Microsoft Band reviewed: A fine fitness tracker, but little more
Have you watched a keynote from a major technology company lately? If not, you’re missing out on what I would consider to be a modern-day circus. Google once had Sergey Brin and a team of skydivers jump out of a plane over the center of San Francisco to announce Glass, the company’s Internet-connected eyewear. Samsung attempted to have film director Michael Bay on stage to introduce curved televisions, only to see him walk off after flubbing a couple of lines. Apple reportedly paid $1 million to the Foothill-De Anza Community College District where it held an event to announce its Watch in September.
So when a product launches without any fanfare—simply appearing out of thin air in the early morning hours—it catches everyone by surprise. Microsoft’s (MSFT) entry into the wearable technology market, the $199 Microsoft Band, wasn’t welcomed by a group of professional athletes. Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, did not walk us through a presentation outlining its key features. There were no step counts, exercise routines, or heart rates on giant screens. Instead, as the end of October neared, Microsoft simply hit “publish” and began taking orders.
The Band, which is worn primarily on the wrist, is a fitness tracker with a 1.4-inch touchscreen on one side and a heart-rate monitor on the other. Like some other trackers, it can count steps, monitor sleep quality, calculate ultraviolet exposure, plan workouts, and map runs. The Band also doubles as a so-called smart watch, calling your attention to alerts with a gentle vibration.
Using a series of gestures and swipes, you move through the familiar tile layout found across the various flavors of the Windows operating system. A tap on the home screen displays metrics for that day as well as a pulsating visualization of your heartbeat.
Microsoft’s Band is considered wearable technology, but after wearing the device for several weeks (with screen facing both inside and out) it’s clear that the “technology” part comes first. At no time did I go rock climbing or slam my wrist against a wall or desk, yet my Band has already been rendered a scratched, rustic piece of hardware. Compare that to the Pebble Steel: I’ve been wearing it for the last eight months and it still looks almost brand new.
During my test of the Band, I wore it alongside a Fitbit Flex wristband to compare how the devices tracked step counts and sleep tracking. (To ensure a fair comparison, I swapped which wrist each band was worn on each morning.) The Flex averaged 1,500 more steps per day than the Band and generally reported a better night’s sleep.
These differences are to be expected. Each company has its own formula for how it translates a series of motions to “steps” or “sleep.” Within reason, the most important metric for a fitness tracker is consistency: is the device’s monitoring ability dependable enough so that its wearer can rely on it to change their behavior? Good news to the folks in Redmond: the Band’s results were consistent.
One feature I was particularly fond of was the heart rate recordings that accompanied my step counts and sleep results. When I was experiencing my best sleep, my heart rate dropped to about 50 beats per minute. On the other hand, when I was most active during the day my heart rate would peak at 130 beats per minute.
Using the free Microsoft Health application, you can edit the Band’s settings and sync your activity to several mobile operating systems: Google’s Android, Microsoft’s Windows Phone and Apple’s iOS. The same app is required to receive (and in some instances, reply) to alerts from your wrist.
I found the app frustrating at times. Sometimes my activity would sync to my iPhone in the background; other times I would launch the app only to be welcomed by an error message. Often the only remedy was to restart both the Band and my iPhone. Though no data is lost during a restart, the lapse of communication between devices is an irritating inconvenience–a broken promise in the era of interconnected devices.
I also found that the size and orientation of the Band’s screen make it difficult and awkward to read notifications on your wrist. Wider than it is tall, the screen is only able to display a small line of text when an alert occurs. You can scroll through text using your finger, but it can feel silly to use multiple swipes to read what amounts to a couple of sentences. Initially I had enabled all alerts to appear on the Band; after I realized that reading messages was more trouble than it was worth, I disabled notifications altogether.
This problem isn’t unique to the Band, of course. Every company offering a wearable device is trying to figure out the best balance of screen size—too large can be unwieldy, too small can be impossible to read—and how best to present information in a very limited environment. All I can say is that Microsoft hasn’t found the answer yet.
By forgoing a large announcement event for the Microsoft Band, the company avoided setting high expectations. The decision proves to be a wise one. I walked away from my time with the Band categorizing it somewhere between a competent fitness tracker and a mediocre smart watch. For a newly launched product—no matter the size of a welcome party—being in limbo just isn’t going to cut the fat.
“Logged In” is Fortune’s personal technology column, written by Jason Cipriani. Read it on Fortune.com each Tuesday.