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My Band on the clever charging stand that @idlehandsdev designed.

I was lucky enough to get my hands on a Microsoft Band from the first batch that sold out so quickly a few weeks ago. I’ve been wearing it daily since then, using it to track my sleep, measure and analyse workout sessions, and even to buy the odd Americano at Starbucks.

Since then, lots of people have asked me how I like the Band and how well it works. So, here’s a quick rundown of my experience with it thus far, including the time it went dead in the middle of a workout.

I’m writing this with the assumption that you know what the Band is and basically what it does. If not, have a look at the official Microsoft Band website first.

Design and comfort

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The Band is optimized to be worn with the display underneath your arm/wrist, with the display facing inward. Trying to go against the grain of that aspect of its design does not make for a great experience.

Because the display is flat and nearly two inches long, trying to lay that across the curve on the top of your arm makes for an uncomfortable fit. Additionally, bringing the horizontal display parallel with your eyes requires an awkward gesture when worn with the display facing outward from the top of the arm.

So, keep that in mind if you’re interested in getting a Band to wear like a traditional watch.

Also keep that in mind if you read a review of the Band where the author wears it with the display on top of their arm. I’ve seen a couple reviews that complained harshly about comfort issues, but only showed photos of the reviewer wearing the Band (IMO) upside-down. No surprise that it would be uncomfortable for them that way…

That said, the Band works and feels great worn on the inside of the arm. It comfortably fits the contour of my arm, and the display is typically not much more than a 90 degree flick of the wrist away from clear view. Not only does this make glancing at notifications natural and easy, but it also has the nice side effect of not automatically broadcasting all of your notifications to everyone in the immediate vicinity.

I haven’t quite decided if I prefer wearing it higher on the forearm or lower on the wrist. I find that I prefer a looser fit around my wrist most of the time, but a snug fit higher on my forearm during workouts so that it’s out of the way. Thankfully, the Band’s clasp makes it easy to switch between positions by just squeezing two small levers on the side of the clasp.

The display

The Band’s 1.4″ TFT display is noticeably low-res (320 x 106) compared to a modern HiDPI phone’s display, but also sports the highest resolution I know of in a fitness tracker (or currently available smart watch?). Regardless, its full-color is clear enough that it’s never been difficult for me to read and doesn’t look particularly grainy at arm’s length.

I left mine set at the default “Medium” brightness setting and haven’t even considered adjusting it higher. The display is surprisingly bright and vivid even in direct outdoor sunlight.

The entire display is touch-sensitive, just like you’d expect from a phone or tablet. It works pretty well for the most part, but the frequent horizontal scrolling necessary to navigate through the Band’s tiles sometimes feels a bit stilted. It’s not so much that the touch input doesn’t work reliably as that the scrolling momentum sometimes seems to start and stop too abruptly.

That’s usually not a significant issue. One place where the touch input really breaks down is when your hands are sweaty. That’s not really the Band’s fault and is the nature of capacitive touch screens in general (i.e. a touch based smartphone will have the same problem), but it can be frustrating sometimes when you’re using the Band to track tough workouts.

Cross-platform is real

Though I primarily use devices rooted in the Microsoft ecosystem, I’m still firmly in the iOS camp when it comes to my phone. I’ve come to rely on so many apps that are either only available on iOS or are dramatically better on iOS than other platforms, that I’m not interested at all in switching to Android or Windows Phone as things currently stand.

So, when I first saw the Band announced, I thought it was interesting but almost dismissed it immediately because I wouldn’t be willing to change phone platforms. Since every other similar product available or announced has been tethered to a specific type of phone, I naturally assumed that the Band would be tied to Windows Phone.

As it turns out, the Band has first class support for both Android and iOS, in addition to Windows Phone, and works almost equally great on all three platforms. I was sold the second I read that.

In fact, after comparing the iOS version of Microsoft Health (the Band’s companion app) with the app running on someone else’s Windows Phone, it looks like the apps are virtually identical between those two platforms. Aside from the Cortana integration, there’s no feature penalty I could find for using the Band with a phone from Microsoft’s competition.

