Review – Microsoft Band 2

Microsoft Band 2 Review

microsoft-band-2Microsoft has taken the road less travelled with the Band 2. Unlike other smartwatches and fitness bands, The Band 2 distributes its smarts between the watch-face and the band.

It’s comfortable to wear, looks pretty good and has a great touchscreen interface.

With Fitbit being the market leader, at least in terms of sales, in fitness wearables, I’m comparing elements of the Band with some of Fitbit’s capability for context.

The Microsoft Band 2 is a competent fitness tracker that is feature rich, with good software but is let down by some poor hardware design.

Summary
Price: AU$379.99, $US249.99
Pros: Good phone app, easy to use, UV sensor
Cons: Bulky clasp, weight, uncomfortable

Getting started

microsoft-band-2-action-1The Band comes with just one accessory – a power cable. There’s a slim manual that directs you to charge the device up. My review unit, which I believe was brand new, was totally flat on arrival so I charged it overnight before setting up.

The manual includes a QR code that directs you to a web-page where you’re redirected to either the App Store, Microsoft Marketplace or Google Play Store so you can download the appropriate app.

Once the Band was charged up, I launched the app – I tested the Band with an iPhone 6s – and followed the prompts to pair the device with my phone. You’ll need a Microsoft account to use the band.

All told, that process took just a few minutes.

Fit and comfort
The Band is made with a fixed strap that can’t be replaced. Unlike many other similar devices, there’s no way to swap out the strap for one with a different colour or size.

microsoft-band-2-profileWhen Microsoft’s marketing folks asked me what size band I wanted I went with the large. However, I think I might have been better off with a medium as, even with the magnetic clasp pulled as far over as possible, the fit was a little looser than I’d like.

On a long run, the bulkiness and weight made the Band 2 quite uncomfortable. For keen runners who spend more than half an hour or so on the road or trail, there are other more comfortable options.

What really stands out for me is how chunky the Band feels. The clasp is also the charging port. There’s a set of contacts that magnetically attach to the USB charging cable. That makes the band several millimetres thick on the inside of my wrist.

Compared to other trackers, where all the “smarts” and the battery are in the main body of the watch-face, that makes the Band a little uncomfortable in my view. It’s not especially noticeable when I’m walking around but sitting at my computer and typing, I find the underside of the Band often bumps into the edge of my keyboard when I’m in the office or my laptop when I’m out.

The Band is not waterproof, so it should not be worn while showering, bathing or swimming.

Interface

Of all the smartwatches I’ve tried, the Band’s screen is the best I’ve used. Although the Apple Watch is larger and runs at a higher resolution, I find it too cluttered. However, the Band is easy to use.

microsoft-band-2-interfaceThe curved AMOLED screen is bright and easy to read, even in bright sunlight. On a morning run, it was easier to read than the Fitbit Blaze I had on my other wrist.

The display is 12.8mm x 32mm. Accessing different applications, such as starting a run or other exercise session, reading messages, viewing your calendar or setting an alarm was straightforward and text was easy to read. To access each different application or option, I swiped across the screen. At no time were there more than three icons visible, making it easy to select the appropriate tool I was looking for. And a quick swipe reveals the battery level, whether your Bluetooth connection the phone is active and whether the heart rate monitor, which uses an optical sensor is active.

While this does lead to a bit of swiping, it’s far easier than the Apple Watch approach with its tiny icons. And the Band supports third-party apps although there’s aren’t as many available as there are for the Apple Watch or Android Wear devices.

You can modify the order of the tiles and main colour through the Microsoft Health app.

The App

microsoft-band-2-appMicrosoft’s Health App Took me some getting used to. The all blue interface is not all that easy to read. I’d prefer the more traditional dark text on a white background rather than so much blue.

The most glaring omission in the Microsoft Health app is that you can’t enter nutritional information. Although the Band does a great job of tracking different activities, it doesn’t let you enter meal information, nor can it receive that data from another source such as MyFitnessPal.

By default, the app lists a number of different activities you might participate in. For example, when I installed the app, it displayed tiles for steps, calories burned, run distance, distance cycled, hiking (a recently added feature), weight training, golf, sleep, and weight. I’d prefer a less cluttered screen where I add my preferred activities or where activities are listed under a single tile.

The good news is, unlike Apple’s approach where there’s an app for managing the Apple Watch and Health for accessing your activity data, Microsoft brings all of that into one neat program on your smartphone.

