Microsoft introduced the original Band in October 2014, bringing a device that combined an array of fitness tracking features with a few smartwatch-like functions. Despite being great in terms of functionality, it was heavily criticised for its rigid and uncomfortable design.
Enter the Microsoft Band 2, the second-gen device that looks to correct the mishaps of its predecessor with a curved display, more flexible strap and a couple of additional features such as a barometer sensor and VO2 Max monitoring also on board.
With Android, iOS and Windows Phone compatibility, is the Microsoft Band 2 the activity tracker-meets-smartwatch everyone has been waiting for, or does it excel in features but fall short once again when it comes to design? We've been living with one on our wrist for a couple of weeks to find out.
Microsoft Band 2 review: Design
There is no denying that the Microsoft Band 2 has a much more exciting design than the original model.
Silver detailing has been introduced around the display, continuing to the underside where the heart-rate sensor sits. The same silver finish has also been applied to the clasp and fastening mechanism. This clasp now triples-up as an ultraviolet (UV) sensor and charging connector.
The solid, very rigid design of the original is no more (thank god!) with a more flexible black silicone strap in the second-gen model. It's not all gravy though: the Band 2 is larger and thicker than its predecessor, taking away any subtlety the original managed to bring (even if we did describe it as an ASBO tag).
The Galvanic Skin Response sensor remains in the same place as the first Band, on the underside of the fastening mechanism, which makes the bottom of the Band 2 bulky (or the top depending on which way you choose to wear it). It's this which means the Band 2 is not as slim and sleek as other activity trackers out there.
The newly added barometer sensor is positioned to the side of the display on the opposite side to the power and action buttons. These buttons are in the same position as the original Band but they depress much more easily.
The fastening mechanism is the same as the original Band, allowing you to slide for size adjustment. It's a good, solid mechanism, although the silver detailing we mentioned is prone to picking up scratches. It is also difficult to adjust with one hand - not impossible, mind, but certainly tricky.
There are three sizes available (small, medium and large) but even so the Band 2 isn't anywhere near comfortable, nor does it fit well. Typing with it on, no matter which way we wore it, was virtually impossible - forcing us to take it off. At other times, the Band 2 would dig into our wrists for no apparent reason, which made us very aware we had it on - something we haven't experienced with other trackers. It felt a little like we would imagine wearing handcuffs does.
The biggest problem with the Band 2, and the Band for that matter, is they require contact in two places to provide accurate measurements. These two places - the GSR sensor and the heart-rate sensor - sit at opposite ends of the device, meaning it needs be tight to your wrist to achieve the contact, restricting its flexibility and resulting in the discomfort. It's also not waterproof, just water- and dust-resistant.
So despite all the design improvements, the Band 2's "wearability" is our biggest complaint. It's not a fitness tracker we've enjoyed wearing compared to numerous others we've tested.
Microsoft Band 2 review: Display
The Microsoft Band 2 does win back a few points with its new display. Moving from TFT to AMOLED has made a significant difference, with punchy colours and a beautiful screen that is visible in all conditions and protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 3. It reminds us of the Samsung Gear Fit and how much we loved that display.
The 32 x 12mm display has a 320 x 128 pixel resolution (that delivers a pixel density of 255ppi). Text and icons are sharp and detailed and the interface is slick and very responsive, more so than the original.
The power button on the side of the display launches the Me Tile screen, which can then be tapped to see various activity progress for that day. You can either swipe through the metrics or use the action button to scroll through. It's also possible to get to other tiles from the Me Tile by swiping left, while dragging right will show you a status bar with battery level, Bluetooth status and heart rate. The tiles on the Start Strip can be customised in the Microsoft Health App.
There are plenty of tiles to choose from, including Facebook and Facebook Messenger, Starbucks, Text Messaging, as well as Exercise, Golf, Run and Steps. The Band 2 will display a total of 13 tiles on the Start Strip but there are over 30 to choose from - more detail on those later. As a note, tapping on each tile allows you to read the notifications within it, or begin an exercise for example, both of which require input from the action key.
We only really have one complaint when it comes to the Band 2's display: it only offers horizontal viewing. The Samsung Gear Fit only offered this too originally, later updating via a software update to introduce portrait viewing - something we feel the Band 2 would benefit from. With landscape-only viewing, you are forced to either cock your head or twist your wrist into an awkward position, which just doesn't feel right.
