Microsoft Band – fit or flop for the software giant?

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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”.

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

Hannspree Smart Sports Watch – can budget prices drive the Smartwatch market?

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The Smartwatch market is waiting with bated breath to see if Apple’s new number can help jump-start an industry that has been idling along rather more slowly than many manufacturers would like. There could be any number of reasons why people haven’t put this down as the next must-have gadget – conflicting style, bulky designs, the fact that nobody’s sure whether respect or revulsion will be afforded to them if they’re caught out in public with a miniature Smartphone on their arm. Or it could be the expense – for what a Smartwatch gives you is it really worth splashing the cash?

Hannspree wants to find out the answer to that question and has released its Smart Sports Watch for the low, low price of just £29.99. It’s inspired in no small part by the Misfit Flash, with a minimalist look that’s predictably devoid of bells and whistles but also comes across as quite unassuming, which should help you test the water. Inside the little disc that fits into the rubberised strap is a range of technology that’s actually pretty impressive considering the current “budget” market for this sort of accessory. There’s exercise tracking with a Pedometer and distance calculator of course, which also tells you roughly how many calories you’ve burned, sleep monitoring, plus call and message notification, an alarm clock and a decent battery that’ll last 5-8 days.

The 0.68” OLED display, while basic and monochrome, seems to offer just enough clarity to tell the time and work out what notifications you have pending, and reminders set on your phone can also be transferred to the watch via Bluetooth to give you an audible or vibrate alert. It can store 20 days worth of data before it needs to be synced, which should be plenty, and it’s also quoted as splashproof, which usually means you’re fine for rain and washing your hands, are taking your chances in a shower and probably shouldn’t use it in the bath or while swimming.

If you were to be totally accurate about this device it’s more of a cross between a smartwatch and a fitness tracker, but with notifications and alerts from a phone at least provides some of the more basic advantages that are supposed to form the appeal of the more fully featured models, and as such should be a nice compromise between the two.

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Available in either black or blue and supplied with an optional necklace band if for some reason you don’t want it on the wrist, “soon” is the most accurate release date we can find for the Sports Watch touching down in the UK.

Visit Hannspree to find out more.

 

Garmin Forerunner 920XT – best fitness “smartwatch” on the market?

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At first glance you’d be forgiven for classifying the Garmin Forerunner 920XT as “just another smartwatch”, albeit on with more of a sporty twist. This is another category of “wearable” entirely though – best described as a multisport GPS watch it offers a massive range of data for various exercises and delivers far more than your average gadget when it comes to monitoring and managing your fitness.

Running through just some of the features you’ll find running dynamics including cadence, vertical oscillation and ground contact time, swim distance, pace, stroke type identification, stroke count, drill logging and rest timers and a whole bunch of support data such as race predictors, a recovery advisor and smart notifications to let you see alerts from your smartphone via the device. It’s also very much embedded in the Garmin Connect community for planning and sharing workouts, and promises to be a one-stop solution for those more serious about their fitness.

We’ll get straight down to business and take a look at how this high-end device fares.

Wareable gives the 920XT 4.5/5 and lauds its capabilities as an all-rounder, calling it “the most fully-featured multi-sport watch on the market right now”. These features include tracking seven types of activity including biking, running and swimming, both indoor and outdoor, and triathlon along with the ability to track general movements like your less versatile fitness accessories. This does come at a cost though – “The Garmin Forerunner screams function more than beautiful form” and what this means is there are some design compromises to be made to have all this functionality on your wrist. This isn’t a fashion accessory and is described as having a chunky face “that’s about half the size of a standard business card and about 13mm thick, it’s at the larger end of the scale among its rivals and might not sit so well on small wrists.” It’s fairly light, but this doesn’t really work for it as weighty timepieces can add a feel of sophistication, but if you can get over these issues there’s plenty to like.

Techradar describes the Forerunner as a “a powerhouse of a watch that’s like a coaching team that sits on your wrist”, rating it an impressive 4.5/5 and though it has similar issues with the rather large design points out that this does make the buttons very easy to access. The only other problem it has is the phone connection is a little inconsistent, and can take a bit of time to establish if there are a large number of buildings around. Otherwise the range of functionality is impressive and it seems as though there’s enough data provided to keep you motivated in the long-term –  the “VO2 Max lets you know how much fitter you’re getting, and over time the watch becomes more adept at working out your abilities”. The battery was also very impressive at 4-5 days between charges, and that’s even with all-day activity tracking, and it concludes that while better for more serious users, “The Garmin 920XT delivers on nearly all fronts”.

We’ll turn to Bikeradar for a more in-depth look at how it works. It highlights the range of connectivity options (Bluetooth, ANT+, GPS, Glonass, Wi-Fi, USB) and real-time measurements alongside estimates for things like VO2 max (maximum oxygen consumption) and recovery time. Though it is very configurable, you needn’t get bogged down in trawling settings menus.

“The Garmin 920XT delivers brilliantly right out of the box, providing good data on the fly and a plethora more for post-exercise analysis, with automatic wireless uploads to Garmin Connect, Strava and TrainingPeaks via your home Wi-Fi network or your Bluetooth-enabled smartphone.”

It’s also very fast to connect and immediately uploads data to a smartphone without prompting once you’ve finished an exercise. This works in the other direction via Bluetooth, displaying texts and notifications as they arrive, though some may not want to be bothered during a workout and there seems to be limited management of what types of data arrive. Other little tricks like allowing friends and family to see your location and follow your workout in real-time could be handy.

Bikeradar puts the watch through its paces in each of the core exercises. For running it notes a few novel readings such as “cadence, vertical oscillation and ground contact time for running, captured via the HRM-Run monitor that also provides distance and speed estimations when running on a treadmill”. It recorded a 95% accuracy when running on a treadmill and it does a good job of staying involved with a recovery advisor that “pops up a few minutes into a workout, and lets you know how your heart is doing”, also advising you how much time to take off at the end.

Indoor swimming did reveal some issues getting a GPS signal but the accelerometer can kick in here and capture total distance (after setting the pool length) which seemed to work very well. After you swim a neat graphic appears with data such as stroke count and speed, it had a 90 to 95% accuracy detecting stroke type, though as with most other watches it isn’t possible to record heart rate while swimming.

For cycling it points out that this is no substitute for a dedicated handlebar-mount unit, both in terms of accuracy and “If you want to do power or heart rate-based intervals and closely monitor the data, twisting your wrist is definitely a second-rate option to just staring”. Detailed GPS and heart rate information is very good though, and a wide range of cycling metrics include “such power-based fields as current, 3sec average, left/right output, normalise power and Training Stress Score.”

It rates the 920XT at 4.5/5 and concludes by saying that it’s “the best multisport device we have tried”, so it’s another fairly glowing review to round off the impressions so far.

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All signs seem to point to the fact that if you’re serious about your fitness, particularly if your favourite exercises include running, cycling or swimming, this is just about the best device on the market right now. It’s not cheap by any stretch though – at £419 it’ll cost around the same as a mid-high end smartphone, so will need a serious fitness and financial investment to justify a purchase.

CES 2015 Video: Pacif-i Bluetooth baby pacifier/dummy

CES 2015 has been quick to support parents of young children, from the momaRoo to the Baby Glgl. Next to present their newest tool to new parents were Blue Maestro with their Pacif-i Bluetooth pacifier for babies. This isn’t any ordinary Pacifier – with Bluetooth connectivity and built-in sensors, the pacifier will send information such as the baby’s temperature and location. The dummy also contains a built-in tracker so if the baby drops it you won’t stumble across it several days later. Free apps for IOS and Android will be released to allow parents and carers to manage the dummy’s measurements and medication for the child, for example. Watch the video above for a look at the upcoming Pacif-i.

