Microsoft Band vs. Apple Watch: Health and Fitness

Posted on June 14, 2015 by Paul Thurrott in iOS, Windows Weekly with 0

Microsoft Band vs. Apple Watch: Health and Fitness

I’ve been using Apple Watch alongside my Microsoft Band for over two weeks now, mostly so I can see how the devices compare when it comes to tracking and impacting my daily health and fitness routine. As you might expect, each device has its strengths and weaknesses in this regard.

As far as physical activity goes, I sit in front of a computer all day and—shocker—this isn’t super-healthy. Between September and May, I play basketball, but since the season is over, my daily activity in the interim usually amounts to walking, which I try to do for an average of 45 minutes a day. I listen to audiobooks on my phone while I walk.

With Apple Watch, I was curious about a few things.

First, its reliance on the iPhone, though of course that is being somewhat mitigated by watchOS 2.0, which will for the first time allow for native apps. (This won’t help with some fitness activities, however, since the Watch, among other things, doesn’t have its own GPS.)

Second, Apple heavily advertises a function—which I’ve been practically begging Microsoft to add to Band—where the Watch will alert you if you haven’t stood in a given hour. There is science behind the notion that an hour of solid walking—and I walk quite aggressively—can be easily obviated by sitting down for the rest of the day; instead it is healthy to at least stand for a few minutes each hour.

And beyond those very basic fitness/health issues, I was curious about such things as battery life, fit and finish/durability, and so on.

So here are some observations.

Form factor. Walking around my neighborhood, I’ve evaluated how each device feels on my wrists—the Band is on my normal/preferred left wrist, while I’ve put the Watch on my right—and they feel almost identical. Both are big and bulky in their own way: Band has a large and thick band, while Watch’s weight is all on the watch face. But they’re just about the same level of obtrusiveness. And you get used to either.

Battery life. I charge both devices every single day. Because Apple Watch can’t measure sleep like Band can—and now does automatically, which is kind of neat—I charge that one overnight. (I generally charge Band during the morning when I start writing.) Band has a GPS, which I use on walks, and that has a very direct impact on battery life. And I wear Band overnight, since it does measure sleep. So while I believe battery life to be similar, it’s perhaps more important to note that if you’re actually going to use these devices—and in the case of Band use it specifically for health and fitness activities—you will need to charge them both every single day.

Durability. I’m on my second Band and I have concerns about the durability of the device. My first Band suffered a catastrophic clasp failure, and since it’s all one piece, the only option was to replace it, which Microsoft did for free. But beyond this, Band is a mostly metal device with a thin sheaf of rubber/plastic covering, and that covering, like paint, comes off. And my second band is already peeling as the first did. The Apple Watch is solid metal and is of higher quality, and while the larger glass face may be more susceptible to my clumsy meanderings—I routinely bounce both off of doorways and other surfaces by mistake—so far so good. And of course the bands are replaceable, so a clasp failure could be fixed with a new band (at a cost of at least $50). It’s only been two weeks, so I don’t want to just hand Apple the victory here, but the Watch does seem better made to me.

Apps. One of the things I really like about Microsoft Band is that I can easily remove any of the apps (tiles) I don’t want, and since I only want fitness/health apps I removed all the superfluous (to me) other apps (like mail, text, Starbucks and whatever else). And the apps I do use are mostly straightforward: I use the Run tile to measure my walks (there’s no dedicated Walk tile), for example, and Band automatically measures steps, calories burned, sleep and other statistics. The Apple Watch apps interface is a disaster. You can’t remove any of Apple’s built-in apps, including such useless choices as Stocks and Photos, and the bubbles-based home screen is laughably bad. But the Workout app includes a dedicated Outdoor Walk workout (see below), which I appreciate, and Apple provides Xbox-like achievements. Band simply notes personal bests. Put simply, the basic Band interface is better than that of Apple Watch, but then it does a lot less too. Just not for me.

Measuring a walk. On Microsoft Band, I swipe over to the Run tile, tap the Action button and go: Band measures my walk, provides with me useful statistics on a single screen while I’m walking, and then delivers a nice roundup, complete with a map of the walk when I’m done. On Watch, I have to navigate to the Home screen, tap Workouts, select Outdoor Walk and go, which is fine, but Apple for some reason splits statistics over several screens while I walk—who wants to swipe a screen during a workout?—and of course there’s no map at the end.

