Microsoft Band Review from an ‘Athlete’s’ Perspective

Microsoft Band

Microsoft Band

I’ve had the Microsoft BAND for a few weeks now and I have had a good chance to play with it, hopefully looking at it from what you would consider to be an ‘athletic’ perspective. It’s good. If you want a review on the SMS/text and notifications features and how to press the two buttons then, no doubt, you have found plenty of those reviews already. They all say pretty much the same thing with the functions/features of the BAND described in detailed ‘manual style’.

But you’re an athlete or you want to use it for athletic purposes. Just how good is it for your exacting standards?

You know that Microsoft’s BAND and, indeed, all the other bands are NOT going to replace your main SPORTS WATCH but you know that your main sports watch, on the whole, is pretty rubbish at sleep quality tracking, steps and all the other fancy wellness-activity stuff.

You probably like a gadget or two and you may well be seeing the Microsoft BAND as a possible COMPLEMENTARY PRODUCT to your sports watch, or your family could have simply run out of things to buy you. Out of convenience you may well plan to occasionally use the BAND to track your properly-sporty endeavours. And of course you will want a few toy-like features as well…just because you can! but you might be worried about the accuracy of the BAND for your precious sport data.

So here’s what you might want in a smart activity tracker:

  • Accurate GPS – it’s nice to track where you’ve been but you’ve had accurate speed/pace data before and you still want that when you run with it. You’re probably overly demanding on the accuracy required. I’m gouing to show you graphs of the accuracy
  • Heart Rate – You’re excited about the optical HR readings from your wrist but you’ve heard that they are not always so accurate. You’re probably overly demanding on the accuracy required. I’m going to show you graphs of the accuracy.
  • Activity tracker, of course!
  • Sleep quality tracker. You know that recovery overnight is key to an athlete’s improvement. I’ll show you what this can do AND give an indication of the correlation between this and morning HRV readings – both different measures of recovery/readiness.
  • Something that looks nice on your wrist.
  • Something that actually works; generally a lot of activity trackers don’t work.
  • A way of getting the data out.
  • A way to track strength session or general gym sessions. Maybe treadmill running?
  • Fancy features to impress people with 😉

Sleep Tracking

The BAND requires that you tell it you are in sleep mode and that you have woken up to exit sleep mode. Other units purport to do this automatically but I am not convinced that this really works in those other units. It take one or two presses to enter and exit sleep mode with the BAND – no big deal unless you forget.

The BAND says good night to you, very pleasant, and tells you your sleep efficiency when you wake up. I get sleep efficiency ranging from 89% to 98% both of which I would class as good.

I like the experience offered the BAND for going to sleep and waking up.

However I got the 89% on a night when I had a fairly BAD night’s sleep as I was woken up. I’m very patient when awoken and think I can lie awake, motionless for extended periods. The BAND and, indeed any device, will probably think I am asleep.

So here is the very pretty sleep graph. Is 6 hours sleep enough? (Probably not).

tfk-sleep-pattern

Clickable

The graph is very nice and, if the data represents reality, is instructive. However on a longterm basis I would not even refer to the graph except on an occasional basis simply because, personally, I would not use the Microsoft Dashboard (I use other tools). The simple XX% figure that I get each morning on the BAND is what I would use. Though I ‘m not sure what I would do with that info! I just find it interesting; perhaps on a long term basis I might start spotting trends? (and then I could refer back to the graphs that I just said I wasn’t going to use…hmmm?)

And the other thing that I like is the HRrest (overnight resting HR). My overnight resting HR is a bit lower than I expected on one occasion going down to 45bpm. I normally measure it when it’s awake…and a little higher (up to 55bpm for me when still tired or not recovered). You can get a reasonable sense of your recovery status from the previous day’s efforts by looking at that night’s HRrest relative to your ‘norm’.

In-Exercise Heart Rate

Here’s what you get when you have HR enabled. This was from a turbo session at threshold with a sprinty spike at the end.

