Microsoft Band 2 review: This health-oriented wearable still faces big hurdles

29 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Microsoft Band 2 ReviewIf you don’t look close enough, you may mistake the Microsoft Band 2 for its predecessor, the original Microsoft Band — the company’s first attempt into the ever-crowded wearables market.

Now the tech company is back with version two of its fitness tracker-smartwatch hybrid, and while there are indeed improvements, there’s still a lot left to be desired when it comes to design. It had a colorful touchscreen display, built-in GPS and heart rate monitors, and guided workouts—proving that a fitness device could be smarter than a simple step-counter or time-tracker.

In our Microsoft Band review last year, we called the first iteration killer on the inside (thanks to its pretty solid software), but “meh” on the outside due to its clunky design. Announced late into the evening with little fanfare the Band always came off as an investigational device for Microsoft, with a slow international rollout and restrictive availability even in the U.S.

The new $249 device boasts an improved design, making it a more “wearable” wearable, new sensors that detect floors climbed and UV exposure, and an online dashboard for Microsoft Health where you can create your own workouts. There is an abundance of smartwatch capabilities; you can get text and call notifications, still order a Starbucks coffee by tapping it at checkout and eventually order an Uber car (the latter feature is launching soon).

Microsoft makes every effort to justify that price, rolling up what it added to the original Band—golf and cycling apps, a tiny keyboard, and more—plus a more comfortable fit, a new barometric sensor, and some other tweaks. But after wearing the newest version of Microsoft Band for the past three weeks, I can’t help but think that the real answer is that Microsoft isn’t in it for the hardware.

Band 2 tracks a whole series of activities beyond running, like cycling, lifting weights and playing golf, and there’s a new barometer to measure elevation when hiking, too. Three things hold the Band 2 back, however: along with the lack of apps, there’s a slightly awkward form factor, and a user interface that lacks the graphical appeal of its competition. Instead, my best guess is that it hopes to get people using the Microsoft Health software — and maybe get some other hardware makers to make stuff for its platform.

The Band was rigid, angular, and difficult to wear, but Microsoft has improved the situation with an all-curved design and a flexible, soft-touch band. The main module, housing the 320×128-pixel AMOLED display, now curves to better fit the natural shape of your wrist, while the silicone-like band hugs your arm comfortably. On the display’s edge sit the device’s only physical buttons: the power button, which can also turn off the display quickly, and the “Action” button that selects certain options on the screen. Its 0.5-by-1-inch display is an AMOLED touchscreen with a slightly higher resolution than before (320×128 pixels, compared to 320×106 in the original version).

Considering this is the part everyone will see, you’d think Microsoft would have paid extra attention to nailing that part of the design (or better yet, altering the design entirely so you don’t have to wear it on the side). 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. Although the first Microsoft Band included a sleeker black clasp, the company said it wanted to breathe a little extra pizazz into how it looks in round two. 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.

The problem with so many wearables these days is when you look down at your wrist, you want to be reminded why you bought it in the first place — looking at the scuffed clasp of a new Microsoft Band isn’t going to reinforce that notion. 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. But the two buttons are still located at the bottom of the display, yet my pointer finger naturally wanted to reach for the top, similar to where the crown is placed on traditional watches. The Band’s two physical buttons are uncomplicated; one triggers the backlit display and gives you a glimpse of the time of day, the other starts and stops recording an activity. It depends on how excited you get about this stuff, but there was something wonderful about going for a long hike or run without my phone and knowing my distance and knowing I had the digital footprint proving I did it.

GPS will be crucial for those who frequently run or bike outdoors, while the optical heart rate monitor takes pulse readings throughout the day and during exercise to show you peak and average heart rates. Here is what changed with the new Band: New Barometer sensor for elevation measurements for stair climbing That is in addition to the other sensors including heart rate, accelerometer, GPS, ambient light, UV, microphone, skin temperature and galvanic skin response sensors. And it will measure your maximum rate of oxygen consumption (VO2 max), although you’ll have to do a handful of intense cardio workouts before it starts recording this.

All of these changes address the big complaints with the Band 1 including discomfort, scratched displays and the soft touch peeling off after a few months. There are also details about your recovery period after a workout — a feature we haven’t quite seen on another tracker yet — and the device can estimate your maximum volume of oxygen intake. This is better than most smartwatches, but it’s notably less life than other wrist-based fitness trackers, like the Fitbit Surge or the Garmin Vivoactive. 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. For golfers, there’s a new automatic swing detection, so it knows if you are putting, driving the ball or taking practice swings thanks to the built-in gyroscope, vibration sensors and accelerometer. Like the first version, its sleep cycle monitoring is also a strong component, and since it has relatively decent battery life (48 hours), you’ll be able to take advantage of it, unlike the Apple Watch, which most owners charge during the night.