Cortana envy

Though I’m not ready to abandon my iPhone yet, the Band’s Cortana integration for Windows Phone users is the closest I’ve ever come to wanting a Windows Phone. Watching my friend Scott Cate access his phone’s Cortana assistant to set an alarm via voice commands piped through his Band was impressive (and makes for a great demo when the Band starts vibrating based on that alarm a couple minutes later).

It’s not clear to me whether Microsoft is intentionally excluding iOS and Android users from this feature (Siri and Google Now could work similarly) or if Apple and Google don’t allow third-party access to those features. My guess is that it’s the latter, but I’d be interested to find out for sure if anyone reading this knows.

Either way, being able to access the full range of Cortana’s features from your wrist is a nice perk for Windows Phone users. I’m not holding my breath for Siri or Google Now support in the future, but I’m definitely a little bit jealous of how well that feature seems to work.

Notifications

Alerts when your phone’s apps raise notifications about new emails, texts, appointment reminders, incoming phone calls, and other events is probably the most significant feature that separates the Band from other fitness trackers.

In the beginning, I was worried that pushing intrusive, attention-robbing notifications from my phone to my wrist would make them all the more distracting. What I found was the exact opposite. In the usual situation where I’m already feeling and/or hearing my phone vibrate anyway, being able flick my wrist over and mentally dismiss notifications at a glance is a net win.

Without the Band, I often try to ignore these notifications that I know are waiting on the phone, but it’s almost impossible to completely push them out of mind. Wondering if a given buzz of the phone was an important email from a client or just someone’s paper.li spam mention on Twitter is something that constantly threatens to steal my focus even without the Band.

After a couple weeks with the Band, I definitely noticed that my phone stayed in my pocket more than before, leaving me more engaged with the world around me or the task at hand. Even better, the Band’s range is large enough that I can leave the phone on its charger in my office at home and get notifications throughout the house without carrying a phone around at all.

In the end, having notifications quickly visible on the Band has actually helped me reduce the number of interruptions I choose to squander more than a split-second’s focus on.

Grooming your notification settings is key

At least on iOS, the Band app pushes through any notification that shows up in the iOS Notification Center if you enable all of the notifications (and you will want Notification Center enabled in order to get alerts from apps that don’t have their own “tile”, like Trello, ESPN, IM apps, etc). While this means that it automatically respects your phone’s “Do Not Disturb” settings, which is nice, it also means that you might be getting a ton of notifications on your wrist if you’ve allowed all of your apps permission to send notifications (as so many of them request these days).

For me, dialing back notification permissions for many apps was key, revoking their ability to raise alerts or send anything at all to iOS’ Notification Center. I realized very quickly that letting Words with Friends show no alerts other than an icon badge was plenty, and that I really did not need to see intrusive promotional notifications from apps like Shazam and Angry Birds that should only interact with me on-demand.

If I really need to concentrate on something, it’s easy enough to flip on my phone’s manual “Do Not Disturb” mode, which cuts off the flow of notifications to the Band as well.

Workout tracking

I’ve been using a Fitbit One for a couple years and have monitored my daily step count almost every day during that time, but have never been impressed by the quality or depth of the data it collects. It’s fun to compete on step-count leaderboards with the Fitbit, but the competition is nearly meaningless.

The trouble is that you can expend a lot of effort without necessarily taking a measurable step at all, and the true intensity of any moment during your workout is better indicated by your heart rate than steps per minute. Most current fitness trackers, like my Fitbit One, are completely oblivious to those dimensions of your biometric data.

Since the Band continually monitors your heart rate, galvanic response, and skin temperature, it always knows exactly how much effort you’re putting into a workout. Coupling that data with more traditional step counting paints a much more accurate, detailed picture of your exercise.

During a workout

When you start a “workout”, the display changes to show you a stopwatch, your heart rate, and how many calories you’ve burned, in a large enough font to see at a glance:

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Apparently, six calories were harmed during the filming of this photo.

The display also stays on continuously instead of dimming or turning off after a moment (depending on your settings for normal use), so you can always glance down and see your current heart rate. You can also press a button to turn the display on and off manually if you’re not interested in monitoring the data in real-time and prefer to conserve battery.

