Microsoft Band 2 – A Solid Alternative to Fitbit

I’ll be honest: I have an on again/off again relationship with Fitbit.  I’ve been using their trackers for 6 years now and while my first tracker (the Ultra) was rock solid, the two subsequent models (the One and the Flex) have been less than stellar.  I found neither of these tracked exceptionally well and with the One in particular, I was constantly fighting to keep it connected to my Nexus 6 or 6P as the Bluetooth was just not reliable.

Initially, in an effort to find a tracking alternative, I started using Google Fit and my Moto 360 smartwatch to track my activities.  It was, shall we say, painful.  Syncing was not accurate nor were step and exercise tracking.  While Fit has grown up a lot, it still has some growing up to do.  That experiment lasted about three weeks and that was all I could really handle.

Finally I had enough and I decided to step way out of the bounds of what most people consider for a fitness tracker.  I picked up an Microsoft Band 2 and I have to say, it is a solid performing device that is very accurate in tracking your fitness information.  In fact, after two weeks of using it, my Fitbit One is now quietly sitting connected to its charging cable on my desk – untouched and likely not being touched for a while.  I’ve deleted the app from my 6P and moved to Microsoft Health for my exercise and step tracking.

To be sure, the Microsoft Band 2 is not perfect.  It has some things that need improvements, most notably how it tracks stairs and the overall weight of the device.  That said, I’m comfortable in recommending it.  It integrates nicely with Android thanks to the Microsoft Health app (and there is one for Windows 10 users too).  It ties in with other services and apps like Lose It!, MFitnessPal, RunKeeper and Strava, and it has a battery life of a couple of days.  That’s better than most smartwatches today which, in a limited way, the Band 2 can perform for you.

Here is my review of the Band 2 and the companion Microsoft Health app.

Hardware Specifications

I’ll start by going over the specifications of the Band 2 but I’m going to separate the sensors built into the product into its own section.  In all there are 11 sensors built into the Band 2 if you include the microphone that allow you to do some awfully impressive tracking with it.  Overall though, from a design perspective, there is a 32 x 12.8 mm cured AMOLED display on the top of the Band 2

Wearing the Microsoft Band 2
Wearing the Microsoft Band 2

which provides you all of the information from the device.  That display gives you a resolution of 320 x 128 pixels and, much like Windows 10 (PC or Phone), the display gives you tiles for different bits of information.  On each side of the display, the TPSiV band is connected.  For those who are curious, that stands for Thermal Plastic Elastomer Silicone Vulcate.

Nope, I never heard of it either before getting the Band 2.

The band has a rubber-like feel to it and wraps around your wrist with a two button locking mechanism that locks into a metal track on the other end of the band.  Essentially it locks it tight around your wrist and you can then push it to tighten it around your wrist.  You’ll want to do that as the Galvanic skin response sensors are built into the little bump on the inside of the clasp.  More on what that sensor does in the next section of the review.

From a battery perspective, the Band 2 has a Lithium-Polymer power source that is rated to last 48 hours on a charge.  The only thing that really digs into that battery life is if you have the GPS enabled (for walks, runs, etc).  That, as you would expect, really puts a drain on the battery.  I’ll go over the overall performance of the battery in the performance section of the review.

There are two buttons on the Band 2.  The larger of the two is the power button which turns the display on and off.   The smaller Action button has several purposes depending on what mode you are using the Band in at the time. For example, it be used to start your Band monitoring your sleep or it can be used to start scrolling through the subject line of emails on the Band.

Rounding out the base features, there is a haptic vibration motor to for notifications, alarms and so forth and the Band 2 use Bluetooth 4.0 LE for connectivity to your Android phone, iPhone or Windows Phone.  Finally, the Band 2 is water resistant, not water proof.  Sweat and a splash of rain are not going to hurt it but it is certainly not designed to shower or swim with it on.

Microsoft sells the Band 2 in three sizes:

  • Small for wrists that measure between 5.7-6.5″
  • Medium for wrists that measure 6.3-7.5″
  • Large for wrists that measure 7.3-8.5″

Microsoft has put together a really nice template to measure your wrist so you can make sure you get the correct size.  It is a PDF and it is a free download.

Regardless of which size you buy, the display size is the same.  All the size differences will get you is a shorter or longer wristband.

Sensors & Tracking

What makes the Band 2 so dynamic are the sensors that are built into the device.  In all, there are 10 sensors that are measuring something going on with your body or activity with a microphone added on top of that since you can use Microsoft’s personal assistant, Cortana, with it.  Each one of these sensors has a specific purpose and work in unison to give you accurate information and activity tracking.

