(By Molly Wood)
“You would be hard pressed to find a wearable that does as many things as the Microsoft Band and that also works across platforms. The Pebble Smartwatch works on iOS and Android, but does not include the advanced fitness features of the Microsoft Band. The Jawbone Up and Fitbit Flex have apps on iPhone and Android, but do not do smartwatch-style notifications“.
Microsoft surprised the tech world last week by introducing a new fitness tracking wristband, along with an app and cloud-computing technology for tracking health and fitness data.
The bigger surprise is that the new Microsoft Band is pretty good.
The $199 band is, in some ways, a proof of concept for Microsoft, which intends for its Microsoft Health platform to be integrated with other wearables, like Jawbone, and even data gathered from devices like iPhones or Samsung Android devices.
But compared to some of the competition, the Microsoft Band is a full-featured device that might be the most flexible wearable device on the market.
It combines useful smartphone notifications for incoming calls, text messages, emails and calendar items with fitness tracking that includes constant heart-rate monitoring. That feature is still rare even in fitness bands.
It tracks steps, estimates calorie use during activities at the gym, and has a built-in GPS so it can track your running or cycling route without your having to have your phone with you. It tracks your movements during sleep, and there is even a Starbucks app: You can load up a Starbucks card and make payments with the band.
It can do all that with an iPhone, Android phone or, naturally, a Windows Phone.
You will get a few more features if you pair the device with a Windows Phone, namely the ability to use voice commands to activate Cortana, the Microsoft digital assistant that works like Siri or Google’s voice controls. And you can respond to text messages using your voice, although email support is still coming.
There is no way to interact with incoming notifications on an iPhone or Android phone, but the Microsoft Health app has all the same features on those devices and works well with them.
You would be hard pressed to find a wearable that does as many things as the Microsoft Band and that also works across platforms. The Pebble Smartwatch works on iOS and Android, but does not include the advanced fitness features of the Microsoft Band. The Jawbone Up and Fitbit Flex have apps on iPhone and Android, but do not do smartwatch-style notifications.
Samsung’s Gear line of devices, which include the Gear Fit and the coming Samsung Gear S, work only with its Galaxy phones. The Apple Watch, of course, will work only with iPhones.
So, cross-platform compatibility is a smart move on the part of Microsoft, as are some of the features built into the Health app.
It can sync with the third-party apps RunKeeper and MyFitnessPal right now. But it also has built-in workouts from various sources, like Gold’s Gym, Shape, Men’s Fitness and even Microsoft itself, and they can be downloaded onto the band. This is a nice touch, because you don’t feel as if the band is waiting for you to do something — it gives you something to do right away.
The workouts are not easy to navigate, and you can have only one on the band at a time. Still, if you plan ahead, it is nice to have them on the band because you do not have to look at the phone to know what is coming next: push-ups, alternating dumbbell row or complete collapse.
Battery life is also very good, especially compared with smartwatches like the Moto 360 or even the fitness-oriented Samsung Gear Fit. Microsoft promised 48 hours and I eked out a bit more, partly by keeping the time display off most of the time. The band is also water- and dust-resistant, although I did not feel confident taking it into the shower.
One thing the Microsoft Band is not: attractive. Microsoft tends toward blocky industrial design and this device is no different. It’s a thick, black rubber band with a basically uncurved display grafted on. A power button is in the middle of the band, while an “action” button is on the right side of the display. It comes in three sizes — small, medium and large — and a sliding clasp lets you adjust the band to fit snugly.
On my wrist the 1.2-inch screen, which is about half an inch wide, juts out to the sides. And the band is uncomfortable to wear with the screen on the top of the wrist: It feels like trying to fit a round wrist into a square band.
The Samsung Gear Fit, with its curved glass display and lightweight snap-on band, looks much more attractive and comes in multiple colors to boot. It cannot do as much as the Microsoft Band, but Microsoft’s device will take style points away from your wardrobe.
The band is most comfortable when worn with the screen on the inside of the wrist, opposite the way you would wear a watch. That’s not bad, and makes notifications more subtle. I was even able to sleep comfortably while wearing the band that way, even though the band reported that I woke up eight times overnight.
The watch interface is reminiscent of Windows Phone. For one thing, you can customize the band by choosing the screen color and background design. And you can customize multiple tiles on the band’s touch screen. It can display up to 12 screens, including texts, emails and calls, calendar invitations, running data, exercise, sleep, guided workouts, weather, and Facebook or Twitter notifications.
Over all, I found the device worked well, the app was easy to navigate, and the constant heart-rate monitoring was a novelty that was hard to ignore. It’s extremely fitness-oriented, but I found that generally inspiring.
The band and the Health app are obviously still new, and some of its promises have yet to materialize. Microsoft said that the Health platform can deliver “actionable” information instead of just collected data and charts, and that it can use contextual analysis to give specific advice, such as recommending that you go to sleep earlier when you have a meeting the next day.
It is unclear yet whether those features will come to pass and how it would be done. But with Apple’s HealthKit and Google’s just-released Google Fit in the news, Microsoft has just proved that it can compete with both, and can do so on just about any phone to boot.
“Opinion pieces of this sort published on RISE Networks are those of the original authors and do not in anyway represent the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of RISE Networks.”