Microsoft Band Overview/Review

This is going to be a work in progress for the next few days, so feel free to check back (or just ask questions in the comments)… I’ll be making notes my experience with the new Microsoft Band an activity/fitness/slightly-smart-watchish wearable device. I will be making comparisons to the Basis B1 I’ve been wearing for the past year and a half, and maybe some other activity devices as well.

The Basis B1 hasn’t been the worst thing ever, but my band has been falling apart, and in general, everything from the syncing, to the heart rate monitoring, to basic things like telling time is janky/less-than-great. Still, even a couple years on, the Basis is practically the only game in town for a general activity tracker that’s actually more than a glorified pedometer (I previously had a BodyMedia FIT but their form factor and service model was a turn-off).

Earlier this year, I finally received my long delayed, Amiigo wristband, which, while making big promises, ended up being a pretty half-baked disappointment. I kept using my B1.

Last month, Basis (acquired by Intel earlier this year) announced their new tracker, the Peak. It promised a much improved heart rate sensor that would be useful for fitness tracking, Bluetooth Smart connectivity, 4 day battery life, and 5ATM water resistance (good enough for swimming laps). It also promised a host of software improvements, including sleep-cycle detection, better alerts/habit forming reminders, and some smartwatch style notifications and alerts in the unspecified future.

While the BodyIQ automatic activity tracking (walking, running, biking, and sleep) they introduced a while back actually works pretty well, the Basis has had many long-standing unsolved problems. The support forums are filled with requests begging for features that are always “not ruled out as a future feature”, but over the past couple years, these new features have never been implemented. My personal bugbear is that the Basis doesn’t actually update time/time-zone except after completing the interminably slow full-sync. This means that you can’t update the time on the watch if you’re on a plane, or in an international airport or anywhere without several minutes and solid data.

A few weeks ago, the Fitbit Surge leaked and was finally announced. It doesn’t include GSR, skin, or ambient temperature, but has optical heart rate and also GPS tracking, a digital compass, and altimeter. It claims a 5-day battery life and 5ATM of water resistance. Of course, Fitbit has its detractors as well. Some people popped up in the HN thread complaining about the broken app. For me, the biggest drawback is that while Fitbit stores your second-by-second raw biometric data, you need to pay $50/yr to export your information.  While there’s an API, you can only retrieve daily information unless you have “Partner API” access. That’s total bullshit and really precludes me from giving them any of my money.

The Microsoft Band first leaked last night (due to an OS X App Store publishing slipup), and then subsequently was announced last night (along with the website and online purchasing). It includes a nice suite of sensors including a very responsive optical heart rate sensor, GPS (turned on only for workouts), skin temp, GSR, and UV sensor (manually activated). It has apps for syncing via Windows and OS X via USB, and iOS, Android, and WP via BTLE. Battery life is lower than the Peak or Surge (2 days) and it’s “splashproof” and not submersible, but you get some slick alerts and a capacitive (OLED?) display.

Here’s some running commentary:

