Last week in Fixing Microsoft Band, I listed several ways in which I think Microsoft should improve its wearable device. But in doing so, I realized that theFitbit Alta already did pretty much everything I wanted. How does this wearable compare to Microsoft Band 2 overall?
Fitbit is of course a more established wearable brand than Microsoft, and its devices are also distributed far more broadly. I believe this is the fourth or fifth Fitbit device I’ve purchased, but whatever the count, one thing is clear: Fitbit has dramatically expanded its product offerings over the years, and it is now edging into Apple Watch—and, more generally, smart watch—territory with its higher-end devices.
As you can see from the Fitbit Alta product page, this particular wearable provides the expected fitness tracking functionality, auto sleep tracking, and call, text messaging, and calendar alerts. The device has no buttons at all—how Apple of them—so the only way to interact with it is to tap on the screen. Unlike most Fitbits, you can remove the straps and replace them with stylish choices.
But the Fitbit Alta is not a smart watch, and doesn’t really compete directly with Microsoft Band 2, let alone Apple Watch. It is instead a more fashionable alternative to Fitbit’s mainstream Charge and Charge HR fitness wearables. And at just $130, it is extremely affordable.
But the reason I am comparing this device to Band 2 here is that it edges nicely into the same sweet spot of the market that Band 2 occupies: It’s not a full-featured smart watch, but it provides the right balance of smart watch features for many. On the flipside, it is also more elegant and generally useful than a pure fitness wearable, like the lower-end Fitbits.
Obviously, the way to get started here is to explore where FitBit Alta is already implementing the fixes I recommended for a presumed Band 3. Then, I’ll remind you about the things about Band 2 that I really like and see whether Fitbit Alta measures up. And then I also think there’s an interesting discussion to be had around how Fitbit—and Apple, and Microsoft, and others—approach the wearable market. Their strategies are quite different.
How Fitbit Alta implements the fixes I recommended for Microsoft Band
Looking over the list of fixes I recommended for Microsoft Band, it’s easy to see that Fitbit Alta already implements most of them:
Removable straps. Letting the user replace the device’s straps would benefit everyone and help alleviate one of Band’s biggest reliability issues, as many Bands suffer from tearing along the seam where the strap meets the body. As noted, Fitbit Alta already does this, and Fitbit offers different straps made of metal, leather and other materials. Oh, and they’re cheap, too, starting at just $29.99.
Battery life. Both generations of Microsoft’s Band deliver the same sad battery life of 1-2 days depending on usage. (Really, it’s like 1.5 days.) Fitbit rates its Alta at 5 days of battery life, and while I won’t claim that my first five days with the device are an accurate depiction, after an initial charge on day one, it still has about 35 percent battery life left. Granted, the Alta does “less” than the Band. But the question here is whether it does enough.
Smaller, lighter. With the understanding that sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words, you can see the Band 2 and Alta together on my wrist at the top of this article. Again, night and day.
Windows 10. This was sort of an iffy proposition in my fix list anyway, but suffice to say that the Alta does not run Windows 10. Nor should it, as it is a highly targeted device that is not extensible by third parties.
So, to recap. The Fitbit Alta is smaller, lighter, and less expensive than the Band 2, and it delivers roughly five times the battery life while being more easily serviceable and potentially more fashionable thanks to its removable strap system. But that’s just a laundry list of features derived from Band 2’s shortcomings. How does Alta measure up when compared to the things I like most about Band 2?
Where Fitbit Alta does (and doesn’t) match Microsoft Band 2’s best features
To discover what’s best about Band 2, there are three articles of interest: My initial review of the device, my wife’s alternate view of the device, and my roundup article Best Tech of 2015: Wearables, in which I describe the Band 2 as the perfect balance between a simple fitness tracker and a more full-featured but complex smart watch.
Here’s what I like about the Band 2.
Relatively on-device simple user interface. Band 2 is much simpler to use than “true” smart watches like Apple Watch (which is a mess) and Android Wear. The Alta’s UI is even simpler, because it does less. But it’s also harder to use: There are no buttons at all, and double-tapping (to wake) or single-tapping (to move between views) the screen is unreliable. The Band 2 is more responsive and is interactive. The Alta is neither.
Complete data collection. As I’ve often noted, the Band 2 is bristling with sensors and can collect data on virtually anything. Not just steps and active time, but also heart rate, GPS mapping, altitude, and even UV exposure. It’s actually kind of nuts. By comparison, the Alta again does less: It has continuous activity tracking, of course, and auto sleep detection. But no GPS or maps, no altitude or UV tracking, and none of Band’s more advanced functionality. But … who cares? The Fitbit provides what virtually all people need/want, and it has neat auto exercise functionality. The Band, meanwhile, will keep tracking an exercise even when you’ve stopped moving for hours (and had forgotten to stop it). That’s not smart, it’s dumb.
