Microsoft Band 2 Review: a massive hardware improvement
The original Microsoft Band released last year wasn’t meant to sell too well. It was really just an experiment to see if people would want a sensor-packed high-end health tracking wearable with a few smart-watch functions. You know, something a bit more than a Fitbit, but not as complicated and involved as an app-driven smart-watch. Microsoft had already done their SPOT smart-watch thing back in 2004 and it’s still unclear if enough has changed to make it a viable product category. It turns out the Microsoft Band was accidentally successful. It sold out pretty quickly and Microsoft had to ramp up production to meet demand.
People did want something like the Microsoft Band after all, but they also complained a lot about how it was uncomfortable and frankly ugly. It was also less than durable: the battery covers would peel off when you sweat too much, the metal would corrode with your sweat, then the charging connection would become unreliable because of that corrosion, etc. The Microsoft Band 2 aims to fix all of those complaints and turn this high end fitness tracker into something that you’ll really like. Let’s find out how they did.
At first glance, the Microsoft Band 2 is a massive upgrade from the original band in every aspect of its hardware design. Many of its sensors and capabilities are the same, but everything is put together in a much nicer, longer-lasting, better-looking package. In terms of tech specs, the Band 2 has a 32 mm x 12.8 mm, 320 x 128 pixel curved AMOLED screen with a lithium-polymer battery that should last about 48 hours. If you’re using GPS tracking for a long run or bicycle ride, the battery life will drop to no more than 5 hours. Operating temperature ranges from 14 F to 104 F and the operating altitude is -300m to 4877m.
For sensors, you’ve got an optical heart rate sensor, 3-axis accelerometer, gyrometer, GPS, ambient light sensor, skin temperature sensor, ultraviolet radiation sensor, capacitive sensor, galvanic skin response sensor, a microphone and a new addition of a barometer (for tracking flights of stairs climbed). There’s also a haptic vibration motor and Bluetooth 4.0 LE support. Unfortunately, like the original Microsoft Band, the Band 2 is not waterproof. Light rain and hand washing shouldn’t harm it, but it is not intended for being submerged in liquids.
Both Microsoft Bands also support syncing with the Microsoft Health app on Windows Phone, iOS, Android, Mac OSX and Windows PCs, but for this review we’ll focus on the Windows Phone integration.
The Microsoft Band 2 is a bit larger than the original one. The screen is larger, the band is wider, and the clasp is bigger. Above you can see the Microsoft Band 1 on top along with the Band 2 below. The Band 2 is clearly much better looking, though the elongated tile buttons seem a bit strange.
The body of the band is all metal now with a beautiful curved gorilla glass screen. It doesn’t scratch nearly as easily as the original Band’s screen did. Here you can also see the sleep/power button and the action button along with the microphone hole on the left. The rubbery wrist band attaches very smoothly to the metal body and tapers off to a thinner strip around your wrist.
On the inside of the band is where you’ll find the optical heart rate sensor. On the original band, this was part of the clasp, but it has been moved in this version. The two little slits in the metal next to the rubber area are used for alignment in manufacturing and don’t have any consumer-facing function.
The clasp has a pretty large bulge along with the galvanic skin response sensor.
The clasp functions similarly to the original Microsoft Band in that there is a slot with a track of notches inside where you can adjust the fit.
On the other end of the clasp mechanism, you see the small hooks that clip into the track on the other side. The two buttons on the side of the clasp retract the hooks for removal or tightening. You’ll also notice some metal contacts on the inside of this clasp. That’s the new charging/data port. Yes, it’s completely different than the previous band, but this one is no longer pressed against your skin. That means it should stay clean so that you can keep recharging the band’s batteries in the future.
The charging connector is a new design though. It holds itself in place using magnets, but the magnets just stick to whatever metal part of the clasp that they touch. It doesn’t guide the clasp onto the charging connectors like it should. You really have to manually adjust this charging cable to attach correctly and that’s pretty annoying.
