When Microsoft quietly announced its first wearable last fall, I didn’t expect to be impressed by the modest-looking fitness device. After all, the company doesn’t have a history of producing lust-worthy, innovative consumer products like its competitor Apple.
But it turns out the Band is easily one of the best fitness trackers on the market right now.
For one, it’s comfortable.
The Band comes in three sizes—small, medium, and large—and features a clever clasp to ratchet the strap snugly around your wrist. The bracelet is padded, so even wearing it tight (which you must do to get accurate heart rate data) isn’t uncomfortable. I found that I even liked wearing it with the face on the inside of my wrist—it was more comfortable and less distracting this way.
It’s also very intuitive to use.
The Band has a narrow touchscreen that lets the user swipe through menus and tap to drill down more deeply. For me, navigation became second nature in about five minutes. Even the Band’s companion app is simple to navigate and works on Android, iOS, or Windows phones.
Granted, at the moment, the Band works with only a small handful of third-party fitness apps, such as Runkeeper and MyFitnessPal. But Microsoft says more apps will roll out over the next several months.
For now, because the Band pairs with RunKeeper and MapMyRun, as well as its own native running app, you can leave your phone at home, go for a run, and sync your data—including mileage, pace, average and max heart rate, and a map of your run if you turn on GPS—once you get home.
That’s right: This relatively svelte device has onboard GPS. For $199, that alone puts Microsoft on better footing than more expensive rivals like the $249 Fitbit Surge.
The Band is also damn good at accurately tracking heart rate.
During exercise or in run or bike mode, the Band captures heart rate once per second via an LED beam bounced at the arteries in your wrist. Like many wearables that rely on this optical technology, I found the Band was more accurate when recording mid- to high-intensity workouts than a warm-up or walk. The Band also tracks heart rate throughout the day and periodically during sleep. This means it’s able to capture true resting heart rate, thus giving users a better sense of overall health.
Zulfi Alam, Microsoft’s general manager of personal devices who helped spearhead the Band project, says the company’s goal is to combine what the Band learns from your workouts with recovery data. This way, the device will eventually play an advisory role. Like many other device makers, Microsoft wants the Band to be a personal wrist-based coach.
The Band is packed with enough tech to make that goal plausible. In addition to the onboard GPS, the device has nine sensors: a three-axis accelerometer, gyro, ambient light sensor, UV sensor, weather tracker, capacitive sensor, and microphone.
The combination of all this data is what gives the Band the most coaching potential. For example, the UV sensor and weather tracker, paired with heart rate data, might one day tell you that you run better in the morning, prompting you to exercise before the heat of the day.
In the interim, all those sensors enable the Band to track what type of activity you’re doing, be it skinning up a mountain, riding a bike, or lifting weights at the gym. Developers created “smart activity recognition” for the Band and partnered with third parties like Shape magazine and Gold’s Gym to create workouts. Download a workout on your phone, pair it with the Band, and watch videos of the exercises. Start the workout on the Band, and an alert prompts you through rep and rest phases.
All this functionality is really just the start. Alam wants to continue providing incentives for customers to wear the band all day, every day.
One of those incentives: Microsoft partnered with Starbucks so customers can pay at the coffee chain with their Bands. In theory, because the device can track your caffeine purchases as well as your workouts, the Band could correlate how well you metabolize that morning joe and at what time of day you yield PRs, and then recommend a workout schedule that includes your ideal caffeinating window, says Alam. We’re not there yet, but it sounds promising.
For the Band, or any wearable, to be truly useful, it has to give users information that can help them change their habits, Alam says. Microsoft intends to study all of this information to make the Band more useful over time.
Even before that happens, the Microsoft Band deserves honorable mention as a great debut wearable from an unexpected source. We’d like to see a cooler design, more colors, and better apps in the second generation, but for now, this is one damn good fitness tracker.