My Weekend with the Microsoft Band

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When I first heard about the Microsoft Band (which happened to be at 10pm during the bottom of the 9th of Game 7 of the World Series), I was immediately skeptical of it being a solid competitor in the ever growing wearables market. However, after hearing several co-workers express interest in the device, I began to back off that position and decided I should actually use it for a few days and form a firsthand opinion.

What type of device is it?

While products like the Fuelband, Fitbit, and Jawbone UP are all clearly marketed as activity trackers, Microsoft is pushing the Microsoft Band as both an activity/health tracker and productivity device. This means that Microsoft is aiming more towards the Android Wear/Apple Watch category, rather than focusing purely on health and fitness. After using the device for several days, I think I can safely say it falls short in competing with both ends of the market–a jack of all trades, but a master of none.

The pros and cons of going cross-platform

I’m thrilled to see Microsoft launch with support for Windows Phone, Android, and iOS. It’s good competition that will keep the market moving forward. However, the initial offering does leave a bit to be desired, especially on iOS. I’ve been using HealthKit a lot, so I was disappointed to see it missing that integration, especially since it supports heart rate and I currently don’t own a HealthKit compatible heart rate sensor. Microsoft has confirmed HealthKit support is coming, but no timetable has been given. And the other big missing piece, Cortana, means no voice support or text dictation, which are critical features for any wristable.

Fashion/Comfort

The Microsoft Band clearly has a bit of an identity crisis. It’s form factor is similar to other activity trackers, but it’s attempting to offer up the functionality of some of the larger wrist wearables. The outer straps are similar in feel to a Fuelband, but the heart rate/clasp on the top (or bottom, depending on how you wear it), proved to be less comfortable. The display is long and flat, creating an odd look on your wrist. The other activity trackers aim to be part of the sport category from a fashion perspective, but I would classify the Microsoft Band as “techy sport,” given the large, flat, glossy display.

As I mentioned, Microsoft is also pushing for users to choose how they wear the device. The Microsoft Band website has many photos showing users wearing the device with the screen facing up on top of your wrist, as well as with the screen facing down on the bottom of your wrist. To me, it’s most comfortable (and most usable, but I’ll get to that later) when I wear it facing down. The heart rate sensor just feels better on top, and the flat surface feels more natural on the bottom of my wrist.

However, that leaves me with the band clasping on top of my wrist, which won’t make any fashion trends for 2015. I also scratched the right hand side of the screen after wearing it with screen facing down after less than 24 hours. As it turns out, my wrist rests on a lot of surfaces (desk, table, etc), which is a pretty big problem since Microsoft is encouraging users to wear it this way.

This is one of the biggest areas that the Microsoft Band falls short. It is not anywhere near as comfortable as my Nike Fuelband, and simply isn’t as fashionable as some of the Android Wear watches we are seeing–not to mention the Apple Watch. With the Microsoft Band, I have an activity tracker that isn’t as comfortable as other activity trackers, and a smart watch that isn’t anywhere near as fashionable as some others. I have a hard time believing there will be much demand from a mainstream consumer for this device.

Setup/Pairing

Microsoft did not make the initial pairing process as easy as it could have been. Microsoft touts Bluetooth 4.0 support, but for some reason they choose to force users to go through a slightly convoluted pairing process where the user has to open the Microsoft Health app, sign in and elect to pair, and then be told to leave the app, open settings, and pair through the system bluetooth menu. There are plenty of devices that use BTLE to make the initial pairing process a breeze, but Microsoft appears to have overlooked this small but important detail.

Display

The Microsoft Band features a display that wraps in the same direction as the straps, where as most watch displays are perpendicular to the straps. My Fuelband also does this, however, with the Fuelband I’m only viewing a small number of characters per interaction (the current time, the number of steps, etc) on a small, LED scoreboard style ‘screen.’ The Microsoft Band is a different story. Microsoft has packed a 1.3 x 0.43-inch, 320 x 106-pixel TFT LCD touch display for the user to see more than just simple data.

