Thursday, November 06, 2014

Band On The Run (Sorry)

A bit ago I decided that if I wanted to make any progress on my fitness goals I needed to do a better job of tracking my activities and calorie consumption, stepping a little further into “quantified self” territory.
After getting the firmware update that would allow the app to work on my phone, I picked up a Fitbit flex.
I knew going into my purchase that better, shinier gadgets would likely be released in the near-future, but I figured it was worth getting started anyway, and I went with Fitbit specifically because it does support my phone, which is a rare thing.
Overall, I was pleased with it.  It worked as advertised, and I have to say that there is a definite advantage to “gamifying” fitness and providing incentives.  It doesn’t matter that said incentives – badges, in this case – are ultimately meaningless; even when they know there’s no real value in a prize, human nature drives people to pursue said prize.  (See also reddit users and “karma.”)
Having a set daily goal – 10,000 steps – to achieve, with the potential to receive badges for hitting other goals served its purpose, and after hitting the daily goal for the first time, I thereafter always achieved that goal, and usually went well beyond 10,000 steps.
Like I said, even though they didn’t have any value, the badges served as an incentive.  When I found myself just a little over 1,000 steps away from achieving the 25,000 step badge at 11 PM, I spent the next 20 minutes walking around my house like a crazy person to get my step count up, ultimately leading me to get well over 25,000 steps for the day.
I also found myself watching my diet even more carefully after I began logging my food and setting a daily goal for calories in vs. calories out.  So overall, I was satisfied with the Fitbit.
My only real complaint was the lack of features on the band itself.  Sure, it would vibrate when I hit my goal, and the vibrating “gentle” alarm feature makes for a slightly less jarring way to wake up in the morning than a standard alarm (or even music).  But the display consists only of five little lights, each one representing a portion of your daily goal, allowing you to have a general idea of where you stand, and in order to get more specifics you needed to sync it and check your stats in the app (or online).
At a minimum, I would have liked for it to be able to display the time, as I disliked having to wear both the Fitbit and my watch (and I like to have a watch rather than having to check my phone to see the time).  Beyond that, I wanted something with some smartwatch capabilities that would allow me to view my calendar or receive notifications (again, without having to check my phone).
Further, while you can manually enter the information in via the app, the Fitbit isn’t great at detecting activities other than walking/running, and even there it kind of fails when it comes to using an elliptical machine.
I was a little annoyed – even though I expected it – when Fitbit announced an upcoming product that would address some of those issues, adding in things like heart rate monitoring, GPS tracking, and some smartwatch capabilities, to be released early next year.
However, I was even more annoyed when, while not quite out of the blue, Microsoft unexpectedly announced its own wearable device, the Microsoft Band.
I won’t dive into all of the specs, but suffice to say that the Band has a lot going for it.
Despite having just sunk money into the Fitbit – and despite the fact that it’s a 1.0 product from Microsoft – after looking over the details on the day of its release I ordered one.
After all, it checked off all of the items on my wish list:

GPS Tracking
Heart Rate Monitoring
More In-Depth Activity Tracking
Built-In Display of Progress Towards Goals
A Clock
Access To Calendar, E-Mail, and Other Notifications
Compatible With My Phone

While there are plenty of reviewers who are damning it with faint praise (it is a Microsoft product, after all, and there are plenty of people in the tech world who are not inclined to give MS much credit even when it’s due), and focusing on it being “ugly” and bulky, I quite like the look of it.  As for being bulky, well, your mileage may vary, but it’s lighter than my watch was, and not having to wear both a watch and an activity tracker has lightened the load on my wrist.
There are those who are also complaining that it’s not quite so feature-rich as other smartwatches, but it fits the bill for me, particularly given its integration with Cortana.
Again, your mileage may vary, but I’m not inclined to engage in terribly complex activities via a small device on my wrist, so the “limited” functionality hits the right balance in terms of convenience.
In terms of the overall strategy, Microsoft isn’t terribly concerned about selling a lot of Bands – though they did sell out of the existing stock very quickly, apparently – but rather on licensing out the technology and partnering with other manufacturers of activity trackers.  Indeed, they made the Band compatible with iOS and Android as well.  More to the point, they’re looking to corner the market on health data, and getting everyone to standardize on their cloud-based health data platform.  The Band itself is, in many ways, kind of irrelevant, and serves mostly as a proof-of-concept and showcase for their sensor technology.
To get back to the matter at, er, hand, however, I’ll focus on my own experience using the Band.
So far I have no complaints about the Band itself and have been quite pleased with it.  Some accounts complain about inaccuracies – particularly around heart rate monitoring – but I’m not a professional reviewer and so I haven’t done any of the comparison work that other reviewers have.  For my part, I’ve found the step count to be pretty accurate, and the data it provides seems to align with what I know about my heart rate and the ranges in which it tends to beat.
That said, I actually bought the Band at a lousy time.
I had been suffering from some serious lower back pain that had drastically impacted my mobility and motivation – not just my motivation to exercise, but even to just go on living – and a trip to the doctor led to me being put on a course of steroids.  Said steroids dramatically weakened my already useless immune system, so almost as soon as I went in to work and exposed myself to the hundreds of walking disease bags there I came down with a nasty cold that left me laid up for the past two days.
So there hasn’t been a whole lot of activity to track, but hopefully that will change soon.