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It gives you the basics, including zones on the Y-axis.

The interesting bit is the recovery time. I did this session whilst fatigued 1.5 days after a race. My Garmin interestingly predicted 72 hours recovery time (because of the race) as did the BAND from this one session (ie with no history), probably for different reason – namely incorrect zones (I haven’t set them on the band).

Here’s another turbo session. This is a warmup and then 5 minute intervals of hard work. There are 2 graphs from two pieces of software. There is the sporttracks graph of the Garmin and then the Microsoft Graph based on the band. You can see that the BAND over-estimates a large chunk at the start. I tightened the BAND at that point and the data improved as you can see.

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Interestingly both recorded the same maximum HR of 171bpm YET in the early part of the session I’m sure (?) there was a reading of 180-something on the BAND…so there must be some sort of smoothing algorithm to get rid of outlier data before saving it into the dashboard.

Here is another example, again at a Z2 type level of intensity, and you can see there is some inaccuracy creeping in from the BAND. The phrase ‘there or thereabouts’ might be a fair summary. Note that the either the BAND takes intermittent readings or the Microsoft DASHBOARD software displays smoothed HR numbers.

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NB: After writing this review I discovered that, although I had increased HR sampling/recording frequency, I did not have it set to the maximum possible. This may well further increase the accuracy if you make that setting.

HRV

This device will never give you HRV data. Nor is it intended to. The resting HR data was good and probably accurate. Broad trends in resting HR matched broad trends in HRV taken from other sources as would be generally expected.

GPS

I was amazed that I got a GPS/Satellite lock within 3 seconds of leaving the house. And this kind of lock-on speed is consistently good. Some form of predictive satellite positioning must be used.

Anyway, then I went for a run as shown below:

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You get a bing-mapped route, colour coded for speed. In the example above I was not going particularly fast yet this has me crossing the 3 speed zones with red being the fastest. Maybe as this was my first run it had not yet learnt my running speed? This particular part of the route I ran had quite a bit of tree cover and highish/closeby buildings. Not quite a city, but a reasonable challenge for the GPS accuracy following a road. That considered it made a fair stab at following this particular segment, not especially different to other devices.

BUT.

I have to show you this one. This is the best EVER track I have going over a bridge over a river on one of my favourite routes. Can you see the tiny footbridge? No, of course you can’t because the track I followed exactly follows the bridge going home from South to North. No other device on any of the HUNDRED, or so, times that I have done this has ever had me going exactly over the bridge – either on a bike or running or a top-of-the-range Garmin! So the BAND wins the BRIDGE test. Maybe it’s because Microsoft are using their own map, properly calibrated to their own device…I’ve no idea. But here it is:

band-over-bridge
Here is another track from the BAND on a run I did today. It’s down a straight, tree-lined path for a bit less than 1km.

You can see it doesn’t track the path this time unlike on the ‘bridge test’. And I’ve found this on other devices where they seem to track North-South correctly but not East-West (or vice-versa). This could be the map or who knows what? Anyway, it’s NOT unusual for me. And really if you think about it, it probably doesn’t matter too much for your run. It still has me running in a straight line and therefore the pace/speed has a much better chance of being correct (more on that in a minute).

band-hr-gps-track

From the EXACT same session here is track for the same segment from a top-of-the-range Garmin 920XT (different map provider – Google). The displacement is probably a bit better (ie less). However on other days it could be less accurate over the same stretch.

920-gps-track

OK, so I haven’t done a scientific test. But I’m pretty confident that the GPS track is accurate enough for any sports person.

DISTANCE AND PACE/SPEED ACCURACY.

I find it unnerving when I run with a device on each wrist and they autolap at the same time. the Microsoft BAND and the Garmin 920XT did just that for the first 3km. then they chopped and changed a bit being up to about 5 seconds different at one point.

This is simply just going to happen when you compare 2 vendors products with 2 different mathematical algorithms determining what exactly a kilometre is when anything other than a straight line is being run (ie normal running).

