Microsoft Band: A Very Initial Review (Update: Returning it)

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Update: Since writing this post, three things have happened. First, I’ve been unable to resolve a connectivity issue with the Lumia 830. Periodically, the Band disconnects from the Lumia and I need to fiddle with the phone to get things connected again. Second, I’ve found sunlight legibility to indeed be an issue. And third, iPhone functionality is more limited than I expected, with no phone or text reply options as exist on Windows Phone and Android. Therefore, I’ve decided to return the Band and wait for further improvements and/or a new version (or, a smartwatch that’s cross-platform and that better fits my aesthetics).

This isn’t to say that I don’t recommend the Band–I do, for someone who uses a Windows Phone that maintains a consistent connection with the band. Unfortunately, that’s just not me.

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I’m a firm believer that health and productivity go hand-in-hand. It shouldn’t be controversial that eating a healthy diet, exercising, and getting enough sleep all contribute to our energy level, motivation, and ability to think clearly and efficiently throughout the day.

Also, I stopped wearing a watch a few years ago when I started carrying a smartphone with me everywhere I go. It’s been a habit to pull my phone out of my pocket when I want to check the time. But more recently, it’s been bothering me, and I’ve found myself missing the convenience of a watch. I felt this way strongly enough back in 2013 that I gave the Sony SmartWatch 2 a try (and rejected it for being both too easily damaged and too expensive for its feature set).

Since then, I’ve stayed off of the smartwatch bandwagon primarily because I didn’t want to lock myself into a particular platform. Since I decided to go completely cross-platform in order to write about productivity, I’ve ignored Android Wear and have no interest in Apple’s Watch. Even Pebble doesn’t work for me because it only supports Android and iOS.

I also don’t want a device on my wrist that simply mimics the functionality of a smartphone. I don’t want to take calls on a smartwatch and I don’t want to run apps. I just want a device that tells time, provides notifications to limit the number of occasions where I need to pull my phone out of my pocket, and that offers some level of activity tracking to help me improve my health.

That’s why I was intrigued back in October 2014 when Microsoft announced the Band. It adds the promise of solid health and activity monitoring to a decent notification system. It doesn’t fit the “looks” criteria that I mentioned in my Sony Smartwatch 2 review, but then again I don’t find very many of today’s smartwatches to be terribly attractive. But the Band is affordable enough at $199 that it seemed to be worth a try, at least.

Most important, the Band supports all three major platforms out of the gate, including Windows Phone (with the unique plus of Cortana support), iOS, and Android. I’m looking forward to trying it with the next build of Windows 10 for phones, and I’m sure it will perform well (or, at least I hope so). So far, the Band is the only truly cross-platform wearable, as far as I can tell, although that will hopefully change once Windows 10 is in full swing.

Comfort and Wrist Appeal
After wearing the Band for five days now, my initial impressions are generally positive. It’s just comfortable enough that I don’t notice that I’m wearing it. It’s a little odd at first, and takes some adjustment to find the best compromise between snug enough for the sensors to work properly and loose enough to avoid discomfort, but if the right size is selected that compromise is easy enough to discover.

The Band isn’t the most fashionable wristwatch on the market, but it has its own techno-appeal. I’m not sure how well it matches more professional garb than my usual casual attire, but that’s not something I’m terribly concerned about at the moment. Ultimately, I haven’t found a smartwatch that perfectly matches my aesthetic tastes, and so the Band is good enough for now.

Health and Activity Monitoring
I’ve read a number of reviews that question the accuracy of the Band’s monitoring, particularly the heart rate monitor. While I’ve found steps and distance to be accurate enough, I agree that the Band does a fairly inconsistent job of tracking my heart rate, particularly when I’m moving around. It tends to overestimate my heart rate, meaning it also overestimates calories burned since that’s tied directly to heart rate.

I'm not in the best shape, but I doubt my heart rate went as high as 134 on what was a pretty casual walk.

I’m not in the best shape, but I doubt my heart rate went as high as 134 on what was a pretty casual walk.

