Microsoft Band Review as a long time Pebble User/Developer

Disclosure: I am a Microsoft Employee. This blog is the opinion of myself, not my employer. I did not work on the Microsoft Band.

Authors Note: After 3 days, I’ve discovered some new things that I’m adding to the bottom of the article that fix some of the earlier complaints.

When I first looked at the new Microsoft Band I thought, “Oh great, only 2 days of battery life and a full color touch screen. I bet it only works on Windows Phones too, this is the Galaxy Gear all over again”. I was completely wrong in this sense.

What Microsoft did right

Sensors

Sensors and more sensors! Here is the list of sensors from their website:

  • Heart Rate Monitor
  • Accelerometer/Gyrometer
  • GPS
  • Microphone
  • Ambient Light Sensor
  • Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) Sensors
  • UV Sensor

Watch User Interface

The User Interface looks like designers were given a Windows Phone and were only allowed one row of the tiny live tiles that don’t update. While this sounds like I’m insulting the design, it works incredibly well. I love the interface and design. It’s incredibly intuitive and I've had no problems with it. It’s even easy to precisely hit tiny controls like back button which returns you to the main menu (shown below). Great work!

You can see in the picture (source) below how awesome the band’s screen is. It’s beautiful, concise, and most importantly, it’s useful.

I walked a lot yesterday

Microsoft Health

The app is beautiful and provides wonderful insights. I love seeing my average and peak heart rate after a workout, how much time I had restful sleep last night and through the past week, and I was even surprised to see that it tracked the calories I burned while sleeping. There are also great insights like the fact that I walked “the length of the B&O Railroad in Maryland” yesterday (shown in the screenshot to the left).

What I’ll want to see later is the weekly view of the step counter. It has weekly distance, total steps (I’m shooting for 50k) and it even figures out the day that I’m most active out of the week.

Platform Interoperability

The Microsoft Band solves a problem that I have encountered with many other smart watch brands: platform interoperability. Like the Pebble and Basis and unlike the Samsung Galaxy Gear and Apple Watch, I can use my Microsoft Band with almost any smartphone I buy. If I decide to switch from an Android to a Windows Phone or iPhone a year from now, the Microsoft Band will happily come along for the ride.

The Screen

It’s beautiful, bright, colorful, and works well outside. The pixel density is high enough to not discern pixels and it has a high viewing angle (I can easily read it at almost 180 degrees).

Notifications

Microsoft is awesome at just connecting to your phone and all of your notifications come to the band. If you have any experience with the Pebble, you’ll know that this is not an easy feat. Personally, I installed PebbleNotifier (a third party app) to get some of the extra notifications. The way Notifications come up (categorized under the type of notification it is) is beautiful and simple. Reading them is nice with a beautiful vertical scrolling that will show the important parts. The notifications always seem to cut off at the right point (no ellipses in the middle of a message like the Pebble).

Weird other thing, notifications seem to make it to the Band a few seconds before they make it to the Pebble.

Vibration

Vibration on the Band for Notifications can be set on Low, Medium, or High. If you’re used to a Pebble, you want high and that still might not be enough. Also, I don’t know how to explain it, but the Vibration on the Band is better because it’s less of a sharp “YOU HAVE A MESSAGE” and more of a soothing “Hey bro, someone sent you a stupid tweet and you subscribed to them so I’m just letting you know”….I said I don’t know how to describe it. Anyway, they did it well.

Sleep Mode

I love sleep mode. Possibly my favorite part of this Band. The screen is dark enough to help you keep your night vision, but bright enough for you to see the time easily. It was exactly the right brightness and it recorded some awesome data.

Charging

Charging is awesome, except for the fact that I can’t wear the band while I’m charging. Not really a problem since it charges in an hour. The charger almost acts as a stand too (it props the band up) which is pretty cool.

Wearing it

The Band requires a tight fit, but not so tight that it’s cutting off circulation. This is due to the Galvanic Sensors in the watch that determine if you are wearing it. Since it is on tight, it does leave little temporary marks on your arm where the sensor was pushing into it. It feels a little weird at first, but you get used to it fairly quickly (an hour maybe?) and it no longer feels weird.

Standalone

The Band is standalone so it can collect data. You don’t need to take your phone with you on a run, where for some smart watches like Pebble it just surfaces data from your phone so you would have to take your non-wearable phone with you on runs. If you were wondering why the Microsoft Band has GPS and doesn’t just use the phone’s GPS, this is why.

