I love the concept of the smart watch – I have since Dick Tracy wore his phone on his wrist waaaay back in my childhood comic book days. When Microsoft came out with the SPOT (Smart Personal Objects Technology) watches about ten years ago, I gazed upon them with longing … thinking the same thing I’ve thought about pretty much every smart watch that has hit the market since then: If only they would make it a little smaller. Most of the watches have been obviously designed with men in mind – and it makes sense; most techies are male, after all. Advanced electronics are traditionally boys’ toys. Guys and their gadgets go together like … women and shoe shopping? (I hate shoe shopping).
So I’ve been waiting, sometimes patiently, for somebody to make one that works for me. My watch, all my life, has been a constant companion. It’s not a fashion accessory – although I’ve had some very fashionable ones – it’s a functional piece of equipment that I depend on to tell me the time. I wear it 24/7 except when I’m swimming or in the shower (and if my current model is waterproof, I wear it then, too). I also spend most of my day at a keyboard, touch typing 90 wpm. So I don’t want something that’s huge and heavy and clunky and in the way when I’m working. It doesn’t need to emulate a Rolex but it also has to look good enough for me to not be embarrassed wearing it to a business meeting or out to dinner at a nice restaurant.
I’ve been watching the smart watch space closely for years. Samsung came out with some interesting things. I loved the form factor of the Gear Fit and the functionality of the Gear 2, but I was frustrated that I couldn’t have the latter in the package of the former. Sony’s piqued my interest momentarily but like the Gear 2, it was too big and square and obtrusive. I came close to buying a Pebble but again, the form factor stopped me.
When Apple announced that they were going to make a watch, I dreaded seeing it. I figured they would come out with something that looked amazing – and those who know me know that I do not want to give my money to Apple. Well, I didn’t have to worry about it; theirs was just the same old same old: big square face that looks and feels like a man’s watch no matter how nice of a band you put on it. I was envisioning something like this:
or maybe this:
Instead, we got this:
which looks pretty much like the Sony, the Gear, etc.
Microsoft, on the other hand, seemed to at least recognize that the “big square screen” design doesn’t work for everybody. The first Band got me excited, because it was shaped more like the Samsung Fit, but with more smart watch functions. In fact, I was ready to buy that first Band – and happily trekked across Dallas to the Microsoft Store a few days after it was released. And that’s where things went downhill.
I was thrilled to see that it came in three sizes: small, medium and large, unlike some of the others that only came in two (with the S/M always being waaaay too big for me). When I tried on the display model, though, I had second thoughts. It just plain wasn’t comfortable. The shape was … weird. It didn’t conform to my wrist shape at all, and I couldn’t imagine having it on all day, every day – which, as mentioned above, is what I require from a watch, smart or otherwise.
It turned out to be sort of a moot point, though, because when we asked about it (Tom was still interested in getting one, and the fit wasn’t quite as awkward on him since his wrists are a lot bigger), they had none in stock. And they didn’t have any idea when they were going to get any in. We went back home and checked the Microsoft Store online, and they also showed it to be sold out in all sizes. We checked back a week or two later and there were still none available. So we bought Fitbits.
The Fitbit Charge worked really well for me. It functioned as a watch (although I didn’t love having to press the button or tap the face to see the time). It counted my steps and stairs and tracked my sleep and buzzed to let me know when I had an incoming phone call. It wasn’t too big and it wasn’t too heavy. It wasn’t the prettiest watch in the world – all black plastic – but it didn’t look awful, either, and I found a source for bracelets that fit over it to dress it up for formal occasions. All in all, it was pretty cool. I collected a number of Fitbit friends, and it definitely motivated me to move more.
But I still longed for a real smart watch. Getting phone call notifications was neat but I get maybe two phone calls per week. I kept missing it would notify me of email messages, Facebook private messages and Twitter direct messages. I wished the screen was in color because … well, just because. You could set alarms but you had to do it through the web site or app, not on the watch itself. I wished it had a countdown timer and a stopwatch built in, too. I also thought it would be great if I could see my calendar appointments on the watch. On the up side, it got incredible battery life – more than a week between charges – and I could wear it in the shower, although I rarely did.
I kept thinking about that Band, though, and looking forward to the second generation. In my experience, Microsoft always starts out slowly but tends to get things perfected around v3. I was willing to settle for less than perfect if they made it more comfortable to wear, to get the features mentioned above that were missing from my Fitbit.
Then an omen: my Fitbit broke. It didn’t stop working, exactly. But the button on it came off, and now there was no way for me to page through my numbers on the device. It continued to track and I could see on the app or web site what I’d done, but that information was no longer available to me on my wrist. It was obviously time to buy a new fitness band. So last month I camped out in front of my monitor to watch Microsoft’s “event” introducing their new products, interested in seeing the Surface Pro 4 and the new Lumias, but especially eager to see what they had done to improve the Band.
I wasn’t disappointed. They showed off a redesigned form factor that curves around your wrist now, and has all of my longed-for features and more – including some that it never occurred to me to want, such as the ability to measure UV intensity to warn me of impending sunburn (a handy feature for a redhead). There’s a built in GPS to map your runs, so you don’t have to carry your phone with you. That’s nice. There’s a heart rate sensor, which you can get with the Fitbit Charge HR but wasn’t included in my model of the Charge (which I bought before the HR was released). In addition to the Run/walk tile, there’s a Bike tile that works with stationary bikes as well as “real” ones and even a Golf tile (which I’ll never use).
But the really enticing features, to me, were the ones that go beyond fitness band and venture into smart watch territory. The Mail tile lets you check your email messages and see the first few lines of each. The Messaging tile lets you see your SMS messages (if you do texting) and has pre-set canned quick responses you can send just by tapping. The Facebook tile shows your FB feed (I turned that one off – way too busy) and the Facebook Messenger tile lets you get your private messages on the watch (this one I love). There’s a weather tile to show you the forecast, a Twitter tile to display incoming tweets, and of course a Calls tile for your phone calls.
After the demo on October 6, I was extremely interested – but the Band is a non-essential (some might say a “toy”) and my first concern was to upgrade my major productivity tool, the Surface Pro. So first I ordered a Surface Pro 4 – which I will also get around to reviewing here in the next week, I promise). It arrived just in the nick of time for me to take it with me to Redmond for some meetings week before last and then the MVP Summit this past week.
While we were there, I saw several people on campus wearing the new Band and that got me Jonesing for one again. So one night when we found a small hole in the busy schedule, we went over to Bellevue Mall to the Microsoft Store to check it out (and to buy me a new pen for the Surface, since I had promptly lost the three-day-old one that came with it, somewhere on Microsoft campus). I grabbed a new pen and went over to look at and try on the new Band. Lo and behold, the small size fit my wrist and wasn’t really that much bigger than the Fitbit Charge. I was ready to buy.
Then: déjà vu. They didn’t have any size S in stock. They didn’t even have any size M in stock. All they had was L, and there was no way in the world that would work. Once again, I left a Microsoft Store frustrated at not being able to get what I had come for.
I put it out of mind as the week went on. MVP Summit is always a jam-packed week and this was no exception. I had sessions all day, beginning early in the morning, with lunches and dinners and parties to fill up my time. I was collapsing in my hotel bed each night with no time to think about acquiring new gadgets. Then on the last day of Summit, one of our presenters was wearing a Band, and I told her about how I had been trying to find one in S, and she related her own ordeal of having to order and wait two weeks. But seeing hers and how much she liked it got me interested all over again, so I went back and had an inspiration: Where do I buy everything anyway? Amazon. I checked and sure enough, they had size S available and ready to ship and I could get it the next day. That click was an easy decision.
So I flew back home and yesterday I waited around for it to be delivered. Every time my dogs barked at the front door, I got my hopes up – only to have them dashed when it turned out to be a passing bicyclist or someone delivering flyers that I would immediately put in the trash. I had to leave at 8:30 pm to go to the airport and pick up Tom, who had to stay a day longer than I did. Finally, at 8:02, the UPS truck pulled up with my much-anticipated box.
So I had less than half an hour to charge it and configure it so I could wear it to the airport. To my surprise, I got it done with time to spare. I installed the Band app on my phone (Galaxy Note 4 – it’s available for iOS and of course, Windows Phone, too). It came partially charged and only took a few minutes to get it up to 82% battery. There was an update available so I applied it. Basic setup was amazingly quick and the interface very intuitive.
I discovered there were a lot of configuration options so I went through it quickly. Picked my colors and wallpaper design, set the brightness to low (which is plenty bright) to save battery, set the haptic alerts (vibration) to low intensity, You can specify what notifications you want to get: Phone calls – on, Facebook – off, Facebook Messenger – on, calendar appointments – on, and so forth. Something called “Notification center.” I wasn’t sure what that was but okay, sounded good, so I set it to “on.” Got everything all synced between phone and Band, and then I was off to the airport.
After driving for a few minutes, I realized I had made a big mistake. My Band was lighting up and buzzing every 10 seconds or so, with another notification from the “center.” I was getting notices about how much battery I had left and other information that I didn’t need to know right now. Eek. I envisioned my battery running down in a couple of hours if it kept this up – not to mention that the constant vibration on my wrist was driving me nuts even if it was at low intensity. I pulled off the freeway and parked so I could turn the notification center off.
With that corrected, I started to fall in love with my new device. I had set “watch mode” to “rotate on.” There are three settings: On (which keeps the watch face turned on all the time and uses a lot of battery power), Off (which keep it turned off until you press the button) and Rotate On (which turns it on briefly when you rotate your wrist to look at the face). It works great – I hold my watch in “viewing” position and it comes on so I can see the time, then goes back off after a couple of seconds. How cool is that?
