Microsoft Band review
Microsoft hasn’t nailed the fitness band, but there’s lots to like – the Band is on the right track
Microsoft took its time to bring the Microsoft Band to the UK, but if, like me, you were eagerly anticipating its arrival on our shores, then your wait may have been worthwhile. The Band is one of the most fully featured activity trackers yet.
Truth is, one of the most common frustrations I’ve had with fitness trackers boils down to one simple moan: they just don’t do enough. Microsoft has attempted to change all that with the Band, cramming in almost every possible sensor that a fitness fanatic, or a keen beginner, could possibly ask for.
There’s an optical heart-rate sensor, which is capable of continuously tracking your heart rate 24 hours a day, and it’s also a bit of a coup that the Band has built-in GPS; other devices in this sector tend to rely on a smartphone for their GPS-tracking functions.
And it doesn’t stop there: Microsoft has also packed in a 3-axis accelerometer, a gyrometer, and an array of sensors that measure ambient light, skin temperature, UV light and galvanic skin response. There’s also a capacitive sensor, so the Band even knows when you’re wearing it.
The data pulled in by this fleet of sensors is what allows the Microsoft Band to automatically track every facet of your daily activities: how many steps you take, how many calories you burn and your heart rate, as well as analysing the duration and quality of your sleep. Factor in the ability to display emails, calendar notifications, text messages, Twitter and Facebook updates on your wrist, as well as act as your own personal trainer, and the Microsoft Band is as multitalented as fitness trackers come.
Microsoft Band review: Design
For all its many talents, the design of the Microsoft Band is a curious mixture of the functional and the downright ugly. Finished all in matte black, with a glossy, rectangular 1.3in display in the middle of the strap, the Band is a plain, utilitarian-looking device – imagine a futuristic wristborne ASBO tag and you’re halfway there.
The Band fastens to your wrist in one of two positions: you can mount the display on the inside or outside of your wrist. In either orientation, a plastic latch locks the strap in place, and as it’s necessary to squeeze two buttons on each side of the latch to release it, it’s borderline impossible to release by mistake.
Microsoft offers the Band in small, medium and large sizes, but adjusting it to your wrist is simple; the ratchet mechanism clicks tighter notch by notch once it’s locked in place.
The 1.3in colour touchscreen is a touch on the small side, but it has an ample 106 x 320-pixel resolution, so onscreen text and icons are well defined, and it’s bright enough to remain legible on sunnier days. The presence of a light sensor, meanwhile, means that there’s no need to fiddle with the screen brightness — unless you want to, of course.
Microsoft Band review: Interface and handset compatibility
Thanks to an ARM Cortex-M4 processor beavering away behind the scenes, the Band’s interface feels pretty smooth and slick.
It’s easy to use too. Tap the power button and the homescreen displays the time and a secondary statistic alongside – tapping the action button cycles between steps taken, calories used, your current heart rate and the date, so you can quickly check your progress at a glance.
Swipe right from the homescreen and three little icons display the battery and Bluetooth status, and whether the 24-hour heart-rate tracking is enabled. Swipe left, and there’s a sideways-scrolling list of tiles that provide access to all the various “apps”.
There are dedicated tiles for tracking runs, bike rides or workouts, as well as tiles for checking received text messages, calendar alerts, missed phone calls, and Facebook and Twitter alerts. Pressing the tile activates the app, while a physical action button next to the power button starts and stops the various tracking features, or engages the reading mode in notification apps, which ticks through messages and emails one word at a time for easier legibility.
Microsoft Band review: Device compatibility and Cortana
When it comes to device compatibility, Microsoft has it nailed: the Band has support for Android 4.3, Windows Phone 8.1 and iOS 7.1 or newer. Install the Microsoft Health app on your phone, pair the Band via Bluetooth, and uploading all your step, exercise and sleep data is as simple as firing up the app and allowing the Band to sync the data across.
Not surprisingly, only Windows Phone 8.1 devices with Update 1 installed get to take advantage of the Band’s Cortana support. But hook up a compatible handset and you can take advantage of the Band’s built-in microphone to take voice notes, create reminders, set alarms or ask Cortana basic questions. Ask anything too complex, though, and the Band will tell you to reach for your phone.
Another nifty feature restricted to Windows Phone devices is the virtual keyboard: this places a tiny Qwerty keyboard onscreen and lets you tap out replies to text messages directly on the Band itself. Swiping left lets you switch between the different keyboard panels, while swiping right lets you check what you’ve already written. Make a mistake, and tapping the word provides three autocorrect options, or you can delete or insert another word. Frankly, I’m not convinced that it’s any easier than just whipping your phone out and typing a message, but it is slightly more discreet.
Microsoft Band review: Microsoft Health app and third-party applications
The Microsoft Health app is the hub that gathers all the data from the Band – it’s here that you can get the lowdown on your workouts, sleep quality and all the other data the Band has captured. It’s possible to customise which tiles are displayed in the app or on the Band itself. You can remove the tiles you don’t want or need, as well as customise the data displayed during exercise, such as distance covered, pace, heart rate and so on.
It’s incredibly simple to use, with recent activities summarised across a stack of rectangular tiles, and tapping on each lets you dip into each discipline in more detail. This makes it easy to analyse weekly step or calorie-intake trends, check your heart rate and speed over the course of each workout, and get an overview of your recent activities.
It’s also from within the Microsoft Health app that you can set your step and calorie goals as your fitness improves, or download the various workouts and workout plans to your Band. Regardless of whether you’re an experienced runner looking to train for a half-marathon, or a couch potato looking to plod to 5K, there are workout plans that you can download to the Band to get you on your way. These tell you when to exercise and how long for, and provide weekly schedules for you to follow. For people looking to get fit, and who can’t be bothered to find and follow their own training schedule, it’s a great feature.