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Microsoft Band Part One: Everyday Functions

In this first half of the review, Windows Phone's digital Tiles inhabit a rectangular wristband that works on its own or syncs to a phone.

Microsoft

This is the first part of my two-part review of the Microsoft Band, after I wore it nearly every day and for many nights over a month-long time period. In this part, I focus on how the device functions for ordinary things, like connecting with your smartphone to display notifications. The second review will focus more on the Band’s fitness-fanatic features.


I know what you’re thinking: Another wrist thingy?

You’re right: Wearable tech is a crowded space. Last month, Microsoft entered the ring with a device that it thinks can stand out from the crowd.

The Microsoft Band is a $200 gadget that works on its own and gets more useful when connected to a nearby smartphone. It measures a variety of data points using its 10 sensors. And it syncs this data back to your profile in the Microsoft Health app. This Band has a leg up on competitors like the Moto 360 or Apple Watch because, unlike them, it plays nice with iOS, Android and Windows Phone.

Its interface uses digital tiles that are like mini versions of the ones found on a Windows Phone. Several of these tiles have numbers that represent activity, like the number of new Facebook notifications I received. Two basic buttons — a Power button and an Action button — run alongside the Band’s screen, and its adjustable clasp helps to tweak the fit after buying it in one of three sizes.

As much as I liked the band’s good battery life and ability to connect to any of the three major operating systems, its look and feel are not where they should be for a device that’s meant to be on a wrist at all times.

What is it like to wear this thing?

There’s no easy way to say this: Wearing the Microsoft Band feels like being punished. Its stiff build and angular shape left me looking forward to taking it off. When I put my baby to sleep at night, it roughly dragged against his skin as I placed him in his crib. When I slept wearing the band to measure my sleep patterns, I couldn’t lie on my stomach with my hands under my pillow, because the Band felt like a rock. After a month of wear, I got a little more used to it, but I still didn’t like it.

Microsoft

While the Moto 360 has a stylish — albeit large — round face, and Apple’s forthcoming Apple Watch has a portrait-rectangular face that reminds me of a geeky calculator wristwatch, the Microsoft Band has a thin, landscape-rectangular face. This shows comparably less data on the screen, and forced me to do a lot of swiping to navigate.

On the upside, this smaller screen can give the Microsoft Band noticeably good battery life. The company estimates that its battery will last 48 hours, and I got that in several instances. At times, the battery died a little earlier. I noticed this when I used the Band in activity-measuring mode, measuring a run or other activity.

The Microsoft Band can be worn with its screen on the outside or inside of your wrist. Unlike the Moto 360, which has a screen that conveniently wakes when you turn your wrist to glance at it, the Microsoft Band screen stays dark until you press its Power button. This meant I had to use two hands to do something as simple as checking the time, which got really annoying.

This Band won’t win any fashion accolades. It only comes in one color, and my screen had a lot of scratches after a month. (For $10, you can buy a Zagg screen protector to put on your Microsoft Band for scratch protection.)

Put your phones away

If you can manage to put looks and comfort aside, the Microsoft Band gives you a more subtle way to interact with your phone.

It connects to phones so that incoming notifications are displayed simultaneously on the Band’s screen. (IPhones connect via Bluetooth Low Energy, and Android and Windows Phones use traditional Bluetooth.) I tested my Band primarily using the iPhone, and saw notifications that normally appear on my lock screen — like incoming calls, text messages, emails and Facebook notifications — on my Band.

This meant that rather than sitting down for lunch with an old friend and keeping my phone on the table, I put my phone away in my bag. Instead of playing with my son while keeping my phone handy as I waited for a work call, I could rely solely on the Microsoft Band to vibrate and tell me who was on the phone when the call came in.

Some notifications, like longer emails and details about Facebook notifications, must be read on your phone, and the Band notification tells you to see your phone for more. And you can’t reply to these messages using iOS

If your Band is connected to an Android or Windows Phone, you can only select canned text messages for your reply. With Windows Phone, you can also tap and hold the Action button until you see “Listen” on the screen, then say, “Send text to Joe,” or whoever, before speaking a new message. A Microsoft spokesman said future updates will enable more options for audio replies.

On the downside, my iPhone and Microsoft Band lost their connection after a while. A Microsoft representative said this was a problem between iOS and Bluetooth Low Energy, and Microsoft has filed a bug with Apple, asking them to fix this. An Apple spokesperson had no comment. Meanwhile, users must go into Settings on their phones to reconnect the Band and iPhone.

Other perks to joining the Band

Here’s how your wrist looks just before paying for something at Starbucks.
Here’s how your wrist looks just before paying for something at Starbucks.

I’ll focus on the Microsoft Band’s fitness-centric features next week, but several other built-in sensors also track your behavior. For example, sleep patterns are measured, including your varying levels of sleep, when you wake and how long it takes you to fall asleep. Curious about how much sun you’re getting? Ultraviolet rays can be measured using a U.V. sensor in the Band.

If you frequent Starbucks, a special tile for the coffee shop can be added to your Band. After I set this up by entering my Starbucks card number, a bar code appeared on the Band so I could hold up my wrist at the store and buy a cake pop without a phone or wallet. But this didn’t integrate with my existing Starbucks iOS app.

Tiles that show information about weather, calendar and other categories can be added to the Band, and these are helpful when you want a shortcut to information without pulling out your phone.

If you’re curious about devices that double as fitness trackers and wrist computers that work with smartphones, the Microsoft Band is certainly capable. But its downsides and limitations are still too much of a drawback for the $200 price.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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