A weekend with the Microsoft Band 2

Staff Writer

On the eve of Halloween we at WinBeta got our hands on the new Microsoft Band 2, the unboxing of which can be seen here. Over the weekend, I got to incorporate the new fitness band into my daily life. Here are my experiences with it.

It’s important to note that I have never owned or exhaustively used any fitness band before. I did briefly try the previous Microsoft Band on at the Microsoft Store, so I can comment a bit about the comfort differences between the two. As such, I’m still learning about the Band 2 and about fitness bands in general.

Before I talk about the device’s ergonomics, it’s worth stating that I’m right-handed, and opted to put the device on my left hand, with the screen facing inward, the alien-green-glowing heart rate monitor shining itself on the veins at the base of my palm.

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]It’s significantly more premium looking than it’s predecessor.[/pullquote]

The first thing I’ll go over is the look and feel of the device. It’s significantly more premium looking than it’s predecessor. I attribute this to the curvier, more nuanced shape of the device, and the new metallic silver accenting littered throughout the device’s body.

Microsoft Band 2
It’s got cuuurves.

Securing the device on my wrist was challenging at first (as you might recall from my gaffs in the unboxing video), but now I can do it on instinct. The linking of the two ends of the wrist band produces a satisfying metallic click a perhaps bit sturdy and reassuring in nature. Be assured that when the links are connected, you will know. Even better is the tactile sensation when pushing the metal clasp inward to tighten the band’s wrist. Every increment tighter produces a very beefy, pronounced and layered metallic click that feels symbiotic and seamless in nature. It’s a very satisfying feeling that speaks to the quality of the product.

Pressing the power and action buttons are similarly satisfying, though much more subtle. They remind me of much sharper versions of my Lumia 925’s buttons. Very solid.

While I’ve only briefly used the previous Band, I do recall how it felt on my wrist, and can echo the sentiment of many previous Band owners in that it’s not the most pleasant thing in the world. The new Band 2 improves considerably in this regard. The centerpiece containing the screen is wrapped by a curved silver metallic surface that practically disappears once it’s on your wrist. The same unfortunately cannot be said about the rubber wrist links, though I suspect that’s more because of my not being used to wearing watches or bands. Time will tell if the rubber continues to bother me, but I do wonder if there is a better material Microsoft could’ve used, one that doesn’t needlessly tug at and grip the hairs on my skin.

One issue I’ve mentioned in the unboxing write-up was the weight of the device. It feels heavy, and not in a pleasant way. At first I thought this was a feeling that would just disappear, much like a new, slightly heavier athletic shoe, but that hasn’t been the case thus far. Now, of course I’m not suggesting it’s so heavy it inhibits me in anyway. It’s never an issue, but it’s always noticeable, even during actual exercise. To round off how this feels, when I take off the Band 2, there’s a subtle sense of relief and freedom my liberated hand experiences.

Another weird ergonomic issue is the green glowing of the heart rate monitor. While it looks very cool and Sci-Fi at first, it gets annoying after a while, as during seemingly random times it the green light will just start shining, and it’s not entirely clear how it turns itself off. I find it a bit annoying as often times it will glow when pressed against my wrist, and if I expose my wrist at an angle, it’s like kryptonite gas is leaking from my veins.

The alien tracking device.

Speaking of wrist exposure, doing pushups with the band on has been a bit problematic, as I’m not familiar enough with the physics of the device that bending my wrist to do pushups often gets the band wedged between my hand and my forearm, which inhibits my ability to get into position, on top of being a bit painful.

Let’s move on to the meat of the device: its actual use.

The most immediate visible change is the size of the screen. While the touch screen’s length has shortened a bit, it’s gotten noticeably taller, making the screen visually take up more of the Band’s orthogonal height, and the dimensional area of the overall screen has increased. To borrow from my analogy in the unboxing, it’s like the transition from 16:9 aspect ration Surface screens to the now standard 3:2. Little difference dimensionally, but a world of difference in usability. Despite the small size, the screen doesn’t feel cramped in anyway. Labels and icons are big and clear, and it’s very easy to navigate with my thumb.

What isn’t easy is inputting time. The Band 2 can function as a sophisticated alarm clock and sleep monitor. The UI for inputting the desired wake time isn’t good. It essentially has each individual minute on the clock laid out in horizontally. Selecting a particular minute of the hour requires scrolling through each and every minute until you find the desired time. The issue is, when scrolling quickly, the individual minute labels blend together visually, making it hard to discern where I am in the scope of the list.

As for the actual alarm itself, it vibrates when waking me up. I’ve found that this has had mixed results. Sometimes it works. But often, I will sleep through at least two minutes of the band’s vibration, only to be awoken by my natural body clock and my rampant desire to escape terrible dreams of being poor and unable to afford new Lumia devices. There’s an option to set vibration harshness, so I will be upping that to see if it makes a difference.

Now, the alarm system has a feature called Smart Alarm, where the alarm will vary it’s waking time by up to 30 minutes prior to your intended time based on some trickery that helps it detect the optimal time to wake you up. I haven’t yet had a chance to try this on naps, but it hasn’t worked so well for night sleep, as waking me up 18 minutes before the target time doesn’t mitigate the ire of having to wake up in five hours for work.