The Pacif-i is available to pre-order for £25 and is due for an early 2015 release. Visit Blue Maestro to find out more.

CES 2015 Video: Slow Control’s Baby Glgl, the ‘smart’ baby milk bottle

CES 2015 has shown us a number of useful gadgets for parents of young families, such as the mamaRoo. The Baby Glgl from the team behind the ‘Smart Fork’ – Slow Control – is a ‘smart’ baby milk bottle, which comes coupled with an app. The bottle allows parents to combat issues that children can receive from baby bottles such as excess air consumption and colic. It does this by providing feedback on a number of things such as whether you’re holding the bottle at the right angle and how much the child has drunk. This could provide peace of mind and improved control for parents and carers of children. Watch the video above to see a demonstration of how the bottle works.

The Baby Glgl is to be released in 2015. For more information and to sign up for email updates on the product, visit Slow Control.

Best ‘smart’ health and fitness gadgets for 2014

We take a look at the latest and greatest in the world of ‘smart’ fitness and health products for 2014.

The LG Lifeband Touch

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If you ‘conveniently’ have difficulty remembering when it’s time to exercise or justifiably find it hard to drag yourself into the sub-zero conditions to go for a run, the LG Lifeband Touch could be just what you need.

At face value, the Lifeband Touch seems like just another of a myriad of gadgets that record distance, tell you how many calories you have (or haven’t) burned. We have to admit that where this fitness gadget stands out is that it features a touchscreen which shows phone calls and message alerts as well as exercise data. What’s more, it can also control your music as you jog. So impressed were TechRadar by the Lifeband Touch that they awarded it the Best CES Fitness Tech Award. Find out more about the Lifeband Touch on the LG web site.

Spree Headband

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The BBC was keen to put the Las Vegas fitness tech to the test. BBC reporter Mark Ward joined and handful of other eager tech journalists in a 10km race down the Strip in give some of the most anticipated exercise prototypes a run for their money.

Ward was quick to mention the Spree Headband. Produced by Spree Sports the BBC informs the headband gathers data about heart rate (nothing new), core body temperature, and other physiological indicators through sensors touching the forehead. With the BBC refusing to elaborate any further I felt compelled to visit Spree Sport’s website to learn more.

The Spree sends fitness data to its own iOS smartphone app via Bluetooth. The app also informs users fitness goals and when you’re “in the zone.” A fitness headband with accompanying app – definitely sound like something that will take off in California. You can find out more at http://spreesports.com

Tinke

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Tinke was one of CNET’s favourites at this year’s CES, at least if writing a full write-up on one gadget if anything to go by. This sensor device has been available for IOS four a couple of years but it’s the sensor for Android which is new. The device allows users to keep constant track of their respiratory rate, heart rate, blood oxygen and heart rate variability. Again there doesn’t seem to be anything entirely innovative about Tinke but what is new is the Android version connects wirelessly via Bluetooth. Find out more about the Tinke here.

Razer Nabu Smart Band

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LG may have come up with a band with an OLED touchscreen but Razer have gone one step further by giving their fitness band two OLED screens. This multi-capable health and fitness band tracks the hours someone has slept, stairs climbed and, similar to the Spree Headband, shows calls and messages to your smartphone. But why would a device this small need two touchscreens Tech Talk Curry’s sensibly asks? For privacy issues, apparently, one screen informing you that you’ve received a message and the other one revealing the who the message is from. Novel, yes. A little OTT perhaps, after all whose going to be bothered spying on each other’s messages during a ten mile run? Find out more at razerzone.com/nabu

Wellograph

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Electronista map the merits of the Wellograph, particularly its aesthetic virtues. We have to admit that unlike the majority of fitness devices, which look unmistakably like fitness devices, the Wellograph looks cunningly like a conventional and even slightly stylish watch. Offering the usual activity-tracking functions, with the added bonus of recording data in graph format – could prove an efficient way to analyse vital fitness information. Find out more at Wellograph.com

Blue teeth: Kolibree the world’s first connected toothbrush

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When the inventors of Bluetooth revealed their new wireless communication method in the late 1990s, few people could have envisaged it being used to monitor toothbrushes. However, at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, French firm Kolibree unveiled a connected toothbrush that uses Bluetooth to provide users with unparalleled levels of feedback about their brushing habits and oral hygiene levels.

