'You're measuring to be just barely a size small,' my contact said when I first tried on the new Microsoft Band ($199) the day it was released. I strapped on the little bangle. It was wickedly uncomfortable. I must have grimaced. 'Try the medium, too,' he offered, and I'm glad he did. The medium size Microsoft Band was tolerable, but still not something I enjoyed wearing for the past week and a half, and that's a shame, because this activity tracker-smartwatch hybrid is brimming with novel features.
The Microsoft Band has GPS functionality, so you can go for a run without your phone and still get detailed data, such as your route, split times, and so forth. And workout-coaching is right on the bracelet, rather than in a companion app. Push notifications of text messages, upcoming calendar reminders, and more port over from your phone to the band for iOS, Android, and of course, Windows Phone, letting you see what you need to know at a glance. And all these features would be great if you can stand wearing the darn thing, which I couldn't.
The bottom line on fitness trackers in general is that you have to wear them 24/7 to get the most out of them. Microsoft's first foray into smart pedometers scores high marks for getting so many features into one band, but loses serious points for wearability. In terms of comfort and simplicity, it's a far cry from the same-price Basis Peak, our current Editors' Choice.
Design and Compatibility The problem with the Band is that it has two hard, inflexible surfaces facing one another. Try to spin it around your wrist, and you can't. One side is a capacitive TFT full color display touch screen, and it's the worse offender of the two. It measures 0.43 by 1.29 inches (11mm by 33mm), with a resolution of 320 by 106 pixels. I'm five-foot-eight with wide wrist bones, and this extra-wide screen extends past the edges of my arm on both sides. The other hard area is at the clasp, which is where Microsoft put its optical heart rate monitor (HRM). If you wear the device with the screen on the outside of your wrist, the HRM is on the inside. I've never seen that before, and quite frankly, it doesn't work. It unnecessarily creates another hard, flat surface instead of giving the band room to comform to the curves of your body. Fasten it the other way, and the screen is on the inside of your wrist. Some people might like to wear their watches this way, but it's still clunky and uncomfortable.
By contrast, the new Garmin Vivosmart, which also has push notifications (but only for iOS), is supple and thin, with a touch screen that disappears entirely when not in use. It's much more elegant and comfortable, but also more simplistic. Sometimes simplicity works, though.
The Band ships with a proprietary charger that connects simply with magnetic security, and in testing, I was able to get about four days of battery life out of the Band when not using the GPS. Microsoft estimates closer to two days of battery life during more intense usage.
In its looks, the Microsoft Band is much more similar to the Samsung Gear Fit. Both have prominent displays that scream, 'I'm a beautiful, high-resolution, full-color screen on your wrist!' You couldn't miss either one from a mile away. I rated the Samsung Gear Fit the same as the Microsoft Band, 3.5 out of 5 stars. Microsoft's tracker has a few features that the Gear Fit doesn't, but Samsung's bracelet has a leg up on comfort.
In addition to its touch screen, the Microsoft Band has two physical buttons on the bottom edge as well. You press the larger button to wake up the screen or put it to sleep. The smaller button lets you quickly cycle through some basic data, like steps so far today and heart rate, although you can see those details by tapping the screen once and swiping through a few pages. If you swipe without first tapping the screen, you reach all the many other features: messages, the sleep- and run-tracking modes, workouts, calendar appointments, a stop watch, and the settings. You can customize the order of the tiles for these functions from the companion mobile app.
Tracking and Accuracy Microsoft says its Band gets smarter the more you use it. For example, if you use the GPS run-tracking feature, the Band will begin to figure out with greater accuracy the distance you cover and in what amount of time, and how many footfalls you've had in that time. All that data translate to more accurate step counting. I've only had the Microsoft Band for less than two weeks, so I haven't noticed any real changes. But I did wear the Band concurrently with the Basis Peak, and based on what I know about my own behavior (I've been tracking for about three years using a rage of devices), the Peak's step counts seemed more in line with what I expected.
One benefit of the Microsoft Band, however, is that it also tracks distance, and distance is a far easier metric to verify than steps. Stride length and other factors make steps-per-mile vary wildly from person to person, but at least with a mileage or kilometer report you can verify whether the distances being reported are accurate. In that regard, the Microsoft Band was fairly accurate, and you can see your daily totals on the device itself. The mobile app, on the other hand, doesn't provide nearly the depth of reporting I had hoped to see. More on that in a moment.