Microsoft released the Band a year or so ago, in its first effort to crack the wearable health-tech market. In short, it didn’t.
The first Band was incredibly powerful, packing more sensors under the hood than it even had use for. Sadly, it was simply unwearable. Imagine lining up a few elbow macaroni on either side of your wrist and then strapping your watch over them. I described it as “both awesome and terrible.” It was.
The new Band 2 refines that concept by removing the uncomfortable design, dropping the macaroni entirely, adding a slight curve to the display to let it conform to your wrist better, and in general fixing the flaws that made the first wearable so unwearable. The result is a powerful, capable, fitness tracker with features out the wazoo.
So can Microsoft finally compete? In short, no.
After two weeks of reasonable testing, a slate of new problems emerged in the new Band 2, from fit-and-finish flaws to a complete breakdown of my unit that necessitated a total replacement. Will consumers experience such problems? Hopefully some of the issues I saw came from a faulty unit – but other problems I uncovered are bound to crop up.
Look and feel
Question for you: Do you want a wearable that apes the look of a traditional watch, or something that looks modern, sleek, futuristic?
Microsoft aimed for the latter with the Band, and finally nailed it with the Band 2, a sleek silicone and metal strap with a curved display that looks genuinely handsome. Nearly all of the changes between the first edition and the current one derive from the design, which has been totally overhauled.
The Microsoft Band 2 is made of soft, flexible silicone (thermal plastic elastomer silicone vulcanite, whatever that means), which feels comfortable on the wrist and holds up well when things get sweaty. Whereas the first model housed its batteries under growths that swelled the band at either side of your wrist — the macaroni I described earlier — the new edition relocates them to a plastic lump that protrudes a bit from the clasp. It’s a bit ungainly, I admit, but most of the time I don’t notice it.
That clasp itself has been redesigned to incorporate a UV sensor and a far more elegant charger, and it hides away the embedded electronics better than the first model did. Two nodes in the clasp detect galvanic skin response, a measure of your physical exertion that you’ll never see displayed anywhere by Microsoft ever. Weird, right? I asked Microsoft about it, and was told the company uses the sensor to tell if the band is being worn or not. “This helps optimize experiences like all day heart rate as well as other metrics like recovery time after activities.” Makes sense, I guess.
The other half of the claps is a wafer-thin metal rectangle that houses the charger. A proprietary USB cable clips onto it and juices the unit.
Design flaws surface
The clasp is polarizing: Half of my coworkers found it confusing, half found it easy to use and intuitive. I actually like it — you can slide the halves of the clasp together to tighten it, or press the levers on the side to loosen it or ultimately release it. And with almost no practice, I can snap it on my wrist in seconds.
No product should get this scratched up within a week or two.
Unfortunately, the attachment for the USB charger is on the inside portion of that wafer-thin rectangle, and a pair of exposed screws have already scraped the hell out of the clasp. Sure, they’re recessed, but clearly not far enough. Add this to a few scuffs and scratches I’ve found on the underside of the display, and a strap that doesn’t quite meet the display perfectly, and you get serious build-quality problems. No product should get this scratched up within a week or two.
The display is a gently curved, AMOLED module with Corning Gorilla Glass 3, meaning it’s bright and durable. I’ve beaten this thing up for weeks, and haven’t scratched or marred the screen once. It has two buttons, a main power button and an activity button, but you mainly interact with the Band 2 through the touch-sensitive display. I found last year’s model unresponsive to my sweaty fingers, while the new Band 2 does better under these challenging conditions.
Ultimately, the device is quite wearable. I’ve slept in it for two straight weeks, worn it while running and biking and walking and all of the things I do daily (slobbering, puttering, manspreading – sorry, fellow train riders), and after the first two days I stopped noticing it. The Band 2 can be worn on the inside or the outside of the wrist, like the first model; a menu setting lets you pick how you wear it. I found it far more comfortable on the inside.
Uses and Abuses
The Band 2 interface is almost exactly the same as the one you’ll find on the Band, although a few fonts have changed slightly. Push the power button and the screen pops on, displaying the time and date. Pull it to the right for a tiny display showing the status of Bluetooth, battery, and your heart rate. Slide it left to sift through the various tiles for activities, including biking, running, golfing, sleeping, and more. There are also tiles for apps, such as Starbucks, your calendar, or the weather; and tiles for notifications and stuff connected to your smartphone.
To start an activity, scroll through the tiles, enter the correct one by tapping it, and push the activity button to launch it. Across several runs and bike rides, I found the Band reasonably comfortable, and information was accessible at a glance, especially when worn with the display on the inside of the wrist.
After a 4-mile run, I was surprised to find my heart rate at 65 bpm.