Optical Heart Rate Sensor

Heart Monitor Sensor
Heart Monitor Sensor

As the name suggest, this sensor continuously monitors and reports your current heart rate, whether you are sitting at your desk or working out.  The Band then uses these measurements to calculate the calories burned as well as your exercise and sleep information to give you more precise reporting.  In other words, it isn’t just measuring your heart rate in isolation.  It is using that information to more accurately determine how many calories you are burning during any given activity.

The sensor is located on the back the display casing on the Band 2 and rests against your skin to get that accurate heart rate measurement.

Accelerometer/Gyrometer

This sensor is likely self explanatory as such sensors have been on other fitness tracking devices and smartphones for some time now.  Basically these sensors measure when the Band is in motion.  It measure not only the type of motion as it is a 3-axis accelerometer, but the speed of that action.  This means that the Band 2 is aware if you are walking or if you are running.  It uses the information from the sensor (which is built into the chassis behind the display) to calculate things like the number of steps you have taken and it uses this information in combination with information from your profile and your heart rate measurements to estimate how many calories you have burned.  This, of course, varies based on your activities.

One of the challenges I have run into with other wrist-bound trackers are false-positives or false-negatives.  By false-positives I mean getting credit for steps that I didn’t actually take which, of course, makes me look more active than I actually have been.  Sure it works in your favor but it’s cheating yourself more or less.  Fitbit devices have been notorious for this problem.  When I had a Fitbit Flex and Fitbit Surge, I would get credit for steps just by typing.  Seriously.  It was a real pain and even when I adjusted the sensitivity down, I would get these false-positives.

The opposite is when I do walk or run and don’t get any credit.  I call these false-negatives.  Fitbit had less of an issue with this but Android Wear devices have a bigger problem with it.  I have found in my testing of multiple Wear devices that I, on average, will not get credit for upwards of 2,000 steps in some cases when compared to a Fitbit (particularly the pocket-bound Fitbit One).  That is almost if not more frustrating than getting over credited for activities.

The Band 2, in my testing, seems to do a much better job of giving you credit when you earn it.  I get far fewer of either false readings with the Band 2 than I have with any other tracker I have tested.

GPS

Again, this is probably a bit self explanatory but there is a lot that the Band 2 does with GPS data.  First, there is the obvious.  If you are walking, running, hiking or biking, the Band 2 uses GPS data to determine the distance that you have traveled.  This happens all the time.  However, if you use the Run, Bike or Golf tile, it gives you a bit more control.  The Run and Bike tiles, for example, give you refined distance and speed calculations while the Golf tile will use GPS for shot tracking, range finding and scoring.  It takes the raw data and really turns it into even more useful information and, equally as important, gives you the most accurate data on calories burned, distance covered and your pace.

Microphone

The Band 2 has a built-in microphone which allows you to use Microsoft’s personal digital assistant, Cortana.  The microphone is located on the side of the Band and when you have Cortana enabled on your phone and your Band, you can press the action button and speak into the microphone.  There are a lot of different commands you can use but the key to remember for Android users is that you have to have the Cortana app installed and running on your Android phone in order for it to work.  It works a bit more seamlessly for Windows Phone users as Cortana is built into the platform much like OK Google is for Android.

Ambient light sensor

Again, another somewhat self explanatory sensor.  You can adjust the display on the Band 2 to dim or brighten depending on the lighting situation.

Galvanic skin response (GSR) sensors

This sensor in the Band 2 effectively tells the device if you are wearing it or not.  There are two sensor diodes on the inside of the clasp that made contact with your skin.  That tells it that it is being work and can adjust itself to monitor your activities.

Ultraviolet Light Sensor

We all know the harmful long term effects of excessive sun (Ultraviolet light) exposure.  The Band 2 aims to help you get a grasp of just how much exposure you are getting throughout the day.  On

UV Exposure Information
UV Exposure Information

the bottom of the clasp you will find a small UV sensor.  The device uses that during your outdoor activities to give you an idea of how much exposure you have had along a suggestion of SPF sunscreen that you should use.  That SPF rating will go up or down depending on the amount of exposure you have at the time.  You can also do a spot check of the UV radiation you are getting by tapping the UV tile on the Band 2, turning your wrist over and letting the sensor in the clasp measure it right there.

Barometer

The last sensor built into the Band 2 is the Barometer.  The tracker uses this sensor to track changes in air pressure which it translates into changes in elevation.  In other words, this is how the Band 2 measure the number of flights of stairs you have taken in a day.  I’ll go into how accurate this measurement is later on in the review.

