The Microsoft Band is a Great Smart Watch and Fitness Tracker You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

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In late 2014 Microsoft released the Band. It came out of left field. Rumors had been rolling around about Microsoft possibly doing a wearable, but details were non-existent. When it came out people were… well, confused. And rightly so. What is this thing? Is it a fitness tracker? Is it a smartwatch? Is it any good? The answer to all three questions is yes.

Fitness trackers are hot right now. The market is pretty saturated too. Head into a sporting goods store and you’ll likely be overwhelmed with the options. Fitbit is the current market leader, but companies like Jawbone, Garmin, Samsung, and Polar are making strong pushes for relevance.

Smart watches are also gaining in popularity. Things like the Pebble and various Android Wear devices have been around for a while, but the category didn’t really catch fire until the Apple Watch hit the market. Apple fans responded in typical fashion by going crazy for the thing. The tech press had a less typical, skeptical view of the device. We’re a few months in and the critics seem to have been quieted. User satisfaction reports are very high. Most importantly, though, Apple Watch has changed the perception of wearable technology.

It’s a Smart Watch

The Band definitely qualifies as a smart watch. It will show you your email, text messages, and app notifications. It will let you check your calendar and show you the weather. It integrates with Cortana for your digital assistant needs. If you want to channel Dick Tracy you can even use it to make a phone call. The Band holds its own against all comers in the battle of smart watch features.

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It’s OS agnostic too. You don’t have to be part of the 2.5 percent of proud Windows Phone users to use Band. Android and iOS fans can take advantage of this device as well. You’ll want to have Microsoft Health installed, which is also available on all three platforms.

Where it misses is apps. Currently, you can’t write dedicated apps for the Band. You have to write a mobile app (Windows, iOS, or Android) first. As part of your app you can create a Band Tile. Users can add the tile to the band through the Microsoft Health app. There are a handful of apps available in the Windows store specifically for Band, but nothing like what’s available on the other devices. Microsoft did recently open up the Band a bit for developers, adding the ability to pump data from web apps directly onto the Band without a companion app. Applications have been limited so far, but the idea is promising.

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Info from the Fitbit dashboard on the left, and Microsoft Health dashboard on the right.

It’s a Fitness Tracker

When it comes to fitness trackers, there are only two things that really matter. What does it track and what does it do with the data? What your tracker tracks can be easily summarized with what sensors it has. You can’t track your heart rate without a heart rate monitor. On the sensor front, Band is second to none. It even surpasses market leader Fitbit’s high- end Surge device. The hardware is solid.

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Report from the Band cycling tracker.

The software is pretty darn good too. Microsoft Health and the online Health Dashboard provide everything Fitbit’s dashboard does, except flights of stairs you’ve climbed during the day. Both services have very usable smartphone apps. Both services provide online dashboards that provide users the ability to do more in-depth analysis on their data. Both make it easy to look at fitness trends.

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Report from Band sleep tracker.

There is one difference maker here. Well, there could be. Microsoft Health is powered by Microsoft’s Azure cloud service and all the tools it has to offer. While this doesn’t mean much today, the ground is fertile for expansion of what Microsoft Health, and potentially other services, could do with any data you decide to provide them.

The Best of Both Worlds?

When it comes to wearable tech, personally style and preferences play a huge part in the purchase decision. The devices aren’t all monolithic blocks like smartphones have become. They’re very different. Plus, they’re displayed out on your wrist, not hiding in your pocket under a case. The Band’s design is… ummm… unique. It’s definitely utilitarian and kind of industrial feeling. No one has waxed on about the beauty of the Band like they have Apple Watch. People aren’t getting this thing gold plated. That said, it’s unique and kind of cool and will definitely appeal to a segment of the market.

Band does a lot of things that other smart watches do. It’s got a microphone you can use to issue voice commands to your phone’s digital assistant (Cortana, Siri, Goole Now). It will vibrate to alert you to things happening on your phone. It does the basics and does them well. It even features an on-screen QWERTY keyboard. That seems absurd given the size of the screen, but it works. It works well. And not just well considering the limitations, but genuinely well.

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The Band does have its shortcomings too. For example, a lot of these devices will turn the screen on when you bring your wrist up to look at it. Band forces you to push a button to get the screen to activate. This is something the device has the hardware to accommodate, but doesn’t. It also lacks in the apps department. It doesn’t have a speaker, altimeter, or compass either. The last two are handled via GPS (when it’s enabled for specific activities), but there is no supplementing a non-existent speaker. These aren’t big detractors, but will be a turn off for some. In a crowded market every little bit matters.

The Future

We have no idea how well Band has sold. Stock has been limited, but it is unclear if that’s due to high demand (unlikely) or low production levels (likely). Either way, indicators are there aren’t a lot of Band users in the wild. Much like Windows Phone, this gives developers little incentive to focus their time and effort on Band.

Microsoft is rumored to be having a large event in October to make multiple big announcements. Among those is expected to be the successor to Band. What Band mk2 will be is anyone’s guess at this point. Given the solid hardware they already have, some added fit and finish combined with a solid plan for apps (and maybe some developer partnerships) could be huge.

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As it sits, Band checks a lot of the boxes for smart watch and fitness tracker users. It could easily be anyone’s all-in-one wearable. Its robust sensor set and interoperability with all the major smartphone platforms make it a viable option for all comers. However, the odd design and some minor, but not insignificant, feature gaps could put people off. Perhaps the second version of Band will fix those issues and this could become a highly attractive option in two very crowded markets.

Matt Toaz is a full time IT Security nerd and privacy advocate. You can find him as @SailRacer on Twitter.