I've been wearing a Microsoft Band fitness tracker off and on for several weeks. Although I have some reservations, there's a lot I like about the $200 activity-tracking wristband. It's a solid options for people in the Microsoft camp -- especially those with Windows 8.1 smartphones -- but how does it fare against market leader Fitbit?
Microsoft Band look and feel
Microsoft Band doesn't lie flat against your wrist, as Surge ($250) and other Fitbit devices do. Instead, Microsoft's rigid, oblong display juts out. The band itself is thick and heavy. However, I adjusted to the design, and there are a few things I appreciate about it, such as its color display.
I like that you can customize the color and background of Microsoft Band's 1.4-inch (320 x 106) color display. You can also rearrange the "tiles" any way that you like. (As in Windows 8, tiles are shortcuts that launch apps, actions or settings.)
Unfortunately, the screen is hard to read in bright sunlight, especially if you wear polarized sunglasses. Fitbit Surge's monochrome touchscreen is more legible, but it's not as attractive as Microsoft Band's display.
Microsoft Band app support
Microsoft Band works with iPhones, Androids and, of course, Windows Phones. I had no trouble pairing and using it with the Microsoft Health app on my iPhone 6 Plus. I also tested Microsoft Band with a Windows 8.1 smartphone, the Nokia Lumia 830.
Microsoft Band feeds detailed, useful activity and sleep data into the Microsoft Health mobile app. You can connect third-party apps, including RunKeeper, MyFitnessPal, MapMyFitness and Strava, to your Microsoft account and exchange fitness data. Fitbit supports a wider variety of compatible apps, however.
GPS and smartwatch features
Microsoft Band and Fitbit Surge have built-in GPS, so you can map your runs. Microsoft Band also delivers smartwatch-style notifications to your wrist, including alerts for incoming email and text messages from your connected smartphone. Surge shows call and text notifications.
Microsoft Band heart rate monitoring
Unlike other fitness bands with optical heart rate sensors, Microsoft Band's sensor is located on the underside of the clasp. So if you wear the display face up on your wrist, the heart-rate sensor is actually located on the underside of your arm. The way you wear the device doesn't affect the heart rate readings you get, according to Microsoft.
Sometimes, during my peak cardio, Microsoft Band's heart rate readings jumped up to 160 BPM briefly, which was 10 to 20 BPM higher than the reading from my Polar H7 chest strap, which is the most accurate consumer device for heart-rate monitoring, according to Consumer Reports and The Wall Street Journal. Microsoft Band's overly high readings didn't last long, however, and overall, its average heart-rate readings and calorie count (as summarized in the Microsoft Health mobile app) were in line with Polar's.
I've also experienced high heart rate readings during peak exercise with other wristband sensors, including those on my Fitbit and Basis Peak. A Microsoft Band product manager said the device doesn't filter or average its heart rate readings, which could explain why I saw the high fluctuations. The company says Microsoft Band's heart rate readings are extremely accurate, especially during running, and elliptical and rowing machine workouts.
Microsoft Band has some useful extras, too, such as Guided Workouts developed by Microsoft partners Gold's Gym and Shape Magazine.
Band also includes Cortana, Microsoft's answer to Siri and Google Now. When paired with a nearby Windows 8.1 smartphone, Microsoft Band lets you ask Cortana questions and give it commands. In my tests, most of my Cortana requests via Microsoft Band were successful.
However, the virtual assistant was unable to "Set a timer for five minutes," and I had to pull out my Windows Phone to complete my request. When I asked Cortana to "set an alarm for five minutes," it asked me, "What time would you like me to set an alarm?" I repeated "five minutes," and Cortana set the alarm. In comparison, Siri handled the "set an alarm for five minutes" task with one command.
I also like how you can input your Starbucks card number and then use Microsoft Band to pay for food and drink at the coffee giant's stores by scanning a barcode displayed on the wristband screen.
Microsoft Band lacks leaderboard
There's no Microsoft Band leaderboard for competing against friends and family. The leaderboard is one of my favorite Fitbit features. A Microsoft spokesperson said the company is "continually listening to customer feedback and will take this into consideration for future updates."
Bottom line on Microsoft Band
Microsoft Band is an affordable, feature-packed and ambitious first effort from Microsoft in the activity tracking market. If you don't care about the Apple Watch and haven't committed to a fitness-tracking ecosystem such as Fitbit's, it's worth a look.