So although accuracy here could be improved a bit I would certainly have no problems using it in this particular respect.

TO BE UPDATED (INTENTIONALLY INCOMPLETE): I didn’t specifically look at the pace on the BAND when I ran. I wasn’t able to get detailed lap data out of the BAND/HEALTH environment to make a fair comparison.

Aesthetics and Usability

I would say, IMvHO, that the aesthetics and usability is excellent. I have read other reviews and some people clearly disagree with me. Oh well.

I think it looks great. I think the screen quality is great.

I come from the perspective of REALLY NOT liking Microsoft v8.x desktop operating interface that uses the tiles. However I have to say that on the BAND the TILE-like functionality is excellent and REALLY works.

It looks uncomfortable. It’s not. I find it very comfortable actually. Indeed I would say it is better than other devices for longterm usage as the shape of the BAND and the sensor positioning, to a degree, improve airflow around the wrist. I don’t get the smelly, sweaty wrist syndrome that you can get with other.

You can wear it on the inner or outer wrist. However for usability purposes it is best LOOKED AT whilst on the inner wrist. Opposite to where many people wear a watch. However this element of the design gives you more screen-candy as the screen can go along the BAND rather than across it. Going across the band is MUCH more limiting to what can be displayed and how it is displayed.

Being on the inside of the wrist might make the device more likely, in the longterm, to suffer from smaller abrasive scratch from clothing/belts etc. Microsoft, I understand, supply a screen protector for this. On the other hand, having the device inside the wrist makes it MUCH less likely to encounter a much more catastrophic collision than would be the case if it were on the outside of the wrist banging into wall and the like.

The scrolling of the screen is fantastic. Two simple buttons and touchscreen operation is fantastic. I didn’t have to read the manual. It was kinda obvious, which I like from anyone’s products.

When the screen was very sweaty I had a few touchscreen navigation issues and had to wipe off the sweat before it would work properly. No big deal there.

For the perspective of an add-on to a smartphone it was great. Very easily configurable. The twitter and FB and SMS notifications helped me to get away from my phone unless the summary info on the band told me I needed to do something a bit more in-depth. Nice. Although other products obviously do the same functional thing in this respect.

Reliability

Why wouldn’t it be reliable?

One of the reasons you might think Microsoft Windows is less reliable than it really is, is because they have to accommodate tens of thousands of 3rd party hardware and software components and all the uncontrollable problems that come with them.

The BAND is Microsoft-only software and hardware. It worked perfectly for me.

I only found one glitch and that was with the online wellness software where one number was displayed incorrectly. (I reported it and it was corrected within 48 hours!).

Fancy Features

I’ve showed off my UV sensor to several people, none of whom were that impressed until I showed a first-time mum. This was just what she had been looking for to help protect baby from the harmful effects of UV light. See! We all need different things.

It’s got some nice things like being able to talk to Cortana (siri) on windowsphone and also enabling you to send preconfigured standard text responses to incoming SMS  eg ‘send text am in meeting now’ is handy.

But really all the fancy SMS features and the weather tiles and facebook/twitter notifications are nice. Even useful. Of course you get these on similar smart watches from other vendors. I have to say though that Microsoft’s implementation is very sleek, simple and straightforward.

Data Export

I initially struggled here.

I’m talking about exporting exercise session data not just daily summaries of steps.

If you want to get data into ‘your’ environment then the way to go (23rd April 2015) is to connect STRAVA. This exports all your laps, GPS and HR data effectively in TCX format. Once your data is in STRAVA you can use a website called TAPIRIIK to send it to other exciting places like DROPBOX or TRAINING PEAKS. Another alternative is fitnesssyncer.com.

However I am still trying to get the detail that I need with this method. For example when in strava looking at a specific exercise you can add the following suffix to the url to get a TCX file ‘/export_tcx’ – this does not seem to work with any of the data that Strava gets fro the BAND via Microsoft HEALTH.