Software: What Microsoft didn’t do right…yet

Galvanic Skin Response sensors

The Galvanic Skin Response sensor is only used to see if you’re wearing the Band. This is an okay use, but it isn’t living up to its potential. If they just needed to see if your arm was there, they could have used other methods. The Basis B1 Band (a competitor that was released about a year ago) explains what it uses GSR for:

Human skin is a good conductor of electricity. It’s even better when it’s wet. The GSR sensor on the Basis B1 band measures the conductivity of a person’s skin, which is directly related to how much sweat is present. The skin’s moisture output, in turn, reveals a great deal about the wearer’s level of exertion during exercise…. (source)

Notifications

Coming from a Pebble, notifications are not my favorite part of this band. Actually, it does notifications well but dismissing them requires a full swipe left and a button press. Why can’t I press the action button to dismiss the notification? While this normally would not be a problem (it’s a simple gesture), my touch screen issues (explained below) exacerbate the issue.

The Screen

This is where the snobbiness of being a Pebble user comes in. Every capacitive color display has the same downfall. It eats battery. Fast. What the Pebble does “right” is having a black and white, non-capacitive screen that is always on so you can glance at it at any time. Every watch so far that has a color capacitive screen turns off when it is not being used. This means that you have to press the power button to turn the screen on. Some may not think this is a big deal but when you’re running late and your hands are full, an always on screen is very useful. Honestly, this is the only reason why I’m still wearing both the Pebble and the Band.

I’m not sure if there is a good answer because no one has figured it out yet. Whether it’s flick to turn on (you learn a lot about when you’re clapping for things), tracking eye movement (please no), or something else, the company that figures this out will do very well.

One more thing. The Band has an ambient light sensor, but I can’t tell where it’s being used (might be a good thing?). Maybe I didn’t realize it was dimmer (completely possible) but this morning after waking up, the Band was BRIGHT (outside of sleep mode, see above, I love sleep mode).

Charging

I have a very small issue with Charging. When the band is finished charging, the icon doesn’t change and there is no notification. This seems like an easy fix and I hope to see it soon.

HealthVault/Getting the Data

The Microsoft Band website mentioned something about using HealthVault, but I currently have not found out a way to get the data coming from my wrist. Just those very cool graphs.

Lack of Apps

It’s the first day of release so this is very understandable, but I don’t see a Pandora/Music app and some of the other watch apps I’d like to see.

Hardware: What Microsoft didn't do right, and can’t change

Thermometers

It may sound weird but this is something the Basis B1 did amazingly well. It has two thermometers in the band to “provide insights into a person’s metabolism”. Measuring skin temperature throughout the day is a great way to figure out how many calories are being burned and it helps provide information on how hard you are working out.

Touching the Screen

This might be something I have to get used to (i.e. you’re holding it wrong), but the screen is less than optimal to swipe on. There are no boundary areas outside of the screen and it is not great at detecting when I do a fast finger swipe (to skip many tiles) and a slow finger swipe. In addition, vertical scrolling is hard and takes some getting used to. This may be because my finger keeps falling off the capacitive area (it’s about a finger wide for me) or it may be a software issue. I hope it’s the software.

Day 2 of using the Band EDIT: Significantly better, I really just needed to learn how to swipe on the band. Although the fast finger swipe still takes some getting used to.

Waterproof Levels

Microsoft has said that the Band can survive getting splashed, but I’m not sure how much it can survive. I know I can probably wear it in the rain, but I wear my Pebble in the shower (to control Pandora) and I’m not sure if the Band can support that.

What I haven’t tried yet

  • Running mode
  • Workout guidance mode

Takeaways

Microsoft is a company that is good and experienced at making software (yay!) which means that the capability of this band and the app that accompanies it will only improve over time. I’m very hopeful that few kinks exist will be worked out (this was day one of release) and features that I don’t know I want will be added because this has every indication of the best fitness product out on the market right now.

Right now, I am wearing a Pebble on my left wrist and a Band on my right and it actually feels normal. My Pebble on my left wrist is for everything I used to do with the watch (including having a watch that is always on) and the Band on my right wrist is for tracking my health and giving me actionable data…and for seeing what my heart rate is while I’m sitting at my desk (hasn’t gotten old yet).

I will keep doing this all day

Final Recommendation — BUY

If you’re looking for a fitness band and you like having the best one out, buy this. I will add the disclaimer that I have only used it for one day, but the hardware is solid and the software has the core things done right so that it can improve as time goes on. That’s what I would look for in a product and that’s what this does.

As for the price point. The Basis B1 is the same price ($199) where the Pebble is half the price ($99). This has better software support than most fitness bands and has the same (if not better) sensors.

Addendum (11/1/2014)

After 3 days, I have discovered a few new features.

  1. Remember I said that it didn’t seem like they were using the Ambient light sensor? Turns out there’s an item in the settings that lets you turn the brightness to “Auto” instead of the default of “Medium”. Now it very obviously uses the sensor.
  2. Color, high pixel, beautiful screens suck because they eat battery. Well Microsoft dreamed up something called “Watch Mode”. Watch mode essentially turns off the color and touch portions of the screen to allow the Band to just show the time and date. This is perfect. Remember when I said “the company that figures this out will do very well”? Well….
Watch Mode just shows the Time and Date