Saturday, 30 January 2016 13:07

Listen to the Band – it may save your life (review) Featured

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I am a groupie for the Band – Microsoft’s new crossover fitness/smartwatch Band 2.

It is really hard to get passionate about a computer product so when I do I hope you appreciate that at least in my professional, hopefully unbiased, journalist opinion - I think this is bloody great!

Let me state my reviewer credentials again – I have reviewed most of the new generation of smartwatches from Pebble’s brilliant e-paper category creator, to Apple’s category re-defining Watch.

I have learnt that smart watches are not the panacea they pretend to be - too frequent a need to charge, too small a screen to be really useful, tethered to a smartphone to work, a certain fragility that wearable IT is apt to have, all added to a lack of truly compelling reasons to own one. They are usually an impulse buy – a want rather than a need. Someone aptly called them the answer to a question we have not asked yet – a product without a market. And they would be right.

I readily admit to being coloured by age and tradition. To me a watch is more than something that tells the time – it is a rite of passage. When I was young it was the gift you were given by your dad upon reaching man-hood – well at least grade eight. My first watch was a date/time, 21 jewel, Tudor by Rolex. At the time my Dad had a Rolex Oyster that I badly coveted. I loved it and all it stood for – an elegant, horological, heirloom. That I gave it to my [now 30- year old] son, and will one day leave him a quality Swiss time piece or two, is of enormous importance and sentimental value to me. Though as a Gen X he has probably never worn it!

I say this not to reminisce – I hope you will do so right now before reading further - but to make a point that a watch was primarily designed to tell the time. As technology advanced it became automatic self-winding, then ‘electronic quartz’, later analogue/digital, and now IT leviathans are hijacking it under the guise of progress - an anathema called a smart watch.

The smart watch of today - apart from telling time – has few characteristics in common with the greats from Omega et al. It is at best a ‘peripheral’ that like other electronic devices has a MTBF (mean time between failure) measured in a few years.

When I attended the Band 2 Australian media launch on 20 January 2016 Microsoft went to great pains to make it clear ‘It is not a smart watch. It’s a fitness tracker with benefits – lots of them’.

In part that was both sage advice and to stop journalists comparing it to Apple’s Watch which starts at A$499 and goes up mid $20K - a smart watch some fitness features. End of comparison and on with the review!

What are the generic ‘smart’ features that we should take as a given?

The ‘smart’ word essentially relates to base level things like haptic (vibrating) and screen notification of incoming calls, caller ID, missed calls, SMS, email, calendar, contacts and some have notifications from social media platforms and mobile apps like weather. Some will control music from the smartphone played via a Bluetooth headset. Any Apple Watch, Android Wear, Pebble, or Samsung Tizen will do these things equally well.

The key problem here is that a small screen is not the best place to view anything. If you wear glasses to read, you will need to put them on to see anything - let alone fumble around miniscule menu systems to do more with it. The biggest joke is probably an on-screen ‘keyboard’ which may be good for ants but not meaty fingers. Apple uses a crown, Samsung uses a rotating bezel and there are attempts at voice control but the reality is that smart features are universally hard to use at this time.

What should you buy?

The first question is whether to buy a fitness tracker or a smartwatch?

In the former category there are products starting from around $100 – Fitbit, JawBone, Garmin et al that have designs appropriate to their purpose – rubber straps, water-proof/resistant - and will basically record steps taken, sleep patterns, exercise programs, and more. The more you pay the more features and sensors - like heart rate and GPS - you get, as well as the more sophisticated the fitness software becomes. These offer good value and many have really good battery life as they don’t need to worry about battery sapping GPS, colour screens, constant smart notifications, or to constantly communicate with a smartphone.

In the latter category is Apple’s Watch, Samsung Gear S2 (and all its prior versions) and other very capable watches from LG, Huawei, ASUS, Sony, Moto, Pebble etc., that all act as extensions of your smartphone – they do not work adequately without them. I call these ‘fashion’ devices because they all concentrate on looks, changeable watch faces, leather/rubber/metal bands, and frankly their heath software leaves a little, to a lot, to be desired. If you want a fashion device that you have to charge daily – and I don’t – then these are for you.

Joe Average will probably like the aesthetics of a smart watch but let me warn you that the novelty wears off quickly – and that comes from a sympathetic techno-junky who should love them! You have to make a real effort to both use the features and to charge it daily to get any real value from a smart watch – or it is just a frequently rechargeable time teller.

Then to muddy the water there are crossover devices like Microsoft’s Band 2 – a reasonably fully fledged fitness tracker with a good range of smart functions.

So read on for the Microsoft Band 2 and why I think it’s a great peripheral.

Out of the Box

Having decided you want a ‘fitness tracker with substantial benefits’, the Band 2 comes in three band sizes – 143-168, 162-188, and 180-206mm. It has a stainless steel trim and a charcoal grey thermal plastic elastomer silicone vulcanate (TPSiV) band housing a curved 32 x 12.8mm full colour AMOLED display. It is IP67 rated so you can sweat profusely, get it wet in the rain, take it into dusty or snowy environments, and generally do anything active people do – except swimming – it is rated at up to 1-metre-deep for 30 minutes.

