It seems as if everyone has an activity tracker now and the market is exploding with options. If you go to Best Buy, you will find that there is an entire section in their stores or as of today, 228 results on a keyword search with “Activity Tracker” on bestbuy.com. The Microsoft Band is one of the newest additions to the scene.

This product had me excited, more excited than I have been for a Microsoft product in years. So, does it live up to expectations?

SENSORS and HEART RATE

As you can see above in the video from Microsoft, there is a whole lot of technology in the device. They came out swinging with a staggering ten sensors including: Optical heart rate sensor, 3-axis accelerometer/gyro, Gyrometer, GPS, ambient light sensor, Skin temperature sensor, UV sensor, Capacitive sensor, Galvanic skin response and a Microphone as listed on the product page.

With these sensors, the band offers the ability to track many different things. On the surface, it seems like freedom itself. A good example of this is the optical heart rate sensor. This sensor is special because it is set to track 24 hours a day, both in and out of activity. This is a very important point. Many devices on the market currently with optical heart rate sensors only track the heart rate on occasion and are not effective in reading heart rate during workouts as is discussed in the C-Net post Do wristband heart trackers actually work? A checkup.

So how did the Microsoft Band do? Well, it suffered a bit. I used the band for multiple workouts including runs and the elliptical trainer. The results can be seen here: Elliptical

The Band had my heart rate at 114 beats per minute on my right wrist while the elliptical machine using my right hand read a plus of 84. This 30 BPM discrepancy was consistent with runs as well. As you can see from my run on November 19th below, it was 30 beats off again. And this was at a much higher heart rate, so there is some consistency. Since this consistency exists, it gives me hope that the issue may be addressed in a firmware update.

The Band had my heart rate at 114 beats per minute on my right wrist while the elliptical machine using my right hand read a plus of 84. This 30 BPM discrepancy was consistent with runs as well. As you can see from my run on November 19th below, it was 30 beats off again. And this was at a much higher heart rate, so there is some consistency. Since this consistency exists, it gives me hope that the issue may be addressed in a firmware update.

 

Heartrate-MS-Band-Running

RUNNING

MS_Band_HROne of the biggest features of the Microsoft Band is its run tracking ability. The promise of the device with its built-in GPS and heart rate monitoring ability is that one can simply swipe the tiles to run, get a GPS lock, and take off. It will even share the runs with Runkeeper and MyFitnessPal.

It delivers on this promise to a point. It tracks all the information and as far as GPS and pace, it’s pretty spot-on. As mentioned before though, the Heart Rate is a struggle. Much of this likely due to the awkward fit of the device. In order for the heart rate to read well, it has to be really locked down on the wrist, which can be very uncomfortable. As a result, my run heart rates were tracked very inconsistently.

If I had gloves and long sleeves on, there were gaps in the reading as can be seen in the run below:

Without the heart rate being reliable, it can only be taken with a grain of salt. As far as tracking the run itself, it does a decent job and you can see that it maps the runs out:

msbandrun_map

Microsoft Health also shares the run with MyFitnessPal and Runkeeper, but with one caveat: there is no map on Runkeeper.

runkeeper

This is a real letdown. I am not sure why they do not send the map over, but I’m guessing it is because they are storing the data in a proprietary manner and not able to export it using a more commonly used standard like TCX or GPX. As a matter of fact, your data is effectively sandboxed inside the app and there is no way to retrieve it for other purposes. At the time of this article, there isn’t even a web page, but I have read that there should be one in the future. Hopefully with future updates, they will rectify the situation.

EXERCISE MODE

This is a handy mode that can be used for tracking any basic workout. For example, I will use it to track time on my elliptical machine. It is very easy to use. Just select the icon, press and go. It will calculate calorie expenditure based on HR (of course with the earlier accuracy caveat).

GUIDED WORKOUTS

One of the neat features of the Microsoft Band is that it includes many types of workouts provided by partners like Gold’s Gym, Shape Magazine, Men Fitness, Muscle & Fitness and Benchmark WOD (for the crossfit crowd). Another option is to choose a workout by type.

choose_workout
Once you choose a workout, you will find two tabs. One with the overview and a second with a breakdown of the activities.

workout_display

One really nice feature of the app is the ability to see a demonstration of each activity. This can be accessed by pressing the image next to on the left in the details screen. This loads a professionally shot demo of the proper form and method for the exercise.

msband_demo_video

After completing the exercise, the Band will display the results on it’s display and you can see what exercises were completed inmsband_workout_results the app. This information is shared with MyFitnessPal, but appears not to be exported to Runkeeper.

