Many of us want to lose weight, get more exercise, sleep better and so on, but those things are long-term goals with no instant fixes. That's where a fitness tracker comes in. A wrist band keeps a record so that you can see if you're improving, and it encourages you to try harder when you're not. Wear it all the time and it's a constant reminder that you can do measurably better if you try.
Having just spent a year with a Microsoft Band 2, I can't report any dramatic improvements. I haven't lost much weight - a few pounds - but I've walked more and, surprisingly, slept more. I could have done better, but without the prompting, I could have done worse.
I'm nobody's idea of a fitness freak, and hadn't really considered buying a fitness band. However, I had been using Android apps for sleep monitoring, and didn't find the results useful. Reviews suggested that the Microsoft Band 2 would do a better job, which aroused my curiosity. Then, at a pre-Christmas party in December 2015, I found a Band 2 in the wild. My esteemed colleague Simon Bisson was wearing one, so I got the chance to play with the user interface.
If you've not used a Band 2, the UI is delightful, though it's obviously more "intuitive" if you're already familiar with tiles from Windows smartphones and Windows 10. It seemed far more user-friendly than the Android Wear smart watches I'd looked at, and it felt comfortable enough to wear 24/7.
Although not billed as a watch, the Band 2 also works as a hands-free digital watch, stopwatch and alarm clock. I set mine to show the time for a few seconds when I rotate my wrist to look at it.
Fitness bands are gamification devices. They're not medical grade products, and I don't know of any that produce accurate results beyond counting steps. (Please correct me if I'm wrong.) But that's not important if you're only competing against yourself. What matters is that you do around 5,000 steps every day, or whatever target you set. It really doesn't matter if you did 4,947 or 5,232 steps. (My Band 2 over-counted steps by 2 percent, which isn't enough to worry about.)
As a freelance journalist who works from home, I tend not to move much. I benefited from the Band 2 buzzing me to take screen breaks, and to go out for walks. I shouldn't need prompting, of course, but the wrist buzzes worked better than pop-ups on my PC screen.
What I hadn't considered was that the gamification of sleep would help me get more shut-eye. Many of us have been brought up to feel guilty about spending an extra hour in bed. Now I feel slightly proud of sleeping for more than 9 hours straight on December 6, setting a new record.
You can tell the Band 2 you're going to sleep, and when you do, you get a nice goodnight moon screen. If you don't, it detects sleep automatically. The results are variable, but still better than the Android apps I'd tried before. However, the Band 2 logged three hours of detected sleep when I was watching an F1 Grand Prix. TV does tend to send me to sleep, but I guarantee I was awake at the time....
Incidentally, it's better to use the Sleep tile that auto-detection, because it turns off the phone connection and sets Do Not Disturb mode. That means you won't get woken up by a text alert, and it also saves the battery.
For much of the year, I also enjoyed getting phone alerts, texts and Facebook messages on the Band 2. (Tiles are configurable: I avoided getting tweets.) My wrist would tell me the name of the person calling before my phone even rang, and I didn't have to get my phone out to read messages. The integration was very nice while it lasted.
The first major problem was Microsoft's Android app, which stopped working after about eight months. After that, when I tapped it on my Google Nexus 6 smartphone, Android said the app wasn't installed. I went to Google Play, which said the app was installed. I was able to run the app from the Play Store without downloading it again.
Eventually, my phone removed the app's icon from my home screen... then, some time later, mysteriously added it back. Let's just say this wasn't the best user experience, but worse was to come.
The second major problem was Bluetooth synchronization. One day, the Nexus 6 refused to detect the Band 2's presence, and therefore couldn't connect to it. The Band 2 still says Bluetooth is On, and pairing is On, but the phone claims: "No nearby Bluetooth devices were found." (It can still detect my wife's Nokia three rooms away.)
I don't know who is to blame for this particular mess, but Bluetooth problems seem to be fairly common with many devices.
Fortunately, this didn't render the Band 2 useless. I downloaded the Microsoft Band app to my Windows 10 desktop and laptop PCs, where it happily syncs via the charging cable supplied. It actually works better this way, but losing the phone connection means no more call notifications, and messages are no longer updated.
In other respects, the smartphone app is somewhat limited. You can't annotate entries or add notes. You can't top and tail sleep records, so if you forget to tell the band you've woken up, it will keep adding waking hours to sleeping hours. (It keeps registering sleep while it's counting steps. Are we sleepwalkers?) If you're a gym user, you can't add data from other fitness equipment. And so on.
Some functions are accessible online at microsofthealth.com, which also syncs readings between your different devices. The web dashboard makes it easy to view statistical information such as averages and high and low "scores" with some nice charts. It also compares your results with other people in your "group", which you can select by age range and BMI (eg 18.5-24.9). I sleep slightly more than average (6.4hrs vs 6.2 hrs) but still take 51 percent fewer steps. I'm winning at sleeping but failing at walking.
Sadly, it looks as though Microsoft is abandoning the product, so neither the app nor the web dashboard will see much improvement. Either way, I'll keep trying to fix the Bluetooth problem, and continue to use my Band 2 for as long as it lasts. It could be another two years - more if I'm lucky - before the non-replaceable battery stops holding a charge. By which time, I hope FitBit or some other company will have launched something that's as good or better.