While Microsoft has provided a way to display more information in an activity tracker form factor, that doesn’t mean it’s all that useful. Since the display is wrapped in the direction of the straps, it makes it quite awkward to read textual content on the display, especially if you are wearing the Microsoft Band on the top of your wrist. It is very difficult to get your arm and wrist to bend in a way that is parallel with your eyes, so you often end up in this awkward position of stretching your arm to an uncomfortable angle, or you end up tilting your neck to the point of nearly touching your shoulder to be able to read content. Flipping the display onto the bottom of your wrist makes this problem less awkward. I suspect this is why some of Microsoft’s promotional material shows people wearing the device this way, but then you are left with the fashion choice of having the clasp on top.

When Apple unveiled their Watch, there was a lot of critical feedback for it looking “just like a watch.” I had hopes and dreams of Apple creating something revolutionary from a form factor perspective, and absolutely loved the Fuelband-inspired concept that made the rounds before the announcement. But it turns out a screen that flows with the band means the user can’t use the device in a natural way, and content laid out vertically in that form factor simply presents no useable horizontal space: a key feature for texts, emails, and other types of apps. I have no doubt Apple experimented with form factors exactly like the Microsoft Band and the Nike Fuelband, as well as designs we will never see, and landed right back on the usable design that has been around for centuries.

Notifications

I have a few gripes with notifications. First, there are no actionable notifications. This means I can’t reply to a text or favorite a tweet. All I can do is dismiss the notification from the Microsoft Band. If you don’t handle a notification on your Band, then the badge number on the various tiles continues to increase until you clear it, regardless of whether or not you have handled it on your phone. In addition, if I am using my phone, I still get buzzed on my wrist. This isn’t necessarily a problem on Microsoft’s end, since there is no way to actually control that through iOS API’s (to my knowledge), but it’s a detail I hope to see Apple get right. If I am using my phone, and a banner appears, I should not get buzzed on my watch as well. It’s a double interruption. It’s also an advantage Apple has by owning the iOS platform, because the Watch will be able to attain this sort of deep integration with other devices, whereas the Microsoft Band will likely not.

With all that said, notifications are practically useless on the Microsoft Band without requiring interaction from your other hand. When an email comes in, I get to see who the message is from and the first three or four words of the subject. Same story with text messages. That means to actually read the notification, I have to either bring my other hand up to the device and tap the notification or get my phone out. Larger smartwatch screens are able to show more information, meaning I can get more context without always needing a free hand. In its current form, the real value proposition is just a vibration alert, and giving me a few additional words to decide if I need to physically interrupt what I am doing and handle the notification.

In addition, interacting with notifications is bit awkward. Scrolling just feels very weird with a display this size and in this orientation. The tip of my finger is literally as large as the vertical display, so trying to scroll content is not very graceful. In addition, as Apple has pointed out with the Apple Watch, on a display this small my finger gets in the way while interacting with the content. Since the display only shows two lines at time (with only a few words at a time), it’s a constant battle of block the content, barely scroll, read two lines, and repeat.

Using the Microsoft Band in this way makes the value of the digital crown on the Apple Watch so painfully obvious. With the Apple Watch, I’ll have a screen that has more real estate to display textual content, and scrolling mechanism to smooth scroll as I read the content without ever having to take my eyes off the screen by having my finger block it. The solution is clear in hindsight, but just an another example of the amount thought Apple puts into its product decisions.

Casual Interaction

Microsoft Band doesn’t have a feature that causes the display to wake automatically when you lift your wrist. This means that whenever I want to see what time it is, I must lift my wrist and use my second hand to wake the display. In addition, the buttons are on the inside of your wrist (as opposed to the side closest to your hand), so you must reach across and around the display in order to press the button and wake it up. While I haven’t yet used a smart watch that supports auto wake when you lift your wrist, I imagine it’s a feature that will become a requirement once used for the first time, similiar to Touch ID–you can’t live without it.

This is another place where Microsoft finds itself awkwardly in the middle. The Fuelband doesn’t have an auto wake feature, but its mechanical button is better and more satisfying to press. Higher end smart watches all have an accelerometer to wake the display immediately when lifted. The Microsoft Band is essentially the worst of both spectrums.

Sleep Tracking

One of the most interesting features for me was the sleep tracking ability. I was disappointed to find out Apple Watch would not support sleep tracking, at least in the initial version. I’ve also never had a device that tracks my sleep, so it’s data I’m interested in learning about and seeing how it can improve my life. Microsoft Band did a good job in this area, as I was able to wear it throughout the night and it gave me a good amount of detail into my sleep patterns. (Newsflash: it would do me good to get more sleep.)