 

workout_results

STEP TRACKING

The Band tracks steps. It is successful at this and seems to be in line with both Fitbits and Garmins. It sets you to a goal of 5000 a day by default and will alert when you cross that threshold. Unfortunately, that seems to be the only goal available. It doesn’t use the standard of 10000 steps a day that is recommended and chosen by Fitbit or the sliding scale that gets progressively greater as used with Garmin Vivofit and Vivosmart devices.

SLEEP TRACKING

The Band does a great job of breaking down sleep data. It has more details than any device I have used.

msband_sleep

 

But I do find one thing odd about the Band. The wearer has to tell the device when it needs to enter sleep mode. This is something that Fitbit and Polar have both figured out how to do automatically and I would think that Microsoft could as well with all the available sensors.

Another problem with wearing the Band while sleeping is that it doesn’t fit well, so it may cause sleep disturbance. Also, the heart rate sensor has severe leakage problem at night and when it hits your eye, you feel like you are in a football stadium. I have to be careful to block it so it does not wake up my wife.

Notifications

The Microsoft Band does a nice job with notifications. You can get alerts from Facebook, Twitter, email, your calendar, or the notification center. When you receive a notification, you can press it to read and scroll through the full notification by swiping.

MSBand-NotificationsandFacebook

MSBand-Notification-Facebook

MSBand-Notification-Twitter

OVERALL IMPRESSION

The Microsoft Band is an incredibly ambitious release. It has an amazing amount of promise, but is definitely a 1.0 release. It offers a staggering amount of workout options and possibilities, yet it doesn’t always deliver fully, or it falls short of some seemingly obvious needs.

One example is the lack of waterproofing. The Band is not only not waterproof for swimming, but Microsoft cautions against any water exposure other than light rain and hand washing – http://www.microsoft.com/microsoft-band/en-us/support/safety-guide. However, it may be slightly more durable than that as this brave YouTuber put his device to the test:

The band also does not have a cycling mode at the time of this article. Hopefully one will be added in the future. It’s heart rate accuracy is not completely trustworthy at this point and there is no way to get full workouts including maps from the device.

It also is not the most comfortable device to wear. It has the unfortunate nickname of the “Microsoft Shackle” in some circles. By design, in order to fit the batteries and sensors, it has an odd shape and is fairly heavy. As a result, you will always be aware of it being on. I have been wearing it for nearly two months and it is still noticeable.

The one good thing is other than waterproofing and wearability (granted this is a big issue), most of the other issues can be corrected or improved by firmware updates and continued Web development.

Microsoft has created a very interesting product and it is worth seeing where they go with it over the next year. They may just seize a chunk of the fitness market.

UPDATE

In late Feburary 2015, Microsoft released some major updates. First, they have created a Web dashboard that mirrors all of the visibility of activities previously only shown in the App. This is nice if you are wanting to view the information on larger screens. Unfortunately at the time of this update, they still do not have an export functionality so you can use a GPX, or TCX file in another app, but hopefully they will add that down the road.

microsoft-dashboard

They also have added more functionality to the Band including a new Bike tile mode and added workouts including intervals, sprints and Tabata sprints among others. The workouts can be easily found by doing a search for “Bike” within the workout section in the app on your phone. You can sync these just like already existing workouts.

I have been testing a smaller size of the Band with the new updates and have found the heart rate functionality has also greatly improved. It is not perfect, but it is much closer to matching other devices.

Microsoft has started a new partnerships with MapMyFitness for sharing workouts. This is a definite improvement over Runkeeper. With MapMyFitness, not only are the statistics of the workout being shared, but the actual map itself.

One good thing about the MapMyFitness integration is the ability to export a GPS. Sadly, it will only have the course and no other data at this point.ms_band_bike_workouts

I tried a bit of a workaround, with Mike Palumbo’s MapMyRide conversion tool. He writes about it in his post MapMyRide to Strava. Sadly, it does not work with runs created by the Microsoft Band. It’s rather odd. It works with any Garmin fed or MapMyFitness created run, but not Microsoft. I am including the links incase something changes.

Another added feature is something called Quick Read. This adds functionality to notifications. When you receive a text or other notification, it can be difficult to read on the small screen of the Band if there is a great deal of text. This feature breaks the text down into one to two word chunks rapidly fed on the screen. You can see how the Quick Read works in the YouTube video below.

With the added features, Microsoft has shown that they are serious about this product and that bodes well for buying into the platform. The Band already boasts an impressive number of features for the price and if they keep working on it with the same focus, it may prove to be a real contender in the fitness space.


Find the Microsoft Band at Amazon!

Review by Eric Hunley@HamptonRunner

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