22 November 2014

The Microsoft Band and me–three weeks later

Why? How?

I will be honest – I wasn’t really thinking the whole thing about wearables is more than a bit overhyped marketing stuff and that I personally would not get much use of it. Sure, you had all these devices that could track your running but I am not a really sporty person nor do I feel the need to tell the whole world where I was while I go running. Which is easy enough, because I don’t. So when I woke op on October 30th with the news the Microsoft Band had launched out of the blue, I was surprised but not really enticed by what I deemed to be ‘yet another fitness device’.

Boy, was I wrong.

My gadget addicted former colleague Jarno Peshier - who had read up on the specs - contacted me that morning, writing “I want one. You will be in the USA soon (for the MVP Summit). Let’s order two, you take them home, and split the next day delivery costs”. I was like, “what the heck, it’s not that expensive and if I don’t like it I can probably sell it off easily as they are not for sale in Europe”. So he ordered, got them delivered at the home of a friend living in Seattle, and before 3PM CET (while the USA was still kind of waking up) the order was already processed and two bands were on their way from California to Seattle. This quick decisive action turned out a be a very good idea indeed, as you all probably know what happened when the USA did wake up. Bands sold out faster than turkeys on Thanksgiving and back orders now stretch up until Christmas. MVPs arriving in Seattle mostly ran into sold-out stores. It must have been a pretty frustrating experience both for them and the ever friendly and helpful Store staff. But my Band was already delivered and waiting for me in Seattle a few hours before I actually got up to leave for the airport.

Notifications - the killer feature

Some 24 hours later I actually got my Band

and initially I thought it was pretty OK. At the very least, I could bug all the American MVPs who thought they could buy one in the Bellevue store which – of course – was cleaned out empty. After a few days, I noticed substantial changes in my behavioral patterns. Some week later, after I already was back home again, I found it was now an indispensible device. Why? One word – notifications. I was no longer attached to my phone. I even turned off my phone’s ringer and notification sounds. For a very simple reason. Consider someone like me, who is online a lot and has a Windows Phone. I get a notification. I pick up the phone. I look at the notification. But then I see all these other things on the screen. Which is the whole idea of Windows Phone – to be ‘glanceable’. But I tend get distracted by all these interesting things. So I go and answer this tweet, that Facebook post – and before I know 15 minutes have passed by, my wife – with whom I was on an the typical on-and-off talk when we both arrive home a bit tired from work, is now reading a book, whatever.

Now I get a light vibration on my wrist, look at the Band’s screen (I wear it face-up, so not like in the commercials or on the picture above, and it ended up on my right wrist for some reason), and can see enough if it’s important enough to get up and get my phone (that is lying around somewhere in the room, usually on the charging place) without missing a beat in a conversation. And you know what – usually it is not. I can see every notification from the Notification center, and every mail – but only the few first lines. The same during work. I don’t even have to lift my hands from the keyboard or mouse to check the notification. In a restaurant – my phone is somewhere in a pocket (or last time, in my wife’s handbag). At times, it’s more like a wireless hot spot for my Band ;)

Without noticing, I had become a more sociable creature, and more efficient too. The Band has become my gate keeper. Going into social media and mail is now a conscious decision. I have to get up and find my phone, for instance. Yet I don’t have to shut off my phone anymore to reach that state. I have found a kind of middle ground.

But there’s more

The calendar is synced to the Band as well, so even when I walk out of the house without my phone to do some quick shopping (I never forgot my phone before, but now I do) I still get calendar reminders. It has Cortana integration, so I can actually say “Remind me to take the pizza out of the oven in 30 minutes” to my Band using the action button, and it will remind me in 30 minutes. That will need connection to my phone at the moment I actually take the reminder, but I don’t need to get my phone first. And then I can get out of range and it will still remind me. The other day I was in bed, my wife was out, and my phone was lying around downstairs. I was very tired, and decided to tell my wife I went shut-eye. I found out I could actually say to my band “Text my wife I am going to sleep now” and sure enough, my phone, one floor down (and we have 40cm – well over a foot - concrete floors here) picked up the command. And it sent back response to my Band a minute later, too: “will be home in 15 minutes”.

And even more…

You can read online of course about all the that the Band does. It actually does quite a lot. Apart from notifications, alarms and the Cortana commands, it tracks hearth rate, steps, and calorie burn, you can use it as a fitness coach, track running (it has its own GPS so you don’t have to lug around your phone), and you can use it to check UV levels. I am not even sure I have the complete list covered now. I can tell you it felt a bit odd noticing that, when the cabin attendants told us to put all devices in airplane mode before taking off from Seattle, there is actually an airplane mode on the Band. In 2014, my freaking watch actually has airplane mode and takes voice commands. Welcome in the future.

I really think the UV meter is a really nice and smart touch in these days when we learn more and more about sun burn and skin cancer correlations. It basically takes a sample, and says how much minutes current sustained will typically get you a sunburn. As there has not been very much sun both in Seattle and here since I got the device, I only got “low” the few times the sun actually was out.

Some people, like Paul Thurrott, call it “Microsoft’s moonshot” meaning that Microsoft could not decide what should and should not go into it’s first wearable, so they put in everything and the kitchen sink, making the device complex and hard to operate. I personally think the day-to-day operation of the device is very easy (the tile interface is very simple and natural, especially for someone who has seen Windows Phone or Windows 8 applications) and there are only two buttons. How hard can it be. I think by putting all this stuff into one little device they actually made it something for everyone. My wife wants one too – not for all the gizmo’s I like, but for the fitness/sleep stuff.