Glance. While working out, both Band and Apple Watch keep the screen on so you can keep track of your progress. That’s good. But only Apple Watch provides a true “at a glance” function so that when you naturally flip your wrist to look at Watch, the screen comes on automatically, no matter what you’re doing. Looked at from the opposite angle, this could be problematic in some situations—a dark movie theater, perhaps—especially if you trigger the screen display by mistake. But I’d rather have it—and be able to configure—than not have it. I can’t imagine why Band doesn’t support this feature (outside of workouts).

Meeting your daily goals. I want to walk a minimum of 5000 steps every day, and preferably 10,000. On Band, I can configure the home screen to display my steps, so that’s easy to see … or it would be if I could actually glance at the screen and see that. I can’t: I have to click the power button to see it. But Apple’s is worse. It uses a terrible “three circle” UI for measuring your daily activity in the Activity app: the outer pink ring is for calories burned (you can’t set it to steps, which I’d prefer), the middle green ring is number of minutes exercising, and the inner blue ring is the number of hours for which you’d stood at least three minutes. If you can at least complete/close each circle, you’ve met your goals for the day. I have to swipe off the main Activity screen to see my steps. Boo.

Stand up once an hour. Apple Watch’s ability to prompt me once an hour—when needed—to stand is wonderful, and I’m happy every time it chimes to get this reminder. The problem? It doesn’t remember to remind me at least a few times a day, which is kind of bizarre. Today, for example, I never stood up between 11 am and 12 pm. It just never reminded me. Granted, Microsoft Band can’t even do this, unless of course you install a third-party app like Walk Reminder, which I can recommend. Seriously, if you have a Band, get this app.

Accuracy. I routinely compare the results that both devices report to me and they’re consistently inconsistent. Part of it may be that the Watch is guestimating: after carting my iPhone around with me for three or four days up front—which Apple recommends—Watch has gone solo on my walks and it doesn’t have a built-in GPS, so it’s perhaps not as accurate. But what I don’t get is the calorie reporting. Today, for example, I walked for 60 minutes and walked about 3.3 miles. (Band reported 3.28 miles while Watch said it was 3.4 miles.) According to Band, this exercise was good for 859 calories burned. But Apple Watch said it was worth only 568 calories, 399 of which were “active calories.” I’ve often argued that wearable accuracy is only important in that it be comparable to its own results. But I am curious about these differences. (That said, total steps for today so far aren’t off that much: 7436 for Band, and 7915 for Apple Watch.)

The little things. When I’m walking, Band will vibrate once at every mile completed—a “split”—which I really like, since I measure steps primarily. Watch doesn’t offer that kind of thing. But the reminder to stand up once an hour is wonderful when it works, and Apple Watch’s little encouragements—it provides progress reports throughout the day, which Band does not—are appreciated. (There’s a weekly summary, too.) It’s hard to say which is better because, again, both do some things better than the other.

iPhone reliance. I’ve called out Apple for requiring that Apple Watch users both own an iPhone and basically have it with them at all times, whereas Band works equally well with iPhone, Android and Windows Phone, and does more on its own (when it comes to fitness/health tracking). This is a little overblown, however, and that’s true even within my own needs. I walk with my phone, too, since I’m listening to audiobooks, and while I may prefer Windows Phone, it’s fair to believe that any Apple Watch fan will have an iPhone too. Long story short, if one were going to use just an Apple Watch, they’d use an iPhone too. This just isn’t a big deal given my own usage.

Both devices seem to work pretty well … for my needs. And both are similar in that they are 1.0 products that can be upgraded somewhat by software updates, though both will also be left behind as sleeker, more capable new hardware arrives and they are quickly obsoleted. If that’s a concern for you, there is an argument to be made that a cheaper device like a Microsoft Band, which costs $200, or maybe a $100-ish Fitbit-type tracker, makes a lot more sense than an Apple Watch. My Watch cost $400, which is double the price of the Band, and it’s one of the cheaper models.

Apple Watch works well once you figure out the obtuse UI—that really did take me several days—and assuming you’re rich enough to afford this luxury device. But I’ll be sticking with Microsoft Band.

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