Someone who needs to be careful in extreme sunlight will appreciate the Band’s UV monitor, but not everyone will feel the need to use the feature on a daily basis (or at all). Microsoft Bands use Windows 8-like tiles that sit in for apps, allowing 13 out of what is presently 19 tiles to be on the Band at any one time: Messaging, Mail, Calls, Calendar, Guided Workouts, a Starbucks app, Run, Bike, Twitter, Facebook, and more.

You may have to make a few hard choices about which tiles to include, and you’ll want to dive into the configuration options for apps like Run and the Windows 10-like Notifications app, which will squirt updates at you for every little thing. There’s a generic exercise “tile” you can tap to record another type of workout, like yoga or weight lifting (though let’s take a moment to note that Microsoft took the trouble to add a golf mode but not a yoga or weightlifting mode). You can load pre-set workouts from brands like Gold’s Gym and Shape magazine onto your band too, and if you’re really ambitious, you can even customize your own workout in advance, something I wish more health and fitness trackers offered.

It works with Windows Phone, Android, and iOS devices, which makes sense if the software is the main draw here, not the Microsoft-specific hardware. (There are some drawbacks to using an iOS device with it, which I’ll get to. 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.

When I went to pair the new Band with a Nokia Lumia 830, I made sure to unregister the Band from my Microsoft Health account, sign out of the account on my iPhone 6, and disconnect the Band from Bluetooth before starting the pairing process on the new phone. It works well until it doesn’t, when you have to pick through your reply. (Women with long nails may have a more difficult time.) In many instances, it’s just easier to pull out your phone. It’s not intended only to hardcore triathletes or to those just looking to get off the couch more—it has features for both groups and many in between. It only took the Band about 15 seconds to read my resting heart rate; after this, the display says “Locked” when it has a consistent reading on your changing pulse.

But you should. (Log in, then go to “Your dashboard.”) There, you can compare all sorts of metrics to an anonymized sample of people with your height and weight, age and gender.Did that one-mile run actually contribute to your cardiovascular health? On top of that, Microsoft Health shares data freely and quickly with other select health apps — so in my case, the activities I did immediately showed up in my Strava account, or my MyFitnessPal app. It measured my total distance as only .2 miles off what the elliptical itself recorded, and I believe the discrepancy came when I frequently switched from gripping the moving handles of the machine to holding on to the steady handles in front of me.

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. I recommend using the general “workout” tile for tracking gym equipment workouts, since the “running” tile seems to work best on treadmills and outside. You can tell the Band to continue searching for a GPS signal while you start your run, but I had more luck when I stood still and waited for the device to find my location first.

Here’s the secret, though: With GPS enabled, the Band 2’s ability to measure distance seems perfectly accurate, both on a run as well as several “cycling” expeditions in my car. 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. While tracking your game, you don’t need to have your smartphone out—the Band’s GPS will follow you along, detect which hole you’re at, providing distance estimates to the front, center, and back of the green. As with the first-generation Band, you can pre-select a Guided Workout through the Health app or site that matches your needs, then sync it to your Band—it will tell you what exercise to do and how long to do it, and the phone app even includes videos that display the proper form. There are even some “golf” exercises that emphasize flexibility, while “cycling” exercises would be more suited to a spin class, and the actual Bike app tracks your distance via GPS as you ride. There’s something for everyone here: if you’re training for a race, there’s the “Beginner 5K Training Plan,” and if you’re in a time crunch, there’s “Couch to 5K in 14 Days.” If you’re averse to treadmills, you have “The Anti-Treadmill Cardio Workout,” and if you just want to get outside to enjoy the weather, you can choose the “Sunny Day Workout.” While the Band’s guided workouts don’t give you pointers on how to get better at certain activities (as the new Moov Now does), variety is the advantage.

If you download a short workout, you’ll have to complete it before resuming your current workout plan (or you can go into the app and re-download the next session of your plan). 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. These alerts don’t disappear right away, either—you can tap on their respective tiles on the Band’s display to see all notifications since the last time you checked. I personally prefer having these kinds of alerts on my wrist as opposed to text or social media alerts because I have a million little things to do each day, and physical reminders push me to actually complete them.

It’s a decent timepiece as well, in the sense that you can customize the display to be always-on, off, or to turn on when you rotate your wrist to check the time. I am disappointed that it is not running Windows 10, possibly adding limits to the wearable, but I believe this will be addressed in next year’s model.

There’s a page dedicated to your “Bests,” including cute badges for milestones like your furthest run, best average pace, and best calorie burn during one workout. Its design is infinitely more comfortable, added sensors mean you can track more activities and new environmental factors, and more guided workouts give you more training options.

It takes a lot for me to get excited about a new fitness band—and when I saw how robust Microsoft Health had become as a fitness platform, I was truly excited.

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