It comes with a USB to magnetic clasp cable – no USB charger but any will do - and that’s all.

Looks

Looks are in the eye of the beholder. I find it a simple, elegant, if industrial design that I can wear running or exercising. After a workout I simply wipe off the sweat, and put it back on to help build a better fitness profile.

There is a little confusion over whether you should wear it under or over your wrist. Gym junkies will tell you under the wrist is best as they can see the ‘band’ screen easier. Traditional watch wearers like me wear it on top of the wrist. Let me tell you it is very comfortable either way, the heart rate monitor works both ways, and it is not at all intrusive or heavy on the wrist.

At present the software allows you to select either orientation but I would like Microsoft to look at a third option to turn the icons 90° on their side to make top of the wrist use even easier.

How long should you wear it?

Fitness junkies will wear it 23x7 – with time out for a quick recharge. Remember that it actively and continuously collects data to build a profile. I found that wearing it from bed time to mid next morning (after my run) and when going out (more exertion) was more than enough. In short if you have a sedentary occupation you don’t need to wear it 24x7 to get the benefits although it is certainly comfortable enough to do so. Apart from starting and stopping the GPS or workouts the Band will put all other activity in context and record it.

The AMOLED screen

It is a full colour, 32 x 12.8mm, 320 x 128 pixel, AMOLED, daylight readable, Gorilla Glass 3 protected screen that displays time and basic information on a mono glance screen (turn your wrist to activate) and then by pushing the ‘on’ button it reveals three Windows tiles.

The tiles scroll like a pokie-machine wheel and reveal sub-menus and highlight the other ‘action’ button - if there is something that you need to do like start, pause or stop the GPS.

If you wear glasses to read, you are going to need them to read any of the sub-menus or text information.

The screen is fully customisable in terms of what tiles and the order they show in and there is room to add third party apps – at present these are mainly fitness apps but I know there is lots of other activity here.

Battery

Microsoft claims two days from the battery and as a smart watch goes that’s fine. GPS for an hour or two each day is the battery sapper and I find that I get about 24 hours’ solid use and have about 20% charge left. It will certainly last at least 24 hours so there is no issue with using its sleep function.

Most users tend to do a quick top-up charge when showering/dressing – 30 minutes will generally take it back to 100% and a full charge from empty is under 1.5 hours.

The USB-A male cable plugs into any USB 2.0 or later socket and will charge the device using as little as 500mA. The cable clicks solidly onto the strap’s clasp and is easy to remove.

Cortana/Music control

Cortana is Microsoft’s digital assistant. At its base level it acts as voice control for things like searching the internet, setting reminders or alarms or taking dictation. At present she can preview emails, get calendar and call alerts, receive text messages and see social updates, reply instantly to texts with a standard quick response or you can dictate a response. This feature is dependent on having Cortana on your smartphone and having internet access. It is work in progress and I will be interested to see where it goes.

You can also use the Band 2 to control music streaming from your smartphone.

Sensors

Sensors are what makes this a special device – it has a total of 11 compared to about three or four in a typical smart watch. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts and the combination of sensors is what adds enormous functionality over a smart watch. I have found them accurate as well – with heartrate matching an Omron dedicated monitor and step counting (pedometer) reasonably matching GPS distance measurements.

  • Optical heart rate sensor (continuous or sample mode as well as V02 measurement)
  • 3-axis accelerometer (measures movement and g-force)
  • Gyrometer (orientation and angular speed)
  • GPS (accurate distance, time, slips and speed and will overlay this on a street map)
  • Ambient light sensor (for sleep and other uses)
  • Skin temperature sensor (ambient temperature, sleep and other diagnostic uses)
  • UV sensor (reminders for sunscreen)
  • Capacitive sensor (skin touch enabled)
  • Galvanic skin response (can measure stress but in the future may also address issues like hydration)
  • Microphone (for Cortana)
  • Barometer (elevation as well as sleep)

That pretty much describes the hardware. The real heart of this is the Microsoft Health app that works on iOS, Android, Windows 10 Mobile and has web access on Windows, Linux and Mac.

Microsoft Health – Actionable insights

I have looked closely at Apple’s Health App, Samsung’s S-Health and a raft of Android Wear based health apps and health aggregators like Google Fit. Some are excellent at a small range of things – Runtastic, RunKeeper, Strava, Sleep as Android etc. Apple’s Health app gets an honourable mention – it is good. S-Health is simpler and easier to use but not as comprehensive.

I will boldly state that Microsoft Health is without doubt the most comprehensive ‘Swiss army knife’ health app that does more and is easier to use than the rest. I can see that using some specific purpose apps could add some value. Microsoft recognises that too and shares Band 2 data with many popular third party apps (see later).

All it needs from you is basic information like weight, height, age, gender, and locale (optional). It then builds up your profile to compare with people in similar brackets.

To review this software, I logged into Microsoft’s Health Web dashboard that mimics what you see on the smartphone. Note that the Band 2 does not need a smartphone to operate (except for Cortana) and syncs data when within Bluetooth range. Once synced it is automatically available in the web dashboard.

