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Microsoft Band – fit or flop for the software giant?

Having slipped seriously behind in the smartphone arena it’s interesting to see how Microsoft aims to keep pace with the handheld and wearable market, one area of which – fitness tracking, resulted in the launch of the Microsoft Band. It’s a relatively new market and one that’s been flooded quite quickly with a range of varying quality competitor solutions, but despite some capable devices that appeal to both budget-conscious and more serious audiences we’re yet to be convinced it has long-term appeal.

The Microsoft Band looks to make some wiggle-room for itself by offering a flexible solution that isn’t tied to Windows phones – there’s support here for iOS 7.1 and Android 4.3 upwards. It has a 1.4” display at 320×106 resolution, Bluetooth 4.0 and a battery that’s quoted as lasting 48 hours for normal use. It’s been available for long enough to get a proper feel for how capable it really is, so let’s see if it cuts the mustard.

Wareable should know a thing or two about wearables, and this being the case it doesn’t get Microsoft off to a good start. Its review awards just 2.5/5, and pulls no punches in stating that this is “a chunky beast at best and an absolute insult to the wearable tech movement at worst.” The look and feel is a real problem here – “looks awful” and “feels awful” are two of its three criticisms in fact, with the third being battery life. All very important considerations for any new gadget, let alone a wearable, so where to go from here? Well, the things it gets right include a fairly impressive display that’s quite “Windowsy” with that familiar tile-based UI that does feel natural and helps the device to remain fairly intuitive to use. Built-in GPS is also very nice, allowing it to track location data without a tethered phone – it works well and is undoubtedly one of the big highlights, with few competitors handling this at all, let alone as well. There are a few teething issues though, such as loss of signal and GPS connection in some cases that make it difficult to rely on the accuracy.

Elsewhere there’s 24/7 heart monitoring, a UV monitor “and the sensor check-list continues with a 3-axis accelerometer, a gyrometer, an ambient light sensor, a skin temperature sensor and a galvanic skin response sensor.”  All things that are debatably useful in a real world environment, but even though the basic fitness tracking seems to work well enough, we still end up with the initial faults ruining the overall experience. Sleep tracking for example provides:

“key metrics such as duration of sleep, your efficiency percentage (time spent sleeping divided by total time), how many times you woke up, how many calories you burned while sleeping, how much of your sleep was ‘restful’ and what your heart rate was”

But that’s only if “you manage to get to sleep with the world’s most uncomfortable fitness band on your wrist.” Other features, such as the running app, are quite basic, and there’s no opportunity to install extra apps from third parties – Microsoft expects you to be happy with the lot it has provided.

So what has it provided? The Telegraph goes into some detail and talks about how the 1.4” display is:

“crisp and easy to navigate, throwing up key information including the number of steps you’ve taken that day, kilometres travelled, calories burned and heart rate within a few taps.”

Data from the wide range of sensors is fairly nicely reported on the screen itself but it’s the Microsoft Health app that will keep all this in check on a phone. This is fairly comprehensive, with the sleep monitoring capability described as “one of the more sophisticated that I’ve used.” There are also a series of downloadable workouts and short videos to watch thanks to Microsoft’s partnership with Nuffield Health, and though these have potential are described as “slightly clunky”. Elsewhere the band is quite limited though you can sync with data collated from fitness apps like MyFitnessPal, and overall “the Microsoft Health app has some way to go in presenting the data it collects in more coherent, easily-trackable ways” so this doesn’t appear to be a strong enough area to offset its flaws.

Finally, PC Pro rounds off this disappointing performance with a full review that awards the Band 3/5. It is also less than enamoured by the looks, describing the design as “a curious mixture of the functional and the downright ugly.” The display is reasonably good, with well-defined text that’s bright enough to read on sunny days, and the ARM Cortex-M4 processor helps it tick along smoothly. It’s also fairly easy to use, both from the band itself and via the Microsoft Health app, but none of these positives are enough to outweigh the bulky design, the fact that it gets uncomfortable after extended use and a few other basic but frustrating issues.

Unlike Samsung’s Gear Fit, for instance, there’s no option to switch the display to a vertical orientation. This makes it necessary to twist your arm around rather awkwardly to read onscreen messages, or to glimpse at exercise-related data such as your current running pace or heart rate.”

The small display can be awkward to read while running or cycling, it’s only splash and sweat resistant so you’ll have to watch out for water and the battery life was far from expected, never lasting longer than 24 hours. It wraps things up by saying that despite the guided workouts, simple interface and competent app, the Band “has huge potential, much of which – at least for our particular needs – falls frustratingly short of the mark”.

microsoft-band-front

The Microsoft Band is available now for £175. Visit Microsoft to find out more.