Despite recovering from being stick, I still exceed my goal...because I'm just that awesome.

I have very few complaints about the Band itself.  I find it comfortable enough that I’ve pretty much stopped noticing that it’s there, and even though having it turned so that the display is on the inside of my wrist, I’m getting used to it – it’s definitely a more natural position for interacting with it – and rarely find that it interferes with things like typing.
That said, it would benefit from following the contours of the wrist at least a little and having a slight curve rather than being flat.
And while I don’t feel a need to engage in terribly complex interactions with it – I don’t necessarily want to be wearing a phone on my wrist, after all, at least not with the current options available – I do wish that acknowledging/dismissing a notification on the Band would serve to also acknowledge/dismiss it on the phone.  I’d even like to be able to delete an e-mail or text on the Band.  Of course, I’d also like to be able to do that directly from the Action Center on my phone itself, so…
The majority of my complaints are with the accompanying Health app that accompanies the Band.
First off, the Windows Phone app looks pretty much the same as the iOS and Android versions.  Sometimes standardization is good, but this isn’t one of those times, as the interface is not built according to the design language of Windows Phone/Windows 8.1 apps.  This is especially troubling, given that the Band’s interface is very much a “modern” (formerly known as “metro”) UI.  There has been a marked trend on Microsoft’s part of late to ignore its own design language, most notably with its recently-updated OneDrive app, and I find it troubling, as the modern design – particularly on Windows Phone – is a key differentiator, and it’s one of the elements of the platform that I find especially compelling.
Further, the tile for the app only has the small and medium options for size – and it isn’t live.
It also isn’t universal – there is no version of the app available for PCs/tablets.
I assume that one will be forthcoming, as there is a driver that gets installed if you connect the Band (via its USB charger) to a PC.
Which leads to the other complaint I have about the app:  it’s very basic.  While it does present you with options for viewing detailed reports and for personalizing the Band – changing the accent color, adding/removing tiles, etc. – there are no options for tracking how many calories you consume.  Ideally, as Microsoft continues to partner with Fitbit, they’ll add that feature, and have hooks into Fitbit’s comprehensive food database.  Fitbit aside, though, Microsoft already has a Health and Fitness app that allows you to track your calories, so at a minimum Health should integrate with Health and Fitness.
I’m also not particularly thrilled with the alarms.  Like the Fitbit Flex, you can use the Band’s silent alarm – if you’re wearing it while you sleep to track your sleeping patterns – to wake you up in the morning, and that works fine.  As I mentioned, I prefer being woken by the slight buzzing on my wrist.  However, the alarm has to be set on the Band itself, and you have to turn it on manually at night, every night.  With Fitbit, you set alarms and their recurrence pattern in the companion app.  Health should add that same capability.
Speaking of sleep monitoring, one other issue I have with the Band is that it doesn’t pay any attention to your phone’s “Quiet Hours” setting.  In Windows Phone 8.1, you can designate Quiet Hours during which your phone won’t buzz/ring (you can also set up exceptions).  The Band doesn’t care about that.  If its set to vibrate upon receiving an e-mail, it will do so, no matter what time it is.
This isn’t really an issue if you’re actually using the sleep monitoring, as telling the Band that you’re sleeping disables notifications for the duration, but it is an example of integration with Windows Phone that needs to be more fully-baked.
So the ultimate question is, would I recommend the Band?  If you have a wish list for a smart wearable/fitness tracker that I have, absolutely.  If you’re looking for something more basic, without any of the smartwatch capabilities, I’d say go with the Fitbit.  If you need more advanced smartwatch capabilities, well, I can’t help you there, but you have a wealth of choices.
Ultimately, though, I’d recommend taking a wait-and-see attitude, as the odds are you’ll have even more options in the near-future if Microsoft can succeed in getting other activity tracker and smartwatch manufacturers on board with its emerging platform and sensor technologies.


Merlin T Wizard said...

I tried to upvote this post, but the button isn't there. I guess you don't get karma for it.

Jon-Paul Maki said...

I find myself looking for the option to upvote, downvote, save, and hide things in real life.