Move reminders. This wasn’t in the original Band 2 release, but Microsoft finally added movement reminders to its device, one of my long-term recommendations. Well, Alta has them too, and they fire more reliably—and more noticeably, thanks to a “silent alarm” (e.g. the thing vibrates)—than do similar reminders on Band.
It actually fits on your wrist. Thanks to its sculpted design, the Band 2 screen stays put where you left it, meaning that it will always be facing up (or, if attached the other way, down) like you intended. Most other smart watches swivel around on my wrist, and the Apple Watch and Android Wear-based Moto 360 are both annoying in this way. But the Alta also features a somewhat sculpted design, and while it’s not as rock-steady as Band 2, it’s very close. Which means that the face of the device does sometimes start to slide a bit to either side, but it never completes the circle, so to speak, and always remains on the top of my wrist where I want it.
Clasp. While some people complained about the Band 2’s clasp, I find it very easy to use and don’t think it gets in the way despite its large size. The Alta uses a much cheaper clasping mechanism—it’s just poles and holes–that I found difficult to use at first. But like anything you do regularly, you get used to it. And after almost a week, I’ve adapted.
Screen. The Band 2 features a beautiful screen, and you can configure the screen colors and theme somewhat using Microsoft’s convoluted Health app. The Fitbit Alta is more pedestrian, and monochrome, and you can’t really do much to customize it beyond determining whether the display comes on when you move your wrist to look at it. You can also configure what tracking items appear, and in what order, when you tap the screen in succession.
Apps. In standard Microsoft fashion, the Band is a platform that runs apps. And I normally configure apps like Run, Messaging, Mail, Phone, Calendar, Bike, Exercise, Sleep, and Clock/Alarm on my own Band, which is a nice mix of fitness tracking and productivity functionality. With the Alta, you get what Fitbit gives you—mostly fitness tracking—and nothing else. You may find this limiting. But I don’t, and I think the features Alta provides are closer to the ideal mix.
Productivity functionality. With Band 2, you can be alerted of phone calls, voice mails, text messages, emails, tweets, Facebook events, and other things, but you can also respond to these things in most cases and can see lists of the last several events in each case. Alta provides much simpler functionality: It’s for phone calls, texts, and calendar events only, it’s view only, and only at the time of the notification, and you can’t go back and look through lists of previous events. So it’s less full-featured, of course. But the Alta’s notifications of the most crucial phone-based events is exactly what I want. In my wife’s case, she likes being able to respond from the Band too, so the Alta’s simpler feature set would be limiting to her.
Cross-platform. Band 2 and the Microsoft Health app work virtually identically across iPhone, Android phones and Windows phones. So does Fitbit.
How Fitbit differs from Apple, Microsoft and others in the wearable market
Earlier this month, Fitbit CEO James Park explained to the New York Times why his company’s products were different from Apple Watch, and not just from a pricing perspective.
“We look at it from a consumer point of view,” Mr. Park told the publication, noting that Fitbit purposely took the opposite approach from Apple Watch. “Apple Watch is a computing platform, but that’s really the wrong way to approach this category from the very beginning.” Fitbit’s strategy, he said, was to begin with simple devices in order to make wearables more approachable, and then “carefully layer on” more features over time.
This is fascinating to me because this was Apple’s approach with iOS, which started with the first—and simple and non-extensible—iPhone, and has grown up over time to encompass more sophisticated devices like iPad Pro. But when Apple released its first Watch, it went in a weird direction, saddling its iOS-based OS with a complex and non-discoverable UI that does nothing to leverage the skills its users have with their other devices. That explains, I think, the ambivalence of most Apple Watch users.
Microsoft’s approach with Band is likewise different from both Fitbit and Apple. Here, Microsoft clearly benefited from an understanding of the capabilities and limitations of comparatively low-end fitness trackers and more expensive and complex smart watches, and split the difference. This created the perfect balance I’ve often cited in the Band.
But that opinion is predicated on believing that the half-way point between pure fitness trackers and full-featured smart watches is in fact ideal. A device that silently provides fitness tracking with no user interaction and provides on-wrist call, text and calendar notifications will almost certainly meet many people’s needs. It’s not the same balance as is provided by Band 2. But it’s cheaper, gets better battery life, and is more heavily tilted towards the low-end of functionality. It is … simpler. In every meaning of the word.
Ultimately, which direction you choose is a personal decision. For many of the more technical readers of this site, the Band 2 or a real smart watch may make more sense. For the Microsoft-leaning crowd that is also a big contingent here, again, the Band 2 might be the obvious choice. But for the masses, for the mainstream, non-technical users who are less likely to need or want the more complex and full-featured experiences of Band 2, Apple Watch, or Android Wear, many Fitbit devices, and the Fitbit Alta in particular, could be the right choice.
So what am I doing? After wearing both the Alta and Band 2 on my wrist for several days, I’m going to let the Microsoft device rest for a few days and see if I miss it. And that is a story for another day.