Microsoft Band 2: Micro Review

I, like most of the human race, started 2016 with an an absolute conviction to improve my fitness and I, like a decent percentage of people, decided that the best way to fool myself into following through was to invest in a fitness tracker.

I had looked into various options in the past but never really felt that there was a product out that there that ticked all the boxes.  When Microsoft released the second iteration of their fitness band – promising sleep monitoring, GPS run tracking and more sensors than I know what to do with – I thought it was time to take a punt.

I have now been using the Microsoft Band 2 for two weeks and felt it was about time to share my thoughts.

Comfort

My biggest concern with any fitness tracker was always that it would not be comfortable enough that I would actually wear it.  The first couple of days after switching from a traditional watch certainly felt a bit strange: the band is bulkier than anything I had worn before and would quite often get caught on cuffs, but it didn’t take long before it felt pretty comfortable.

The Microsoft band has been designed so that you wear the “watch face” on the inside of your wrist and once you adjust to this it feels very natural.  The alignment of the text (being wider than it is tall) is almost impossible to comfortably read with the face on the outside of the wrist and it takes very little time to adjust.

You can have the watch display on constantly but I have gone with the “rotate on” mode where you flick your wrist to light up the display.  This works well but has a little more delay than I’d like when quickly checking the time.

Sleep

Sleep tracking was one of the key features for me as I have always been interested in the quality of my sleep.  The Microsoft Band promised to deliver in-depth monitoring as well an “optimum wake up” alarm and so far I have been very impressed.  The app (running on Android) gives genuinely interesting feedback on how I have slept every morning, along with recommendations on how to improve the quality of my rest (e.g. “you are taking a long time to fall asleep; try avoiding mental stress late at night”).

The alarm appears to work very well; I have not been using it for too long but so far it seems to wake me up when I feel more awake than would a normal alarm.  It also has the significant benefit of being silent – you are woken up by the band vibrating on your wrist – which has proven very popular with my wife when I have an early start!

Running

Many years ago I treated myself to a Garmin GPS watch for running.  It was about the size of a small matchbox strapped to your arm and came with a chest strap to track your heart rate whilst running.  At the time it was very impressive and I probably shouldn’t be surprised that the Microsoft Band has improved upon 5-year-old technology, but the step up seems very marked.

The band tracks your heart rate, pace, distance (with or without GPS) and gives you up to 7 customisable data points on your wrist while you run.  It seems pretty accurate as these things go, and the feedback – both live and through the app after your run – is useful.  It integrates with various other apps like RunKeeper and MyFitnessPal as well, so your pace, distance and calorie burn records are still all replicated where they always were before.

A couple of tips for the first time you go out though: firstly, wait for the band to get GPS lock before you hit the road.  It will tell you that it can pick up GPS as you run but has not managed to do so over a quick 5k for me when I tried.  Secondly, I would recommend avoiding long sleeves when running.  The inside-of-the-wrist setup works very well if you’re in short sleeves but trying to pull you sleeve up to view the numbers on the inside felt very uncomfortable when I was out running.

Smart Watch Features

Compared to things like the fitbit or jawbone offerings, the Microsoft Band has a number of smart-watch-esque features that seemed pretty tempting to me when I bought it.  You can have SMS, emails, call, calendar and other notifications delivered to your wrist over bluetooth and generally this works really well.  If you turn on “other notifications” it can get a little bit silly – on one occasion I received by-the-minute updates on the charging status of my phone – but you have the option to filter which apps are able to push notifications to the band so you can make it useful.  It’s a nice feature to have when there is no native support for things like whatsapp or slack: you can still get the notifications on your wrist; you just lose the ability to reply.

For things like calls, SMS and email the ability to send canned responses is surprisingly useful when sat in meetings.  You can customise the available replies and – if you really want – you can even type out custom responses with an on-band keyboard (though I wouldn’t recommend it for anything more than a word or three).

The only issue I have with the smart watch functionality is that it seems to make a real difference to the battery life.  It’s nice to have, but I bought this as a fitness tracker and find myself turning off the extra features to get a few extra hours of power.  That leads me on to…

Battery Life

Microsoft advertise the Band 2 as having 48h of battery life and whilst I wouldn’t say this is completely off the mark it does seems a little generous.  If I have the smart watch features turned on then I am lucky to get a day and a half of wear out of it.

With my phone I have fallen into the pattern of leaving it on charge overnight but the complication with the band is that I want to be wearing it overnight for the sleep tracking.  This removes the natural time that you would charge the device and makes the planning of charging a bit of a challenge.

What makes life a lot easier is that the band charges incredibly quickly.  It only takes around half an hour to get up to full charge from close to zero so I find myself falling into a pattern of plugging in the band whilst I get dressed in the morning.  Couple that with the odd ad-hoc charge at my desk and I’ve not had any real down time.  As a system it’s just about working, but it does feel like I may be missing out on some of the features in the interest of keeping the thing running.

Summary

Overall I’m very happy with the band and would gladly recommend it.  There are a couple of rough edges to be smoothed out but they don’t take away from the core functionality of  a fitness band and for that specific job it is doing everything I can ask of it.

The integration with other apps is nicely done and works very well.  The API for the cloud data store looks promising as well, though that is an investigation for another day…

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