On the other side is the ultraviolet radiation sensor that will periodically measure how much sunlight your skin is absorbing. In the software you can customize alerts to notify you if you’ve been out for too long. The sensor will also automatically keep track of how much ultraviolet radiation you’re being exposed to during workouts like bicycling, running, or playing golf.
In terms of branding, there’s a nice little square Microsoft logo on the strap … and that’s it. Very tasteful.
The rubber strip (sorry, “Thermal Plastic-elastomer Silicone Vulcanate (TPSiV)” strip) between the body of the band and the metal clasp is much more pliable than the previous version, but it also seems more prone to scuff marks. Be careful not to rub it against your golf clubs while reaching for a different club on the course.
While the curved screen looks absolutely gorgeous, there’s one big disadvantage when compared to the flat screen of the original Microsoft Band: glare! No matter what angle you turn your wrist to try to see the screen, the curved screen causes reflections that obscure the screen and generally make it unreadable especially outdoors. With the flat screen of the original Band, if there was some glare, all you had to do was turn it a little in order to see the screen. Unfortunately that’s no longer the case.
One great new feature in the Band 2 is an updated clock mode that can be activated automatically. On the original Band you were limited to always-on or -off. With auto mode on the Band 2, you specify which wrist and orientation (inside/outside) you’re wearing the device on, and it will automatically show the clock and date when you look at the screen.
As a health & fitness tracker, the Microsoft Band 2 is packed with features. Many of its capabilities are the same as the original Microsoft Band which has grown numerous functions since its release a year ago. (Be sure to check out our original review, as well as our wrap-up 10 months later.) As you might expect, the Microsoft Band 2 also has a couple of new features that aren’t available on the original Band.
The first one is the aforementioned ultraviolet radiation tracking. The original Band did have a sensor for that, but you had to manually turn it on periodically if you wanted to know how much sun you were getting. The Band 2 can automatically monitor the radiation levels and alert you periodically. Of course, how much UV radiation is too much depends on your skin, so the alerts are customizable; maybe 30 minutes of sun is a lot for you or maybe you won’t get burned even after hours of exposure. You can specify your preference. The UV radiation is also automatically measured while doing any of the preset workouts outdoors, so you can see in the app how much sun you got during those activities.
The Microsoft Health app on your phone will periodically download all of the data collected by the Band. The software has been updated with a blue color now and the icon has changed to a heart. Ideally the app would use my preferred Windows Phone system color like all of the other well-designed Windows Phone apps do, but this is not the case.
The Microsoft Health app also has no live tile, no secondary live tiles, no theme color, non-transparent tile, no Cortana app integration, and no lock-screen integration. The static/dead tile isn’t even transparent. Somebody needs to teach Microsoft how to make a proper Windows Phone app! It would be so much better if I could pin live tiles to my start screen that periodically updated with my latest stats… or activate Cortana from my bluetooth headset/headphones and say, “Microsoft Health, what is my heart rate?” or “Microsoft Health, how far have I gone?” But no; the Microsoft Health app is dumbed-down so that it’s consistently lacking on all smartphone platforms.
The web-based dashboard has seen some huge improvements though. We’ll talk more about the Workout planner below, but there are far more graphs and stats here than before.
Another new feature is the Comparisons section. This area lets you see how your personal activity compares to the average individuals in your age/weight/BMI class.
We took the Band 2 to the golf course to test out its very unique golf game tracking feature. First, you have to decide which golf course you’re going to go to and use the Microsoft Health app on your phone to load its map and data into the Microsoft Band. After that’s done, you can choose to start the tracking on the Band 2 in the golf tile and then start playing. The Band uses its GPS location to know which part of the golf course you’re on and it shows the hole number along with its par count and yardage measurements on the screen so you can easily tell that information without looking at the sign.
Next comes the real magic. The Band is supposed to use its sensors to automatically recognize your golf strokes. Then when you go to find where the ball landed, it will use the GPS along with your next stroke to measure the distance that you hit the ball in the previous stroke. All of this data will sync to the Microsoft Health app on your phone when you’re done and if you want even more comprehensive golf game tracking information, you can set it up to sync with TaylorMade MyRound Pro, which will also show your shots on a map of the course.
Unfortunately in our tests (thanks to Harry Hon for swinging the golf clubs), the Band didn’t automatically keep track of each stroke very well. It may have worked the first time, but subsequent strokes were barely recognized. We may have misinterpreted the “wear the Band on your leading wrist” instructions. Even still if a stroke is not recognized it is extremely easy to swipe to the left on the touch screen of the Microsoft Band 2 in order to correct this. It’s much more convenient than using a pencil & paper or your smartphone to keep track of your score even when the automatic swing tracking doesn’t work. You can also subtract strokes if it accidentally recognizes a practice swing or you just want a “do-over”. Here at Pocketnow, we’re mostly terrible at playing golf so if you’d like to learn more about the golfing features of the Microsoft Band and Band 2, you might want to check out Golf Monthly and Peter Finch Golf.
Custom workouts and general exercise
Along with the Microsoft Band 2, the Microsoft Health dashboard also gets an update and there’s a new section that lets you set up custom guided workouts. Previously, the Microsoft Health app had a whole list of guided workouts that you can sync to your Band so that you could be guided through different exercises. When you downloaded one of the preset workouts and chose to start it on your Microsoft Band, it would tell you which exercises to do for how long, then it would vibrate when it’s time to rest, then vibrate again and tell you to do the next set and so on. Of course, it would keep track of your heart rate the whole time and calculate things like calories burned.
The pre-made guided workouts are great for the beginners who just want to quickly get an exercise program going to improve their general health, but if yo’re a pro and want to focus on more-specific aspects of your fitness growth now you can log-in to Dashboard.MicrosoftHealth.com and actually create your own sets of guided workouts. Basically you start with the “Build a workout” button and then choose exercises from a panel on the right to add to the warm-up, workout and cool down sections. The “find an exercise” button lets you search through all of the exercises that the Microsoft Band will recognize and a + button next to each lets you add it to your custom workout. What’s more is that each exercise that you can choose from includes an instructional video about how to do that exercise correctly. If you don’t know what an “Abs Snail” is, simply click the thumbnail picture next to the name of the exercise and it will load a video that shows you. That is extremely helpful.
Unfortunately you’re stuck with the list of exercises that the Microsoft Band is programmed to recognize. You can’t program it to guide you in a Tai Chi form or your own custom Yoga class. For those you can still use the generic exercise tracking function, but you need to learn the moves yourself. The general exercise function will simply measure your heart rate activity and burned calories while you’re doing whatever you feel like doing. That can be used for any sport or workout.
Bicycling and Running
The original Microsoft Band was released with support for GPS tracking while running. Bicycling support was added later and functions in the same way, but simply keeps the data separate. However, you can nicely sync that data with Strava now. The map of your route, your heart rate graph, altitude, calories burned, etc. are all transferred automatically without having to have the Strava app on your phone (which doesn’t exist for Windows Phone). The data can also sync to MapMyFitness, RunKeeper, myFitnessPal, and HealthVault.
The big change with the Microsoft Band 2 as mentioned earlier is that your long outdoor workouts now also monitor ultraviolet radiation. So after a long run or bicycle ride you can see in the Microsoft Health app just how much radiation you were exposed to.
Another great change is that the Band 2 is has a much smoother form factor. With the original Band, the corners would actually rub against the bar tape on our bicycle handlebars, causing the tape to tear.
Steps, Stairs, and Sleep
No health tracker would be complete without the passive tracking of daily activities. The original Microsoft Band only automatically tracked steps taken while walking (along with your constant heart rate). With the Band 2, and its new barometer sensor, it will now track how many flights of stairs you climb every day as well.
