Best Tech of 2015: Wearables

Posted on December 31, 2015 by Paul Thurrott in Android, iOS, Microsoft-Band with 0 Comments

Best Tech of 2015: Wearables

Wearables are all over the map, encompassing everything from high-end smart watches to low-end fitness bands. So there is great choice, but also great confusion. Not helping matters, many aren’t sure whether wearables will have any staying power.

My take on wearables is simple: They’re no fad, but it’s fair to say that the current crop of devices is more convenience than necessity. I also think that changes over time as wearables get smaller and more capable, and as our personal technology usage matures. So if you are going to adopt a wearable today, you have some choices to make, and should keep an eye on the future. Fortunately, all three of the major wearable platforms—that is, those devices that are not just fitness bands—are in many ways nicely positioned for the future.

Best wearable overall: Microsoft Band 2

Microsoft Band 2 delivers exactly the right mix of functionality and design. This is my favorite wearable, by far, and the one that I continue to wear everyday, despite having access to all of the competition. That it works nearly identically with Android, iPhone, and Windows phones really seals the deal.

Like the original Band, Band 2 is awash in sensors. It features an optical heart rate sensor, 3-way accelerometer, gyrometer, GPS, ambient light sensor, skin temperature sensor, capacitive sensor, Galvanic skin response, microphone, a barometer for measuring elevation (as on stairs), and a UV sensor can be left enabled all the time, unlike with Band 1. But it’s much sleeker and prettier than the original Band—it comes in three sizes—and it never gets in the way.

The amount of things Band 2 can track is astonishing: runs and walks, bike rides, golf games, exercises, sleep, and more. There are guided workouts you can load from the Health app on the phone, and Band 2 will alert you when you’ve been sitting for too long.

As important, the software and services that back Band 2 are mostly excellent. There are three main components here: There is the software on the device itself, which carries forward from Band 1 for the most part. The Microsoft Health app, which you use to sync Band 2 data to the cloud on your iPhone, Android handset, or Windows Phone. And the Microsoft Health service in the cloud, which collects Band 2’s data and uses machine learning to present the user with what Microsoft calls “actionable” information culled over time. You can view some of this data in the Health app on your phone, and even more on the web.

The “balance” bit includes Band 2’s productivity capabilities: When a call, text message, email, calendar event, or a host of other fully-configurable things occur, Band 2 will buzz on your wrist and provide you with a simple way to triage that communication, or ignore it, without having to take out your phone. This is the key benefit of any smart watch-type wearable, and Band 2 handles these tasks with aplomb, providing a neat in-place reading view and even a tiny onscreen keyboard, both of which work great.

Battery life is better than that of most smart watches: Two full days of use unless you use the GPS, in which case you’ll want to charge it once a day.

No, the Band 2 isn’t perfect, and some will point to the bulky clasp as a downside, though as noted that never actually gets in the way. And while $250 seems like a steep price, you need to factor in the cost of the competition: Band 2 sits nicely between less capable fitness bands and more expensive smart watches from a pricing perspective.

In other words, the perfect balance.

Runner-up: Moto 360 (2015) with Android Wear

Now almost two years old, Android Wear is a major part of Google’s strategy of going “beyond mobile for a multi-screen world.” And as with Android, you get so much choice here: a choice of hardware, a choice of software (thousands of watch faces, thousands of apps), and capabilities Apple Watch can’t match like onboard GPS. Google describes Android Wear as “glanceable, actionable, and effortless,” and that’s a fair description: I find the UI to be much simpler and intuitive than Apple’s weird Apple Watch mashups.

I’ve only tried a handful of Android Wear devices, but my favorite by far is the Motorola Moto 360. It can be configured in amazing ways before purchase, exploding out that “choice of hardware” bit in new ways. It is round, not square, which just seems right. And it’s offered in multiple versions, with 46 mm and 42 mm versions for men, and women’s and Sport versions. Prices start at $300, more than Microsoft Band, but under Apple Watch’s $350.

Complaints? The Moto 360 has a small area at the bottom of the screen that is not used by the display for some reason. Some refer to this as a “flat tire,” since it makes the circle look, well, like a flat tire. But you don’t really notice it much day-to-day. Battery life is typical smart watch bad, and you’ll want to charge it every day, or two at most.

By the way, Android Wear works with iPhone now, too, though I’ve not tested this. I suspect that few iPhone users are particularly interested in anything called “Android” at this point.

Runner-up: Fitbit Charge HR and Fitbit Surge

If it weren’t for Microsoft Band 2, I’d probably use a Fitbit, and I had used one for a year or more previously. This year, I looked briefly at two new Fitbit models, the Fitbit Charge HR and the Fitbit Surge, and if you’re looking for something like the Band 2, but focused solely on fitness and activity, these represent good alternatives.

Like Band 2, the Fitbit devices are cross-platform, and work with Android, iPhone, and Windows phones. They are as expensive ($250 for the Fitbit Surge) or less so ($150 for the Fitbit Charge HR) as Band 2, but offer much the same data collection for fitness purposes. And the battery life is better, much better in the lower-end models that do less. So if your needs are less extensive, you can save money and get a longer-lasting device.


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