  • After the Band website had launched, I called a nearby Microsoft Store (in West LA) shortly before closing to see if they would have these in stock tomorrow. I got a “we can’t talk about future products” response, event after telling them I could order it online. What’s crazy is that when I checked the Microsoft Store site later, their main promo carousel was talking about the fitness launch event. After I saw that I just ended up just rolling into the local store in the morning (who knew that even existed?) and they had the displays set up w/ demo models for sizing. Of course, the store was empty, but it still took a bit of waiting around to get helped. Coming from the clockwork customer-oriented efficiency of Apple Stores, the whole shopping experience was a bit surreal to be honest.
  • I set up the Band right outside the store – it took about 10 minutes to do an initial sync and registration via USB on the OS X app and to download the iOS app and pair it with my iPhone 5S. I think the instructions/guidance could have been a little better, but I didn’t run into any problems – it all worked rather pleasantly, and I was up and running. Syncs/updating preferences from the apps have all worked quickly and seamlessly, which is very different from the sluggish/always-seems-like-it’s-going-to-fail feeling I get when syncing my B1.
  • I spent most of the day wearing both the Band and B1 on my left wrist. I first went walking counting 100 steps a couple times, and both devices did a pretty good job (+/- 2 steps).  When I checked, the B1 was at 1035 and the Band was at 360 (+675). Right now, the B1 is at 3602 and the Band is at 2958 (+644). That’s pretty good.
  • The heart rate sensitivity looks very good – the numbers between the two seemed to be pretty similar between the B1 and the Band, however, while the B1 was static, the Band looks like it refreshes every second on the main screen. That being said, it seems to be pretty sensitive to position/how secure the device is on the write. Right now when drilling into the details (tap on the main screen, two swipes left) was “locked” vs “acquiring” about half the time. Locking seems to take about 3s on average. Earlier in the day this seemed a lot better. It seemed to be very responsive when I was trying a workout.
  • The UI on the Band itself is pretty good – swipes are responsive and it wasn’t hard to figure anything out. You sometimes have a dialog to choose from (alarms, notifications, etc).  The only really annoying thing so far is that you need to press the somewhat inconvenient center button to activate the device. I wonder if it’d be better on the left corner (since the way it’s shaped means it’s less embedded there) or if there’s a way for a purely capacitive unlock (like a full swipe, or even a tap). The tiles metaphor works great – these tiles (and all notifications) are also completely customizable (order, on/off) from the mobile app. There’s a watch mode which shows the time, but it’d be nice if there was an option for the display to be inactive and for it to show the main-screen info when you lift your wrist a-la Android Wear/Apple Watch. Interestingly, it appears to be an LCD, not an OLED (the blacks aren’t true black). I wonder what that means in terms of power consumption for the display.
  • The UI on the iOS app is clean and very Metro-ish. The only real weird thing with it was the “Save”/”Cancel” buttons. I sort of just want to be able to apply or swipe out I guess? Syncing/pushing updates/preferences seems to happen reliably/not take too long. The “Home” screen is not so useful to start out with. A bunch of these aren’t clickable.  I also wish it’d display battery time remaining on the Band device as well.
  • I did a “Run” to test out the GPS and fitness tracking.  It records in your “activity history.” When you start, it enables the GPS, and allows you to start your workout while it gets a fix, or you can wait for the GPS fix (took about 30s). I did a 10-minute walk around the block and it ends up w/ a summary w/ all the information you’d expect (start time, duration, calories burned, pace, avg/hi/lo hr, ending hr,  splits, etc).. .The GPS trace looked pretty good to me:
  • So, that’s all good, but what I haven’t figured out yet is how to access all the passive data it’s tracking. There doesn’t seem to be anything in the mobile app. Here’s the data that the Basis web app provides for example:
    Basis B1 Data
  • I tested some notifications (text, incoming call) and they seem to work fine. There’s a whole bunch built in that you can individually enable/disable (and also remove the tiles entirely from the device. There’s also a notification center tile that presumably shows you all notifications from your phone. I don’t really care/can’t be too bothered by any of that -Google Now/Siri support would be useful, but honestly what I’d most like is to be able to be able to simply tell the Band when to switch modes or annotate activities via voice.
  • The last big thing right now I’d say is comfort. While it’s not that physically bulky, it’s actually pretty dense and feels much heavier than the Amiigo or the B1. Also the shape is awkward – the inside of the main screen/processing unit is completely flat, and the optical HR sensor is raised up on the bottom size. In order to get good readings it seems that you need to make sure it doesn’t wiggle too much so you have to press your wrist into a pretty funny shape.  I’ve actually found that I can’t comfortably wear the Band with the screen facing outward. On the other hand, with the wrist band inward, it makes typing on a desk incredibly awkward.  There’s a adjustable buckle which is clever, but I sort of want to be able to slide it around.  Honestly, it makes me a bit sad because while I really like this device, if I can’t get used to wearing it in the next few days, I’ll probably return it.

My current two questions:

  • Comfort: can I get used to wearing the Band? (it took me a couple weeks to get used to wearing a watch after a decade without one)
  • Data: can I access all the data that the Band is recording
    • You can see the step and HR details when clicking on the Home summaries
    • Other sensors?
    • How is Calories calculated? Is it also extrapolated when you’re not wearing it?
    • Can BMR be factored in?

I’ll be updating this as I use this/discover more, and maybe with some more links as well…

Update 10/31: I went back and added a bit of a description on the notifications and UI. I also wore my band overnight, and got sleep details. The data looks pretty good, although you have to manual start/stop sleep mode for now. Interestingly, it was pretty comfortable to leave on, whereas I never want to wear my Basis in bed. I haven’t been too bothered wearing the Band today, so I may be getting used to it. I’m jonesing to get my data out of the app though…

Update 11/1: I got around to testing out my personal use case of having the correct time on the Band. The bad news: with time “auto set,” you must sync with your phone to update the time. The Microsoft Health app won’t let you sync if you’re not online. WAH WAH.  That being said, you can disable “auto set” and manually update either the time zone or the date/time on the device itself. That wasn’t so hard. Note: Basis has been selling a watch for the past two years where the time can’t be updated without an Internet connection.

Update 11/26: Just a quick update on time zones/travel. Unfortunately, like the Basis, you can’t sync the time to your phone without online access. You can manually set the time, however the issue there is that it’ll show a field for time zones, but you aren’t able to change it. You will have to change the time leaving the time zone, which will actually offset the actual absolute time, probably leading to all kinds of data recording weirdness. Boo-urns.