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Microsoft Band review

What will happen when we know everything about ourselves?

Photography by Sean O’Kane

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I slept terribly last night. I don’t know exactly why, but between going to sleep at 11:56PM and waking up at 6:49AM, I woke up 12 times. I got two hours and 45 minutes of light sleep and one hour and one minute of restful sleep. I woke up feeling like garbage.

33 minutes and 51 seconds of exercise later (maximum heart rate: 118 beats per minute), I feel a little better. It’s going to take me an hour and two minutes for my body to recover, which is just enough time to shower and eat breakfast. Then I have to get to the office for a 9:00 meeting.

I know all of this because the Microsoft Band knows all of this. The Band is the first hardware iteration of Microsoft Health, an ambitious and cross-platform attempt to centralize and utilize all the world’s fitness data. Microsoft hopes to integrate it first with devices and apps and then with our calendar and email, to tell us everything about how we’re living and how to live better. It’s supposed to be the One True Source of health data.

Health is the trunk, and the $199 Band is the first branch. I’ve been wearing one for more than a week, and I’ve learned a lot. About the Band, about wearables, about health and tracking, about Microsoft. About myself.

Our hands-on of the Band from October

Let me be clear here: the Microsoft Band is not a smartwatch. It’s a fitness tracker, meant to count your steps, check your heartbeat, and follow you on runs. It grabs notifications from your phone, sure, and does so as reliably as any other device, but you can’t do anything other than dismiss them or ignore them unless you use Windows Phone. Even doing that takes more swipes and clicks than it should. More likely than not, you’ll end up with a long list of emails and calendar reminders that you have to remove from the Band and then again from your phone. It’s vaguely helpful and vaguely annoying all at once.

I don’t even want it to be a smartwatch. Smartwatches and trackers just have fundamentally different, even competing needs. A smartwatch must have a big, useful screen. It must also be fashionable and easy to interact with. I’ll put it on in the morning, matching it my outfit. I’ll take it off at night and when I shower. A tracker, on the other hand, must be invisible. It should just be there, all the time, collecting data without me ever thinking about it. I don’t know how any company will resolve those two things, and it seems to me that the smart bet is making the best of one or the other. Right now the Band straddles the middle, and it doesn’t quite work.

Smartwatches are smartwatches, and fitness trackers are fitness trackers

I almost wish Microsoft had just untethered it from my phone entirely, because the Band’s self-reliance is one of its best features. Built-in GPS means I can go for a run, collecting data not only about my body but about the time, distance, and location of my route, without needing to carry anything. Being able to download a workout plan to my Band, and then leave my phone in the locker room or at home, makes everything easier. I’m happy to sync everything back to my phone — it’s a better interface for mapping data and getting advice anyway — but for the simple act of collecting all necessary and possible data, the tracker itself should be enough. The Band is enough, and it’s awesome.

In fact, the only time it’s really more useful when tethered to your phone is if you use a Windows Phone 8.1 device. (The Band may work with anything, but it’s best with Windows Phone.) Cortana integration, which works pretty seamlessly for quick searches, timers, or messages — it’s more or less what you get by saying “Ok Google” to your Android Wear device — really does add another dimension to the Band. Windows Phone also offers more fine-tuned notifications settings, so you won’t just be bombarded with things you don’t care about and can’t do anything about anyway.

Microsoft Band
Microsoft Band

There’s a right way to wear the Band – the ugly way

The Band is made to be worn one way and one way only: wrapped around your dominant wrist, screen facing inward. You can wear it screen-out — Microsoft’s website even shows it that way in spots — but screen-in is the only way I can comfortably read the Band’s horizontally scrolling interface without awkwardly contorting my elbow into my stomach. I’ve come to like it, in some ways; it’s easier to glance over and see the inside of my wrist when I’m doing pushups or bench presses, and it’s far more discrete than having my wrist light up the room every time I get a text message. But I also look like I’ve developed a twitch, constantly rolling my arm over to see what’s underneath, and I worry that wearing the Band screen-down, banging it against tables and desks all day, is going to scratch the display, adding to the small dings I’ve already created.