STEPS: The pedometer function is accurate comparing favourably to the independent GPS that is used when you select RUN. If worn 23 x 7 it estimates the amount of calories burned in a 24-hour period. Because it has continuous heart rate it can also overlay your heart rate and V02 on a time-line – when running, resting etc. Because it has a barometer it can calculate the stair equivalents. And because it has a UV meter it can tell you about whether you need sunscreen.

These all add up to an activity time line that can prompt you to get up and move if you are still for too long.

CALORIES: This is an estimate based on typical BMI and heath tables and it overlays the all-important time-line with your burn rates. This is useful, although theoretical, in weight management. If you count calories a specialised app like MyFitnessPal (that works with Band 2) would be good addition.

SLEEP: Because Band 2 has more sensors it can do more than just measure when you went to bed and when you woke up. For starters it can break sleep into awake, light, and restful, calculate restorative levels (is it good sleep?), look at the effects of things like alcohol, caffeine, eating too much food or strenuous activity before bed, sleep efficiency, time to fall asleep, number of times to wake, resting heart rates, etc.

I am a light sleeper and was a little apprehensive at first but the results are amazing and now that I have a pattern established I can try different things to get better sleep. I have also used the ‘sleep alarm’ that will wake you at your "optimal wakeup time" in a +/- window of your usual alarm. It will also track you even if you forget to tell it you are going to sleep.

RUN: Running includes walking – you use this setting to activate, pause or stop the GPS. The phone and web app will display a street map of your route, splits (1KM intervals of best times), and importantly recovery time. I do a 5K walk every morning taking about 50 minutes – about 6kmph – and it shows that my body requires 11 hours to recover. If I went to a gym straight after, I would be overdoing exercise.

 

 

BIKE: It records the route (GPS), splits, pace, elevation, cardio benefit, heart rate zones, peak heart rate, UV and more. The GPS mapping is particularly useful to set up courses.

GOLF: Never understood the fascination of chasing a little white ball around 18 holes – perhaps it it’s the 19th that makes it all worthwhile. But for golf tragics it gives longest drive, par or better, pace of play, and a range of golf statistics. Add TaylorMade course maps and automatic stoke tracking and it even fills in your scorecard although you will need a smartphone to display hole maps etc.

 

 

 

 

 

EXERCISE: This records efficiency, aerobic activity, anaerobic activity, cardio benefit, peak and heart rate zones and more. But what makes this very special is the guided workouts and workout planner where you can ‘cut and paste’ an amazing number of exercises into a workout plan including goals, cooldown and more. I particularly like the ‘HUGE’ number and types of exercise – all with video primers to help you. For example, under SQUATS there are about 100 different types to choose from. A workout can be downloaded to the Band 2 to give type and repetition information.

COMPARISONS: We all want to know how we are going and this allows you to compare with averages of similar users. For example, I take 26% more steps, exercise about 1 hour more, and have a lower Peak and Resting heart rate etc.

To summarise this app works from iOS, Android, Windows 10 Mobile and displays on any web browser anywhere. And you can export it in CSV to show the doctor or share selected results with others.

Third party apps

One of the strengths of any smart device is apps to extend what it can do. Microsoft has opened up its APIs to allow external software to use it I have heard of apps being developed for:

  • Cardiac patients, sleep apnoea, and remote health care that incorporate heart, stress, V02, GPS and Cortana for 24x7 monitoring and emergency health alerts
  • Skydiving use the barometer, compass and GPS functions
  • A crowd control ‘click counter’ using both Cortana and the action button
  • Gym and Personal training programs with results sent to trainers

At launch it has the following apps:

  • Running: Runkeeper; MapMyRun
  • Cycling: Strava; MapMyRide
  • Golf: Golf by TaylorMade; MyRoundPro
  • Workouts: Gold’s Gym; Shape Magazine
  • Wellness: Lose It!; MyFitnessPal; MapMyFitness; HealthVault
  • Alerts: Twitter; Facebook; Facebook Messenger; Xbox News; Gold’s Gym Inspiration

These are all Universal apps so expect to see wider use in the Windows 10 ecosystem – not just on this device.

What it does not do/Closing comments

My only negative comments are that it is IP67 water resistant, not water proof and it does not have on-board storage for music. If you want water-proof head off to specialist fitness trackers from Garmin et al.

On the upside is 11 sensors including GPS and reasonably accurate heart rate monitor. This A$379 device does way more than most because it will get reasonable market share, run on all three mobile platforms, and use universal apps.

The vast amount of data collected by the Microsoft Band 2 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 use and share too.

I have hardly mentioned the smart watch capabilities – take these as a given that it will do what the majority of fashion smart watches do – and more. If any reviewer is critical it is because the lazy sods do not really understand the difference between a fitness tracker and a smart watch.

You will gather from the tone of this comprehensive review that I like it and I will continue to use it 23 x 7 in a quest to remain healthier. I am going to give it a 9.5 out of 10 – after all everything can improve.

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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw [email protected]  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!

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