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    Microsoft Band review: A tale of pitfalls and promise

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    There are generally two schools of thought on how to build a wrist-borne wearable. Either make a fancy pedometer that's supposed to stay out of the way, or go the smartwatch route and cram in as many features as possible. Then there's this weird no-man's-land occupied by devices like the Samsung Gear Fit and Garmin Vivosmart. Microsoft's $200 Band falls squarely in that latter category. It's not quite a smartwatch, but it's not purely a fitness tracker like the Fitbit Flex. The Band can pull in emails, text messages and other notifications from your phone. If you're using a Windows Phone, it can control Cortana and put the power of Microsoft's virtual assistant on your wrist.

    But it is, to hear Microsoft tell it, a fitness device first. And to that end Microsoft has packed the Band full of sensors, ranging from heart rate, to GPS and the prerequisite accelerometer. And, most importantly, it's the first device to tie into the new Microsoft Health platform, which seeks to outgun offerings like Apple Health and Google Fit. But, as we all know, there are inherent dangers in trying to carve out a third path. The question ultimately is whether Microsoft has built something (both physically and figuratively) that combines all of the most compelling parts of the existing wearable scene. Or, if it's created a sort of Frankenstein's monster that suffers all of their weaknesses.

    Gallery: Microsoft Band review | 25 Photos

    Engadget Score
    Poor
    Uninspiring
    Good
    Excellent
    Key

    Pros
    • Works on iOS, Android and Windows Phone
    • Lots of data, thanks to a raft of sensors
    • App has a clean design and shows promise
    • Connects to Cortana on Windows Phone
    • Guided workouts are extremely helpful
    Cons
    • Hardware is uncomfortable and poorly designed
    • Microsoft Health is mostly promise
    • Smartwatch-like battery life
    • Does too many things, many of them poorly
    • Seriously, the Band is really uncomfortable

    Summary

    If Microsoft Health ever lives up to its ambitious goals, it could be game-changing. But right now, the Microsoft Band is the only device available for it. And the Band seems more like a prototype than a consumer device. It's bulky, uncomfortable and has disappointing battery life. You could get a comfortable fitness tracker for less, or a capable smartwatch for a few bucks more.

    Hardware

    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.

    Software

    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.

    Gallery: Microsoft Health mobile app | 23 Photos

    One of the most unique features of the Microsoft Health app, though, is guided workouts. Using the app, you can upload any number of workout routines to the Band from sources like Gold's Gym, Men's Fitness or even Microsoft itself. Knowing what to do once you get to the gym is a struggle for some, and this takes the guesswork out of it. The screen tells you what exercise you should be doing and uses the various sensors to count reps. When it's time to rest or move on to the next set, the Band vibrates to get your attention. And at the end, you get a nice summary of how much time or how many reps you performed, plus the calories burned.

    The competition

    On the hardware front, competitors are coming at Microsoft from all sides. Garmin's Vivosmart delivers much of the same functionality for $170, though it lacks GPS and a heart rate monitor. Then there's the new Basis Peak, which automatically detects when you're sleeping or exercising. And it will soon deliver notifications to your wrist thanks to an upcoming software update. There's also the ever-increasing number of true smartwatches on the market from the likes of Motorola, LG and Samsung that are able to deliver most of the same features, plus a much more robust notification system. Still, they suffer from extremely poor battery life and a significantly higher price tag.

    Meanwhile, established fitness players like Jawbone and Fitbit have new wearables hitting the scene that undercut the Band on price while offering the comfort of familiarity (not to mention impressive battery life). Newcomers like Jaybird are even trying to offer their own takes on the "insight" angle. In Jaybird's case, it's offering Go-Zone, which tells you when your body is ready for exercise or when you should be taking it easy. Of course, most of these options lack the smartwatch-esque features of the Band. That being said, their focus on fitness is their greatest strength.

    Microsoft Health is the real star of the show here.

    Then there's Microsoft Health, which, if you ask me, is the real star of the show here. The Band is just a vehicle through which to spread awareness of Redmond's new platform that promises to leverage machine learning to provide valuable insights about your health. Plus, it promises to do these things regardless of whether you prefer iOS, Android or Windows Phone. Its competitors, Apple Health and Google Fit, are tied to their platform of origin -- iOS and Android, respectively. And neither of those efforts seems nearly as ambitious. While it appears inevitable that Google will use the data it collects to offer similar features to those promised by Microsoft, for the moment Mountain View offers little more than an archive of your steps. On the other hand, Microsoft Health already suggests how much recovery time I should take after exercising. Down to the second.

    Wrap-up

    Despite having spent the last three years in development, the Band still feels like a proof of concept. The abundance of tech crammed inside makes it seem like Microsoft was focused on showing off all the capabilities of its new health-tracking platform, rather than on building a consumer-friendly wearable. If Microsoft were to sell the Band as some sort of demo unit for OEMs or a developer device, its physical faults would be forgivable. But the company insists that the Band is also a consumer-ready product and I couldn't disagree more.

    The Band still feels like a proof of concept.

    That being said, Microsoft seems to be on to something with its Health platform. The software still has some kinks, and it's unclear how close the company is to delivering on its ambitious promises. But the focus is right. Rather than worrying too much about how many steps you took or how many calories you ate, Microsoft Health aims to provide insight into your broader well-being. That could mean helping you avoid skin cancer, or taking care of that balky knee you insist on running on. There's obviously room to grow, but compared to its primary competitors -- which happen to be locked to a single mobile platform -- Microsoft Health seems to have the most promise.

    Besides, this is just the first of what Microsoft is hoping will be many devices to tie into its Health platform. Redmond is even willing to license both the hardware and software to manufacturers who should be able to improve on this initial design. So, who knows, maybe in a few months Samsung will release its own take on the Band. One that cuts the fat and delivers on the promise of Microsoft Health.

    Edgar Alvarez contributed to this review.

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