Fitness Tracker Review: Microsoft Band 2

Less than a year after releasing the Microsoft Band, Redmond has unveiled its successor: the logically named Microsoft Band 2!

The first generation of this hardware was a device many people felt had a lot of potential but that didn’t quite live up to the promise. On the plus side, the original had a huge number of sensors that were used in a smart, synergistic manner. Also nice were the constant updates that Microsoft continually delivered to the Band – users who invested in the device felt taken care of with additions like a cycling mode and even ‘golf tracking’ delivered via software update.

The main issue with the first device though was the form factor. The Microsoft Band was a clunky device and many people found it uncomfortable to wear owing to a rigid, flat screen and large protrusions on every side. There were also issues with build quality, with many people complaining that their devices packed in after a few months. My own Microsoft Band died after about 3 months when the heart rate monitor decided to give up the ghost. A real shame, as I would have liked to have tracked my heart rate during my wedding!

So the challenge presented for the Band 2 was clear from the start: iterate upon the strong starting point with a better design.

Has Microsoft achieved that objective?

So Far So Familiar

In terms of specs and performance, the Microsoft Band 2 is very similar to its predecessor. All the same sensors are present plus one new one in the form of a barometer. The full list of sensors now reads as:

  • Optical heart rate sensor
  • 3 axis accelerometer/gyroscope
  • Gyrometer
  • GPS
  • Ambient light senor
  • Skin temperature monitor
  • UV sensor
  • Capacitive sensor
  • Microphone
  • Galvanic skin response

That sounds very impressive on paper and it is but keep in mind that many of these sensors aren’t fully exploited by the software on board. For instance, the microphone is only used for Cortana, while the galvanic skin response currently only tells you whether you’re wearing the band or not (Microsoft mentioned something about the Band reading stress levels in future, but for now that’s nowhere to be seen).

The barometer is also a somewhat unusual choice. This measures elevation but that was already present in the previous model through other means. I guess this makes it more accurate? I’d love to see an app that can measure jump height, though I’m not sure the barometer would be sensitive enough for that. Apparently it can measure your ascent up stairs though, so who knows!

Also interesting is an update to the UV sensor which is now continuous. This means that if you’re out running, it should just be able to tell you when you’re about to burn. It’s a unique feature that might be useful for albinos…

Another new feature is a ‘smart alarm’ similar to that seen on the Jawbone. This will wake you up from sleep at the point where you’re in a lighter stage, thereby reducing sleep inertia. It’s also nice for setting silent notifications if you want to wake up without disturbing your partner.

Overall though, the offering is very similar to what we saw before. That’s no bad thing though, as it’s a great selection that can provide a very comprehensive view of your health. Constant heart rate monitoring is still very cool, as is the in-built GPS for running.

All this data can be viewed either through a mobile device (the Band supports Windows Phone, Android and iOS) or online. The MS Health Dashboard is constantly being updated and these days has some neat features such as the ability to compare yourself to the average Joe in terms of things like sleep restoration and calories burned. It can also use data from across the board to provide some useful insights – such as your VO2 max.

A subtle improvement to the guided workouts feature is the ability to create ‘build a workout’ and thereby guide yourself through a routine. Little things like this sound small but they’re pretty great.

Form Factor

So the upgrades to the interiors have been very slight but we can expect to see new features introduced over time just as we did with the first Band. Perhaps it’s a shame not to see more detailed movement tracking, but you can’t have everything and the selection is already far above most of the nearest competition.

The main changes then are to the form factor and build quality. If you were among those who found the original band to be ugly and uncomfortable, then you should be very pleased to see the changes that Microsoft has made here. The new model now fits much more snuggly thanks to a flexible wrist band and far fewer bulging areas. The clasp is still nicely adjustable, though it is a little bulky which is still a pain when you rest your hands on the table to type.

The biggest new change of all comes in the form of the curved display. Microsoft have taken a page out of Samsung’s rule book with a screen that curves around the wrist, is far more responsive to touch and is also noticeably brighter as well. You can still customize the wallpaper on the device and change the color scheme and all this results in a much nicer looking device.

As before, the Band can be worn like a normal watch but is also suitable for wearing with the display on the inside of your wrist. This is a nice option because it lets you check notifications more easily without contorting your arm and because it keeps your e-mails and texts safe from prying eyes. On the downside, wearing it like this means you’re more likely to scratch the screen – though it’s a little more resilient this time around.

Overall, the new Band is going to appeal to a lot more people thanks to a far sleeker layout and comfier fit. Whether this is enough to justify the bigger price tag though will be a matter of opinion.

The battery life remains the same at about 2 days (which will suffice in most circumstances) though I’m very sorry that the device isn’t waterproof for logging swims yet. Fingers crossed for Band 3!

Productivity Features

The Band 2 also comes with a number of additional features that push it into ‘smartwatch’ territory and allow it to (almost) compete with the likes of the Apple Watch.

First and foremost, the Band 2 allows you to receive notifications on your wrist and to see texts, e-mails, Facebook notifications and even WhatsApp (once you know how). You can also respond to texts and e-mails using an on-screen keyboard which is remarkably accurate for its small size. This is actually an upgrade from the first model as previously the keyboard was only accessible for Windows Phone users – now everyone can join in the fun. Windows Phone users do still have exclusive access to Cortana, though with the digital assistant coming to Android and iOS soon, this might change in the next few months.

On top of this, the Band 2 also continues to support a plethora of 3rd party apps. Not only will it sync with other health apps like MyFitnessPal, but it also has other cool features available such as the Starbucks app that lets you pay for coffee with your wrist (because you can), or the media controller that lets you control Spotify on your phone via your wrist. There are note taking apps, apps that control the camera, apps for finding your phone and more.

Don’t get me wrong: there isn’t a huge selection available yet. What is out there is useful though and Microsoft has recently made it very simple to create your own tiles to display feeds from your favorite websites.

All in all, the smartwatch features of the Band are certainly ‘light’ in nature but they’re also very nice to have. Receiving notifications on your wrist is useful when you want to check your phone without looking rude and you always feel a little smug when you skip tracks without pulling out your phone.

Conclusion – Living With the Band 2

So the Band 2 is pretty cool on paper but what is it like to live with?

Well, if you can get past the bulging clasp and the very disappointing lack of a swimming tile, then you’ll find that this is one of the best fitness trackers on the market. The sheer amount of data you get from a run is incredibly illuminating and really encourages you to get out there and try to improve your VO2 max. The constant updates and new apps mean you’re always looking forward to what’s around the corner and the productivity features are genuinely neat and handy.

If you want a fitness tracker that does nearly everything, then this is one of the best options on the market right now.

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