Design and Form Factor

One of the big improvements Microsoft made from the first Band to the new Band 2 is in the design and form factor of the tracker.  The original Band had a flat LCD panel so it stuck up when it was on your wrist.  This made the Band prone to being snagged on clothes or even on a desk as you moved around.  It also made the Band a bit uncomfortable as you had edges poking on the top of your wrist.  Microsoft heard all of this feedback and moved to the curved LCD in the Band 2.  It is far more comfortable and sleek on your wrist.  This makes it much easier to slip clothes over while also not getting snagged on anything.  Indeed the new design is a lower profile than most smartwatches on the market today.

Clasp on the Microsoft Band 2
Clasp on the Microsoft Band 2

I mentioned in briefly earlier but the locking clasp mechanism of the Band 2 is outstanding.  To secure it to you wrist, you have a locking outer clasp (where the UV sensor is located) that fits into a metal track on the back of the other end of the wrist band (where the GSR sensors are located that touch your skin).  This locks it onto your wrist and you can push on either side of the wrist band to close it tightly around your wrist.  In my daily use of this device over the course of the past two weeks, it has not once come unbuckled or slipped.  It is rock solid and frankly one of the best designs I’ve seen on any tracker.

If there is a knock on the Band 2 it is the weight.  All those sensors and the locking clasp come at a price and it is the 2.25 ounces (or 62 grams in new money) that is on your wrist.  You will notice this the moment you unbox the Band 2 but equally, after a few days of wearing it, you won’t notice it.  My advise here is give it time.  If after a few days or even a week it is just too much weight, you can always return it.

Band 2 Tiles & Functionality

The concept of tiles is nothing new to Microsoft.  If you use Windows 10, especially in Tablet mode or if you have used a Windows Phone now or in the past, tiles is going to be very familiar to you. Essentially the Band’s display is segmented into tiles that give you discrete bits of information.  The Messages tile gives you your SMS messages, your Facebook Messenger tile gives you notifications from that service.  The phone tile gives you information on call you missed while the calendar tiles gives you your upcoming appointments.  All pretty straightforward, right?

These tiles will also serve as the starting point for when you track exercises and other activities.  If you are starting a run, a bike ride or even strength training, you can tap that tile and use the Action button to start that activity.  Depending on the activity, like a run or bike ride, the Band 2 will use the built-in GPS to give you detailed information like elevation changes, your path, calories

Tiles of the Microsoft Band 2
Tiles of the Microsoft Band 2

burned, and distance traveled all within the device.  That information is synced with the Microsoft Health app which allows you to get into the granular details of an activity and a historical record.

The tiles themselves are customizable meaning that you can enable or disable all of them.  This gives you a high level of control over what is displayed on the device and you can arrange them in a way that works best for you.  Like any smartwatch, the less notifications you have going to the device, the longer the battery is going to last so be discrete in what you have show up on your wrist.  Configuration of the tiles is done through the Microsoft Health app.

Performance

Having tried many trackers over the years, I have to say that the Band 2 is by far the most accurate.  It is stunningly good actually.  The step count is accurate and because it is measuring your heart rate continually, but particularly during an activity, your calorie burn is far more accurate than any other tracker I have used.  Equally, I found that measures elevation changes very well and flights of stairs.  When I did a side-by-side comparison of the Band 2 and a Fitbit One, the stair counts were +/- 5 flights of stairs from each other with some days the Band 2 being more accurate than the One.  I never really sorted out the reason why:  It is the same set of stairs in my home every day!  My point is, it is accurate within an acceptable amount in my opinion.  No tracker is 100% accurate and given that both of these devices were within a small percentage of each other, I can live with that going forward.

Sleep tracking with the Band 2 is quite impressive.  You can start tracking your sleep by wearing the Band at night and tapping on the sleep (crescent moon icon) then pressing the action button. At that point the Band 2 will track how long it takes you to go to sleep and measures the duration and quality of your sleep.  It does this by tracking your movements as you sleep as well as your heart rate.  At the end of each day it rates the quality of your sleep so you can get data on just how well you are sleeping at night.  The Band 2 also has an alarm feature to wake you and that alarm is smart in that it will wake you at the optimal time, up to 30 minutes prior to your scheduled alarm.

Lastly, the Band 2 is water resistant.  It is not waterproof.  You can sweat and get it a little wet such as getting caught in the rain but you cannot shower or swim with it on.  Generally I recommend that in the mornings when you shower, use that time to charge the device.

