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Microsoft Band hands-on: The ultimate multi-platform, multi-function wearable

Microsoft launched the Microsoft Band late at night, but it turns out they may have delivered one of the best values in wearable technology to date. Matthew has spent the last three days running, walking, and sleeping with it.

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Topic: Mobility
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1 of 33 Matthew Miller/ZDNet

Microsoft Band

Microsoft surprised all of us with the . Due to the promise of a cross-platform fitness and activity tracker with GPS, basic smartwatch functionality, and more, I immediately went online and ordered one.

I visited the local Microsoft Store to try to buy one on Friday while mine was in transit, but they were sold out. Since my Microsoft Band just arrived on Monday, I haven't spent enough time with it to give you a full review so I'll start off with some first impressions. A full review that includes running, strength training, and more will be coming in a week or two.

Out of the box experience

I ordered a large size from the Microsoft Store online and it came with a $5 Starbucks gift card and a ZAGG InvisibleShield screen protector. These both seemed to be a bit odd at first, but it turns out there was a real purpose for their inclusion.

The attractive retail box opened up like a ring box with the Microsoft Band prominently displayed. A proprietary USB charging cable is included in the package as well. You cannot turn on and use the band without hooking it up to the charging cable.

Like the Microsoft Surface products, the Microsoft Band connects via a magnetic attachment on the back of the Band face. After making the connection, a simple setup wizard walks you through making the Bluetooth connection to your phone and getting started with the Microsoft Health app.

Hardware

My first thought was that the Microsoft Band was big and bulky, especially when compared to the other activity trackers I have used in the past. However, it does have a GPS receiver so when you compare it to GPS running watches it is actually sleek and slim.

After wearing the Microsoft Band for a few hours, it turns out my fear of it being uncomfortable and bulky quickly went away. It only weighs in at 60 grams and is actually very comfortable on my wrist and the only issue I have had is a bit of hangup on a couple of long sleeve shirts.

The front of the Microsoft Band is primarily composed of an 11mm x 33mm touch-enabled TFT color display. A couple of sensors are found on the left side of the display. At the bottom of the display you will find two buttons, power and action. The charging connection is made underneath the display.

There are two large areas around the sides of the band with four screws that hold the two 100mAh batteries in place. A sensor area is located at the bottom of the inside of the band. This is where your heart rate, skin temperature, and more are measured.

The clasp mechanism is unique and lets you easily adjust and fit the band securely on your wrist. You squeeze the two side buttons to open the securing piece and then slide that up and down the slot in the band.

I noticed that the plastic on the right side of the display started to get scratched up after just two days so I then installed the screen protector. I highly recommend you install your screen protector as soon as your Microsoft Band arrives. BTW, the screen protector fits extremely well and you can hardly even tell it is installed on the Band.

Software

With Windows 8, 10, and Windows Phone, you can see Microsoft's desire to use tiles across the spectrum of Microsoft products. The Microsoft Band also uses tiles across the display, along with a very responsive touchscreen and smart design.

Up to three full tiles appear on the display at one time. You use the Microsoft Health app to select and organize the layout of your tiles. Up to 13 tiles can be activated on the Band at one time. Currently, there are 17 available tiles to choose from.

After my battery died quickly the first day with a three-mile run and lots of notifications, I decided to prioritize what I really wanted to see on my Band and removed email and calendar notifications.

Some tiles have specific settings, such as entering your Starbucks card number, and you take care of those in the Microsoft Health app. You can easily rearrange your active tiles too.

On the left side of the Microsoft Health software, you have access to your activity history, workout catalog, unit preferences, connected apps (RunKeeper and MyFitnessPal), and help.

The main home screen shows you your steps, calories burned, sleep history, fitness history, and workout plan results.

The tiles are easy to scroll through with the touchscreen. Within each tile app, navigating is quite easy and optimized for the display with the touchscreen. You can customize the color and wallpaper too. There are plenty of settings to completely customize the Microsoft Band experience.

Multi-platform first impressions

I first connected the Microsoft Band to my Nokia Lumia 1520 since Windows Phone owners get a slightly better experience thanks to Cortana. Press and hold the action button to launch Cortana and then you speak into the Band; there is a microphone to send text messages, check the weather, find out the sports score, and more. One limitation with Windows Phone is that you can't set up connected apps.

After hard resetting the Microsoft Band, I connected it to my Apple iPhone 6 Plus. With this device I was able to set up the RunKeeper integration. While it is nice to have the Microsoft Health data synced to RunKeeper, so far I am not seeing heart rate or map data syncing up to my account. Maps do appear on the phone in the Microsoft Health application.

Lastly, I connected the Microsoft Band to my Sony Xperia Z3 since that is my current primary device. The Z3 works very well with the Band and functions just like the iPhone.

Final initial thoughts

If you watch the videos on the Microsoft website, they show people using the Band with the display facing up like a standard watch and facing down on the bottom of the wrist. Given that interaction with the touchscreen is the method of navigation and you may spend a lot of time interacting with the Band, I personally find it a better experience with the display facing down. If you do use it in this orientation, then you definitely want to use the screen protector since the display will rest on the table, keyboard, and other objects you rest your wrist on.

The Microsoft Band looks great, the constant heart rate monitor does a solid job both day and night, the multi-platform support is more than we have seen from anyone else, and the smartwatch functionality is more powerful than I imagined.

For $199, Microsoft is offering a powerful activity tracker, GPS watch, and basic smartwatch. I look forward to much more usage and testing. Please leave questions in the comments and I will include answers in my upcoming full review.

Related ZDNet Microsoft Band coverage

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Back of the Microsoft Band retail package

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Microsoft Band and included gifts

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Opening up the Microsoft Band retail package

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Magnetic charging cable

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Heart rate and skin monitor

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Charging connection

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Battery screwed in place on one side of the band

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Microsoft Band, Garmin Vivofit, Jawbone UP24, Misfit Flash

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Top of the Garmin Vivofit, Jawbone UP24, Microsoft Band, and Misfit Flash

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Clasps on the Garmin Vivofit, Jawbone UP24, Microsoft Band, and Misfit Flash

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Clock mode shows the time and date at all times

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First screen seen on the Microsoft Band

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Starbucks, alarm, and Twitter tiles

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Text messages, sleep, and running tiles

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Working out with a fitness program

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In the middle of a fitness program

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Resting heart rate is very accurate

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Cortana showing me the news

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Text message on the Band

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Accessing the settings

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Connected apps display on the smartphone

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Running stats on the phone

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More running stats on the phone

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Tap the graph to view more data

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Sleep data in the Microsoft Health app

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Results of what is imported into RunKeeper online

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Setup on the phone

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Managing tiles on the phone

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You are in control of the tile order

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Some tiles have specific settings managed on the phone

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More specific tile settings

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You select what you want to see on the Band while running

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