Microsoft Band 2 Review

Posted on October 29, 2015 by Paul Thurrott in Microsoft-Band with 0 Comments

Microsoft Band 2 Review

We are awash in wearables these days, but most of them seem to serve little purpose beyond being or copying an Apple product. Fortunately, Microsoft has chosen a different path. And with Band 2, the firm is again firing on all cylinders, delivering the right mix of features and improvements. This is my favorite wearable, by far, and the one that will grace my wrist going forward.

Granted, I need it. Middle age and a writing career haven’t exactly been kind of this body, and while I have the best of intentions—who doesn’t?—I find myself less inclined to exercise these days, not more. I have hopes, perhaps misguided, that Band 2 can help.

Regardless of what happens, Microsoft Band 2 meets my needs and doesn’t overwhelm me with an overly-busy user interface and non-essential functionality, like the much more expensive Apple Watch. Band 2’s premise, like that of its predecessor, is simple: Fitness and health, plus productivity. But mostly fitness and health.

And it does this in a much nicer form factor than last year’s bulky and awkward original Band, while carrying forward a graceful and easily understood user interface that works with the small screen size instead of fighting it.

So let’s start with the device itself.

Last year’s original Band was bristling with sensors, but it was big, bulky, and awkward to wear, with a Frankenstein forehead-like screen that was flat, rather than curved like your wrist. It always seemed to find whatever doorway or wall I was passing by and was constantly getting scratched and dinged. As bad, the wristband parts of that original Band were actually painted, and the paint scratched off easily, leaving ugly peeks at the underlying (and lighter-colored) material.

These problems are all fixed in the new device. (Well, except for my clumisness, I guess.) Band 2 is thinner than its predecessor and is now curved—yes, including even the bigger and beautiful new multitouch screen—to fit on human wrists. And while Microsoft sells Band 2 in three sizes like the first version, each size is a bit bigger than before. So now Large actually fits, and a bit loosely, on my Gorilla-sized wrist. It’s actually comfortable.

Critics will note that the buckle on the clasp is still pretty big, and fair enough. But the design of Band 2 is so much more attractive than that of Band 1, and the clasp is nicely adjustable. Even my wife wants a Band 2, and she would never have considered a first-generation device. Band 2 is beautifuland useful. What a concept.

Band 2’s., um, band—OK, wristband—is no longer painted, and is now made of a durable, more flexible, rubberized material. I’ve been wearing mine daily for about three weeks and I’ve seen none of the damage that always dogged the first Band. Thanks to its use of Gorilla Glass 3, and the lack of screen scratches after three weeks of indelicate use, I see no reason to employ a screen protector.

That screen is a stunner and, at 32 mm by 12.8 mm, is noticeably bigger than that of the original Band. (The UI is, however, the same as before, and that is just fine by me. More on that in a moment.)

Microsoft changed how Band 2 charges, and that may rankle some upgraders, especially those who (like me) bought an additional charge cable for Band 1. Now, a big charger end clips to the clasp, rather than under the body as before. The benefit to this new approach, however, is obvious: You can now achieve a full charge in just 1.5 hours.

charger

Speaking of which, battery life hasn’t changed: Band 2 can go for two full days unless you turn on the GPS, as I do on walks. If you use the GPS, you will need to charge Band 2 each day. I do so at night, unless I’m sleep tracking, in which case I charge it when I sit down to work in the morning.

Inside Band 2, you will find a superset of the amazing sensor set that graced the original unit: Optical heart rate sensor, 3-way accelerometer, gyrometer, GPS, ambient light sensor, skin temperature sensor, UV sensor, capacitive sensor, Galvanic skin response, and microphone. But Band 2 also adds a barometer, which is used to measure elevation (as on stairs). And that UV sensor can be left enabled all the time, unlike with Band 1.

Band 2 is not waterproof, so you can’t swim, bathe or shower with it. But Microsoft says it is rated for “temporary immersion in water at a depth of one meter for 30 minutes,” which sounds an awful lot like swimming to me. I have not, and will not, test that, sorry. (Band 2 is also rated to protect against the entry of dust into the device.)

As with the original device, I still believe Band 2 needs to be more proactive, which it absolutely could be given its processing might and 11 sensors. But for now at least, Band 2 will not prompt you to stand up or exercise, as it should, nor will it prod you to improve on previous activity levels. Microsoft assures me that this will happen over the next year. We’ll see.