On the road

After wearing the Band for a day or so, just to get used to it, I took it out for a run. I wore it on my right wrist with a Fitbit Surge on my left so I could compare the data I received from the two devices.

It’s important to note that, although there was some difference in the distance the two devices recorded suing their GPS receivers, there’s no easy way to know which was the more accurate. Fellrnr.com has conducted perhaps the best study of GPS accuracy in fitness bands and sports watches. Although he concludes that the accuracy of such devices is “quite good” not all devices will deliver the same data.

My first run test was a simple 6km out and back along a beach-side path and some road.

The Fitbit Surge measured this as 6.02km in 35:24. The Band credited it as a 5.98km journey in 35:27-  a difference in distance of less than 1%. It took me about 14 seconds, according to my total run time, to stop the timer on the Band as I did that after the Surge.

The split pacing varied as well.

Distance Fitbit Blaze Microsoft Band 2
1 6:18 6:17
2 5:51 6:01
3 5:52 5:59
4 5:47 5:48
5 5:38 5:39
6 5:38 5:48

These differences are interesting but, ultimately in my view, not all that important. If you’re a runner or cyclist, a 1% difference when using a GPS can be explained away by taking different tangents or weaving when navigating a course.

Sleep tracking

Like most activity trackers, the Band has a sleep tracker that monitors the duration and quality of your sleep.

The Band can automatically detect whether your asleep or not so there’s no need to manually set it into sleep mode, although you can do that. It automatically assumes you’re asleep if you don’t move for a while. If you plan to you use the automatic mode, it won’t count a period of inactivity as a sleep unless it’s a period of more than two hours.

I wore the Fitbit Blaze on my left wrist and the Band on my right wrist to see what differences the two devices would measure.

Microsoft Band Fitbit Blaze
Sleep start time 11:18PM 11:05PM
Wake time 6:24AM 6:14AM
Times awake 5 4
Resting heart rate 49 beats per minute 56 beats per minute
Sleep duration 7:47 6:47
Other information Restful sleep: 2:24

Light sleep: 4:14

Sleep efficiency: 93%

Time to fall asleep: 38 mins

17 mins restless (12 times)

The visualisations used by the Band are far more useful that Fitbit’s as well. And given recent controversy about the accuracy if Fitbit’s heart-rate measurement, we’d need some more sophisticated equipment to make a judgement regarding the accuracy of the Band’s sensor – especially given the 14% difference between the two devices.

UV Monitoring

One of the more interesting sensors integrated into the Band is its UV sensor. Given the importance of protecting your body’s largest organ, your skin, this is a really useful sensor.

In order to use the UV sensor, you’ll need to enable the UV tile from the Microsoft Health app. Then, you swipe the Band’s display until you see the UV tile and tap it. When you’re ready to read the UV level, you press the Action button on the side of the Band’s screen – it’s the smaller of the two buttons – and turn the clasp on the watch-band towards the sky. The sensor is built into the clasp.

The system works well but highlights my key issue with the entire device.

In an effort to make the Band as functional as possible, Microsoft has made some compromises. They key one being the bulk built into the clasp and watch band. This design decision seriously compromises the fit and comfort of the Band in my view.

Battery life

Microsoft rates the Band’s battery life at about 48 hours. That’s not too bad by smartphone standards – I struggle to get more than a day and half from an Apple Watch but falls a long way short of the four days or so I get from the Fitbit Surge and others report from devices such as the Pebble.

I was able to run the Band down completely in less than two days. Part of that time was spent running where the Band’s GPS sensor was used – something that contributed significantly to how quickly I depleted the dual 100mAh batteries.

After fully charging the Band 2 overnight, I wore it for one day and then went for a run the next morning. About an hour after starting my run, with the GPS enabled, the Band 2 ran out of juice.

Frankly, this is a pretty disappointing result.

Conclusions

As someone who’s written a lot about Microsoft over the last decade or so, I see a pattern in many of the products. When Windows was introduced, it wasn’t until version 3 until they got things right (given the constraints of the time). Similarly, the shift in user interface that started with Windows 8 has only really been settled in Windows 10, with Windows 8.1 in the middle.

It seems to take Microsoft three goes to get things right.

The Microsoft Band 2 is not a poor device. But the design of the clasp really lets the whole device down. It makes the watch-strap bulky and heavy, rendering the device somewhat uncomfortable. And battery life is just not good enough for a device for activity and exercise tracking.

If they can address this in the Band 3, they could have a really great device. But, for now, it’s not quite there.

Leave a Reply