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Microsoft Band: Beautiful … on the Inside

·Tech Critic

Millions of people are slipping fitness bands onto their wrists these days, and that’s great. Anything that can get our overfed, underslept population moving more and sleeping better is a welcome invention.

But these are motivational instruments, not scientific ones.

What’s in most fitness bands from UP, Nike, and Fitbit are accelerometers — tilt sensors, glorified pedometers. They give you insight into how many steps you take each day and what portion of the night you toss and turn, but that’s about it.

Microsoft’s new Band ($200) is a different story. This thing doesn’t just have one sensor inside — it has 10.

Microsoft Band
Microsoft Band

It measures ultraviolet light, so you have some warning before you head out without sunscreen. It can measure skin temperature. It can even measure stress (with a galvanic skin sensor).

It has GPS built in — also a first for a wristband this size. If you’re a runner, that could be a deal-maker: It means you don’t have to carry your phone to track your run. Once the device has a chance to connect with your smartphone, its app shows you a map of your route, color coded to your speed, with mile markers. It’s great information.

Run tracker
Run tracker

Finally, the Band measures your heart rate continuously.

Monitoring your pulse multiplies the usefulness of a band. For one thing, it makes the plotting of your sleep cycles far more accurate, because it can tell when your metabolism is slowing down, not just when your wrist has stopped moving. For another, resting heart rate is an important general health statistic. Runners and other athletes also like to know how close they are to their maximum heart rates.

Step-counter
Step-counter

The smartwatch
On top of all that, the Microsoft Band is a smartwatch. Its bright, crisp, sunlight-readable touchscreen shows text messages, email, phone calls (name and number), Facebook and Twitter posts, and other notifications from your phone. A subtle vibration on your wrist tells you there’s something to look at.

Microsoft Band
Microsoft Band

The Microsoft Band’s design bears some resemblance to Samsung’s Gear Fit. But there are big differences.

One is that Microsoft — Microsoft! — is making its health initiative as open as possible. The other big players lock you into their product lines. Apple’s watch will require an iPhone. Samsung’s watches require Samsung phones.

But the app for Microsoft’s band is available for iPhones, Android phones, and Windows Phones.

Your fitness data isn’t locked into that Microsoft app, either. Already, you can share its data with popular apps from other companies, like MapMyFitness, RunKeeper, and MyFitnessPal.

In fact, Microsoft says its ultimate goal is for its Band and its companion Health app to work with everything out there. Even Apple’s Health app and Google’s Fit app. “We’ll have more to share on that soon,” the company says.

That’s an incredibly customer-friendly, smart, and refreshing move. OK, Microsoft: Who are you and what have you done with the world’s biggest software company?

Microsoft’s smartwatch implementation is slick, polished, and unobtrusive. You have control over which kinds of things make your wrist buzz, and you never get lost. If you have Android or a Windows Phone, you can respond to text messages with canned responses. If you have a Windows Phone, you can even dictate notes and reminders to your phone with your voice.

Your calendar can show up here. There’s even a Starbucks “tile” among the options. With a touch, it displays the barcode from a Starbucks card, so you can pay for your coffee without having to bring your wallet or your phone.

Microsoft Band showing weather, meeting, and UV sensor
Microsoft Band showing weather, meeting, and UV sensor

Microsoft says you can wear the Band either on the inside or outside of your wrist. I found that it works best on the inside. There it’s more comfortable — and if you’re with other people, you can take sly peeks at incoming messages without awkwardly pulling out your phone or looking at the back of your wrist.

The app
The software design — both on the watch and the phone — is clean, readable, and easy to figure out. On the watch, for example, you swipe across the screen to view the different functions, and tap one to trigger it.

Microsoft Band
Microsoft Band

Which “tiles” appear here, and in which order, is up to you. The app lets you set everything up:

Band organization screen
Band organization screen

The app is easy to navigate, too. You tap a tile to expand it and review its data.

The only problem is that there’s not enough of the app. For example, the Sleep graph is extremely informative —

Sleep graph on Microsoft Band
Sleep graph on Microsoft Band

— but there’s no way to see any past nights’ sleep. It’d be nice to see a graph of your sleep over the past week or month, for example. Or to turn the phone 90 degrees for a wider graph.