On the face, it shows the time (you can select a.m./p.m. or military time), your steps, and an alarm if one is set.
You can swipe to the right to see the battery status, whether the heart rate monitor is on and whether Bluetooth is on. Swipe left to see the tiles that you have selected to appear. You can arrange the order of the tiles and turn them on or off in the Band app on your phone, as shown below.
I have mine set up to display email, phone calls, calendar appointments, runs/walks, Twitter, Facebook Messenger, alarm clock, workouts, sleep tracking, weather and stock market info.
The email app shows you how many new messages I have and lets me scroll through to see previews.
The Facebook Messenger app buzzes when I get an incoming message and displays the message so I can read it on my wrist without looking at my phone.
The weather app shows high/low temperature and sunny/cloudy/rainy etc. status icons for today and 5 days in the future.
The stock market app shows you the current price and loss or gain for the stock symbols that you enter in the app.
One thing I really like about this is that they have really made the interface user-friendly. There are basically no instructions that came with it – but none are necessary. Everything is pretty self-explanatory. Just tap and swipe and you’ll quickly learn to navigate it.
The thing that I like less is that the battery life is much less than with the Fitbit – but that’s to be expected, given how much more it does. I’ve not had it long enough to really measure but starting at 82% full last night at 8:00 p.m., and keeping in mind that I had everything turned on for a while at first and hadn’t done any power optimization, it’s showing just under 50% at 7:22 p.m. tonight. So it appears the 48 hour battery life that Microsoft claims is going to be pretty accurate for my usage case.
And I can live with that. I spend hours each day sitting at my desk, typing. I can easily keep the charger there, take it off and plug it in when I start to work, and put it back on when I stop for the morning dog walk at 10:30 a.m. I might miss recording a few of my steps and stairs when I go down to get coffee, but that’s no big deal.
I’m still exploring the features and learning more about what it will do. Your info gets transferred to the Microsoft Health web site (this is different from Health Vault) and you can get a lot of valuable metrics there, although I haven’t been using it long enough to compile any real stats yet. Here’s what the site looks like.
Of course, my numbers from yesterday, when I had it on for only a few hours before bedtime, skew my percentages and averages, so I’ll need to wear it for a week to get any good stats, but as you can see, it gives you quite a bit of data to work with.
Time will tell how the device will hold up, both physically and software-wise. So far, I’m impressed. I’ll update this blog post after a couple of weeks of living with it. Stay tuned.
UPDATE – 11/10/15
Yesterday I wore both the Band 2 and the Fitbit all day to see how their measurements compared. The results of that face-off: In the end, surprisingly, the Band calculated more steps than the Fitbit, but only a few more. Final talley was Band 8802 and Fitbit 8754. Band 22 flights of stairs, Fitbit 18. I started counting stairs at mid-day and manually counted 12. Band said 13, Fitbit said 10.
Conclusion: Steps are close enough to not matter. Stairs aren’t accurate for either. I love, love, love all the extra info that the Band gives me.
Fitbit, of course, is the clear winner on battery life. I always get more than a week between charges with it. Band so far has been better than I expected. I charged it on Saturday and it’s showing about 15% full now so almost three days instead of the 48 hours they estimate. Note that I do have brightness level set to low and haptic intensity set to low. It’s plenty bright for indoor and it’s readable outdoors (more so than my phone when set to the low brightness that I prefer indoors) but really needs to be at least medium to see it well in the sunlight.
I vastly prefer the clasp on the Band. One reason I was happy that the Fitbit’s battery lasted so long was that it was such a pain to put back on, to get the holes to line up right and get it to pop in. The Band has little buttons on each side that you push in, slide it into the groove and release and it’s on securely.
Not sure how I feel about the rubber of the “band” part. I wish they had made it textured like the Fitbit’s; I think this will get scratched more easily.
I was afraid it might not be comfortable to wear when sleeping but I haven’t noticed it. I like that it records my resting heart rate when in sleep mode, even if I have the HR monitor turned off generally.
I like the “do not disturb” mode that lets you turn off the haptic notifications for a period of time, and turn them back on, quickly and easily. I like that I can set alarms on the device itself, instead of having to set them in the web interface or app like with the Fitbit.
Just as some people prefer the simplicity of the iPhone to the flexibity and configurability of an Android phone, some will prefer the simplicity of the Fitbit to the awesome capabilities of the Band. It costs over $100 more, so if you’re not going to use those extra features, why pay for them? But if you want a tiny computer on your wrist that does a lot of what your smart phone does, without having to dig that device out of your bag or pocket and unlock it and find the right app, this is the coolest thing to come along in a form factor and design that looks okay on a female wrist with both business and casual dress (still thinking about how to dress it up a little for formal wear).
DEBRA LITTLEJOHN SHINDER