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]the device’s sensors are scary accurate.[/pullquote]

Moving on to the actual fitness, I will say first that the device’s sensors are scary accurate. The barometer keeps track of the hills I climb in terms of building stories climbed, to an exact 10 stories. The heart rate monitor captures the average and peak heart rates of any exercise precisely, and I can vouch for the accuracy of the steps counter, as I jog predictable and routine distances so I have a strong idea of how far I’ve gone on any given session. It vibrates every one mile of distance that I cover, which intuitively gives me a very precise feel of how much distance I’ve covered, without having to rely on landmarks and measure laps like I’m used to.

It will also keep track of calories burned, and from what I understand it seems to be keeping track of all calories burned through the day, not just during exercise, which makes it very useful for counting calories against the delicious donuts and ice creams I have a penchant for. Curiously, I could not find any function on the Microsoft Health app that allowed me to input what I ate, for much easier calorie counting.

The night’s bounties.

I haven’t yet had a chance to sample the UV sensor, as all my outings this last weekend have been at night, but as someone who’s worried about UV exposure and doesn’t entirely trust the weather data found on the web, I am eager to try it.

Anytime I go for a run, the device prompts me for GPS tracking authorization, to which I inevitably succumb to my desires to be one with Big Brother and hit yes, during which it will search for a nearby GPS, which I assume is my phone (update: this is wrong, it has it’s own built-in GPS). Strangely, the workout won’t start until the GPS is locked unless you manually tell it to start anyway, during which it will continue searching for the one true path. The GPS locking took excruciatingly long the first time, but subsequent attempts took under 10 seconds each.

Setting up a workout isn’t terribly intuitive. There are generic sessions within the Band 2 itself, such as running, golfing (of all things), biking, and the very specific workout. Getting specific or tailored workouts has to be done through the Microsoft Health app on a paired phone, and features non-customizable workouts of questionable utility and authenticity, such as the “Rapid Fat Loss” which speaks nothing of burning calories, but focuses on strength training.

Or the “Get Ripped Abs” workout, which promises a cutting edge take on core exercises without “new age equipment” based apparently on the idea that men and only men centuries ago had ripped abs. Or “The Four Week Chest Blast”, which can apparently be completed in one hour, and features no form of scheduling for the rest of the four weeks.

All of these workouts read more like advertisements from business partners than legitimate, scientifically curated workout regimens. I could not find any workout plan relating to the pull-ups or chin-ups I was interested in. As I also wanted to automate my plank routine, I found a plan called Tabata Planks, which I decided to try out.

Syncing it to the phone was straightforward, and I went over to the dumbbell + clipboard icon to activate it. It essentially had me do 8 planks at 20 seconds each, with 10 second rests in between. Needless to say I was left severely underwhelmed and scratching my head at the usefulness of what the device just made me do. The device did handle all the timings for me automatically, using pleasant colorful green and red cues which took the manual timing out. Which was pleasant.

Microsoft Band 2
Slick user interfaces for not-so-slick workout plans

All told, I completely understand the cries of Band 2 users asking for customizable workouts. The options available, from what I’ve found, are simply too generic to be useful and do not in anyway consider the unique physical needs or handicaps of the individual.

Getting to more pleasant aspects of the Band 2’s functioning, one thing I found myself enamored with was the notifications mechanism. Whenever I get an incoming message or email, the Band 2 vibrates and enables me to read the message straight from my wrist, without having to dig the phone out of my pocket.

I realize this feature may be commonplace among fitness bands, but it’s a first for me, and it helped me better understand the practical appeal of wearables. The motion efficiency of not having to break the phone out of the pocket to do routine checking saves an immense amount of cognitive load, and makes my smartphone internet connectivity very pleasant.

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]there’s usually a slight 2 second or so delay between when the phone receives an incoming message, and when the band is notified of the new message’s presence.[/pullquote]

It’s not perfect though. In my experiences thus far, there’s usually a slight 2 second or so delay between when the phone receives an incoming message, and when the band is notified of the new message’s presence. While this does not pose an issue when in the move, it renders the band useless when I’m sitting down with the phone on the table. But I suppose that’s not really the intended use case for this system, so I can’t fault that.

I ain’t done wit’ you yet!

What I can fault is that the system doesn’t seem to sync up very well. Reading or clearing the new messages on my phone doesn’t reflect on the Band 2, as notifications from hours ago still linger.

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Battery life is stellar.[/pullquote]

As for battery life. Simply put, it’s stellar. I’m on my third day (after two whole days) of not charging and it still has about 30% left. I will report back on the actual charge speed, which I conveniently can’t report on seeing as how I’ve never needed to charge the device thus far. Hehe.

Finally, water resistance. While I wouldn’t dare submerge this thing in a bath or shower, as it’s not designed to do that, I have washed my soaped hands and brushed my teeth while wearing the Band 2 and it remains unaffected. It’s worth mentioning that moisture does frequently get stuck beneath the rubbery surfaces of the device, making removal and drying of the device necessary to continue the day without that icky sticky feeling dancing around your wrist.

That’s about all I have to mention thus far. Look forward to more updates as I get to know the device better.