First look at the Microsoft Band: A health tracker on steroids

I’m such a sucker for cross-platform devices and fitness trackers. So of course, I ran out to my local Microsoft Store last night and dropped $199 for a Microsoft Band. I’m glad I went right after work because the Microsoft Specialty Store at the King of Prussia mall only had a few in stock; all were size small, so it paid off for me to be a (relatively) skinny short person.

I’ll be using the [company]Microsoft[/company] Band daily and come back with a more comprehensive review but I can already see some things I like — and some I don’t — with Microsoft’s new wearable device.

Since I had my iPhone 6 with me last night, I paired it with the Band; of course, I’ll also try with an Android phone and a Windows Phone for two reasons. One, because the device works with them, which is great. And two, because some functions only work with certain platforms. Cortana voice search, for example, requires a Windows Phone 8.1 handset. And when working with the iPhone, you can’t reply to incoming text messages on the Band.

Microsoft Band incoming text

Design-wise, the Microsoft Band reminds me of the Fitbit Force (see disclosure below) I used to wear, although it’s more substantial, weighing 2.12 ounces. I often wear a watch, so the weight doesn’t bother me; some may feel otherwise at first. It has a rectangular display like the Samsung Gear Fit and an adjustable clasp so you can easily tighten or loosen it.

The heart rate monitor is behind the clasp and works whether you wear the screen on the top or bottom of your wrist.

Microsoft Band HR

There are only two buttons, and the Windows Phone-like tile interface is fairly intuitive to use by tapping and swiping.

Microsoft Band sensor and buttons

I’m already preferring to wear the Band with the screen under my wrist. Because the text and icons appear in landscape mode only, it’s easier to read the display that way. And if any sensitive information comes across the Band, people around you won’t be able to see it. It’s easy to customize the display colors, wallpaper and which information it shows; the display can always show the time or not if you’d prefer to save battery life.

Microsoft Band tiles

Pairing to my phone was quick and simple. There’s a Health app for your companion phone that lets you configure notification types, which tiles (apps) to show on the Band and in what order. For the iPhone, the Band simply uses the iOS Notifications system to shoot emails, calendar events, messages, incoming Facebook status and Twitter tweets. Any other types of notifications can be seen in a catch-all tile if you choose.

About those notifications: They’re generally one way only. When you get an email, for example, you can see about 120 characters of it on the Band. The only option — when paired with an iPhone, at least — is to dismiss the mail notification. You can’t reply, archive, or delete the mail on the phone from the Band. In this way, the Band acts more like a Pebble watch than an Android Wear device. And if you don’t dimiss the notification after reading it, I don’t see a way to go back and delete it later which seems odd, but fixable.

Microsoft Band email

I haven’t done any workouts or taken a run with the Band, but it appears very capable in both cases. You can download actual workouts and the Band will guide you through your sets and rest time. It also has a GPS radio so you can go for a run and have your route and pace tracked; the data can be synchronized to RunKeeper or MyFitnesssPal.

Band custom workouts

The continuous heart rate monitoring is very attractive to me and looks to be working well. At any time you can view your current heart rate, or you can see your rate over time, by day or week, in the Health app on your phone. This also works when sleeping as I tracked my sleep last night and could view my “good” and “bad” sleep along with my heart rate.

Microsoft Band sleep

In the short time I’ve had the Band, I’ve only scratched the surface of what it can do, so I’ll incorporate it in my daily workflow for the next week or two and follow up with a full review. Microsoft claims the battery can last two full days, so I’ll have to test that.

I’d like to see Microsoft expand the functionality for a two-way data sync in the future as well as add wireless music playback, assuming there’s enough storage in the Band to hold a few hours of tunes. And of course, I’d love to see some way to perform voice searches without relying solely on Cortana; it’s a shame to see that little microphone hole there doing nothing unless I’m using a Windows Phone.

Still, I’m impressed overall. The Band is built superbly and the display is crisp. The basics (and then some) are there in terms of software and sensors, and the device works with multiple platforms so users won’t feel locked in on a particular companion phone. My first impression is that Android Wear has more “smartwatch” functionality if you use an Android phone but the Band is a better health tracker. I’ll circle back after more time with it to see if I still think that.

Disclosure: Fitbit is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog.