The very nice folks at Microsoft lent me one of the few Microsoft Bands in the UK and with the announcement of a 15th April UK launch I thought I should publish my observations from living with one for 2 weeks.
As ever Microsoft have done a less than spectacular job of marketing this innovative product up to now; while even the liberal Press such as the Guardian drools over the (to my mind) simply unimpressive Apple Watch, drawing appropriate comparisons with Android Wear and occasional forays into pure fitness bands such as the well-established Fitbit, there has been nary a mention of the Microsoft Band (with the exception of the ever reliable Rory Cellan-Jones. And that’s a shame.
What is Microsoft Band
Microsoft has bucked the trend, attempting to create a device that is neither a straightforward fitness band nor smart watch, but a category of its own. Let’s be clear, it’s definitely not a watch, though it has the ability to show the time. Like most of the other smart watches it doesn’t have an always on display unless you want to recharge it frequently, so you has to press the button to see the time. However it is much more than a fitness band.
The rectangular display has a full-colour touchscreen which show the now ubiquitous Microsoft tile interface. It synchronises over Bluetooth LE with your preferred smart phone (which can be a Windows, Android or Apple phone; Microsoft has been making a convincing strategy of being the only multiplatform vendor in the space), and has built-in heart monitoring and the usual collection of gyroscopes, GPS etc. So the Microsoft Band to tracks/records your heart rate and the number of steps you take throughout the day and displays these in the on-board apps along with further apps for your work outs, runs or bike rides. It has a sleep monitor which enable when you’re ready to close your eyes and turn off when you awake. Importantly, the built-in GPS means you don’t need to carry your phone during physical activity.
The other major function is its ability to pull the majority of notifications and updates from your phone, alerting you with a gentle vibration and displaying an update of whatever’s new for a few seconds. This means you can very rapidly see what’s going on on your smart phone without having to take it out of your pocket. Finally, it has a Cortana voice interface.
It’s a simple, unobtrusive device with a discrete, if chunky black wristband, a 5 cm display and just 2 buttons. I was provided with it fully charged so immediately slipped it on my right wrist (I wear a proper watch on my left wrist and that isn’t going to change in the foreseeable future), face up, pressed the main button and was presented with the default home screen which shows the current time and date against a simple background. Always being one to eschew reading manual if I can, I jumped straight in to swiping and poking the interface. The good news is that the learning time is about 5 minutes; swipe left to see the current device status (battery charge, Bluetooth and heart monitor lock), swipe right for the list of installed applications, tap the home screen to see the health and fitness monitor readouts. A few interactions require you to press the smaller action button. ‘Simples’ as they say!
Live tiles work as you’d expect, showing the number of new notifications since last time you checked, in common with Windows Phone or Windows 8. Tapping and application icon shows a very brief summary of the email, news item etc.; just enough to know whether it’s something you need to attend to on your phone or laptop. In most cases you can’t interact further with the item, which is a shame as I like to be able to delete things from the Band and have them deleted from my phone etc. The exception is with SMS messages where you can dictate a reply via Cortana as you would when using Bluetooth with your phone. This is surprisingly accurate in quiet environments, but editing a message if you get it wrong isn’t very elegant.
You also receive incoming telephone alerts and have the ability to reject them or send a preconfigured text reply from the band; this is something I’ve used quite a bit.
The Microsoft Health app can be installed on your smart phone and provides detailed information on the health activities. There is even more information in the web application (which Microsoft barely mention, so here’s the link) and Microsoft are hinting at providing further insights driven by their massive machine learning engine running in Azure. I’m not quite sure how to use all this information yet, but is definitely encouraging me to walk more as I game my own fitness.
The band allows up to 13 apps to be installed, and you can set what order they appear as well as configure and further customise the band via the Microsoft Health app. Pimp My Band is available in the store and allows further customisation, including personalised backgrounds.
Microsoft are making some big bets with their intelligent assistant, Cortana. They are late to market compared with Siri and Google now, but Cortana running on their phones is surprisingly good and my developer friends are very impressed with the sophistication and flexibility of the APIs. Holding the secondary button on Microsoft Band fires up the Cortana listening engine, once you’ve stated your request it is passed to the phone for processing with results appearing on the Band in some cases, with more sophisticated responses showing on the phone.
It isn’t as quick as I would like, so you have to be patient for 15 or 20 seconds while it transfers the command, interprets it and acts on it. In quiet surroundings it’s very good however and does allow you to very quickly carry out the common Cortana commands such as “play music”, “pause”, “set alarm”, “remind me to…”, ”What’s in my diary today” etc. This has proved useful in a variety of situations, often when my phone is inaccessible (think running, being jostled on the tube wrapped up against the wind).
At the moment is only works with Windows Phones, but Microsoft have announced their intention to bring Cortana to the Android and iOS platforms.
As mentioned previously, my biggest reservation is the inability to activate it without pressing the button.
My big concern was how intrusive the notifications would be. Someone who receives far too many emails etc. I make a point of turning active notifications off most of my devices. For this trial I left them on, fully expecting to be driven mad by the constant trembling with my wrist. Interestingly I found it easy to ignore this if necessary or, alternatively, I could glance quickly at the screen and determine whether the notification was something I could completely ignore or should act on. I found this to be much better than interacting directly with the phone as these tend to immediately suck you into responding, reviewing other messages and then getting distracted by Facebook, latest news or other emails. Overall it’s been a great way of staying focused, contrary to my expectation.
Very quickly I realised wearing it face up and interacting with the screen requires you to twist your arm to almost uncomfortable angle. I suspect this will be a problem with all smart watches. One hour in I rotated the band 180⁰ so the screen is face down on my wrist; this proved to be much more comfortable and easier to use (when I did eventually read the manual I learned that this is the recommended way to wear it). There are some disadvantages with orientation: it’s a little uncomfortable with the face resting on a hard surface, also the face does tend to get dirty or scratched unless you pull your sleeve over it.
It is a shame that there’s no easy way to activate it without using your other hand; basically all smart watches tie-up both your hands in use. I’d love to have a voice command or gyroscope driven gesture to turn it on and to enable Cortana.
Although I wear it on my right wrist and I’m right-handed, operating it with my left hand presented no problems whatsoever.
It is a little chunky, with some of the technology hidden within the band itself. While it is comfortable enough to wear, it doesn’t slipped inside sleeve as easily as a traditional watch. I have been wearing it in bed to get the benefits of the sleep monitoring and this is slightly altered my normal sleeping position. As with all things technology, expect future devices to get slimmer and lighter.
Battery life is also surprisingly reasonable. I generally have recharged after 3 days, 4 in one case. It charges remarkably quickly, so a quick boost while in the shower is probably enough to avoid a full one hour recharge for weeks at a time.
Overall I’m impressed.
The ergonomics aren’t perfect, but they’re reasonably easy to live with.
The range of apps is limited, but useful to both the fitness orientated and those wedded to interactions via their phone. The SDK has been published, so expect more to come.
The build quality is good that the screen glass already shows some scratches. It’s the first device I’ve had the courage to take on to the squash court with me, that’s saying something.
The pricing is good, with the UK launch price of just under £170.
Whether Microsoft have got it right will be shown by its sales numbers. It is a genuinely useful device for certain types of user; it isn’t intrinsically limited to a particular ecosystem, unlike most competitive devices; the UI is simple and easy to get to grips with. However it isn’t a toy and it isn’t expensive jewellery and that might be Microsoft’s undoing. Time will tell.
If, after all that, you do want to buy one they are available to preorder now: