Review of Microsoft Band as a smartwatch

A calendar reminder on the Microsoft Band.

The Microsoft Band is a fitness watch that also has some smartwatch features. How does it stack up as a smartwatch alone?

If you want something strictly for viewing notifications at a glance, the Band is perfect. But if you want a true smartwatch, the Band leaves more to be desired.

Positives

  • Having notifications on your wrist is awesome
  • Watch mode is nice (similar to Glance screen)
  • Claimed 48 hours of average use is accurate
  • Adjustable band lets you loosen it up when not running
  • Cortana on wrist is handy
  • Screen is crisp and large enough to read decent amount of notification

Negatives

  • Using Cortana turns your phone’s screen on, even inside pocket
  • No “Reply with Voice” option for text messages
  • Reading messages on phone doesn’t clear notification count on watch
  • It doesn’t display turn-by-turn GPS instructions on the watch
  • Randomly disconnected from my phone twice in six days, requiring reboot

Notifications on the Band

A text message notification on the Microsoft Band

The Band is perfect for viewing notifications at a glance. If you’ve never used a smartwatch before, you have no idea how helpful it is to see notifications on your wrist. I feel more connected than ever. It’s extremely convenient to receive notifications on something that is always visible and always with you.

The screen is large enough that you can read a decent amount of the incoming text, email, Facebook message, etc. After that, you can decide if it’s worth taking out your phone to read the rest.

Notifications appear quickly on the Band – within a second or two of your phone receiving the notification. The Band vibrates to notify you, which is always easily felt since it is on your wrist. Unfortunately, reading a message on your phone doesn’t clear the notification counter on your Band, so notifications feel out-of-sync.

Interacting with notifications

Cortana asks if you would like to send the text message

Here’s where the Band falls short. On an incoming text message or call, you can only reply with a set of pre-configured messages. There isn’t any “reply with voice” option. This is quite frustrating, and makes it clear that the Band is not a true smartwatch. You technically can reply with Cortana, but that requires you to say the entire command of “Text <person> <message>”, even though it should know who you’re texting by context! And then you still have to say “Send it” after Cortana processes your voice, adding an unnecessary voice command to the process.

A true smartwatch would allow you to click “reply” and then compose a message with your voice, and simply click “send” when you’re done talking. Hopefully a future update fixes this.

Cortana on the Band

Cortana answers on the Band while also turning on the phone's screen

The Band lets you use Cortana for some quick voice commands and queries by holding down the action button. You can ask it what the weather’s like, what day a holiday is, and more. However, some things simply aren’t possible on the watch, like asking it to navigate you to the closest Best Buy. You’ll have to switch to your phone to finish that.

There’s a huge issue with Cortana on the Band… triggering Cortana forces your phone’s screen to turn on, even if it’s in your pocket. This is actually an issue with Windows Phone itself, since any Bluetooth device will cause the screen to turn on when using Cortana. Since that will likely require a software update of Windows Phone to fix, we probably won’t see this problem fixed for three to six months.

Lack of advanced features

The home screen of the Microsoft Band

The Band is unable to show you turn-by-turn GPS instructions. It doesn’t have third party apps (but this is coming someday). It doesn’t have an always-listening mode, you have to hold down a button to trigger Cortana. Voice-to-text isn’t instantly transcribed as you talk to Cortana; instead, it gets sent in one batch to your phone, and then the answer is returned, which makes it feel slower in addition to not letting you find out if it transcribed correctly until the response is received.

Comfort of the Band

Microsoft Band - Around Wrist

At first, the Band feels a bit abnormal on your wrist. However, after using it for a few days, it starts to feel more natural. I’ll still notice it sometimes when it rests awkwardly on my laptop or on a desk, but in general, it feels fine.

The adjustable band allows you to tighten up the watch so it’s snug while running, and then loosen it for normal use.

Battery life

Checking the battery on the Band

Microsoft states that you should get an average of 48 hours of battery life from the Band (assuming you don’t use GPS). This claim proved to be valid from my testing, including the use of the watch mode.

However, if you use GPS to track a run, expect to get no more than 4 hours while using GPS. GPS is only used when tracking runs, so if you use the Band strictly as a smartwatch, you don’t have to worry about this battery-draining feature.

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