The Band packs features galore, including fitness trackers like a tri-axis accelerometer, gyrometer, and barometer. Microsoft views this as a selling point. It’s not. The first model included sensors that weren’t even enabled at first, this one still has that “kitchen sink” feel. I guess some users might like the new UV sensor, but even as an adult conscious of the damage the sun’s rays can cause, I’ve rarely felt the need to push the button to take a reading. Besides, can’t you just tell when it’s sunny and you’ve been outside too long? I need Microsoft to tell me this?
Of real note is the continuous heart-rate monitoring, which the Band 2 manages optically, by shining a light through the skin of your wrist to measure your pulse. It’s usually pretty accurate, but after wrapping up a 4-mile run on the treadmill at the gym the other day, I was surprised to find my heart rate at 65 beats per minute. It must have been a glitch with the sensor, because it seemed fairly accurate across several other runs and a variety of other activities. On a 5.3-miler on the open road recently, for example, I averaged 157 bpm, with a peak of 185 – far more accurate information.
Heart-rate information is far more useful than step counts, and you can see it at a glance whenever you peek at the Band 2’s main screen, but I wish Microsoft had a way to surface it on a daily or weekly basis. Through the app or the website, MicrosoftHealth.com, you can see an overlay of your heart rate during whatever activity you’ve selected, even while you sleep. But not overall.
But maybe my unit was glitchy after all. Maybe I pushed it too hard. Maybe you will too. For whatever reason, my Band 2 unit died completely two weeks after I first strapped it on. It wouldn’t take or keep a charge, and the buttons stopped responding. Microsoft engineers described the problem as “definitely an uncharacteristic and one-off situation that needs replacing,” and since other reviewers didn’t experience similar glitches, this sounds reasonable. Still, add in the other issues with the Band 2 and it makes it hard to recommend this product.
Microsoft claims a two-day battery life with the Band, but that hinges upon what you do with it. If I just wear it around, occasionally checking my heart rate or the time and gauging my sleep, I easily hit that two-day metric. If I use the GPS it drops by half. Fortunately, the Band charges very rapidly, making the charge cycle easy to incorporate into your routine. Pull it off when you step into the shower, rinse, lather, and repeat, and Band 2 is charged by the time you’re toweling off.
Other sensors, and the website
The integrated GPS sets the Band apart from entry-level devices (and explains the price tag a bit). It kills the battery life, as you might expect, but is essential for runners or bikers.
Sleep information is another neat area that the Band 2 can help track. Click the tile, then hit action before your head hits the pillow and it will detect how deeply you sleep.
This is one of the problems with the world of fitness bands and digital health devices – while we’re gathering information, it’s very hard to make it actionable or useful in any way. Sure, my heart rate averaged 157. How can I get it lower during exercise? SHOULD I get it lower? Who knows? And learning about my sleep patterns is fascinating but ultimately useless.
Microsoft does a decent job answering those questions for you, through the website. It’s smartly designed and a quantifier’s dream, although it’s slow to load. Take the sleep section: If you wear your Band 2 to bed often enough, Microsoft can dig up patterns to your sleep behavior and surface them for you. For example, I almost never get enough sleep, averaging just 6 hours per night last month, and the sleep I do get is only moderately restorative. Seeing a picture of when I actually drop off to sleep over the month is motivation to get my butt in bed earlier.
Likewise, the run section parses your abilities, showing splits, averages, calories burned, and more. And charts reveal trends – “What’s my weekly duration?”, one asks, and “How are my workouts impacting my fitness?”. Taking data and making it understandable is a real challenge, one the Band 2 tackles well.
Should you buy it?
The first Band was ultimately unwearable, in my opinion – an obstacle for a device meant to live on your wrist. Microsoft climbs over that hurdle with the Band 2, which is an eminently wearable device. The silicon strap is comfortable, the clasp easy to use, the screen bright and easy to read.
The software powering this powerful product remains as strong as it was in the first model, combining a relatively intuitive interface with a deep-dive website that lets you put on your miner’s cap and dig into the data. Yet there’s a new problem for Microsoft: quality control. Manufacturing glitches, defects, and downright failures make this product hard to recommend.
Besides, a $250 price tag (an increase of $50 over last year’s model) is hard for anyone to swallow. Other products have most of this functionality at half the price, notably the Polar Loop 2, a no-frills activity tracker at just $120. And TomTom unveiled a range of new products at IFA this year, including a new version of its GPS Fitness Watch that should compete with the Band 2.
The Band 2 aims to fix the flaws of the first model, and it does so admirably. The design is greatly improved, and the slew of sensors are the cat’s meow. Yet hardware flaws dog this product. Should you pony up? I suspect your dollars are better spent elsewhere.
Available at: Amazon
- Copious sensors
- Intuitive interface
- Clasp is easy to scratch
- Review unit died
- Inconsistent sensor data