Like Apple, Microsoft arrived to the wearables party late – albeit in slightly different fashion. Instead of a smartwatch, the Windows maker has released the Microsoft Band, a fitness tracker with some smartwatch-like functions, but still a device designed to help you lead a healthy lifestyle.
The Microsoft Band came out in the US and Canada towards the end of 2014 and we've been waiting for many months across the pond for its arrival. This could be for one of many reasons: perhaps the software giant had manufacturing times to consider in light of how many units it managed to shift on initial launch, but more likely it's because the device needed a little more care and attention before its multi-territory expansion.
You could say that the US and Canada were a good testbed for the product: a live audience of daily users have been connected and feeding back their thoughts and gripes in order to make MS Band better. And as the first country to get a release after, the UK stands to benefit from their experiences. But has it ironed out any rough edges and been worth the wait or, in the bigger picture of things, is the Microsoft Band up against too many strong and established competitors?
As a software company at heart and for many years, Microsoft is a dab hand at improving a product's feature set and user experience long after release – just look at how different the Xbox One is now to when it launched a year and a half ago. And the Microsoft Band has seen several software updates in the time between its release dates both sides of the pond.
That has invariably given the UK version a better start than its American cousin, with some new features and tracking for a whole new activity (cycling) added from the off. It also bodes well for the future, as Microsoft told Pocket-lint that it will continue to support the device long from now, adding new abilities as users demand them.
Third-party developers are also being encouraged to get in on the act. A Starbucks app is already available – enabling payment in Starbucks coffee shops without needing cash to hand – and more are likely to follow.
Where Microsoft is less experienced is in hardware design. The Nokia acquisition aside, where Microsoft Devices inherited a dyed-in-the-wool mobile phone design team, it is our general feeling that products from the company tend to be more functional than fashionable.
That is no more apparent than with the Microsoft Band. There are certainly sleeker and sexier alternatives on the market; more comfortable devices too. The MS Band is both fat and chunky – looking more like an ASBO tag than a Garmin Vivofit – and when first worn from the box feels awkward and, if we're being honest, slightly painful. It's the product's biggest inherent issue.
After a couple of weeks or so of use, as the rubber relaxes a touch, it's not quite as bad – or maybe we've just got that much more used to it? – but we still find you need to wear it with the OLED screen facing inwards on your wrist than out.
That also helps to read the display, especially if you also enact the watch functionality where it shows the time and date permanently. It shows in a dull white on a black background to save some battery life and at least saves you having to wear a watch and the band.
But if you really want to conserve power, you might fancy keeping it switched off, pressing the main button whenever you need to view the time. There is also an action button at the bottom of the touchscreen, but you'll mostly use swipe motions when interacting with the device.
Once partnered with a smartphone – Windows Phone, Apple iOS or Android are all compatible – you can also change the background design and colour of the homescreen to give it a little more of a personal touch. The default purple is nice but a little dull.
Pairing the Microsoft Band to a mobile device is a hit and miss affair. Although we have no trouble connecting to and using it with a Lumia 735 Windows Phone, we really struggled when trying to pair it with an iPhone 6 Plus. The Apple phone saw the Band but the app crashed on a loop for a while. We ended up having to reset the wristband to its factory settings twice and reinstall the app once before we got it to work. We didn't attempt to pair it with an Android phone.
Naturally, the MS Band synched with a PC first time, so we'd expect there to be no trouble linking it with a Windows 8.1 tablet too. That's Microsoft showing off what it knows best.
The Microsoft Band has more functionality if paired with a Windows Phone handset, most notably the ability to use Cortana voice search or send preset messages to incoming callers, but Microsoft Health – the core app behind the fitness features – is also available for iOS and Android, with plenty of features and control. You can also get message, caller and email notifications from any compatible device, sync it with your calendar (helpful for planning training sessions) and even link it to your Facebook or Twitter accounts.
The apps also link with many of the other fitness and health applications out there, including MyFitnessPal and RunKeeper. These will draw on any stats gathered by the Band's many sensors and incorporate them into any plans you may have already set up.
The Microsoft Health app itself is actually rather good. It delivers detailed information taken from the multiple on-board sensors and presents it in easily palatable fashion. We're particularly fond of the sleep tracking functionality, which uses the heart-rate monitor and motion trackers to accurately judge exactly how long you've had different types of sleep, including the all-important "restful" sleep, easily visible in a timeline display. The same goes for workouts, steps and other activities.
Perhaps the Microsoft Band's biggest selling point over other devices on the market (although they are catching up rapidly) is in the amount of sensors built into the strap. As well as a heart-rate monitor, which helps judge calories burned using optical sensors (that's why there's a green glow in some pictures) more accurately than those without, there is an ultraviolet light (UV) monitor to measure the exposure to harmful rays, a capacitive sensor to judge when the band is being worn, and a sensor to even measure the temperature of your skin.
The daddy of all the inclusions is built-in GPS (global positioning satellite), which means you can track a run or bike ride without having to take your phone with you. However, dedicated sports watches, such as the TomTom Multi-Sport Cardio, offer much the same in a more comfortable-to-wear format – so in the bigger picture of things Microsoft's feature set isn't the standout success that it may sound.
The GPS receiver also helps to more accurately judge speed. Most trackers use algorithms and the motion sensors to tell how fast you might be moving (even how many steps you might have taken), whereas the Microsoft Band combines these technologies with GPS to see distance as well as time. It can therefore tell you your pace when running, for example, something joggers and those training for races will find useful.
The heart-rate monitor comes into even better use during general workouts, which are normally hard to estimate when it comes to how many calories have been burned. And its ability with workouts generally is quite possibly our favourite feature.
Using the smartphone app, you can send specific workouts to the Microsoft Band, from simple bodyweight plans, to strength training sessions or running training schemes. And these act as virtual personal training sessions.
Start a Tabata session, for example, and the Band will vibrate at each point where you have to change your activity. And because it knows what each activity consists of, combined with motion and heart-rate monitoring, it can take a good guess at how many calories weren't burned in the process. And again, all the information on your workout is presented in a simple to digest fashion.
This method of interaction feels like personal training and is open ended, enabling Microsoft to push new plans to the database as they are generated. It also means that in future other activities could be added to the device. We are particularly keen to see some algorithms created for rounds of golf, considering we play often. Maybe even bring the GPS sensor into the mix to assist with holes on the courses, a feature that Garmin offers in its golf watches.
Sadly, when it comes to caveats beyond the large, overt design, battery life has to be high on the agenda. At best, the Microsoft Band only lasts two complete days on a single charge. And that's without turning up the brightness of the screen, using the GPS mode that often, or switching the watch functionality on. In fact, with a fair bit of smartphone synching during the day and the watch mode on, we've found we've needed to recharge the device daily.
Considering that Microsoft wants us to wear it 24 hours a day, monitoring our sleep patterns too, that presents a problem: when can we possibly take it off to charge it? It is suggested that you could charge it while showering, as the device is not waterproof (merely splashproof in case you fancy running in the rain). However, we rarely spend more than 15-minutes in the shower including getting changed, and a day's charge will take at least 30 minutes. A full charge takes around one-and-a-half hours.
You, like us, will find you can only rate your sleep once every couple of days at most. And you might need to take the magnetic charger to work with you to boost the battery while you do something less energetic.
Its price will also put off some. You can get a decent fitness band for under £100 these days, some considerably so. The Microsoft Band is £170 in the UK, which is some investment for simply monitoring your daily steps and activities. Instead, you need to be training in some way to justify that price and that's why the Band doesn't really rate alongside the Jawbones and even Garmin Vivofits of this world. It's a sports device more than a fitness band and should be considered as such if you're looking for something in that field.
The Microsoft Band is a good product in part, if strangely branded. Microsoft calls it a fitness tracker but its best use is far beyond that. The company also claims that it is a 24/7 device, but its battery life and clunky size belie that ambition.
Instead, rather than a fitness device it is a device fit for those looking for something more, something that can help them train or lose weight across multiple different activities. It is not really a wearable gadget that counts steps to and from the pub. While it does so accurately, there are plenty of other, cheaper products available that can perform such basic functionality. And in a market rich with competitors, the MS Band fails to standout.
On the upside though, we've used the Band for a few weeks now and have actually taken up different workouts because of its personal training features, so there is an air of encouragement for even those who aren't planning to run a marathon.
And that's where the Microsoft Band sits at present. It has great potential for expansion and evolution considering Microsoft's commitment to add new features in time, which could eventually put it up there with genuine training aids and sports watches rather than 24/7 fitness trackers. Its price and battery life might be more forgiven in those categories too, but in terms of design and comfort we'll await the second-generation product more eagerly.