Living with Microsoft Band, the activity tracker that tries to do everything

Microsoft Band

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Last night, I slept six hours and three minutes with 97 percent efficiency, according to the Microsoft Band. I spent a bit more than three hours of that in “restful” sleep, briefly waking up three times. 

I have very little idea of what most of that means. And yet, I’m compelled to learn more.

If you’re looking for a formal review of Microsoft’s first activity tracker, this isn’t it. Jon Phillips, who sports one or two wearables at a time, is far more qualified to evaluate its merits. Instead, I’m the newbie who volunteered to evaluate the Band as Microsoft sees it: as a wearable assistant for work and play.

And is the Microsoft Band worth your $200? My answer is...almost. But not quite.

What’s holding it back? A slimmer design, waterproofing, and a display that can better accommodate lengthier notifications, such as email. The Band may also overwhelm you with constant notifications, depending on whether you ask it to monitor email, your calendar, Facebook posts, tweets, and more.

So what is a day with the Band really like?

3 PM, the day before

The first thing you have to do, of course, is put it on. 

Microsoft’s first-generation console sparked the meme “Xbox huge,” and the first-generation Surface was more of a hardback book than a tablet. But the Microsoft Band is no prison bracelet. It reminds me of a slightly thick watch. Microsoft asks you to print out a sizing guide, and my pretty lanky build fits a “medium” comfortably.

Microsoft Band

The Band itself isn’t that thick, but the clasp is rather pronounced.

The clasp, however, is built like a tablespoon, housing the Band’s optical heart rate sensor. I really don’t think the average user will feel any discomfort. In my case, however, toting around my toddler caused it to dig into my wrist.

The clasp also hides the the small, vibrating eccentric motor that the Band uses as a feedback mechanism. I tried it first as an alarm clock. The unfamiliarity was enough to wake me up, though fumbling around to silence a ringing cell phone was more effective in getting me out of bed.

At this point, you’ll likely get your first faceful of the Band’s display.

Microsoft Band

Slide the main display right, and the Band’s tiles appear.

Say what you will about Microsoft’s Tile motif: It works well for Band. The 1.4-inch TFT (320x106) touchscreen full-color display shows the time and your step count. You can leave the display on constantly, but I don’t, to maximize battery life. Tapping the display brings up your personal info: the steps you’ve taken, the calories you’ve burned, and your current heart rate. The tiles appear when you slide the main display to the right: messages, calendar, running, workouts, sleep, alarm, planned workouts, and settings appear by default. 

When setting up the Band—you’ll need to download the Microsoft Health app for Android, iOS, or Windows Phone, then pair the Band with Bluetooth—you’ll have the option to add (and rearrange) additional tiles, including my choices: Facebook, Twitter, a UV sensor, and (only paired to Windows Phone) access to Cortana, Microsoft’s digital assistant. An update also adds a dedicated notifications tile, plus Facebook Messenger.

6 AM

Microsoft Band Microsoft Health Mark Hachman

Microsoft Band feeds your sleep information to the Microsoft Health app, which provides you copious amounts of information on how fussy your youngest son was last night.

Normally, the front of the Band shows you the time and your current step count. If you’ve enabled the sleep tracker, however, you’ll need to press the smaller of the Band’s two buttons and then blearily paw at the display to turn it off. Hurray! You’re up. A quick summary of your sleep will probably confirm what you already knew: You didn’t sleep enough. When stumbling out of bed, though, don’t forget your smartphone—you’ll want it later, even with the Band around your wrist.

Some of you prefer to work out in the mornings. I don’t. Instead, I’m managing the schedules of two young boys between school and daycare. On the weekends, I’m busy with yardwork and home improvements. So my “workouts” aren’t really workouts per se, but they’re exhausting nonetheless. 

Unfortunately, Band doesn’t really credit you with a “workout” unless you specifically tell it so via the dedicated exercise tile. Ditto for a “run.” On the other hand, you can also track a brisk walk using Band, and Microsoft tells me a “hiking” tile is on the way. I walk the boys to school, up and down the steep hills of my suburb. Pushing a stroller up a long incline may not be featured in Men’s Fitness, but it’s still not easy.

8:45 AM

On my way home, my Band vibrates. I roll up my sleeve and see I’ve received an email on my phone, which alerts Band via its Bluetooth connection.

The Band varies in the amount of information it presents. If you receive a tweet, Band will show you the whole thing by swiping down. But you’ll receive far less information about an email—the sender, and part of the subject line. 

Microsoft Band

Take the Band on a run, and it will track your distance, calories burned, and heart rate. Unfortunately, you can’t access any other screen unless you “stop” your run and exit the tile.

A few minutes later, a text arrives. Again my Band vibrates. While you can’t call someone back from your Band, you can choose from two automated messages—notifying them, for example, that you’re in a meeting. Unfortunately, this often isn’t the actual message you wish to send.

10:15 AM

Again, my Band vibrates. This time it thrums in a series of buzzes, alerting me to something more important going on: a scheduled meeting. With the Band, you can control how powerfully the Band vibrates, but not its frequency. That can be a problem, if you’re constantly receiving tweets, Facebook messages, email, and more. 