After a workout

After you’ve concluded your workout session is when things get interesting. The Health app analyzes the data collected during your session and presents a nice summary of your workout. For example, tennis practice with my friend Bob:

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Don’t call 911 based on that “1 min” number. Mine’s normally much better.

The 1 min and 2 min stats could be particularly interesting given recent findings about heart rate recovery values immediately after exercise. I’ve found that the numbers shown in the app vary pretty widely compared to my manual measurements though, and sometimes they don’t display at all. I’m not sure if that’s due to user error on my part somehow or if the Band could do with a bit more intelligence about how to interpret the numbers, but there’s potential there.

Sleep tracking

Tracking how long and well I sleep each night has surprised me as one of my favorite things about the Band. My Fitbit One had a sleep tracking feature, but I only used it a few times. I wasn’t very impressed with the data that the Fitbit captures and transferring the tracker to and from its wrist strap was a hassle that I wasn’t prepared to deal with twice a day.

The Band’s integrated heart rate and skin temperature sensors greatly improve how much detail it can provide about the quantity and quality of your sleep. And, there’s no operational inconvenience since you’re already wearing it. Just put it in sleep mode and sleep.

For example, this was an average night of sleep for me during the Microsoft MVP Summit in November, right after I started using my Band:

I drank an awful lot of coffee that week.

I drank so much coffee that week.

The total sleep number seems trivial at first. After all, anyone can use simple arithmetic to figure out roughly how long they slept.

Having more accurate data about the quantity and quality of the sleep you get is interesting though. I actually skipped a late night event 11/05 and got some extra sleep to prepare for the next day, directly based on seeing the miserable data in the screenshot above.

In the weeks since that I’ve been using the Band, starting the day with my Actual Sleep number has been consistently useful. Depressing sometimes, but useful.

Protip: Always enable sleep mode at night

It’s crucial to put the Band into its sleep tracking mode if you wear it at night. Not only to track your sleep, but because sleep mode automatically squelches all notifications.

The one night I forgot to do this, the Band buzzed me awake probably twenty times before I realized what was happening. Never again.

Missed opportunity with alarms

Speaking of sleep, the Band is also great at disrupting your sleep if you want it to.

It has a simple vibrating alarm that works well. I didn’t trust it at first, hedging my bets with alarms on my phone and tablet at +5 and +10 minutes during the first week. Its prolonged vibrating alert on the inside of my wrist was very effective though. I never needed the backup alarms.

Unfortunately, you can only set alarms for single fixed times, without any options for recurrence or dynamic adjustment based on your sleep cycle.

Since the Band is already monitoring how your sleep cycle is going, it would be great if alarms could optionally wake you just after a block of restful and/or light sleep.

Something like that would be a killer feature for people who nap (you should). If the Band’s alarm could wake you after one sleep cycle, you could get the maximum benefit with minimum time investment every single time.

Battery Life

I’ve heard concerns about the claimed 48 hours of battery life. Of course, we all automatically assume that’s only achievable only under unrealistic best-case circumstances. Certainly, the last thing I want to worry about is one more gadget that needs to be charged twice a day.

After a few weeks, what I’ve found is that it’s mostly a non-issue. The Band charges quickly enough that you can top it off with enough juice for a full day and night of use by plugging it in for a few minutes each day.

If you shower every morning or night, that’s a perfect time to charge the Band since it’s not fully waterproof and you’ll need to take it off. ~45 minutes on the charger each morning was sustainable while I was at the MVP Summit, for example.

Time spent in front of a computer is also a good time to charge the Band since it’s sometimes in the way while typing anyway and it charges quickly via USB connection to either a Mac or PC. I keep this nifty charging stand on my desk and toss the Band on the charger when I’m working from my home office, letting it serve as a crude remote display for my phone’s notifications while it charges.

The time it died

That said, if you deviate from your routine and forget to charge it one day, good luck making it through a second. I accidentally skipped a day few Fridays ago and didn’t realize how far behind I was getting on the charge until it was too late (5%).

By early Saturday morning during a quick workout, the Band vibrated and notified me that it was almost dead and needed to be charged. It actually did last long enough for me to complete my workout, get home, and get it on the charger:

Yikes!

