Microsoft Band 2 review: Powerful life tracker captures massive amount of data

Microsoft improved in the areas where I saw issues with the first Microsoft Band, making the Band 2 the ultimate activity tracker to help you improve your lifestyle.

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Last year I reviewed the first generation Microsoft Band and was impressed by the number of sensors, cross platform compatibility, and fair price. I was not happy with the lack of desktop software and limited access to my data, substandard screen durability, and rather rigid design.

With the new Microsoft Band 2, Microsoft improved on these three things and more. An amazing Microsoft Health website is available (detailed below), the display is curved and made of Gorilla Glass 3, and the Band 2 is extremely comfortable. Microsoft also added another sensor, a barometer, so you can now track floors climbed.

Make sure to check out ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley's Microsoft Band 2 review from a first-time fitness band user.

Specifications

  • Display: 32mm x 12.8 mm, 320 x 128 pixels resolution AMOLED, Gorilla Glass 3
  • Processor and storage: ARM Cortex M4 MCU with 64MG internal storage
  • Band material: Thermal plastic elastomer silicone vulcanate (TPSiV)
  • Radio: Bluetooth 4.0 BLE
  • Sensors: 3-axis accelerometer, gyrometer, optical heart rate, barometer, GPS, ambient light, skin temperature, UV, capacitive, galvanic skin response, microphone
  • Water resistance: IP67 rating. Shouldn't be used for swimming or in the shower, but fine in the rain.
  • Battery: 48 hours reported, and observed
  • Dimensions: 44 x 51.8 x 13.4 mm and 50.75 grams

Hardware

I personally found the original Band to be fairly comfortable, but it was definitely a bit rigid and stiff. I find that the Microsoft Band 2 just about disappears on my wrist and most of the time I forget it is even there. Like the first Band, I prefer to wear it with the display face down since it is much more natural to twist and view/use the display than it is to try to twist your forearm with the display on top.

I have a couple big veins on the underside of my wrist and wearing the Apple Watch for extended periods causes pain in my wrist. The sensor block on the Band 2 is now positioned on top of my wrist so there is no pressure being placed on my veins and the Band 2 is extremely comfortable.

The OLED display looks great and is very responsive to touch. There are two buttons below the display. The large center one is used to turn the display on and off while the small one is the action button used to perform directed actions. You will typically see a small down arrow pointing to the action button when there is a need to use the button.

The heart rate sensor is found under the display. A rather large sensor block is found under the unique clasp slider. It takes a bit of practice to get the clasp on with one hand, but after a couple of days I had the hang of it. I have a large size Band 2 and most of the time have the clasp close to the tightest it can go. The UV sensor opening is found on the top of the clasp with a small Microsoft logo to the right.

The rubber band material is malleable and soft. I don't see it collecting lint like I do on other bands, such as the one on the Moto 360 Sport smartwatch. The battery is charged via a proprietary magnetic USB dock that fits onto the top clasp piece. It takes about 1.5 hours to fully charge the Band 2 with the battery lasting about two days. The battery goes down much faster when you run and use GPS. I saw battery drain on the order of about 25 percent over a 40 minute run. Thus, I could probably get through a half marathon with the Band 2, but plan to test this out more over the next month.

The new barometer sensor tracks elevation changes so that floors climbed is measured. As a person who works in an office where elevator access is the default, I love having a device that measures stairs. It honestly motivates me to take the stairs instead of the elevator, contributing over the long term to a healthier lifestyle. The only other tracker I have ever found with this capability is the Fitbit line.

Software

The software experience includes three elements; the user interface on the Band 2, the associated smartphone application for Windows Phone, iOS, and Android, and the Microsoft Health website.

The software on the Band 2 itself is centered around the use of tiles, visible three at a time on the display, with a time home screen that also supports quickly scrolling through key data. You setup and customize the visible tiles, up to 13, on your Windows Phone, iOS, or Android device. There is no removal, addition, or customization of tiles on the Band 2 itself.

You can organize the tiles into your preferred order. Swipes, taps, and bottom button presses are used to navigate around the Band 2. There is a settings tile loaded by default that you use to setup do not disturb, watch settings, activity reminders, Bluetooth connections, and more. You can choose to have the display always show a watch, show the time when you rotate the Band 2, or never show the time in standby mode.

On the first generation Microsoft Band I often forgot to enable sleep mode and missed tracking my sleep even though I wore the Band to bed. Thankfully, auto-detection is now a feature on the new Band 2. It may not always be as accurate as manual mode, at least you won't lose a full night of tracking. Even better, the Band 2 now has a smart alarm mode so the Band 2 will vibrate up to 30 minutes before your alarm time when it senses you are in a light sleep cycle. This should help you wake up a bit more refreshed rather than having your smartphone jolt you out of bed and give you a heart attack.

Lots of notifications are available and on the Band 2 these are mostly partial read-only views of some information. One cool function is the ability to press the action button and see a word-by-word marquee of the notification appear on the Band 2 display.

You can reply to text messages using pre-defined messages you create on your phone or even via the small keyboard right on the Band 2. The keyboard is actually quite useful and functional for short messages and easier than pulling out your phone at times. Cortana voice support is only provided on Windows Phone, which I don't use much any more.

The Band 2 can also be used to measure your VO2 max rating through the use of advanced algorithms and measuring your speed and heart rate. Check out the Microsoft Health blog page for much more on VO2 max.

