I wear a watch -- like a real analog watch -- most days. I've also worn a few Fitbits and spent the better part of a couple of weeks with a Jawbone Up on my wrist. None of these things quite compares to the discomfort of strapping on the Microsoft Band. It's bulky and stiff, with odd proportions and protrusions in poorly thought-out places. The screen layout and placement of the buttons all but insist you wear the Band on your dominant hand, with the display on the inside of your wrist, which is a tad awkward. Plus, that position puts the screen in constant danger. Within two days, the device was so scratched-up it looked as if I'd been wearing it for years while living in the wilderness. In short, Microsoft's Band is an ergonomic nightmare.
Part of the problem is the simply audacious ambition at work here. Microsoft likes to brag about how there are a total of 10 sensors in the wearable, including GPS. Plus there's a surprisingly bright 1.4-inch screen. And, despite all this, the quoted battery life is still two days. And, truth be told you can get two full days of use... so long as you don't actually fire up that GPS. But, if I'm being honest, even that is not enough. If I'm to think about the Band as a fitness tracker, rather than a smartwatch, it should at least match the five-plus days of battery life promised by most of its competitors.
Microsoft's Band is an ergonomic nightmare.
In the end, it simply seems impossible that Microsoft could have made the Band any smaller or more comfortable without giving up at least a few of its sensors (GPS, accelerometer, gyroscope, capacitive, skin temperature, ultraviolet light, ambient light, optical heart rate, microphone, galvanic skin response). But even if the company insisted on keeping all the same electronics, it seems there's still plenty of room for improvement. For one, the relatively wide, flat screen means the Band is a pretty inflexible semicircle. A curved screen like the one found on the Galaxy Fit might add a few bucks to the cost, but the additional comfort would be priceless. Then there's the material selection itself. There's little to no give to the Band, and there are even raised, hard plastic pieces that rest against the side of your wrist. They don't dig into your arm, but they're certainly not the most pleasant-feeling thing in the world. And don't even get me started on trying to sleep with the thing. It feels less like a sleep tracker and more like you've been placed under house arrest.
Thankfully Microsoft Health, while still rough around the edges, is quite a bit more successful in realizing its goal. Let's start with the most immediate and obvious leg up it has on the competition: compatibility. Microsoft Health is available on Windows Phone, obviously, but also on iOS and Android (4.3 or higher with Bluetooth 4.0). And the experience across all three platforms is pretty much the same. In fact, the only major difference I could spot was Cortana support on Microsoft's OS. Otherwise you get the same selection of large tiles with summaries of your sleep, steps, exercise and calories burned. Tap any of those tiles and you can dig deeper into the data. Wondering whether it was mile three or mile four of your run when you really hit your stride? Microsoft Health can tell you. Want to know when you're the most restless at night? That's in there too. Along with your heart rate over the course of your slumber. (Clearly that spike to 130 BPM at around 3AM means I had some sort of night terror, right?)
Microsoft promises that's just the tip of the iceberg as well. As the company gathers more data, both about you and the population at large, it'll be able to put its powerful machine learning to better use. The UV sensor could eventually alert you when it's prudent to put on sunscreen, then use the GPS to remind you to pick some up when you're near a store. The heart rate monitor could also sense a rise in your anxiety level, and perhaps suggest you hold off on the caffeine before a meeting with your boss. Microsoft Health can already tell you how much recovery you need after exercising, although it is a tad conservative -- I definitely didn't need 58 hours of rest after running four miles. Still, it's clear that "health" is defined quite broadly by Microsoft, and the future of its platform is as much about lifestyle as it is about fitness.
Microsoft's ambition is apparent in the software as well. Beyond just counting steps, the Band can alert you to incoming calls, emails, texts, Facebook messages or Twitter mentions. If that's not enough, you can just turn on the catchall notification alerts, which puts anything that pops up on your phone on your wrist. Still, that quickly gets annoying as app updates and other nonsense starts piling up. The other big issue with notifications is that they don't really sync with your phone. Once a text message is pushed to your wrist, you can't get rid of it. Incoming messages live on indefinitely on the Band, even after the notification has been cleared and the message deleted on your phone. And, unless you're on a Windows Phone, the alert is completely passive (save for a few pre-programmed responses you can trigger for text messages). You can only reply if you're hooked into Cortana. And for now that feature is limited to text messages, email replies will be added later. Honestly, after the first couple of days, I just ended up removing those tiles from my Band and focused on the fitness functions.
You can customize the layout in both the app and on the Band, thankfully. So, if you're not particularly concerned with how many steps you took, but still want to know how many calories you've burned, you can clear out the clutter. Or if you're most interested in your Twitter alerts, you can move that to the top of the list. Basically you can put as much or as little data as you want at your fingertips. You can even see your activity trends over the course of the week. And, for an added dash of personalization you can pick the color and background of your choice for the Band's interface.