Microsoft Band

Naturally, lengthy emails can’t be shown entirely on the Band’s display.

2:50 PM

I walk to school again to pick up my eldest son, forgetting he’s in an afterschool program. I hustle back to my home office. I hold down the short Action button on the Band (oddly, the large button is the power button, and the short button is used for actions) and tell the Band to remind me to pick up my son at 4:30 p.m.

Doing so triggers Band’s other useful function: Cortana. With a Windows Phone equipped with Windows Phone 8.1 Update, holding down the Action button for two seconds connects Band with the Cortana assistant on your phone. (There’s also a dedicated Cortana tile, which should give you brief news headlines if you’ve configured it to do so.)

Through a microphone embedded in the Band, you can ask Cortana everything you would on a phone. The information Cortana gives you is limited: It’s perfect for asking the height of the Eiffel Tower, for example, but not the location of the nearest Chinese restaurant. You’ll find yourself digging out your phone for any detailed responses. Still, triggering a reminder is useful.

Microsoft Band Cortana Mark Hachman

Holding the action button down for two seconds triggers Cortana. But she’s only as good as your phone is, and can take a while to respond if you’re out and about.

5:15 PM

Technically, I work a 9-to-5 day. But we all know how work and leisure are blurring together thanks to always-on tech, and that points out one of the Band’s unfortunate shortcomings: the many methods by which friends and colleagues get in touch with you.

To its credit, Band connects to Facebook and Twitter, so you can see posts, tweets, and texts. But with so many ways to communicate—WhatsApp, WeChat, and even Microsoft’s own Skype—that are not supported by Microsoft Band, some urgent messages remain in your pocket, on your phone. PCWorld uses Atlassian’s HipChat to communicate, which means I need to keep my phone out of my pocket when I’m, um, otherwise out-of-pocket. So when Band might be most useful—say, if I’m cooking a meal for the kids—I can’t really depend on it. 

8:30 PM

With the kids in bed, I have some time to myself. I quietly retrieve the Band from the kids’ bathroom, where I removed it before tub time. The Microsoft Band isn’t waterproof (only “splashproof”)—annoying for those who enjoy swimming (like me), wash dishes, fish, or engage in any activity where the Band could get an unexpected dousing.

It’s about this time, after I’ve walked to school twice and worked around the house, that I’ve hit my step count for the day. The Band sets it for you, or you can adjust it. 

wp ss 20141119 0003 Mark Hachman

The Microsoft Health app allows you to seek out workouts and download them to your Band.

I will say that Microsoft has done a very nice job of at least trying to come up with exercises to keep me off the couch. I’ve let my gym membership lapse. But you can do very well at home with just some standard bodyweight exercises (burpees suck, but they’re effective) or light weights. The Microsoft Health app for all three smartphone platforms is worth it for these alone. You’ll find suggested workouts from Gold’s Gym, Men’s Health, and more, and they’re accompanied by helpful videos.

Microsoft Health provides an excellent summary of my sleep patterns, the steps I took, and the calories I burned, broken down by hours in the day as well as the days of the week. Health carries over quite a few elements from MSN Health and Fitness, which can use the sensors in a Fitbit as well as compatible Microsoft phones.

The app could be glitchy, though. Sometimes I had to reboot my Android phone before it would access my summary. Once or twice, it had trouble pairing to a Nokia Lumia Icon. 

So at the end of the day, I have a breakdown of how fit I am. When I wake up in the morning, I’m tired—and now I know why I’m tired. I know how many steps I’ve taken, and, if I were the sort to count calories, I’d have a better idea of whether I could afford to eat that last slice of pumpkin pie. 

So is it worth it?

I've never wanted to quantify myself. But the Band certainly tempts competitive personalities to extend their hike, or spend a few more minutes on physical activity, just to check off that extra goal. From that standpoint, I could justify buying into a fitness band of some sort.

I’m more reluctant to spend $200 for an activity tracker, despite the productivity aspects. If your phone’s set to alert you audibly of an event, that may be good enough for you. With the Band, I’ve grown used to glancing at my wrist for new messages or missed calls. It’s a tempting piece of technology, but not one I would call essential right now.

Microsoft Band Cortana tile Mark Hachman

The Cortana tile pulls information tailored to your interests.

The other thing I’d like a future version of the Band to include is a blood oxygen sensor. To be fair, that’s not a commonly available feature yet—the Withings Pulse O2 is slated to have it, but the product's still in development phase. If Microsoft could figure out a way to build this feature into the Band, it'd become more of a must-have accessory for older people and those with circulatory issues. 

That would increase the cost of the Band, of course, and I’ve already dinged it for its high price tag. But that’s what wearables have taught me: As technology grows smaller, more personal and intimate, these little details become more important. 

I think the Band’s an ambitious piece of technology. At $200, I wouldn’t buy it. But at $150, with a slimmer, waterproof design, I think it justifies the expense. That’s well within range of Microsoft’s capabilities, meaning that the Microsoft Band should be here to stay.

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