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Wearing the Microsoft Band, the next big thing in fitness tracking

Wearing the Microsoft Band, the next big thing in fitness tracking

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I've been wearing it for two hours, and I'm still acutely aware that it's there. This is the first and most unavoidable thing you should know about the Microsoft Band: it's big, and it's heavy. It's not an object with a strap, like a smartwatch or a Fitbit; there's technology in every part of this rigid rubber band. It's not terribly uncomfortable, per se, it's just there. I don't think I'll ever stop noticing it.

The Band is, of course, Microsoft's first fitness tracker, the physical actualization of the company's grand plan to be the source of all the world's health data. The Band is part of the plan, but it's not the whole plan; the whole plan involves cross-platform apps, a machine-learning system that turns your data into "insights" about how to live better tomorrow, and a vast ecosystem of hardware and software developers collecting data and delivering insights. The Band is the first device, but it won't be the last, not even from Microsoft.

The Band looks and feels a bit like a prototype, a relatively unadorned wristband with a clever sliding clasp (so you can change how it fits without taking it off) and a 1.4-inch, 320 x 106 display on the front. There are two buttons below the display: one for waking the device, and the "action button," which you use to scroll through data or start and end a workout. I quickly paired it to my iPhone 6 via Bluetooth, downloaded the beautifully minimalist Microsoft Health app, and was off. It automatically started tracking my steps and heart rate, funneling the data back to the app every time I hit sync.

The hardware needs some work, but the software is already solid

Everything you do on the Band lives in a series of icon-sized tiles, off to the right of the screen. One screen shows me email, text, and phone call notifications (which seem to be stored until you look at them all). The next has my calendar, run information, and sleep data. You side-scroll through everything, only seeing a little at a time: I can't imagine doing very much with the Band, other than wearing it and letting it do what it does. Plus, contorting my hand to read the horizontal screen is already growing a little tiresome. It feels a little better on the underside of my wrist, but I don't really like banging a screen onto every surface I touch either. On the other hand, the interface is zippy and smooth, and the screen is very responsive; the hardware isn't terribly impressive here, but the software certainly is.


The Band is clearly a workout device

There are a few basic settings and a lot of notifications hidden among the tiles, but the Band is mostly a workout tool. I scrolled to the run icon, tapped the action button, turned on GPS, and was off. Doing the same with workouts was easy; I even downloaded a 14-minute ab workout to the Band and set out to get ripped. It worked well, tracking my movements and vitals, except that I don't know what a V-Up is. I'm pretty sure it's not "stand awkwardly and stare at your Band for eight sets of 20 seconds," but that's what I did. The Band did its job admirably, I just didn't do mine.

Throughout it all, notifications were coming in — text messages, emails, calls — and vibrating my wrist powerfully enough that there's no way I'm going to miss it. I couldn't do much other than dismiss them, since the Band doesn't connect to Siri the way it does Cortana on Windows Phone, but leaving my phone across the room is certainly nice.

I've only just scratched the surface of what the Band and Microsoft Health can do. We'll be reviewing the Band in much more detail in the coming days, but a couple of things are already clear. The Band is very much a first-version device, one that will benefit tremendously from refinement and improvement in the coming years. (Not to mention all the ways other developers will find to improve on the experience.) And much more excitingly, it's a remarkably powerful gadget. It knows my steps and my heart rate and Starbucks card information. It knows I'm doing a sit-up, it knows I'm not doing a V-Up, and it knows who's calling me. And it's going to do much more than that really soon.

Now for a nap. Let's see how that goes.