Microsoft Band 2 review: Fitness features
Features are where the Microsoft Band 2 shines, just like its predecessor, and if it wasn't for its design flaws, the Band 2 would be giving the likes of Fitbit and Jawbone something to worry about. The data delivered from the Band 2 might not match that offered by dedicated sportswatches like the Polars and Garmins of this world, but the Band 2 offers 10 built-in sensors - including GPS, heart-rate, UV, elevation, along with VO2 Max monitoring - along with notifications, all of which makes for a very clever band.
We won't list all the Band 2's features, but will go into a couple in more detail. First up is the Run tile. This presents a run summary that includes heart rate, calories burned, GPS co-ordinates, lap times and personal bests. For those who prefer walking, the Steps tile allows you to set a step goal and monitor progress. It will show you the number of steps taken, distance travelled and the number of calories burned.
Then there's the Exercise tile. This tracks heart rate, duration and calories burned as standard, meaning it can be used for a variety of exercises such as group fitness classes, strength training or even yoga. There are also specific tiles for calorie tracking, heart-rate monitoring, elevation, and the UV monitor (which is useful if you live in a sunny climate and need to keep an eye on your sun exposure).
For cyclists, the Biking tile allows you to measure rides both inside and outside, monitor heart rate, speed, distance, elevation and personal bests.
There is also the Guided Workouts tile, which is one of the more interesting features offered by Microsoft's activity devices. This offers the ability to select workouts from fitness brands like Shape, Gold's Gym and Men's Fitness. It will provide information on reps, calories burned and progress towards your goal and it's a great feature. There are a range of workouts at different levels from beginner to advanced, which you select in the app and sync to your Band 2.
In addition to all the other metrics, Microsoft also offers VO2 Max measuring, which is your body's ability to transport oxygen. After five high intensity workouts, the Band 2 will work out your VO2 Max calculation and give you a score. The higher the calculation, the fitter you are. It's something other activity trackers don't offer, and while the Band 2 will be nowhere as accurate as wearing an oxygen mask for measuring, it's a nice addition nonetheless.
The Band 2 also offers Golf tracking, a feature introduced in a software update to the original Band - so it's not new as such. The built-in GPS will detect which hole you are playing and it offers distance information to the front, back and centre of the green, while also offering automatic shot recognition. You will need to tell the Band 2 which course you are playing though. This works much like Garmin golf watches, recognising location and correlating that to a catalogue of recognised courses through the app.
There's also Sleep Tracking. This is a bit of a funny feature as we have never been convinced by sleep monitors - and the Band 2 isn't a device we found comfortable enough to sleep with every night, although we did endure it for the purpose of this review. The Sleep Tracking tile offers information on the number of times you wake in the night, the amount of light and restful sleep you got, your sleep restoration and your sleep efficiency. There is also a smart alarm that will wake you up at the best time within a half an hour period.
Some activity trackers lack distance measuring, others aren't able to provide elevation data, while there are some that won't allow you to tag more than basic exercises like cycling or running. The Band 2 delivers all these features and more, which is certainly something it should be commended for. It also connects to fitness apps including RunKeeper, MyFitness Pal and MapMyFitness, allowing you to easily import data from various sources into one place. If only the design was as comprehensively comfortable.
Microsoft Band 2 review: Smartwatch features
When it comes to smartwatch-like notification features, there are tiles for email, text messages, Twitter, Facebook, calendar, calls and even Starbucks, as we mentioned previously.
It depends on which platform you have connected the Band 2 with as to the level of functionality offered when it comes to smartwatch features. Unsurprisingly, you get the most when it is connected to a Windows device. We tested the Band 2 with an iPhone so tiles such as Cortana and the Virtual Keyboard weren't available to us. For those on Windows, Cortana allows you to reply to text messages, take notes and set reminders using your voice, while the Virtual Keyboard means you can reply to text messages without voice command.
A Smart Notifications tile collects a range of notifications in one place, mirroring your smartphone, while the Facebook and Facebook Messenger tile allows you keep up with the social networking site without getting your smartphone out at all.
As you might guess, the Calendar tile keeps you up to date with your appointments and meetings, while the Email tile delivers email previews. The Starbucks tile is a handy one, allowing you to pay for coffee using your Band 2, while there are also News and Finance tiles to keep you up to date with what's going on in the world.
Like many smartwatches, there is also a Settings tile that allows you to turn on do not disturb or put your Band 2 into airplane mode.
Microsoft Band 2 review: Performance
It's no secret that Microsoft wipes the floor with many of its competitors when it comes to features, but the ultimate question remains: how does the Band 2 actually perform? The answer is pretty darn well.
Step-counting is almost entirely accurate, with just a bit more generosity than our Fitbit Charge HR, which we have found to be nearly spot-on in the past. The Band 2 was just a couple of steps out when we counted 1,000, coming in at 1008, which is pretty good going.
