- GPS for accurate run tracking
- Clear, colour display
- Smartphone notifications
- It looks awful
- It feels awful
- Battery life is poor
The Microsoft Band has been out for nearly half a year, and it's finally made its way from US shores to the wider world.
With an impressive spec sheet that would rival any of the big fitness tracker players, the Microsoft Band is one of the most interesting devices we've reviewed.
Update: The new Microsoft Band 2 is now official
Too good to be true? Read our full review to find out…
Microsoft Band: Design and build
Okay, let's get this out of the way now and we can move on. The Microsoft Band is an absolute beast. It's about the chunkiest activity tracker we've tried on and, honestly, if you think you're going to be sleep tracking with this monster on your wrist – think again.
It's not a slow irritator as many fitness trackers can be, it's uncomfortable right from the off. That's because of the shape of the thing. The top part, where the screen sits on the front and the magnetic charging clasp on the back, is completely flat, with not a curve in sight until you hit the straps.
While Microsoft's product imagery shows people wearing it like a watch, it's actually designed to sit on the inside of the wrist. But both ways were cripplingly uncomfortable, and this was backed up by everyone we forced to try it.
It actually hurts to wear, even loosely.
You can see the problem. We've been testing the Microsoft Band alongside the Sony SmartBand Talk, and we've also been wearing the excellent Garmin Vivosmart as of late too. Both of these rivals have some form of curvature behind their display so they sit a naturally on your wrist. With the Band, you'll find gaps at the edges where it extends outwards searching for its first hint of a bend.
Yes, there are three different sizes on offer and yes, the adjustable clasp is pretty good – but you'll still struggle to get a fit that feels right. It's a ridiculous design and the large heart rate sensor and whatever hardware it is Microsoft have stuffed into the insides of the strap (which dig into the sides of your wrist) don't help either.
Even the physical buttons – one a standby one and one that activates preset functions – feel wrong. Why are they so big and why are they so clunky?
To say the Microsoft Band looks and feels rushed is an understatement. Its design is simply awful – a step back in time to a horrible wearable tech era – and, if the look and feel of your wearable is important to you (and it should be), steer well clear.
Microsoft Band: Display
The display is a capacitive 1.4-inch (11mm x 33mm) TFT full colour touchscreen one, with a resolution of 320 x 106. While clear and bright enough, it's hardly eye-popping like the Samsung Gear S and its 2-inch curved Super AMOLED display and it also lags behind the similarly form-factored Samsung Gear Fit in the display stakes as well.
You'd have thought Microsoft would have pushed the screen stakes but, as the device is less than $200, we'll give them the benefit of the doubt. After all, it'll still give you plenty of info and does of course better the likes of the Fitbit Charge HR and the Jawbone UP3 by offering some virtual visuals on the go.
On screen, it looks very, well, Windowsy. There's a similar Microsoft tile based UI that you would have come across on your PC, or your Xbox – and it's a setup that lends itself pretty well on the slim display.
Swiping left to right feels natural and drilling down into the tiles for more info doesn't disappoint, as Microsoft has brought much of the feel of Windows Phone to the party, so the fonts and graphics are pretty swish.
Microsoft Band: GPS and sensors
We started with the terrible (design), we just hit on the okay (display), so let's now get down to the great: GPS connectivity built right into the Band, so there's no need to carry your smartphone around with you in order to accurately record and map your runs.
This is a bold move from Microsoft and for the fitness band industry in general – although the Polar M400 blurs the line between activity tracking and run recording with its GPS sensor and the Sony SmartWatch 3 is the first Android Wear smartwatch packing GPS skills.
But neither the Jawbone UP3 or the Fitbit Charge HR have GPS connectivity so Microsoft has definitely hit upon a winner with its inclusion in its debut fitness band.
Fortunately, the GPS works well. Even though the Band is US only for now (and even the app is not technically available outside of the States) we had no bother locking onto a GPS satellite in quick-time in the UK and were able to track runs accurately when compared directly to the Adidas miCoach Smart Run.