Beyond this obvious criticism, 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.

health-app

If you’ve familiar with the original Band, the UI on Band 2 will be familiar. On the main screen, you can see the time and your choice of date, active hours, calories burned, stairs climbed, heart rate, or steps walked, You can toggle between those measurements by pressing the Action button on Band 2 repeatedly. And an at-a-glance watch mode feature will show you the date and time when you flick your wrist up as you would when looking at a watch. That mode is neat, and was initially missing from Band 1, but I wish I could see a measurement instead of the date in watch mode.

From the main screen, you can flick to the right to see status information—Bluetooth, heart rate monitoring, and battery life. But the real action is off to the right (which you get to by flicking to the left): Here, you can access the various fingertip-sized tiles that represent the various apps on Band 2.

App tiles

App tiles

For the most part, these apps are the same as with Band 1, though many have been updated to take advantage of new Band 2 functionality such as the elevation data provided by the barometer. On my Band 2, I have Run, Messaging, Mail, Phone, Calendar, Bike, Exercise, Sleep, and Clock/Alarm, which should give you a good idea of this device’s health/fitness and productivity mix. Other tiles let you track golf games, perform guided workouts, and interact with services like Facebook and Twitter. All in all there are over 30 apps available.

The on-Band apps work as expected, and as before. Like other wearables, Band 2 will buzz your wrist with a haptic notification when you get a text message, phone call, email, or other change (depending on which apps you have installed, and how you configure them). This is actually a pretty neat feature—a sort of early-warning system for phone notifications—and while it doesn’t justify a Band 2 purchase, it’s a nice perk.

voicemail

Consider a typical interaction: You’re out, your phone is in your pocket, and your Band 2 buzzes on your wrist. You look down and see that you’ve received a text message from your spouse. You could pull out your phone, of course. Or, you could simply deal with it right there on your wrist. If the message is short enough, you can see it all on-screen. For longer messages, you can scroll up and down. Or, press the action button and the message will display in much larger type, one word at a time.

The fitness and health apps are mostly not proactive, although I have gotten a UV warning a few times on long walks on sunny days. I use the Run app to track walks: You start the app, press the action button, agree to the use of the GPS, and then go off on the walk/run. During this exercise, the Band 2 displays information related to the activity, and when you’re done, you press the action button again, swipe over, and complete it. Simple.

These apps are sophisticated and accurate too. On the walks I measure, Band 2 collects my location information, which I can see in map form later in the Microsoft Health app on my phone. It also measures duration, calories burned, total gain (up, in feet) , total loss (down, in feet), best (mile-long) split (I aim for 16 minute walks), average pace, average heart rate, ending heart rate, and more. It’s a data collecting monster.

Using the Microsoft Health app on your phone, you can pair Band 2 and then customize the device with color schemes and apps as before. You also use the app to sync data from Band 2 to the cloud, and to load the device with new guided workouts as needed. You can also sync Band 2 with some third-party services including RunKeeper, MyFitnessPal, and others. The app has a more pleasant blue UI now, compared to the original purple, but it works much like before.

The Microsoft Health app provides a lot of data, and you can see your results from the day or past week. But if you want even more information, you can use the Microsoft Health portal on the web.

health-web

This comprehensive resource also provides more information about your activity. For example, you can view things like your calorie burn, steps, stairs climbed, and sleep over time. In my case, I am averaging about 6 and a half hours of sleep per night, Band 2’s data shows, though I don’t wear it to bed most nights. I usually wake up around 7 am.

The dashboard also lets you check out your personal bests and compare your results with others based on gender, BMI, age, and activity level. Embarrassingly, I take 8 percent fewer steps than the average in my demographic. But I exercise more each week by almost an hour and burn 10 percent more calories. I wish it would provide me with some goals based on this information. But a world of data awaits.

Overall, Band 2 is a terrific fitness tracker, and its productivity features offer just the right balance: It’s useful., not superfluous. I love that it’s cross-platform, that it collects so much data, and that it is less expensive than comparable but more complex devices. No, a wearable isn’t for anyone. But if you’re looking for a superb fitness tracker with additional smart watch-like features, look no further than Microsoft Band 2. They got this one right.

If you already own the original Band, the decision is a bit trickier, and you might consider simply using the existing device until it needs to be replaced. In upgrading—and spending $250—you will get a more comfortable, stylish, and (I think) durable wearable, one that comes with a few additional features in the form of a barometer and an always-on UV sensor. But unless the cost isn’t prohibitive to you, or your original Band (which was much less durable) is on its last legs, I’d advise waiting.

As for me, I will be writing a lot more about Band 2 each day going forward, and for good reason: Microsoft Band 2 is highly recommended, and a device I actually use every day.

 

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