Battery Life

Anytime the conversation turns to battery life on a tracking device or a smartwatch, it is always praised highly or bemoaned highly.  Let me help cut to the chase:  The Band 2’s battery life is ok.  It’s not horrible but it is not the best either.  The reason, I think, is that it is a hybrid of a smartwatch and a tracker.

Without question the Fitbit line up of products, and many others for that matter, will handily beat the 2 day rating of battery life for the Band 2.  My Fitbit One for example can easily go a week between charges.  However, if I compare the Band 2 with the Moto 360 smartwatch, it beats that device hands down.  I’m doing good if I can make it a full day on a 360 on a full charge.  Because the Band 2 has some smartwatch functionality and some tracker functionality, its reasonable that it isn’t going to last as long as the latter.

In my testing and daily use, I can make it comfortably for about 1.5 days before charging the Band 2.  If I do a lot of GPS tracking (multiple runs or walks in a day), I get about a day out of it.  Clearly you can extend that battery life out by turning off non-necessary notifications, updates and tiles.  This is the same rule as a smartwatch.  The less you have the Band 2 paying attention to things, the longer you can stretch that battery life.

Microsoft Health for Android

The hug and collection point of all of the data pouring off of your Band 2 is Microsoft Health.  The app is available for Android, iOS and Windows 10 for PC and Phone.  I’m not going to  cover the

Microsoft Health for Android
Microsoft Health for Android
Data Detail in Microsoft Health
Data Detail in Microsoft Health

iOS or Windows versions of the app in details as fundamentally, all of the apps replicate the same data.  They just present it in a slightly different fashion.   With that said, the app continues the same tile concept of the Band 2 itself.  The simple and intuitive UI gives you the highlights of your activities for the day.  By default you will see how you are doing compared to your friends.  These are friends that also have a Band 2 that you have friended through Facebook.  Unfortunately Facebook is the only social network that you can leverage right now within the app.  Along with the friends tile, you will see how many steps you have completed, calories burned, your sleeping hours, your activities and walking or running and finally, your weight tracking.

For each tile, you can tap on them and dig into the data deeper.  You can, for example, review a walk or run you made and get detailed information about your pace, elevation changes, your heart rate during the activity and the like.  Similarly, you can get detailed information on your sleep as I outlined previously.  The key here is that you aren’t just getting the high level data.  You are getting deep, granular information so tracking of your activities no longer are a mystery.

The Microsoft Health app also services as a launching point for customizing your Band 2.  Within the settings of the app, you will find where you actually pair your band with your phone as well as customization for which tiles show up on the display.  Those tiles can also be moved about into an order that works best for you.

There is one element of the Microsoft Health app that needs to be addressed by Microsoft.  Currently the Band 2 cannot sync with your Windows 10 PC via Bluetooth.  You have to use the provided charging/sync cable to connect and sync with the Windows version of the app.  In truth, for many, this will be no big deal as when you sync with your phone, the data is sent to the cloud and when you start the app on your PC, it is there for you.  However in this day of everything seemingly syncing via Bluetooth, this is something that Microsoft should address in my opinion.

Further, Microsoft should enable you to review the sync’d data to the app when your phone is offline.  For example, if your phone is in airplane mode, you see none of your data.  That should be cached (I appreciate it can’t sync and update which is fine) so you can at least review what data you had on your last sync.

Regardless of which platform you use, the Microsoft Health app is free.

Conclusion

As you have read this review you have likely picked up on the fact that I think a lot of the Microsoft Band 2.  It is undoubtedly the best, most comprehensive fitness tracker I have ever reviewed or used personally.  In fact, when I bought it, I assumed I’d try it, review it and return it.  That isn’t going to happen.  The only time it has been off my wrist has been to charge and I don’t see that changing any time soon.  What I like about this device is the hybrid approach of what it offers.  It has all the fitness and wellness tracking you would want but also has a sprinkling of smartwatch functionality.  No it isn’t as powerful as an AppleWatch or even an Android Wear device.  But it is, in my opinion, a far superior fitness tracker than those devices.

If you are looking for such a device – a device that measures a huge amount of fitness and wellness activities – with a touch of useful smartwatch functionality, I recommend the Band 2 without reservation.

The Band 2 ranges from $135 to $169 on Amazon depending on the size you need to purchase.  It is also available on the Microsoft Store but is $199 regardless of size.

Microsoft Band 2 from Amazon (Prime eligible, 30 day return policy)