I primarily used the Band 2 for running and like that you can fully customize the three items that appear on one screen and the four items that appear on the second screen. I prefer to see distance, duration, and my current pace on the main screen with heart rate, average pace, elevation gain, and time on the second screen. There is no lap or interval options and auto pause is also missing. The Band 2 is not as powerful as a dedicated GPS watch, but for the casual runner it might just be enough.

There are many different guided workouts and training plans available for the Microsoft Band 2. The easiest way to view and discover the best ones for you is to use the Microsoft Health dashboard and then have them sent to your Band 2. They have workouts to help you prepare for a 5K or a half marathon, 52 current bodyweight workouts (my favorite since I don't go to a gym or have weights at home), golf and biking workouts, and 51 current strength workouts from the likes of Gold's Gym, Men's Fitness, Muscle & Fitness, and more. The workouts can be sorted by beginner, intermediate, and advanced difficulty levels to make them easy to find.

Microsoft Health also supports connected applications, including Lose It!, RunKeeper, MyFitnessPal, Strava, TaylorMade, and more. I have a RunKeeper Pro account so set that up on my Band 2. It's great to have my running sessions sent to RunKeeper, but I am disappointed that the GPS route is not sent to RunKeeper. I know the data is there since the plot of my runs shows up in the Microsoft Health app and online dashboard.

The software on your phone is a scaled down version of what you will find on your Microsoft Health dashboard. You can view your data, find workouts, find a golf course, setup connected apps, personalize your band (wallpaper, background color), and control other preferences.

I was using RunKeeper, but only seeing my data summary appear with no GPS plot of my route. It looks like I'm moving to Strava though as all of my run information appears there and Strava also now connects to the Polar and Fitbit ecosystems.

The real gem of the Microsoft Health system though is the Microsoft Health dashboard. One of my complaints with the first Band was the lack of a desktop interface to view your data. Microsoft completely addressed this concern with a data freaks dream. There is vast amount of data captured by the 11 sensors on the Band 2 and the Microsoft Health website gives you full access to that data.

You can quickly view your personal records for all types of data, view graphs and tables of your step data with heart rate and floors climbed overlays, view the fine details of your sleep cycle, view all the details of your activities, find workouts, create your own custom workouts to sync to your Band 2, compare your data to everyone else using the Microsoft Health system (anonymous data only), and manage your connected apps.

One other awesome feature of the Microsoft Health system is the option to export your data in XLS or CSV format. Click on your name in the top right of the Microsoft Health window and choose Export your data. You can choose a time range (week, month, year, custom) and select daily summary, sleep, run, bike, golf, exercise, and guided workout data to export. It's so nice to know you have the ability to archive your data and you can even create your own tracking and comparison graphs if you want.

The Microsoft Health website also breaks down some of the data into summaries and observations. Observations are designed to give you further insight into your data so you can improve in some areas and understand your activity. There are also learn more highlights at the bottom of most pages that give you explanations on what the data means. It really is quite fascinating to me and very informative.

Pricing and competition

The Microsoft Band 2 is priced at $249.99, with a current special of $50 off from the Microsoft Store and Amazon online. The Band 2 is more of an advanced activity tracker than a smartwatch or GPS running watch so the best devices to compare it with come from Fitbit, Garmin, Polar, and Jawbone.

The Fitbit Surge is priced the same with a heavy focus on running. The Surge also comes with a mono display, but it does have an excellent database from Fitbit. Garmin has Vivosmart devices, but the closest device, in terms of capability, to the Microsoft Band 2 is the Vivoactive priced at $249.99. Jawbone's most advanced device is the UP3, but it doesn't have GPS or the other advanced sensors found in the Band 2. Polar has the new A360 at $199.95, but it doesn't have GPS so again doesn't fully match the Microsoft Band 2.

As you can see, there isn't another activity tracker on the market that matches the Microsoft Band 2 in terms of sensors and ability to capture data. The competition gets a bit better when you look at smartwatches, but even the $350 (minimal price) Apple Watch Sport doesn't have integrated GPS or many of the other sensors found in the Band 2.

Contributor's rating

The Microsoft Band 2 is better than last year's model and will likely meet the needs of many people looking for a daily activity tracker, a smartwatch, and a GPS sport watch. I award the Microsoft Band 2 a 9.5 Contributor rating.

If I could have just 2GB of space (enough for a couple hour run) to stream music to my Bluetooth headset, have more social connectivity to help motivate me, and have Cortana working with iOS and Android then I would bump my rating up to a 9.8 or higher. We may see Cortana support come to iOS and Android in 2016.

You can read my 11 tips for getting even more out of your Microsoft Band 2 over at Wareable.com.

Conclusion

There are a ton of daily activity trackers, but none with as many sensors as the Microsoft Band 2. You can fully customize the tiles you have on your Band so that you can have it focused on running and workouts, smartwatch notifications, or miscellaneous apps like Starbucks, weather, and news.

The vast amount of data collected by the Microsoft Band 2 on the Microsoft Health website is incredible. With the ability to export that data as an Excel spreadsheet or CSV file, it's great to know the data is yours too.

I mostly spend my fitness time running outside, but know that as I get older I need to do more work to keep my muscles in shape. The guided workouts motivate me to do just that and I find value in them while on business travel where I may not be able to get out and run during busy work days. You get the benefits of a coach on your wrist with the new Band.

While I personally find the Band 2 to be very comfortable, virtually disappearing on my wrist, it is a larger device that may not work for those with smaller wrist sizes. I look forward to seeing what Microsoft does to push the limits on the hardware now that it has an established database in Microsoft Health.

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