You also might find delays in STRAVA accepting the data and further delays scheduling TAPIRIIK manually. You can automatically sync Tapiriik for a fee or even try fitnesssyncer.com

Activity Tracker

Yep.

I don’t want to dwell on this aspect as others will. Does the job though. Oh, it did NOT do stupid tings like record steps when I drive or type – other products most definitely do.

MicrosoftBand_Phone_WeeklyStepsUI_RGB

Source: Microsoft

SUMMARY

So I’m summarising this from the view of an athlete who is going to continue to use his workhorse watch of choice and this occasionally for exercise. Maybe an active class-goer and occasional jogger would fit this summary too.

It’s not perfect – but it’s not that far off.

To be clear: I’m not saying that this is almost the ‘perfect’ smart activity tracker. IMHO it is almost perfect for the purposes intended and people intended that I have talked about in this review ie for a sports person’s 2nd, subsidiary device.

It looks nice and it works. It’s battery life is good for the features it contains and the battery life is at least sufficient for the purpose. It may be market-leading or, if not, somewhere close.

You have to remember that it has a very good inbuilt GPS and a good, but not excellent, inbuilt optical heart rate monitor. It’s certainly NOT a bad optical HR monitor but I would like some improvement down the line. The competition, most of them, simply don’t have ALL the BAND’s features that work quite so well in this kind of product.

I would only use it for your long runs/rides and you CANNOT swim in it. Another point on this, the touchscreen did not perform that well when wet.

The GPS was perfectly accurate enough to log long rides/runs.

The HR, for me, was not accurate enough to handle intense intervals/tempo/threshold work but fine for the endurance and recovery stuff.

This will be fine for most normal exercise classes. However if you have a particularly hot room and you get sweaty wrists then this may impact on the HR readings from most, if not all, optical HR monitors.

The sleep metrics and recovery metrics are great. The most useful thing for me that I wasn’t expecting was resting HR (HRrest) and how useful that was to gauge recovery.

It counts steps if that’s your thing…

I find it aesthetically pleasing and comfortable on relatively small wrists. The build quality is very good; not at all plastic.

You have data connectivity options that work and that are only going to broaden. You have multi-platform support – it will work with almost all modern smartphones regardless of the operating system or manufacturer. Even Apple.

It’s pretty good value at the existing price. All tech falls in price over time so it will only get cheaper.

So really it could only be sensibly improved (without changing the kind of product it is) with an improved optical HR monitor, a bit better touchscreen and, as with all devices, even more battery life.

For what it’s worth: This is the activity tracker I would probably use if I consistently used a single activity tracker, which I don’t. So, with caveats, that’s ‘sort of’ my recommendation.

PRICE BY PRODUCT COMPARISON

Black Friday 2015 Amazon Price
Basis Peak £149.99 Link
Epson Pulsense PS100 £42.99 Link
Epson Pulsense PS500 £79.99 Link
Fitbit Charge £49.00 Link
Fitbit Charge HR £74.99 Link
FitBit Flex £112.00 Link
Fitbit One £58.65 Link
Fitbit Surge Ultimate £142.49 Link
Fitbit Zip £49.70 Link
Fitbug Orb £30.95 Link
Garmin Forerunner 15 £79.99 Link
Garmin Vivoactive £123.31 Link
Garmin Vivofit £44.98 Link
Garmin Vivofit2 £73.95 Link
Garmin Vivosmart £79.99 Link
Jawbone UP24 £52.89 Link
Jaybird Reign £179.99 Link
Microsoft Band £89.00 Link
Milestone Altitude £28.91 Link
Mio Fuse £94.95 Link
Misfit Shine £59.99 Link
Nike+ Fuelband n/a Link
Polar Loop £45.60 Link
Polar A360 £131.32 Link
Samsung Gear Fit £63.99 Link
sony Mobile SWR10 £29.89 Link
Timex Move x20 £50.55 Link
Withings Pulse £54.99 Link

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