Originally, the Microsoft Band lacked automatic sleep tracking, but an update brought sleep detection via cloud analysis. The Microsoft Band 2 still supports both manual sleep tracking and autodetection, but also adds a wake-up alarm that will vibrate the band to wake you at the most opportune time (before your specified wake-up time) based on your sleep activity.
The primary role of the Microsoft Band 2 is still to serve as a fitness tracker, but it also includes a lot of other smartwatch-style features. You can’t install third-party apps per se, but it does include a few tiles for connecting with third-party services such as Facebook, Twitter, and Starbucks.
The Microsoft Band can display and alert you to almost all of the notifications that you would normally get on your smartphone. You can see Facebook updates, Skype instant messages, emails, text messages, calendar appointments, Twitter mentions, etc. In actual use, the notifications are frequently late. Sometimes they’re only a couple seconds late, sometimes 15 seconds, sometimes they never arrive. This seems to be a software issue with the Microsoft Health app since it also happens with the original Band and did not happen with earlier versions of the Health app. Hopefully this can be fixed with a software update at some point.
When the notifications are working, they’re fairly comprehensive: the Band 2 will even alert the user when the connected phone’s Battery Saver mode turns on, for example. It all works on Windows Phone, Android, and iOS, too. Most other smartwatches are made to only work with a particular smartphone brand, or at most Android and iOS, so this is a refreshing change.
There are tiles that you can enable for each type of notification. Phone, SMS, Email, Calendar, MSN Money stock quotes, Facebook Messenger, Facebook, and Twitter all get their own tiles while a “Notification Center” tile handles all of the other notifications from things like Skype, Xbox Smartglass, News apps, etc. It makes sense that the Phone and SMS functions have their own tiles because you can actually respond to those notifications. You can create custom pre-made responses that you can select as replies for incoming phone calls or incoming text messages.
We thought this was an awesome idea and quickly filled out some custom responses, but in actual use it wasn’t practical at all thanks to the two-handed nature of smartwatches/smartbands in general. We couldn’t reach the buttons to select a premade response while we were bicycling, while we were on the motorcycle, or even while driving a car. With Quiet Hours on Windows Phone, which can auto-reply to text messages when the phone knows the user is “busy” during an appointment, the auto-replies on the Band 2 become even less necessary.
If, however, your phone is on the charger and you receive a text message on your wrist while sitting on the couch or at another desk, you can reply to that message using a QWERTY keyboard on the Band’s touchscreen. Yes, this sounds ridiculous due to the tiny dimensions of the Band 2’s display, but it works surprisingly well even if your big fingers are terribly inaccurate at typing (and they will be). Swiping the right edge will show what you typed and allow you to edit words, add/delete words, or send the message.
You’ve also got access to Cortana’s speech UI from the Microsoft Band if you’re using it with Windows Phone 8.1.1. Her voice recognition is another option when replying to text messages and you can send her any other commands by holding down the action button on the Microsoft Band in order to start listening mode. You can tell it’s started by a small vibration and of course the screen will say “Listening.” It would have been so much better if the Microsoft Band had included an always-listening mode that could activate Cortana by saying “Hey Cortana.” As it is, using two hands to activate Cortana’s listening mode is far less usable or efficient than pressing one button on a Bluetooth headset or even reaching for your phone with one hand.
You can use Cortana from the Microsoft Band to do just about everything Cortana can do on your phone. You can set reminders based on locations, record notes, send text messages, make calls, start Skype video calls, tell NBC News to read the headlines, tell MyFitnessPal to record your weight, create a tweet, load particular friends’ Facebook pages, etc. You can even set the temperature on your Nest thermostat if you have an app like this installed on your phone. Being able to access all Cortana enabled 3rd party apps is a pretty big deal, but because the smart band does not have a speaker, many of the 3rd party apps use the phone’s speaker (or your headphones) for audio output.