Similarly, you know the stress and skin-temperature sensors? Guess where their data shows up? Nowhere. Not on the phone, not on the watch. (Coming soon, Microsoft says.)

The UV light sensor is very cool — another first on a general fitness band (see also the Netatmo June). Tap its icon on the watch, point it at the sky, and it tells you, for example: “Typical time to sunburn: 60 minutes.”

But this data never makes it back to the app. There’s no record of it.

Microsoft says that two huge Band/Health components are coming in December. First, a website where you’ll be able to slice and dice your health data in more flexible ways.

Second, insights that analyze all that fitness data, and even take into account what’s on your calendar. It will tell you, for example, “Your heart rate spiked the last two times you met with your editor.” 

Jawbone’s UP band already takes small steps toward teasing useful conclusions out of your data. But there are miles to go; this sort of analysis is the screamingly obvious next step for personal fitness trackers. We don’t need data; we need knowledge.

The workout
Here’s something else nobody else’s band does: guides you through workouts.

In the Microsoft Health app, you look over a menu of free workouts from various fitness companies:

Microsoft Health app
Microsoft Health app

On the phone, you preview the phases of the workout; some even offer videos that show you the correct technique. With one tap, you send that workout to your band.

Then, in the gym or on the track, the watch guides you through the workout. It counts the reps, vibrates when it’s time for the next exercise, and tracks your time and heart rate.

Microsoft Band showing workout instructions
Microsoft Band showing workout instructions

In the phone app, you get a tally of calories burned and an estimate of your muscles’ recovery time.

This guided-workout feature truly works. Knowing that there’s some entity in charge, even if it’s a blob of software, somehow makes it easier to stick to a plan and get the workout done.

The band
You’re probably starting to guess already that this is one very sophisticated band. There is a lot built into it:

Exploded view of Microsoft Band
Exploded view of Microsoft Band

There is, however, one serious Band failure — and that’s the actual band.

It’s thick, chunky, and made of hard rubber. The screen is a rigid, 2-inch slab that makes no attempt to curve with your wrist (unlike Samsung’s Fit). In short, this band is neither stylish nor comfortable.

Microsoft Band strap
Microsoft Band strap

Most of the time, you can forget you’re wearing it. But the Band can dig into your wrist when, for example, you’re typing, or tucking your arm under a pillow at night. It snags any sleeve you try to pass over it. You definitely won’t be seeing this band on anyone’s arm at Fashion Week.

The Band isn’t waterproof, either. It’ll handle splashes and handwashing, but you have to take it off to shower or swim. Rats.

Microsoft says the battery generally lasts two days on a charge. To my surprise, I routinely got three full days except when I ran with GPS turned on. That’s a juice-guzzler.

The charging cable clicks onto the inside of the Band magnetically, from either side. It’s a solid, satisfying design, but of course it’s proprietary. It’s not as convenient as the microUSB cables that come with most other gadgets these days.

I will say this for the design, though: The clasp is fantastic. It snaps quickly into place and is easily adjustable while on your wrist. The metal-prong-in-rubber-slot design of the other bands look Neanderthal by comparison.

Microsoft Band clasp
Microsoft Band clasp

The landscape
Continuous heart-rate monitoring is The New Thing in fitness trackers. Jawbone just announced a new band called the UP3 ($180, not available yet). No screen, no smartwatch features — but continuous heart tracking and seven-day battery life.

UP3 fitness tracker
UP3 fitness tracker

And the new Basis Peak watch ($200) has many of the same advantages of the Microsoft Band (continuous heart-rate monitor, galvanic skin response, skin temperature, smartwatch notifications), plus it’s waterproof. Then again, it’s a watch, not a band — and a honkin’ big one.

Basis Peak watch
Basis Peak watch

We’re at the dawn of the self-tracking movement. It’s really a big deal. It could change or even save a lot of lives. It means that you can know yourself, learn things about yourself, every hour of every day, in ways that used to require a doctor’s visit.

But at this point, you can have either a thin, lovely band, or one stuffed with useful sensors. Not both.

Microsoft, however, has struck the sweetest spot yet on that seesaw of compromise. Yes, the Band is chunky and industrial looking. But it’s got more features for its size than any rival yet, and it does a lot of things no other gadget can. And the fact that Microsoft intends to make it as compatible as possible? That’s going to be healthy both for Microsoft and for you.

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