Back in the dark ages of the mid 2000s, the “quantified self” movement barely existed. Disparate groups of fitness and data geeks had just begun to measure every aspect of their lives, entering the results into creaking spreadsheets in the hope of gleaning some insight into the mysteries of the human body and soul.
Some took it to extremes; they would weigh the hair they shaved from their faces and plot the results against how happy they felt (no correlation). Others would eat sticks of butter and see if it improved their mental arithmetic (a tenuous correlation). The list of data they collected was seemingly endless, and, practically speaking, almost entirely useless. And yet just a few years later, the quantified self has entered the mainstream. We may not routinely collect our bodily off-cuttings, but hundreds of thousands of us collate graphs telling us how many sleep cycles we’ve been through at night, how many steps we’ve taken each day, how many calories we’ve consumed and what our resting heart rate is.
Interest in “wearables” hit fever pitch with the release of the Apple Watch last week (which we will be reviewing shortly), but plenty of companies have been in the market for years: Jawbone, Misfit, Fitbit, Garmin, Sony. And now Microsoft.
The Microsoft Band promises to help you “live healthier and be more productive”. It’s marketed first and foremost as a fitness tracker, featuring a heart rate monitor, pedometer, calorie counter and sleep tracker, and it also supports email, text and social media.
Features-wise, it has a lot going for it: it works with any brand of smartphone, not just ones running Windows Phone; it has in-built GPS (unusual among trackers, which usually piggyback on your phone’s GPS); it even has a UV monitor that will even tell you if you should be wearing suncream.
Pretty amazing they managed to squeeze it all into a wearable unit, right? Well, kind of. The first thing you notice about the Band is its size. Not the size of the screen, which is only 34mm x 10mm – the band itself. At its thickest points the strap is 7mm (thicker than, say, an iPhone 6). Moreover, it feels big. Although it’s made of rubber, it’s inflexible and therefore comfortable. And because of its size, people notice it. A colleague wanted to know if it alerted the authorities when I break my curfew.
So that’s not great – but neither is carrying a phone around with you while you’re working out (I have the iPhone 6 Plus and when I go running it looks like I have a solar panel strapped to my arm), so I can forgive a little discomfort.
And the functionality is generally good – it accurately tracks your runs, sends the data to the smartphone app and charts daily, weekly and monthly graphs of your activity so you know when you’ve been shirking.
The text/email/Facebook/Twitter alerts are also surprisingly useful. It syncs with your phone, so whenever you get a notification you’ll feel a pulse on your wrist, where the message will be waiting. If you’re out running you can press the “action” button and the message will display one word at a time so you don’t have to stop and squint at the screen.
At £169.99, it isn’t cheap, but for a one-stop-shop for all your fitness needs, it’s just about acceptable. The problem is, the Microsoft Band isn’t a one-stop-shop. For a wearable this cumbersome, I want to be able to use it in isolation: if I’m out running, I don’t want this thing sliding up and down my wrist as well as an iPhone strapped to my arm. Yet there’s no option to upload a music playlist; running in silence isn’t an option, so I’m stuck with two devices.
Other niggling issues also put me off: it isn’t supported by Nike+ Running, the app I use to track my runs, so I’d have to start gathering data from scratch or spread my information over two platforms. The sleep function doesn’t use the information it gathers to wake you during a period of light sleep, which is really the only reason I can think of to monitor your sleep cycles (I’m already painfully aware if I’ve had a bad night’s kip). And I can’t see for the life of me where I enter the weight of my shorn stubble.
The Microsoft Band is promising but flawed – it packs in so much that it becomes unwieldy, but not quite enough to make it a truly stand-alone device. A generation or two down the line, this could be a viable contender in the wearables market but right now, I’m afraid it has a long way to go.
Microsoft Band costs £169.99 and is available from microsoft.com.
OTHER FITNESS TRACKERS TO CONSIDER
This entry-level tracker displays sleep patterns, workouts and calorie intake via a Bluetooth-connected app on your phone. The Smart Coach function suggests ways to improve your lifestyle and you can check its LED display to see how you’re doing. It’s also discreet, light and comes in a variety of colours.
This band has a few extra features that make it good value for money; it vibrates when you have a phone call or text message, it’s waterproof and it wakes you up at the optimum moment in your sleep cycle. However, the app is only compatible with Androids.
Garmin specialises in robust, durable sports products and its wearable tech offerings are aimed at the more adventurous end of the market. The ultra-thin, lightweight Vivoactive has built-in Garmin sports apps and is sure to go the distance.
Plugging the gap in the market for a more fashion friendly wearable fitness tracker, the Misfit Shine can be clipped onto a belt, worn around the wrist or even on the ankle. Shine tracks running, walking, cycling and swimming and converts data into easy-to-read charts.
This advanced tracker from Nike monitors how much, often and intensely you move as you go about your day. Set daily goals, and watch on the app as you progress from red to green. A great way to keep motivated.