Microsoft Band Review

Posted on February 17, 2015 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Windows Weekly with 0 Comments

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Released just in time to deflate Apple’s presumed lead in the wearables market, Microsoft Band far exceeds the capabilities of most health and fitness devices. But it’s also a bit too complex, too bulky, and too incomplete to satisfy typical users. Unless you’re a health nut or someone who likes to micromanage technology, Microsoft Band simply isn’t fully realized enough—not yet, anyway—for mainstream use.

But … wow.

For once, the frustration with a Microsoft product isn’t that it’s too obviously a copy of other solutions or too late to market. Instead, Microsoft Band is like the genius who gets bad grades in school because she’s so far ahead of the rest of the class and simply checks out: all the pieces are there—more than is really necessary, to be honest—but it’s not pulled together in a simple, cohesive way that will be obvious—and, more important, beneficial—to users.

Put another way, Microsoft Band appears to be a product that was designed by really smart engineers with little regard to how or whether normal people could ever use it. It’s the type of thing Apple would never ship, and I mean that in ways both complimentary and critical. Microsoft Band does too much in ways that are too complex, and yet also misses some fairly obvious features and niceties that are almost embarrassing in their absence.

For example: The firm that basically invented the term “at a glance” neglected to add an “at a glance” feature for its Band? That is, you can’t lift your wrist towards your face and have the display come on automatically. With a device that is literally bristling with sensors. Really?

Yes, really. I mean, even Samsung’s wearable does that. Shame on you, Microsoft.

The kicker is that Microsoft can fix virtually all of the Band’s problems via software and cloud service updates. (A lighter, thinner, more ergonomic Band will of course require a new product.) And that’s because this device is technically far more advanced than any fitness band I’ve ever encountered. It’s backed by a cloud service that has more smarts than is possible anywhere else, thanks to Windows Azure’s machine learning capabilities.

But that’s for the future. For now, Band does still differentiates itself from the rest of the fitness wearables out there in a few key areas. The question is whether these areas will matter to most users.

The first—no surprise, in retrospect—is productivity: Microsoft Band can provide notifications for things like email, appointments and other calendar events, Facebook and other social networking notifications, text messages, and phone calls, so it’s not just about health. But after testing all of these things over late 2014 for Microsoft Band Field Guide, I found myself more annoyed than informed, and I turned it all off.

(And seriously, Microsoft: Starbucks integration? Let me just jog over to the coffee shop and pay for a muffin.)

The second big differentiator is its bright, colorful multi-touch screen, which is semi-unique for a fitness device. This screen is pretty, and though you need third party apps to really customize it properly, that you can do so is a testament to the power of the device. But the big plus here is the tiles-based UI, which lets you access, start and interact with workouts, runs, sleep and, most crucially guided workouts (more on this in a moment). All this stuff may be too much for some people, of course, but if you want to really micromanage your fitness tracking, Microsoft Band stands alone.

Indeed, it is the interactivity, I think, that really sets Band apart. This is seen most clearly in the guided workouts: you can only have one on your Band at a time, but you can choose from a startlingly vast collection of workouts on your smart phone and then sync the one you want to the device. These workouts are available for users of all skill levels. And they are truly interactive, too, prompting you as you progress in a way that I wish was more common in other Band UIs. I’ve not seen anything quite like these guided workouts on other fitness wearables. They’re really well done.

Many will want to know whether Microsoft Band is “accurate,” e.g. whether the information it tracks—your calories burned, steps walked, sleep quality, and so on—are in fact correct. I have some opinions about this based on my previous experience with fitness trackers—two NIKE Fuel Bands, a Samsung Galaxy Wear and a Fitbit among them—and the known-accurate (for heart rate) chest strap that I can use with my elliptical trainer. And the short answer is, it is accurate and some ways and less than accurate in others. But so are all fitness trackers.

Long story short, it’s not “off” enough to really matter. But here’s what really matters: that the device is always as accurate (or inaccurate) so that you can chart your progress. That is, who cares if your calories burned measurement, for example, is always off by x percent as long as it’s always off by x percent? And while there’s no way to really know if it’s consistent, it does seem consistent. I routine track my weekly basketball games and they map correctly. Anecdotal, sure.

Since Band’s initial launch, some of its less common sensors—UV, sort of, but heart rate monitoring in particular—have become more common on other devices. Which means, if you just want heart rate monitoring, there are better choices. But as with all things Band, where Microsoft’s device excels is in the volume of available capabilities. So Heart rate monitoring is increasingly common, yes. But heart rate monitoring during workouts and interactive guide workouts? Only on Band, folks.

But I keep coming back to the basics.

What I’d like to see with Microsoft Band is some simple features that would make it more accessible. For example, if I’m supposed to walk x number of steps in a day, and it’s 1 pm and I haven’t moved at all, why doesn’t Band vibrate and tell me to get off my ass?

Likewise, if this thing is so smart, how come its display can’t rotate so that it’s oriented correctly when I look at my wrist?

And where the heck is the Microsoft Health web site? I can’t even look at my four months of (in)activity anywhere.

This stuff is so obvious I can’t believe I even need to point it out.

Everyone’s needs are different. For me, I think a device like a Fitbit, which offers much less day-to-day interactivity but has better life measured in days not hours, is more aligned with my needs. (I’ve ordered and will soon test a Fitbit Charge HR to verify this, but I had used a Fitbit prior to Band.) You may enjoy getting into the weeds, so to speak, and if so the Microsoft Band offers a crazy amount of functionality and the promise of more to come.

Sadly, this is largely academic: after a brief bout of availability last October, Microsoft hasn’t seriously stocked Band, and months later you’ll be forgiven for wondering what’s happening. And that’s in the United States. If you live elsewhere, Microsoft Band is no more real than Sasquatch.

Ultimately, Microsoft Band is just like the company that created it: Full of genius but unable to communicate effectively. The good news is that the functional problems are easy to fix, and Microsoft has suddenly vaulted to the front of the line when it comes to raw power and capability in wearables. It just needs to start thinking about the audience for this and future Microsoft Health products and realize that none of those people are as smart as they are. I can’t believe I’m writing this, but Microsoft Band is too smart for most users, and it’s time to dumb it down for the rest of us. Oh, and start selling the damn thing again for crying out loud.

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