Battle of the Bands

With Google’s Android Wear initiative and Apple’s upcoming smartwatch, Microsoft was notably absent from the war for our wrists. But after a surprise leak last week, Redmond finally released a wearable of its own: the Microsoft Band.

Microsoft made a couple curious decisions with the Band. First, it’s not a smartwatch. The Band is a 24-hour activity tracker designed to be worn alone or on whatever wrist doesn’t have a smartwatch strapped to it. Second, it’s not limited to Microsoft’s Windows Phone ecosystem—it’s cross-platform, coordinating with an iOS, Android, and Windows Phone 8.1 app called Microsoft Health.

This means Microsoft is not directly competing for the same wrist space as smartwatches like the Moto 360, Sony Smartwatch 3, or the Apple watch, which are fighting to unseat a place dominated by classic Rolexes and Omegas. Instead, the Band is pitted against options like the Jawbone Up, Runtastic Orbit, or upcoming Fitbit Charge. Still, it could prove a landmark product for the company if it’s done right.

After using Microsoft’s activity band for roughly a week on both iOS and Windows Phone, I found that it offers a reasonably polished experience. But a few missing details—ones that Microsoft will hopefully address in future updates—keep it from being a truly great product.

On the outside, the Band doesn’t look all that remarkable. It’s thicker and slightly heavier than many other activity trackers. It doesn’t weigh down your hand, but it doesn’t quite disappear into the wrist like some slimmer options. The shape is boxy, squared off on either side of the display. This focuses the band’s fit on the top, sides, and bottom of the device, rather than curving and hugging your entire wrist. I actually didn’t mind this because the Band still offers a comfortable, customizable fit thanks to its adjustable slider clasp. It allows you to easily make minute adjustments, like tightening it during a workout and loosening it when you’re hanging around the house.

The positioning of the Band’s two buttons perplexed me at first: The power button and action button (used to start and stop tracking activities) are on the bottom side, facing your arm if you wear it like a traditional watch. But Microsoft hopes folks will wear it with the screen on the inside of their wrist. This positioning is handy for workouts, and also ensures your incoming notifications are kept discreet. So far, the screen hasn’t succumbed to scratches using this placement.

That’s good because the Band’s bright, full color TFT display is one of the main highlights of the device. Its interface is reminiscent of a tiled Windows Phone homescreen, and it opens up to a fullscreen tile with the time, and either your heart rate, step count, the date, distance walked, or calories burned. With a swipe and a tap you can access the other tiles, which include options for messages, emails, calls, your calendar, run tracking, sleeping, UV monitoring, and alarms. You can re-order, add, or remove these as you see fit through the Health app, the control center for the Band experience.

That experience, particularly receiving calls and text notifications, is superb. There was zero delay between the vibration and notification of an incoming text message on my phone and on the device. Guided workouts, which you download onto the device through Microsoft Health, are convenient and easy to follow (at least for the Couch to 5K routines I tried), although the downloading process took several tries. The tracker bothered me less during sleep than I would have thought given its size. Because it tracks both heart rate and movement, it theoretically offers a more accurate picture of your overall sleep efficiency than a product that tracks movement alone. While the optical heart rate tracking missed some momentary high-effort peaks during workouts, it seemed far more accurate than other wrist-based heartbeat monitors.

The Band is supposed to get up to two days of battery life, but if you use it as intended, tracking your sleep and daily activities, I gets more like one to one-and-a-half days. The battery died partway through a four hour bike ride I was tracking as a general workout, and using the guided workout feature for a run also quickly sapped its battery life. The low battery alert is very subtle and easy to miss. During weekdays, I’d suggest charging for a couple hours while you’re at work to get enough juice for an evening workout and a night of sleep tracking.

Unlike some wearables I’ve tested, using the Microsoft Band felt natural. The mix of subtle, customizable call and text notifications and fitness tracking features blended seamlessly into my day. Both the hardware and software feel high quality. But some things still need work. Sleep tracking, for example, requires you manually start and stop monitoring at the beginning and end of the night. Customizing the features on the band, or uploading workouts to Guided Workouts, often took multiple tries. And Cortana, a Windows Phone-only feature, didn’t allow the wrist-based voice functionality the product page promised.

Still, much of what an average activity tracker does, the Microsoft Band does better. And if Microsoft can deliver on its promise to provide a product that doesn’t just track and visualize your data, but also offer something actionable, the Band could become one of the best wearables out there. For now, it’s just really good activity tracker.

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