Nevertheless, I’ve still found it useful. It won’t replace my annual physical, of course, but if treated like a baseline it shows me when I’m active and when I’m not. The sleep tracking is also interesting, even if it’s not 100% accurate either. And I hold out hope that it will improve over time as more information is accumulated and as Microsoft improves the Band’s algorithms.

In short, I’m reserving judgement on the overall utility of the Band in helping me improve my health. So far, though, for me, it’s better than wearing nothing at all. If someone’s heavily into fitness, then the questionable accuracy of heart rate monitoring at least should be taken into consideration and thoroughly tested.

Notifications and Smartphone Integration
I’m enjoying the Band much more as an extension of my smartphone. I’ve only used it with my Lumia 830 so far, and I like it quite a bit. Notifications are plentiful enough to cover most of what I need, from phone calls to texts to email messages, and I really like the Cortana integration. A number of interesting apps are appearing now that the SDK is available, such as Wheres My Phone, which allows me to ask Cortana the titular question and set off an alarm on my Lumia.

It’s definitely a huge convenience to check my Band when I get a call or text to see if I need to pull my smartphone out of my pocket. The Band also has a nifty on-screen keyboard that’s surprisingly usable in typing quick text responses. Microsoft’s machine learning and cloud computing acumen is obvious here and elsewhere, as the Band proves surprisingly intelligent for such a compact device.

One issue I’m experiencing with the Lumia is inconsistent Bluetooth connectivity. Periodically, I’ll check my Band and discover that it’s not connected to the Lumia, and I’ll need to wake the Lumia up for it to reconnect. I’ll need to do more testing, but I think in general the Band has problems reconnecting with the Lumia after I’ve moved out of reach. I’ll be testing with my iPhone 6 to see if this is an issue with the Band or the Lumia.

Performance
The Band responds quickly and the touchscreen is highly accurate. The UI definitely suffers from some small elements, and so it’s entirely possible to accidentally initiate actions. For example, I inadvertently factory reset my Band while trying to turn off the power. For the most part, though, even with a much-recommended screen protector, the Band’s touch and overall responsiveness is excellent.

The screen has so-so sunlight readability, not the worst I’ve seen and definitely not the best. Brightness can be set manually or to automatically adjust, but there have been occasions where the bright SoCal sun was just too much for the Band’s screen. If anything were to cause me to give up on the Band, it would be the inability to read the screen when I’m out and about–we’ll see if this becomes a problem over time.

The Band in full sunlight. It's a little better than this in real life, but not by much.

The Band in full sunlight. It’s a little better than this in real life, but not by much.

Microsoft could improve things by allowing the screen to automatically brighten when it’s in “Clock Mode,” which shows the time and date when the Band isn’t fully activated. I don’t believe it does currently, or if it does it’s not terribly effective.

Battery life has been up to specifications. If I use the GPS to any great extent then I’ll likely need to charge it every other day. Otherwise, I could probably go a full 48 hours between charges if I’m willing to let the Band’s battery completely discharge. I don’t like to do that, however, and so I’ll probably get in the habit of charging it every day at some point. Interestingly, I can’t follow my normal pattern of charging overnight, because I want to use the Band to track my sleep patterns.

Conclusion
Overall, I’m leaning toward keeping the Band beyond my Microsoft Store 30-day return window. It’s not perfect so far, and I’m sure that the second iteration will improve on aspects like tracking accuracy and battery life. As I mentioned previously, I could decide against the Band if I find it too difficult to see in bright sunlight, but otherwise I’m fairly happy with it.

I’ll be writing in the future about how wearables in general can improve productivity, and I definitely believe they can have a profound impact in general. Whether the Band qualifies remains to be seen.

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Comments

  1. eserrano250 says:

    I’ve found the best time to charge the Band is when in the shower and getting dressed. It will quickly achieve 80% charge and that is more than enough for a day and a half use. If I plan on using GPS, I will usually let it charge to 100% as I usually go on long runs/bike rides.

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