Finally – what the designers probably never thought of as actual usage – it makes for an excellent night light in the dark. When you press the big button in the middle – even in sleep mode the screen gives off enough light to see a little by in the pitch dark. And since you are wearing it, you don’t have to find it first. Very useful when you are staying in a strange house or hotel and want to find the toilet without waking everyone up in the middle of the night by turning on the light (or crashing down the stairs – something I narrowly avoided last year).

Charge and charging

Your mileage may vary. The first day, you will probably have a very bad battery experience, as you constantly play with the device. Typical usage will last me just a little short of 48 hours. Charging from empty to full takes about 90 minutes I think, but the funny thing is – charging from like 30% to 80% (which will take you through the day) goes very fast, think 20 minutes (at most). So you can do that over breakfast or while you are in the shower. It only comes with a charging cable, any USB power port will do. Very nice, as it also saved me of having yet another useless USA plug charger ;)

Further effects so far

Apart from a different usage pattern for my phone, making me more sociable and efficient, it also has had an impact on my sleep pattern. I like the sleep tracker, but I don’t like what it’s telling me – I sleep too little. I thought I was getting 8 hours per night – it was more like a little over 6. I should rest more, and I do – it’s now close to 7 hours per night and already feel better. I also feel I will need to do more exercise, as the steps tracker has a default goal of 5000 steps and I get to that usually only half the time. In general, it makes me conscious about a lot of things I did not really know about.

Thoughts on improvements

So is this the perfect device? Not yet, although I must admit I like it 500% more than I ever imagined. My main concerns are

  • While the screen itself seems pretty scratch resistant, the actual watch housing very susceptible to scratching. That is probably why it comes with a free screen protector. I tried to apply that, it did not work out for me, and decided to pull it off again. So I wear the device face up and try to be careful. The housing is now somewhat scratched. As it it is black, it does not attract much attention IMHO. But in a V2 this could be improved upon
  • As the Band is now more or less functioning as a remote for my phone that is ‘somewhere’, I would much like a simple app or function to control the music player. Skip forward one track, skip back one track would be much appreciated. Skip forward 60 seconds, skip back 30 seconds would be an awesome bonus for listening to podcasts (and skipping ads).  I can do that with Cortana to an extent, but it does not always work, especially when the phone is streaming music over Bluetooth and thus that channel is already very busy.
  • I would like to be able to see a 2nd time on ‘Watch mode’. There’s room enough on the screen for that. As someone dealing a lot with people from another time zone (i.e. PST) that would be convenient.
  • The UV meter needs to take into account skin type, or just stick to saying the level. Apart from the level, it now says “typical times to sunburn nn minutes” but how does one define typical? Someone from African heritage can walk for hours in a sunshine that will burn a red-haired descendant from Irish stock into (blistering) misery in 15 minutes. That even varies over the year – while the first fierce spring sun can give bleached-out-me a sunburn, my skin darkens fairly quickly in the sun and the same level of sun power won’t bite me just a month later. I wonder if it would be possible to have the app take a picture of facial skin, analyze that and calibrate the sunburn time from that.
  • The design worries me a little. I find it pretty cool looking and comfortable to wear. It’s light and does not get in the way when I am working on a keyboard, which I found puzzling as my normal watch is too constrictive for wearing while typing. The Band is just a little bit flexible, light and does not get in the way. I also am a fussy sleeper (the most stupid things keep me awake), but I have no troubles sleeping with it. And yet - I have also noticed over the years that the rest of humanity does not necessarily agree with me on what is good looking and what is not. It only comes in black. I wonder how fashionists will think about it.
  • I understand why the companion app works and looks like it does. The New Microsoft went all-platform in the typical new way, which is very commendable and probably has contributed to the device selling out so fast. That does not help that on a Windows Phone it looks odd and alien. The awesome, well-designed and natural feeling UI of the Band itself is a stark contrast with the clunky UI of the companion app.
  • I want an SDK! I want an SDK! Please give me an SDK ;)

Conclusion

For a first launch into the wearables, Microsoft have done a tremendous job at a pretty compelling price. Even with expensive NDD I ended up a little north of €180 (yay Euro!). People routinely spend that on watches that look like they come out of the dashboard of the Titanic bridge - and those only display time. Going cross platform with it from the get go and making it available the next day – full marks. The first batch sold out in a day, the second – this week – lasted about 10 minutes. Consumer demand says it all. I find the device an invaluable companion device to my phone. Especially since I use a 1520, which is pretty big – I don’t pull it out half as much anymore these days. It’s the first gadget I bought that my wife is very explicitly happy about, because I am less distracted. She wants to have one too – that is going to be a bit of a challenge I think. I am also very happy with it, to the extent that I would to get another one ASAP if this one would break down. In the mean time, I just have to be careful.

Long story short – if you are interested in these kind of devices and recognize this user story (or even partially) – go and try to get one. You won’t regret it and even on the very off chance you will – plenty of takers. ;)

Disclaimer

I am not a professional reviewer. This is just my experience with this one device, after about 3 weeks. As I have no comparison material, I also cannot tell if this device is better than comparable devices. I just felt the need to write it from a tech user’s perspective.

1 comment:

Jarno Peschier said...

Could not agree more. The sports stuff is a nice extra, but the software around that is still marginally beta or even alpha state at best. The notifications on the wrist are the killer feature. I've been waiting for a device to be able to do that with a Windows Phone for at least two years and the Band is the first that delivers. And boy, does it deliver! I'm glad I got you to get one too. Don't mention it; my pleasure. 😉