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However, I do have three main complaints with the feature and its execution. First off, Microsoft touts that you can get a couple of days battery life with the Microsoft Band, but you are going to have to charge it eventually. For me, charging time is naturally bedtime. Only tracking my sleep patterns every other night would be a disappointment. Second, the device isn’t quite comfortable enough to sleep with. I imagine most people remove watches, bands, and most jewelry before bed, so sleeping with a slightly uncomfortable wearable on your wrist every night could actually contribute to you sleeping less, at least until you became accustomed to it. And finally, I had to put the Microsoft Band into sleep mode every night before it would start tracking those statistics (a mode that required several swipes and taps to achieve). When I get into the bed late at night after a long day, the last thing I want to have to do is remember to put my wearable into sleep tracking mode. That is something that should “just work.”

This led to a small epiphany for me; why am I trying to wear a device that is meant to track my activity at all times during the day, and be a productivity device, when we know the battery technology is not there to make it last for a day or two at most? For now, most of us should continue to accept the reality of needing to charge our devices at least once every couple of days, so perhaps I’m simply looking at the wrong device for sleep tracking. If you think about it, a smart bed actually would solve all of the problems I have listed above: it wouldn’t need charging, I wouldn’t need to alter what I wear to bed, and I don’t need to put it in sleep mode. That’s exactly what companies like Select Comfort and their SleepIQ product are trying to do.

With all the tradeoffs I listed above, I think it’s obvious why Apple has left sleep tracking out of the first version of the Apple Watch. Sure, a user may want “sleep tracking” in a product, but the user also doesn’t have a full understanding of the tradeoffs that must be made in order to make that feature great. In this case, Apple has simply chosen to let it be a problem solved by a device that is more capable of solving the problem, at least until they believe that they can solve it in a way that doesn’t introduce compromises to the user. For now, I don’t believe a wearable on your wrist is the answer for tracking sleep information.

GPS

One of other key features for the Microsoft Band is the standalone GPS tracker. This means you can leave your phone at home and still get full GPS level accuracy of your run. I tried this feature out and it worked great. However, when I am out and on a run, I still take my phone with me in order to stay connected in case I’m needed. Until I use a wearable that is fully connected and does not need to be paired with my phone, its still coming with me. The presence of GPS won’t be enough for me to leave my phone at the house.
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Sensors

The Microsoft Band also features several other sensors I have yet to mention. The UV sensor was most interesting to me. As someone who is subject to getting sunburned relatively easily, it was very nice to be able check the amount of UV at my location, as well as provide me with an estimate on how long it typically takes to get burned at that level. This is the type of feature that can actually change aspects of my life and make me more proactive in preventing my skin from being burned. However, I do have to specifically turn on the sensor and wait for a reading, rather than it always running passively and alerting me to certain conditions. I’m sure battery constraints prevent that from being a reality, but I’m looking forward to the day when that is not the case.

Then there’s the heart monitor. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know much about heart rate, and what types of measurements are ideal, which is why I simply had no idea if my heart rate measurements during my different activities were normal or not. With the Microsoft Band, its simply a number with a heart next to it. In the Microsoft Health app, I just see statistics like “average heart rate.” I would have liked to see a bit more coaching on what is considered good/average/etc. As hardware exposes more and more health information about the user, we need to make sure to provide that user with proper context.

For the step counter, I compared it to my iPhone 6, which I carried around the entire day along with wearing the Microsoft Band. At the end of the day the iPhone 6 had recorded ~2000 additional steps, compared to the Microsoft Band (15,000 vs 13,000). I have no idea which device is more accurate, but that seems like a fairly large difference.

Feature Box Comparison

I don’t want this piece to come across as overly negative towards the Microsoft Band. I’ve simply been doing a lot of thinking about the Apple Watch lately, and I think there are some key areas where Microsoft failed to make a great user experience. I think the Microsoft Band will stack up quite well when comparing devices in a spec-style checklist (It’s got sleep tracking! It’s got GPS! It’s cross platform! It detects UV!, It lets you read email!), but at the end of the day, it falls short of being truly great at anything.

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