Kolibree claim that their smart toothbrush turns teeth-cleaning into “a fun experience”, although it’s more likely to appeal in terms of preventing poor brushing techniques and obeying the diktats of the dentist. The brush’s bristles are filled with sensors including an accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer. These generate a detailed summary about whether any crevices have been missed, how much pressure has been applied at each point, and specific brushing directions.

Information from a family of brushes can be fed to an app-equipped Android or iOS smartphone, and daily dental routines can be shared through social media (or sent directly to your dentist), with each brushing session awarded a five-star rating.

Check out video interview with one of the Kolibree team:

Turning teeth-cleaning into a Guitar Hero-style dexterity test may seem unlikely, but children love a challenge, and Kolibree will release brushing data via an API to third-party game designers, who can then create new apps for it. In the meantime, as the Independent pointed out, the Kolibree “collects sufficient data to enable you to have dental hygiene competitions with other members of your household, a possible incentive to children.” The Independent also declared it to be “perhaps the most quirky of all the intelligent household devices on show” at CES.

Kolibree’s Amy Forrester summed up the brush’s more prosaic merits when she described it as “like having a dentist inside your phone”. The popular press agreed, and CNN revealed how the Kolibree toothbrush “was invented by Thomas Serval, a French engineer and a leader in that country’s tech industry. He was inspired to design it after suspecting that his children were lying to him about whether they had brushed their teeth.” Mashable predicted the Kolibree “will be invaluable for improving your overall dental health”, adding “You’ll have no excuse [not to] be gingivitis free at your next dentist appointment.”

Wired described the Kolibree as “an interesting concept”, although it pointed out that “companies such as Oral B have been developing electric brushes that connect to dedicated monitoring devices for a few years.” They acknowledged that the brush taps into a burgeoning trend for real-time health updates: “By using a strong visual app, this is an implementation of the idea that could well gel with health-conscious users, particularly those now familiar with devices like the Nike Fuelband or Fitbit for exercise tracking.”

Further information about the Kolibree is due to be revealed in the next few months, with a Kickstarter funding announcement expected soon. The price is going to be in the region of £60. On sale later this year.

Garmin enter ‘wearables’ with new Vivofit wristband

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Although it doesn’t officially open until tomorrow, CES 2014 is already becoming the ‘year of the wrist band’. The latest company to announce its entry in to this market is Garmin, who are probably better known for their satnav devices. The new Vivofit (prounced veevo-fit) is a lightweight fitness band featuring a curved display that always stays on – with a user replaceable battery that should last ‘over a year’.

The Vivofit greats a user with their personalised daily goal, tracks progress and reminds them when it’s time to move. It also displays steps, calories, distance and time of day.

Amongst the band’s features are “Achievable Daily Goals” where the device learns the user’s current activity levels and then assigns an attainable daily goal. It also records calories burned throughout the day. As milestones are met, the Vívofit will adjust the goal for the next day. The “Time to move” is about encouraging you to take frequent, short walk breaks throughout the day. A red move bar appears on the display after 1 hour of inactivity and builds when users have been sitting too long. Walking for a couple of minutes will reset the move bar, and get users out of the red.

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Other features include a sleep monitor and a heart rate monitor. Vívofit will be available in black, purple, teal, blue and slate and both small and large sizes come in the box. Vívofit will begin shipping Q1 2014 and have a retail price of £99.99 and £129.99 (heart rate monitor bundle). For more information check out their dedicated site http://sites.garmin.com/vivo/