With the screen facing down, what most people will see on your wrist is the Band’s backside. It looks like, well, a clasp. It doesn’t look nice or fashionable, it looks like your ugly watch got turned around on your wrist. It’s a really chunky, rigid, rectangular device — having worn the new Jawbone Up3 and even the Apple Watch, this rubbery black strap is easily among the most conspicuously unattractive fitness trackers available. The only thing I hope Microsoft keeps is the clasp: the sliding mechanism lets me tighten the Band, so it doesn’t jostle while I’m working out, and then loosen it so it’s not in the way during the day. It’s really, really clever and goes a long way (though not far enough) toward making the Band wearable all the time.

I don’t plan on spending much time looking at the Band’s 1.4-inch, 320 x 106 screen, and not because it’s a bad display. It’s fine. But the point of the Band, like any fitness tracker, is to just do stuff. The screen turns on, I can read it in sunlight, and it shows me how many calories I’m burning. That’s good enough.

For a fitness tracker, pretty may be important, but comfortable is the ball game. The first couple of nights I tried to sleep with the Band on, I had to take it off. It was scratching against my skin, and the green lights of the heart rate sensor were glaring at me because I was wearing it a little too loosely. I also take it off when I sit down at my computer, and I have to take it off when I shower, because for some inexplicable and unforgivable reason, the Band isn’t waterproof. (It is technically water-resistant, but even Microsoft warns fervently against doing anything more than wash your hands with it on.) I can live with a less-than-beautiful fitness tracker, but I see no point in buying one I won’t wear all the time.

A week of battery life should be the starting point

Speaking of reasons not to wear it all the time: the Band’s battery needs to last longer. I consistently get two days between charges; I can get three if I never use GPS, but two is more normal. A full workweek should be the minimum acceptable number. If my fitness tracker can’t last me Monday morning to Friday night without needing to charge, there’s too good of a chance I’ll take it off at work when it dies and forget to put it back on ever again. I don’t want to charge it overnight, because then I can’t track my sleep. I don’t want to charge it during the day, because I’ll miss activity. (Oh, and if it dies, all the data since the last time you synced is gone. Just gone. It’s insane and unacceptable.)

Microsoft Band

Spending hours tapping around the Band isn’t the point, but it’s at least easy to navigate. It shows three square tiles at a time, each representing a different app or information source. Tap here for workouts, here for your calendar, here to start a run. It’s impossible to get lost in the interface, because all you have to do is tap or swipe back to the left to get home. It’s easy, it’s customizable, it’s clever.

Microsoft Health app

There are some bugs throughout, though, and that’s not just frustrating for a fitness device, it’s actually an impediment. Quickly moving from workout to workout or setting split times for a run requires that the Band will work the first time I try. It does, usually, but sometimes swipes don’t register, or the tiles swipe along only to snap back to their original position when I take my finger off. The software here is strong, but it needs a little more work.

The Health app — for Android, iOS, Windows Phone, and Windows — is similarly solid but unfinished. It’s basically just a history of your data broken out by time or by activity. Tap on a number to see it on a chart, or to see it mapped over time. You can quickly personalize your band — which tiles appear, in what color, and in which order — and sync the two. It’s lovely to look at and totally approachable, even for the newest user.

Unfortunately, “simple” has this nasty penchant for also meaning “underpowered.” Why make such an incredibly powerful wristband and then not give me access to all its findings? I can’t see my skin temperature anywhere, track my sleep over time, or compare more than a week of step data. All these things will come later, Microsoft says, but the rollout seems backward: the people who will buy this device are fitness enthusiasts who will want this data, and Microsoft is hiding too much of it.

Health is beautiful, but it’s basic

Microsoft’s target users also want powerful, accurate data, which is one of the great promises of Health. Microsoft is even licensing the Band’s hardware, so other manufacturers can replicate its data collection. The Band has a vast array of sensors: optical heart rate, accelerometer, gyrometer, ambient light, GPS, UV, galvanic skin response (which measures sweat and stress), skin temperature, and a capacitive sensor. But for all it’s measuring, even simple step-counting remains elusive. The Band sometimes reads me sitting at my desk as me taking steps. Or it reads me taking steps as me taking some other number of steps. Or it reads me twirling the band between my fingers as steps. It’s not worse than your average step-tracker, certainly, but Microsoft promised a new level of data accuracy. I don’t see it.