Wareable guide: The best GPS running watch
A word of warning though – the Microsoft Band asks you if you want to start your run while it searches for GPS. Don't do it. Not only will the first minute of your run be inaccurately tracked, this mode also seems screw up the GPS sensor as we kept losing our signal – something that didn't happen when we locked on before beginning a tracked run.
Like the Intel Basis Peak and the Fitbit Charge duo, there is 24/7 heart rate monitoring on board thanks to the (massive) optical heart rate sensor and you can quickly swipe to see what your BPM reading is at any time.
There's also a UV monitor for assessing whether you need to apply some sunscreen or not, 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.
Microsoft Band: Activity tracking
Basic fitness tracking on the Microsoft Band is good – if not brilliant. In terms of accuracy, the step counter was on the money, if a smidgen more generous than Garmin Vivosmart and, of course, you'll get a calorie burn calculation based on this, your activity and the personal data you input into the app – more of that later.
Wareable guide: Best fitness trackers you can buy
The sleep tracking 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. That's if you manage to get to sleep with the world's most uncomfortable fitness band on your wrist.
You can view basic stats on the device itself, either by jumping into the appropriate tile, or by changing the view on the homescreen but for more detail you'll need to hit up the app.
Microsoft Band: Workouts and training
A trump card for the new fitness tracker is the guided workouts that are built right into the Band. This means programs and workouts from the likes of Gold's Gym, Shape and Men's Fitness with exercise prompts on the band and extra info in the app.
To carry out a workout simply select a program you're interested in using the app and beam it over to the Band. There's a wide range of activities and sports on offer, although it is all a bit manual and basic.
See also: Jawbone UP MOVE essential info
Your Band won't talk to you, it will simply tell you that you should be doing 25 seconds of squats for example – you'll need to keep glancing at it to see what you should be doing and nothing is automatically detected in terms of your movement.
The running app is also basic – but does the job for a casual runner. Don't expect any cadence, elevation or interval data – but you will get a GPS route of your map, with colours indicating your speed, and the device itself will provide real-time info such as distance, pace, split times and heart rate. The Microsoft Health app – which we'll come to in a bit – will also give you a suggested recovery time.
Microsoft Band: Smartphone notifications
There's no installing extra apps with the Microsoft Band – what you see is what you get – although you can play around with what you see, tile-wise, using the device itself or the app.
There's incoming call alerts, text notifications, email and calendar updates and social media alerts from Facebook and Twitter. There's no third-party support as such but you can turn on a 'Notifications Center' tile to have every single message relayed on your Band.
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So if you want WhatsApp alerts, for example, you'll want this tile showing. Be aware though you'll also get all the general notification bumph showing up from your phone too with this tile on – stuff like battery alerts, system updates and so on.
If you live in the US and are rocking a Windows Phone, you'll also be able to tap into the delights of Cortana – although we have to confess to not being able to test this feature here in Blighty.
Microsoft Band: Microsoft Health app
Microsoft has played an ace card by making the Microsoft Band compatible with Android and iOS, as well as Windows Phone – by way of the Microsoft Health app.
Similar to the efforts we've seen emerge from Mountain View and Cupertino, Microsoft Health will attempt to be a one-stop-shop for all your health and fitness data; drawing in information from not only the new Microsoft Band, but from third-party hardware and apps as well.
Essential reading:Google Fit v Apple Health
For now, it's pretty basic and essentially acts as a regular fitness tracker app – showing historical data and graphical representations of everything its paired device is recording.
Partners such as RunKeeper, MapMyFitness, Jawbone and MyFitnessPal are already on board with Microsoft Health and the company is planning further collaborations, but it does very much feel like a work in progress – albeit quite a promising one.
Microsoft Band: Battery life
Microsoft is stating two days battery life for the Band and you'll get that…so long as you turn off the watch mode. If you want your Band to tell you the time, don't expect even a day's life from Microsoft's new toy. And if you go for even a short run with GPS on, get your charger ready for when you get home.
Like most wearables, you need a separate accessory for charging; the Microsoft Band ships with a magnetic-clip USB cable and a full-charge is pretty quick – well inside two hours.
The Band is splash and sweat proof, but not water resistant, so no swimming data can be recorded and you shouldn't even wear it in the shower.
How we test