Windows Phone’s native Cortana responses are usually printed on the Band’s screen and you’re given some buttons to respond with on the touch screen (or you can press the action button again to send more voice commands to Cortana). For example, if you tell Cortana, “Text so and so, I’m on my way” a confirmation will appear on the screen that lets you send the message with a touch screen button instead of saying “Send it” out loud. As mentioned previously, the Microsoft Health app does not enable any new voice commands in Cortana, so you won’t be able to ask her about any health-related statistics.
Getting back to the notification tiles, it really doesn’t make sense that the Twitter, Facebook, Facebook messenger and even Email tiles need to be separate things. None of them have any special functionality and could easily be collapsed into the single “notifications” tile where all of the other notifications reside. By the way, pressing the action button when any of the notifications appear on the Band will go to quick read mode which will show the words in the message in a large font sequentially so that you can much more easily read the message. You can change the speed at which these words display in the preferences.
There’s some powerful customizability built into the Microsoft Health app when it comes to making the Band 2 your own. You can enable/disable tiles on the band. You can change the colors and choose a background image. You can rearrange the buttons so the ones that are most important to you are closest to the home screen. If you disable certain buttons, that will also disable their notifications which is great if you really don’t care about some of the smartwatch aspects like email notifications or Twitter mentions. Unfortunately, the Band 2 still has the same tile-count limitations as the original Band: you can only have 13 live tiles active at one time. This means you’ll likely have to sacrifice some functionality by disabling certain tiles.
The Microsoft Band 2 is rated to last about two days on a single battery charge just like the original Band. We’ve found it to be pretty close to that, but if you do a lot of GPS tracking, the battery life will go down faster. The battery capacity varies slightly depending on the size of your Band 2. The small bands have a 170mAh battery and medium/large Bands have 200mAh. It seems to recharge very quickly; 30 minutes gets you from 0 to about 70% power. So if you put it on the charger while you’re taking a shower and getting ready with your morning ritual, it will certainly get you through until your next shower. (You should take it off during that time anyway since it’s only water resistant not water proof.) Also, you’re going to want to sync this with your phone or PC before the battery dies completely because then it will lose all of the data collected since its last sync!
- + Huge imrovement in hardware design/quality over the original Microsoft Band
- + Platform agnostic sync apps available for Windows Phone, Android, iOS, Mac, and Windows.
- + Constant heart rate monitoring
- + Customizable guided workouts
- + Built in GPS receiver allows for run tracking without a phone
- + Two day battery life
- + Non-obtrusive design
- + Syncs with other health services
- – New charging mechanism is more difficult to attach
- – Curved screen is practically unreadable outdoors
- – Microsoft Health app lacks integration with Cortana, Windows Phone theme colors, live tile, secondary live tiles, transparent tiles, and lock-screen integration.
- – No speaker for audible notification announcements or Cortana interaction
- – Proprietary charging port
- – Watch mode is not customizable, doesn’t show battery level
- – No always-listening voice recognition mode
- – Notifications are occasionally late to display
The Microsoft Band is available for $249 from the Microsoft Store and online. The pricing is a lot less than some larger smart watches, but more than your average health tracking wrist band (though its feature set certainly reflects that balance). It’s also about $50 more than the original Microsoft Band was when that first came out, however given the massive upgrade in hardware design, that seems fair.
The Microsoft Band 2 finally puts some real strength behind Microsoft’s latest attempt at the wearables market. Rather than a “me too” product that copies Android Wear or Apple Watch smartwatches, the Band 2 is a fully-fledged health tracker with some unique features like golf tracking and ultraviolet radiation warnings along with some smartwatch-like features to help a bit with productivity. The primary use case for the Microsoft Band 2 is monitoring your body’s performance and giving you a means to improve it, not duplicating things that your smartphone already does … and that’s a good thing.
Special thanks to Kimber Matias and Harry Hon for modeling some of the workouts.