Microsoft Band

The fact is this, though: tracking my steps makes me take more of them. This has been true with every fitness tracker I’ve used. The real lesson of these devices is that it doesn’t matter which one you use. Just use one. That’s actually what Microsoft is after: Health is all about offering a wide array of apps and devices so that there’s something for everyone, because any kind of tracking is better than no tracking at all.

The biggest change for me, personally, has been that perpetually knowing my heart rate has added an entirely new element to my self-improvement. It’s helped me learn when I’m stressed, even when I didn’t notice it myself, and how things like sleep or food affect me. It’s also a much better way to measure how hard I’m exercising: if I’m not near my maximum heart rate, I need to push harder.

Microsoft Health app

Knowing your heart rate is a remarkable thing

The default workout status on the Band is just “I’m working out.” You click the Action button to start a workout, and the Band measures your calorie burn, heart rate, and more. But Microsoft also worked with the likes of Gold’s Gym and Men’s Fitness to create a bunch of guided workouts and workout plans that you can download to your band. Then you just pick the workout, click the button, and get after it. It buzzes with every workout, times your rest, and tells you what you’re supposed to be doing. It’s amazing, even if I didn’t love having to glance over at my wrist every 30 seconds to find out what I was doing.

I’ve learned a lot about myself using the Band. For instance, I really do sleep terribly: I sleep lightly, I wake up a lot, and I rarely get a full cycle of REM sleep. That’s great — the more you know and all that — but I have no idea why any of these things are the case. So far the only thing I can figure out is that I should go to bed earlier. What I really want to know is whether I keep the room too warm (or too cold) and whether I’d sleep better with the blinds down. That’s the thing about all fitness trackers: even the most powerful ones are only measuring internal data, data about me. The Band has a UV monitor, which can tell me whether I need sunscreen today, but there’s still so much relevant external data that just isn’t being considered. Even at this early stage, a few features seem obviously absent. If the Band knows my heart rate and my sleep stage, why can’t it wake me up at the perfect moment in my sleep cycle, like so many other fitness trackers? It can track my activity and my sleep, so why do I have to manually switch modes when I go to bed every night?

At the end of it all, I just want Microsoft to do what it promised, and tell me what to do. Tell me to close my blinds, tell me to drink less coffee after 4PM, tell me to stop booking meetings at 8. Half of Health is all about data collection, and that’s where the Band is strong. The other half is about doing things with that data, the promised “actionable insights” that will make me sleep, eat, and exercise better. I’ve grown to love Jawbone’s “Today I Will” items, notifications that pop up and challenge me to drink more water today or get to bed at a humane hour. Microsoft may someday have the data and the processing power to do much more than that, but none of that is here yet, and it makes it feel like I’m just dumping all this data into a void.

Microsoft Band

We’re a ways away from a full-on health revolution. The Band hardware needs a lot of work, and the software needs to be fully realized and tuned before we’ll even begin to see its full potential. If you’re in the market for a fitness tracker right now, this probably isn’t the one to buy. It’s a prototype, and an expensive one. It’s a first try, because Microsoft had to start somewhere.

But Microsoft is on to something.

The company has all the right ideas — be multi-dimensional, be prescriptive, be everywhere — and the company readily admits the Band is just a first step. You have to start collecting data somewhere, right? It’s not all that compelling yet, but Microsoft Health is going to get better, fast. I’m not using the Band anymore, but I’m dumping data from my Jawbone Up24 into Microsoft Health, because it’s already the easiest way for me to collect the most data about myself. I suspect that suits Microsoft just fine.

The Band isn’t a great first try — but there’s more to come

The competition is fierce and growing by the day, as companies from Google and Apple to Jawbone and Fitbit try to build platforms underneath their tracking devices. We’re still early in every aspect of this market: health tracking, wearables, all of it. That’s the fun. The Band won’t set Microsoft apart yet, but it’s not hard to see this as the crystal ball through which you can peer into a seriously exciting future full of rich data collection and actually valuable insights about how to live a little better tomorrow.

Honestly, though, at this moment all I know for sure is one thing. I’m going to bed early tonight.