Running with GPS is great too. For a route we know is 5km (as we have measured it previously), the Band 2 measured 4.98km. It wasn't as brilliant when we ran without GPS, with us having to run a little extra to achieve the distance, but it wasn't anything too alarming. The bigger problem is just how uncomfortable it is to run with.
We tested the sleep tracking feature against our Withings Aura, which uses a sleep mat beneath the mattress with a heart-rate monitor built-in to measure light sleep, deep sleep and REM sleep. The Band 2 will register sleep automatically, but we chose to manually start sleep tracking instead. The Band 2 didn't match the Aura at all; there was a 70-minute difference in our night's sleep on 25 November and a difference of 8bpm when it came to resting heart rate. On 2 December, the Withings Aura measured a total of 8 hours 23 mins sleep, while the Band 2 recorded 6 hours 51 mins.
When using the Exercise tile, we found the Band 2 recorded a lower heart rate reading than we expected. On one occasion, our peak was measured at 183bpm, but we were working around that for the majority of that 30-minutes and the Band 2 recorded a strange drop around the 20-minute mark. Heart-rate monitoring worked well for the most part, but there were a couple of odd data readings.
The Guided Workouts feature is a great feature to have and one that competitors don't offer - but on the Band 2 you can only have one workout plan at any one time, meaning you'll have to go into the Microsoft Health app to change your plan. You'll also need to make sure you've done some research or have the app open, as once you start the workout it will just tell you the name of the exercise you should be doing and offer a countdown.
Smartwatch notifications are instant and come through on the Band 2 when they appear on your smartphone. You don't get quite the same functionality as the likes of an Android Wear device or Apple Watch, but a Windows user will have a better experience than Android or iOS with the Band 2.
Microsoft Band 2 review: Microsoft Health
The Microsoft Health app is by no means as pleasant to look at as the likes of Jawbone's or Fitbit's equivalents, but it is simple to navigate and there is also a web dash that offers more information, much like Polar. Even if it's not the prettiest app, it still does the job well and there is a wealth of information available. It's also where the majority of Band 2 functions are controlled, including various settings, like which arm you are wearing your band on for more accurate results.
The main screen is very blue and everything is kept clean and simple, by which we mean it almost looks unconsidered. Scroll down the screen and you'll see various metrics in rectangles divided by a single thin line with your progress in a percentage above. These can't be changed so you are stuck with the order and the information shown, which is a bit of a shame if you're not all about running or cycling. Fitbit allows you to customise your home screen and this is something we would like to see with the Microsoft Health app too.
Tapping on each of the rectangles will present a flurry of information. Along with graphs, you get a good breakdown of various stats including recovery time, cardio benefit, average heart rate and ending heart rate.
There are three lines in the top left of the main screen to take you to other options including profile management, finding a new workout or a golf course, as well as history. This is also how you connect the various third party apps we mentioned previously.
The three lines also lead to a section called device settings. This is where you can name your Band 2, change the wallpaper and text colour, manage the tiles that appear on the device itself, and change unit preferences.
Microsoft Band 2 review: Battery
Microsoft claims the Band 2 will offer 48-hours of life before it needs recharging. This very much depends on what you use it for, how much activity you do and how many notifications you have coming through.
If you go for a run every morning before work with GPS on then no, it won't last two days. If you go to the gym for an hour a day, use the Exercise tile to monitor your activity and have Twitter, Facebook and email notifications coming through to your Band 2, you'll get around a day and a half. To get two days, you'd be looking at maybe walking around as normal and using the Band 2 to count your steps, while also delivering a few notifications at the same time.
Compare the Band 2 to other smartwatches and the battery life is in line with its competition, realistically requiring a charge every day. Compared to other activity trackers, which although admittedly don't provide the same functionality, and the Band 2's battery life is significantly less.
Still, it's quick and easy to charge the Band 2, so plugging in is not a huge problem. The one bug bear we did have is that if we did let the battery die then we had to then set the date and time again.
If taken on its features alone, the Microsoft Band 2 would be the smart band to beat, because it offers more than most of the competition out there.
The problem, however, is that the Band 2's design still isn't good enough. An activity tracker or smartwatch is a device you want to wear all day, but the Band 2 is just grating. Having to wear it at night after enduring a day is just a step beyond too.
Like the original device, the Band 2 has heaps of potential. Tweak the design to factor in comfort, trim the physical scale, and Microsoft could have a winning device. For now, however, it's an echo of the original: the Band 2 isn't quite there yet, hindered once again by form, not by function.