on and off manually.
Guided workouts are probably the most interesting concept on the Band. Using the Microsoft Health app, you can load the band with workouts curated by well-known brands like Shape and Men's Fitness. For example, Beginner Home Workout's first day guides you through a routine where you alternate between jumping jacks and squats. Every time you're supposed to switch from one exercise to the other, the band gives you a little buzz. The workout plans aren't static either, they're developed to train you over several weeks, the way a plan you'd sign up for at a gym might work.
These workouts are a really nice touch, and they'll be appealing to beginners—like me!—who don't know what they're doing. But it's definitely not that intuitive to be staring at your wrist every 30 seconds while working out.
For the most part the Band measured accurately, but there was one unfortunate exception: After running out of batteries on Tuesday evening, the Microsoft Health app abruptly lost two whole days of activity. It completely vanished from the app. That's not just strange, it's a serious reliability issue. The whole purpose of the Band and platform is to collect and store data. If it can't do that, what's the point?
But there's also the Microsoft Band's big chicken-and-egg problem: it doesn't have the data to deliver those advertised "actionable" insights. "Restful sleep" is a great example. On one particularly bad night, I was alarmed to learn that I'd only gotten two hours of restful sleep. But on considering it I really had no idea what to make of that number. I slept for seven hours, and according to the app, this sleep was mostly motionless. Was that restful number high or low? Microsoft Health didn't offer me much I could do with that information.
Perhaps it's too early to expect those insights because the platform hasn't collected enough data—the SDK won't even release until early next year—but I might feel a little awkward spending $200 on a promise that Microsoft can't actually deliver without a lot of help from other fitness band owners and manufacturers.
Finally, let's talk about notifications—the smartwatch-like powers the Band bestows. Pairing the Band with my Galaxy S5 was simple, and sure enough, it pulled texts, incoming calls, Tweets, and Facebook updates onto my wrist. (You can read them, five words at a time, by swiping through the messages.) The incoming calls vibration on my wrist saved me last Friday when I got an important call while I was walking the crowded floor of a trade show. I couldn't feel the phone vibrating in my pocket, but the buzz on my wrist let me know my editor needed something.
Overall, though, the notifications need work. I tried adding the Notification Center tile to pull everything from my phone, and it was a total disaster. I got a buzz on my wrist every time the GPS set my location and every time new Wi-Fi networks were in range. As for texts, it was handy to have them on my wrist, but unread counts didn't sync between my phone and the Band, so you have to clear them twice. Twitter also gave me problems: It was great to get my @replies, but whenever I sent a tweet from my phone, the Band would buzz and notify me that the tweet was sending. Why?
Besides using the Band with my Galaxy S5, I got Nick to pair his band to a Windows Phone to test its Cortana voice assistant integration. Boy, was it was slow. So slow. Dictating a simple text message to one of our colleagues took 30 seconds to parse. Which maybe doesn't matter if you're on the go, and you're letting the processing happen in the background. But it's not the blazing fast response that Google Now delivers on Android Wear devices.
At least the advertised battery life of two days holds up, unless you really run a lot.
Lots of built-in sensors that measure useful metrics. The band gives you deep readings of some vital signs. Guided Workouts are a feature that could really help a lot of beginners get into shape. Love having an at-a-glance heart rate reading all day. Pretty cool to see an estimate for your recovery time after a workout.
Overall, the touchscreen interface is a big disappointment. It's not very pretty to look at and notifications are almost more of a pain than they're worth. The band isn't waterproof, so tracking your swims will never be possible, even if a developer wanted to build out the functionality. A serious bug killed two days of tracking data.
Should I buy it?
Not now. Wait and see how many developers jump on the Microsoft Health platform to actually make use of all the sensors. Also, it's worth waiting to see if Microsoft irons out some of the early quirks with its user interface.
The Microsoft Band tries to do a lot and does it all decently well. It's more compelling as a fitness tracker than a smartwatch. But In the former case, the Basis Peak puts up a formidable fight—though its software still isn't totally polished either. As a smartwatch, the Band isn't so great. You'd be better served by a Pebble Steel (on the more minimal end) or by Android Wear watches like the Moto 360 or LG G Watch R if you'll be charging nearly every night. Sure, those are more expensive, but it's worth waiting another paycheck to get a better device.
The Microsoft Band isn't terrible, and there's plenty of room for it to improve with updates later on. It's just too bad the Band shipped half-baked.
Photos and GIFs by Nick Stango.