Us Brits should consider ourselves lucky, US fitness fanatics have been able to get their hands on the Microsoft Band since last October, but as of today the UK has just become the only other market in the world where you can buy the company’s first wearable.
We met up with the Microsoft a week ahead of the Band’s official UK launch and we’ve been wearing it 24/7 to decide whether it actually makes for a serviceable fitness companion or whether it misses the mark on activity tracking altogether.
Design and screen: Function is everything
Having tested a variety of wearables and having shown them to a variety of friends and colleagues, on the whole the market doesn’t yet offer an attractive fitness tracker, particularly for women. It’s safe to say the Microsoft Band won’t change that fact.
There’s a display surrounded by a glossy black plastic bezel, a black metal clasp and a black rubberised body with two hardware controls built into the side. It’s very much a case of form following function; it’s a little too big, a little bulky and doesn’t conform to the natural shape of the wrist, with the segment containing the display protruding awkwardly.
On the top there’s a 1.4-inch colour LCD packing a respectable 320×106 resolution. It doesn’t sound like much, but the Microsoft Band actually offers pleasing visuals, with good sunlight legibility, punchy colours and a decent level of responsiveness when interacting with the touchscreen too.
Whilst most of the device’s sensors are tucked away (there are a total of 10), the most obvious one is the heart rate sensor, which sits against the clasp at the opposing side of the band to the magnetic charging connector.
Comfort: A tight grip
Packing so many sensors into such a tight space likely accounts for the Band’s rigid frame. Whilst the inside of the strap features rounded elements to as not to dig into your wrist, setting the right spacing on the clasp can prove difficult.
The band locks itself into place securely enough and it never feels like it’s going to make a break from your person and tumble onto the floor, however I found myself shifting it up and down my wrist, loosening and tightening the thing for different activities; tighter and closer to my hand suited everyday use, but cycling required they I widen the band and slip it further up my arm in order to accommodate my hand position when cycling. For some, this constant adjusting could get tedious.
Repositioning aside, the Band doesn’t irritate skin or rub, even if you’re wearing it particularly tightly and at retail there are small, medium and large variants to choose from for all manner of wrist and arm sizes..
Text reads horizontally across the display and unlike Samsung’s Gear Fit there’s not portrait option, but in truth a method of displaying information at around 45 degrees would actually offer the most comfortable reading position when you glance down to look at it.
Functionality: …and the kitchen sink
As smartwatches and fitness trackers go, the Microsoft Band has to be one of the most hardware-packed to date. There are in fact a total of ten sensors wrapped around your wrist, designed to cover everything from constant heart rate monitoring, to skin temperature, to GPS – letting you track your runs or cycles without the need for a real-time smartphone connection.
Following feedback from the first wave of users Stateside the Band packs tools for running, custom workouts, sleep tracking and as of February, cycling all out the box. Microsoft has partnered with Gold’s Gym in the US and Nuffield Health in the UK to offer Band owners free downloadable workouts curated by fitness professionals.
You can download them via the Band’s partner app – Microsoft Health, which serves as one of the highlights of this wearable’s offerings – it’s one of the few cross-platform trackers out there, capable of playing nice with iOS and Android devices as well as Microsoft’s own Windows Phone platform.
Depending on which flavour of operating system your Microsoft Band is partnered up to it can relay notifications and even accept voice commands through Cortana (Windows Phone-only). Another exclusive feature for Microsoft aficionados is being able respond to messages using a tiny Word Flow-capable keyboard, but you have dedicated notification for social media channels like Facebook, Messenger, Twitter and Instagram whichever platform you side with.
You can customise the tiles displayed on the Band via the app and during workouts it can buzz to relay distance travelled or when to change to a new exercise, depending on which programme you’re using. Whilst the main button is used to sleep or wake the display, the secondary action button can display notification information using its Quick Read feature, Spritzing one word at a time – a smart means of delivering information on such a small screen.
Performance: Where’s the food?
Like we said at the beginning the Microsoft Band has been designed to be worn 24/7, or rather almost 24/7. Water resistance rather than waterproofing means the Band has to sit out of any water-based activities and despite being capable of accepting a multitude of data entry points, diet tracking seems like an obvious omission that the likes of Jawbone have offered in their main mobile app for quite some time.
Despite a heart-rate monitor that’s constantly tracking your ticker and robust sleeping tracking information the humble 100mAh battery doles out two full days of use on a single charge, decent when you consider the nature of this particular fitness tracker. You can also charge the thing up via a magnetised docking system on the underside of the display in less than two hours, meaning you won’t be without it for too long. We would have liked a simpler microUSB port instead of another flavour of charging system however – akin to the Sony SmartBand Talk.
Verdict: A respectable effort from Microsoft’s debut wearable
There’s certainly work to be done, but the Microsoft Band feels as if it goes above and beyond many of its rivals with regards to its tracking and training capabilities. It’s not trying to take on the Apple Watch or Android Wear, but for the most part lets you train smarter than the likes of the Jawbone UP24 or the Fitbit Flex.
Like the revised Xbox 360 and the PS4 slimline, we’d like to see a more streamlined, refined version of the Microsoft Band hardware that doesn’t compromise on its functionality as right now it’s a little chubby and restrictive.
As fitness trackers go, £169.99 places it at the upper end of the market but you get a fair amount of bang for your buck. If you there’s a space for a robust digital fitness trainer on your wrist, the Microsoft Band is at the very least, worth considering.