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Microsoft Band 2 review - a cyclist's perspective

Microsoft Band 2
7 Mar 2016
Verdict:

The Microsoft Band 2 is an improvement on the original Band, but is still hampered by less than stellar battery life.

Cyclist Rating: 
For 
Sleep tracking is a huge training aid
Against 
Battery life could be better

Wearable tech is an area where most cyclists snub their noses. The realisations of more casual fitness enthusiasts that they can track their movement, speed and heartrate are all old news to the cycling community. The Microsoft Band 2, though, made me slightly rethink that position.

The Band 2 is much the same as its predecessor in terms of functionality, it has a tri-axial accelerometer, GPS, optical heart rate monitor, UV sensor, a microphone (for Cortana), altimeter and about half a dozen other gadgets. That means it's a capable aid for running, gym workouts, circuits and, crucially, cycling.

Apps 

The Band 2 screen presents a sequence of tiles for different activities - when one is selected the Band will display whatever data you desire. For cycling, it can display speed, average speed, interval speed, heartrate, altitude, time and distance between two separate screens. The same process of selecting a tile and beginning an activity can be used for all kinds of activities such as circuits, running, golf and even sleep. 

Microsoft Band 2 map

At this price point, the Band 2 is unique in that it can track a route using GPS sensors, and export that data to any training platform (including Strava) without the use of a smartphone. With the addition of an altimeter, a step forward from the original Band, the Band 2 is handsomely equipped to record rides. By contrast, an Apple Watch or Fitbit requires a smartphone's sensors to track movement. That may sound a little irrelevant, but it means that the Band is always a backup should your phone or Garmin run dry on battery. To some extent it could be used as a primary cycling computer, but it has limitations. 

Battery life 

Microsoft Band 2 speed graph

The main barrier to the Band 2 being a standalone computer is that its battery life cannot carry it for more than a three-hour ride while tracking GPS and heartrate. In some ways that is still an impressive battery life, given how small the unit is and all that it does at once, but it renders it as primarily useful for commutes or short training rides. The band tracks speed, and heartrate, and from this can calculate training effort, fitness benefit and even calculate VO2 max.

As someone who doesn't like to strap on a heartrate monitor, the band is a nice alternative. Of course, I won't be the first to observe that the accuracy is not on the same level, but I found maximum heartrate and average always fell within 3 or 4 beats of what I read on a chest-mounted heartrate monitor. The GPS is also quick to load, and generally as accurate as my Garmin in terms of route specifics, although speed reading could sometimes be more stocatto – I suspect the Band 2 samples slightly less frequently. Microsoft's maps are not the most useful for an experienced cyclist, splitting speed into different colour segments but not fully comprehending inevitable stops.

Heartrate tracking 

With quick and automatic upload to Strava, though, it can quickly translate into useful training and tracking data. A buzz during certain interval workouts is also useful certain sessions and competitive outings. 

Microsoft Band 2 heart rate

Cycling is only part of the picture with the Band, though. The general activity and heartrate tracking is undoubtedly where I found the most use as an athlete. Firstly, tracking movement around my cycling was revelatory – essentially I walk far too much to assure good recovery. Then there's the heartrate tracking. The Band 2 keeps a 24 hour log of heartrate, meaning you can see how your heart is holding out week in week out. For me, it revealed a slightly slow recovery rate after training.

Sleep tracking

For me, sleep tracking with the band has been mildly life changing. Most cyclists probably don't give enough credit to the importance of sleep - after all training is bad for you, it's only the recovery that makes your stronger. A constant measure of true resting heartrate at night helped me track my training cycles, and anticipate illness. I personally fluctuate between 41 and 49bpm in deep sleep, and anything above 50 became quickly evident as a warning sign to back off completely on training.

Microsoft Band 2 sleep

Many people question how valuable data is on sleep, and if it offers anything above the perception of good or bad sleep. What I came to understand was that my perception of sleep quality was very bad. Often lots of small interruptions in sleep that I would have no memory of would leave me tired throughout the day, while sometimes a serious interruption to sleep in the night and a groggy morning wouldn't actually indicate a bad night of sleep at all. In terms of palpable difference, for me it meant a switch to thinner blanket, earlier evening meals, the use of earplugs and the result has been better sleep and a consequent boost in my riding form. 

Software & firmware

Microsoft Band 2 Heart Rate graph

The Band 2 is not a totally finished piece, though. While the hardware is impressive, I believe the software on offer from Microsoft show some innovation, but has some way before offering any truly useful training insight based on the data collected. Microsoft's involvement in this side of the market is exciting, though, for the reason that we might hope for the type of large-scale R&D funding that could offer much more complex and advanced understandings of training. The language that the development team is speaking definitely suggests this could be on the horizon. In terms of practical use and fitment, it's all very straightforward. The Microsoft Health app is necessary to talk to the Band 2 and record data (where these screenshots have all originated), and once downloaded the system is very much plug and play.

Size guide

Sizing is one factor worth considering. The band splits into three sizes, Small (wrist circumference of 143-168), Medium (162-188) and Large (180-206). For my extremely feminine and slender wrists I had to side for a small, which is worn at the outer extremity of the Band's metal clasp. For those in the grey area of sizing, I would personally recommend siding on the smaller side, as the band requires a tight fit to accurately read heartrate.

Conclusion

Where the technology is right now, I see the Band 2 as a great substitute for a cycling computer for those getting into the sport, or those averse to mounting a GPS to the stem. Alternatively it's a great supplement to the tech that more advanced riders will naturally employ. I've used it on occasions where mounting a heartrate strap and Garmin are less appealing – a ride on the fixie to work, a warm down jog or a back up for when battery is running dry. It's the use off the bike altogether, though, that makes the Band 2 a serious asset to a serious athlete. It means 24 hour data on numerous avenues of training, fitness and health. For many this platform for data gathering will become more and more valuable, and already I feel naked without it. 

Microsoft.com

Price: 
£200

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