Review: The Much Improved Microsoft Band 2

When I tested the first generation Microsoft Band, the most glaring issue with it was the fit. As much as I really enjoyed the device, wearing it screen down, along with the way the sensors were fit into the band made it less than ideal. Along with comfort, Microsoft took user feedback to heart and put out the second generation Microsoft Band 2. I can tell you that they definitely listened because the second iteration of their fitness band improves upon the first in almost every way, making it a tough option to beat.

Watch the full video review, here. It's a long one, with a deep dive into the Microsoft Health app:

The Microsoft Band 2 is a slim, wrist-worn fitness tracker with a beautifully bright 320x128 AMOLED touchscreen that displays a wealth of information using a tile-based interface. The display is ensconced in Corning Gorilla Glass 3 which is more durable than the first iteration which was prone to scratches, especially given the push to wear that one with the display on the inside of the wrist. On the metal frame of the watch body, you'll find two buttons. One is the "action" button which activates certain functions, the other is the sleep/wake/power button. Also on the body of the watch, you'll find some of the 11 sensors that the Band is equipped with. Right next to the power button, you'll find the microphone and on the opposite side of the body, you'll find the barometer.

Below the display you'll also find an ambient light sensor which controls screen brightness based on the amount of light where you are. I find with the Band that setting the brightness to a constant setting, medium, gets me some pretty solid battery life. Speaking of that display, one of the greatest changes to the Microsoft Band 2 is the shape of the device. The previous generation had a slim and straight display, while the 2 is wider and curved. Without hesitation I'll tell you that the Band 2 is infinitely more comfortable than not only the first generation Band but many of the other smartwatches and bands that I've tried. Wearing the Band 2 for days -and nights- on end, only taking it off in the morning, presented no discomfort. I slept with it on every night and I can't say enough about how it didn't interfere with my sleep at all. I don't like wearing anything on my wrists when I go to bed but the curvature and slide locking clasp really make wear feel very natural and fitted so close to your arm that you can forget you're wearing it. I know, I know. I'm gushing. But that's because it is just such a welcomed improvement over the previous band. To ensure you get the most customized fit possible, the Microsoft Band 2 is available in three sizes: small, medium, and large. In terms of physical size, the small starts at 5.7" and goes all the way up to the large 8.5" option with about an inch of "give" on the sliding clasp at each sizing level (ie, small fits wrists, 5.7" - 6.7"). I went with the medium. I look like a big guy, but I actually have deceptively small wrists for my size.

On one of the bottom ends of the band is where you'll find the Galvanic skin response sensors which allow the Band to determine whether or not you're wearing the device. On the other side of the clasp you'll find the UV sensors. That pretty much round out the hardware. Greatly improved fit and finish sums up the package in the Microsoft Band 2.

Not only did Microsoft up the ante on the hardware side of things, they did so where the onboard software is concerned. One of my biggest gripes with the first gen Band was the lack of music controls. A small thing, given that you can usually control your music from most earbuds or bluetooth headphones but when you're exercising, the most efficient, direct route to getting something done is generally the best in my opinion. Reaching for your wrist to skip a track, or pause a song just makes sense to me. Problem solved! Shortly after receiving my review unit, it received a software update that included music controls. BOOM! Double tap the screen while playing music and they come up. You can see track names, slide and hold the screen right or left to adjust volume, or use the on-screen play controls. The only downside you'll find is that if you're wearing bluetooth headphones that were already connected to your phone before you try to connect the band, it won't recognize the music playing and give you control. The headphones get priority.

One of the features I appreciate when it comes to fitness trackers is an activity monitor. Generally, this is an alarm function which "knows" when you've been sedentary for too long and will notify you to get up and move at intervals you set. I generally set fitness devices to vibrate hourly to keep me thinking about how long I've been sitting. That feature is in the settings menu directly on the Band but many of the other features of the Band 2 are located in the Microsoft Health app which is available for Windows Phone, iOS and Android. The primary difference between all of the versions is the inclusion of voice activated features via Cortana, which works only when paired with a Windows Phone. For me, the Microsoft Health app is one of the most important parts of the whole user experience here. It's ability to connect with other apps makes it well worth the price of admission! Having recently been diagnosed with Type II Diabetes, my ability to watch what I eat has become critically important. When I exercise, the Microsoft Health app sends my calories burned to MyFitnessPal (the app I have connected to Microsoft's health app). I use MyFitnessPal as a food diary because I can import my recipes and it will give me caloric and nutrient breakdowns, and it has a massive database of foods so that if I eat out it will recognize most dishes and add that to my total calorie intake for the day. So far, syncing with third party apps like MyFitnessPal has been pretty consistent. Every now and again, the fitness data from my Band will take some time to show up in the third party app, but overall I've been very happy with the experience.

Overall, the software experience with the Band 2 has been as polished and enjoyable as my experience with the first gen Band. The data, the metrics it records regarding my workouts and steps has been pretty consistent and easy to read. Sleep information has been easy to read, understand and act on.

One of the elephants in the room when it comes to all heart rate monitors which use the technology that Microsoft's Band 2 uses is the accuracy of the heart rate monitor. The Band 2 uses a technology which essentially flashes light through your skin and "sees" your blood pulsing through your veins or capillaries, depending on how you're wearing it. With the debate about how well this works, there has been lively discussion on some forums about the difference between the kind of activity you're engaged in and whether to wear the watch so that the sensor is on top of your wrist or under. The light sensor in the band, after some testing seems to do better when the display is worn on the inside of the wrist for workouts that you wouldn't describe as "aerobically intensive." So, weight lifting, pilates, yoga, these kinds of activities will be tracked most accurately by wearing in that manner. Wearing the display on the outside of your wrist will net you the most accurate results for high intensity workouts like Crossfit, cycling, and interval training.

Now it should be noted that as good as PPG (photoplethysmography) sensors have gotten, the ones commonly found in smartwatches aren't as accurate as old school chest strap monitors. Just like any new technology, they're going to have their quirks. In estimating your fitness output, keep in mind that what you're getting may be a very close estimate, but it isn't a replacement for ECG equipment like that used in hospitals. That said, I've measured the output of Microsoft's Band 2 against equipment that has proven to be very accurate and consistent (MIO Alpha), and the results have been consistent and favorable.

Would I recommend the Band 2 as a fitness tracking device for you? The simple answer is "yes." But the more complicated answer is that I wouldn't recommend it as a smartwatch. I think that smartwatches and fitness trackers really are two different categories of device and yet, most people who ask me about buying a smartwatch tend to lump the two together. Most smartwatches with HRMs built in are more Jack of all Trades, Master of None and most really good fitness trackers are very nice looking, casual fashion pieces. They may look sleek but are not necessarily suit ready accessories in my opinion. Then again, as a lover of traditional watches and a man who still wears them, I may be a bit biased on that one. Currently, you can pick up a Band 2 from Microsoft for $75 off the $250.00 MSRP. Nice!

Disclosure: Microsoft provided me with a demo unit of the Microsoft Band 2 for the purpose of this review.