Yikes! That’s cutting it a bit too close…

The reported charge jumped back up to 40% fairly quickly while I ate breakfast, and I decided that should be good enough to play tennis for a couple hours.

Unfortunately, the same low battery notification popped up again just an hour into my practice session and didn’t last through my workout the second time around. Clearly, the Band and I do not agree about what 40% of 48 hours means.

The reported battery percentage simply seems to be incorrect. It reports charging up to 40-50% very quickly, but that doesn’t come close to being good for half of the claimed 48 hour battery life.

In fact, the charging speed seems to decrease geometrically, with each 10% increment taking noticeably longer than the one before. Getting all the way to 100% doesn’t take incredibly long though, so this ultimately isn’t a showstopper as long as you understand that the displayed percentages are misleading.

Microsoft really needs to fix the accuracy of the reported charge, either in a future hardware revision or (hopefully) a firmware update.

Data retention through blackouts

I’ve seen complaints that the Band doesn’t retain the data it has collected when its battery dies, making the longevity of a single charge doubly important. So, I was disappointed that I had just lost two hours of intense activity data when my Band died in the middle of practice that Saturday morning.

However, I was pleased to find this on my phone when I charged the Band back up later:

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I can’t get enough of these heart rate graphs of my workouts.

About 25 minutes of data was missing from the end of our session, but the Band retained everything up until when the battery had died completely. I don’t know if it synced that to my nearby phone just before running out of juice or retained the data on-board, but the Band definitely succeeded in protecting what data it could during the blackout.

Durability

Since the Band seems designed to be worn with the display on the inside of your wrist, it’s basically impossible not to bang, rub, or grind the face of it on a few surfaces each day. Frankly, mine hasn’t fared well at all in the durability department:

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Immediately after using a polishing cloth. Mine will never look better than this.

That’s no worse than my Fitbit One looks, even though it enjoys the luxury of spending most of its time in a pocket, but still pretty rough for just a few weeks of abuse. So far, the scratches don’t at all impact touch performance or screen visibility, so the superficial damage doesn’t bother me very much.

However, you’re probably in for disappointment if you’re hoping to keep a Band in pristine cosmetic condition for very long. The Band’s next generation desperately needs a more durable coating if it remains optimized to be worn with the display facing inward.

Note: To be fair, the thing did come with a screen protector included in the bag at no charge, which I opted not to use. I never use cases or screen protectors on my phones, but maybe this would have been a good time to make an exception.

Aqua achtung?

The lack of waterproofing is something that concerns me. Microsoft’s page about caring for the Band puts it this way:

Microsoft Band is water resistant, but not waterproof. Don’t swim with, shower with, or submerge your Microsoft Band.

That’s a bit vague when you’re dealing with a $200 device.

So far, my Band has seen its share of splashes while I’ve washed my hands and washed dishes, without any trouble.

It will be interesting to see how it holds up next Summer when the Georgia humidity has me sweating buckets on the tennis court. The thought of having the charging connector pressed up against my sweating arm doesn’t inspire confidence, but I’m hoping for the best.

Starbucks

I can’t write about the Band without at least mentioning the Starbucks tile. I always use the Starbucks app on my phone to pay for purchases there anyway, so pushing that down to the Band seemed like it would be a handy feature.

It does work as advertised. The first few times I used it, I got comments like “That’s so cool.” and “I’ve never seen anything like that before.” Always nice.

Frankly though, I found it to be a more of a gimmick than useful tool. Fumbling to open the Starbucks tile on the Band, keeping it visible until it’s time to pay, and then getting it to scan at whatever angle a particular register’s scanner is situated is more hassle than just using the Starbucks app on your phone.

I suppose this would be useful in a pinch if you forgot your phone. Other than that, I don’t see myself using it other than to demo the feature.

Summary

In summary, the Band is nearly every bit as impressive as it looks in the promotional videos. Refinement in several areas would be welcome, but the Band is an impressive first foray into the wearables category and strikes a compelling balance between the role of a fitness tracker and a smartwatch.

If you’re okay with the caveats that it’s not going to look pristine for long, that it’s not waterproof, and that you need to charge it daily, I absolutely recommend picking one up. I have enjoyed mine and look forward to wearing it for the foreseeable future.