Microsoft Band Seamlessly Integrates Into Your Life

Image: Microsoft
Image: Microsoft.

Harkening back to the running shoe craze of the 1980s, wearable fitness tech is everywhere. Each variation does things a little differently from the rest, though wrist placement seems to be the preferred option.

Now securely in this new-ish realm, Microsoft offers the Band for fitness and a gazillion other things. Powered by Microsoft Health, the Microsoft Band pairs with your phone via Bluetooth. Combined with the Microsoft Health app on your phone and website-based dashboard, the Band helps you keep tabs on your fitness, nutrition, and weight goals by counting your steps, keeping track of your heart rate, measuring activity and sleep, and more. It can also map your walks, runs, and bike rides with the built-in GPS. No need to take your phone with you. There is also a UV monitor, which will help you decide if sunscreen is needed.

The phone app and website dashboard. Image: Microsoft
The phone app and website dashboard. Image: Microsoft.

You can access a lot more on the Microsoft Health website and phone app. The phone gives you a bigger screen to keep an eye on your stats, and also allows you to choose personal workouts with videos that guide you through them, right on your phone. The website has a fantastic interface for obsessing over keeping track of your fitness goals as well, allowing you to analyze all of your fitness stats.

If you want more from your wrist tech than just fitness, the Band delivers that as well. It can also be your personal assistant. Receive alerts, social media messages, text messages, call notifications, emails, and other notifications on the Band. Keep track of your calendar, sleep, timers and alarms, and more. Navigate menus easily with its touchscreen, and when linked with a Windows phone, you can access Cortana and a handy but tiny keyboard on your Band. This is a lot more discreet than pulling out your phone during a meeting.

In case you wanted to know what's inside. Image: Microsoft
In case you wanted to know what’s inside. Image: Microsoft.

What’s the Band like?
Compared to my FitBit Flex, the Band is bulkier and beefier. The parts of the Band that go along the sides of your wrist are inflexible, which can affect fit. Also, it’s not meant to be submerged in water. So you can likely wear it on a rainy day or have it on your wrist while you wash your hands, but be sure to take it off to shower and swim.

I found the magnetic charger cable to be pretty nifty. Just attach it to the Band and plug it in. No worries about bending the end of a cable. It’s also easy to slightly adjust the size of the Band, either to fit your wrist or to adjust for comfort throughout the day. The Band also comes in three sizes, so you’ll find a model to fit you. Measure yourself on the sizing chart to make sure you get the right size.

The Band gives you all of your message alerts. Image: Microsoft
The Band gives you all of your message alerts. Image: Microsoft.

Visit the Microsoft Band site for more in-depth specifications, detailed features and instructions, and a closer look at the included sensors.

Some observations:

  • The screen can scratch easily, but third-party screen protectors are available, if that’s a concern for you.
  • There seems to be a character limit on what the Band will display for a text or message.
  • Make sure the Band fits well to get the correct heart rate.
  • Push updates for things like taking your turn on Carcassonne can tip you off to stay connected.
  • The Band needs to be charged about every other day, compared with about every week or so for the FitBit Flex.

Some helpful tips:

  • You can wear it on the inside or outside of your wrist.
  • You can lock it so that it shows the time all the time, like a regular watch.
  • You can customize it with background color and a pattern of choice, along with what apps it displays.
  • Use the tiny screen keyboard to reply to texts and more.
  • The Band can show your texts one word at a time, pausing for punctuation, making it easy-ish to read a long text.

The Microsoft Band is also hooked up to your Microsoft account, so I was curious about what steps Microsoft takes to ensure privacy. Here are the relevant FAQs on the matter.

Q: Does Microsoft give the personal data I provide to Microsoft Health to third parties? Does Microsoft Health keep personal data private?

A: Microsoft believes it is important to help you maintain your privacy. We will not share your personal data with third parties without your permission.

Q: Do you have plans to monetize my data? What steps have you taken to ensure third party partners will not abuse data collected through Microsoft Health, or sell it to data brokers, information resellers or advertisers?

A: We have no plans to monetize or do anything with the data that the user does not initiate on their own. If you connect a third party app, such as MyFitnessPal or RunKeeper to Microsoft Health Service, the use of your activity information is subject to the privacy practices and terms of use for the third party service. We strongly encourage you to review the privacy statement and terms of use for any third part service before you connect.

Q: What does Microsoft Health do with the data it collects?

A: Microsoft Health is a cloud-based destination to store, share and convert information into insights you can use to achieve your fitness goals.

Q: Where do you store my Microsoft Health data?

A: The information collected from the Microsoft Band sensors and the information you provide for your profile is stored in the Microsoft Health Service and not in the Microsoft Health app on your phone. We store personal information on computer systems that have limited access and are in controlled facilities.

Q: How long do you keep my Microsoft Health data?

A: Generally, based on standard data retention policies, Microsoft keeps your personal data as long as you continue to use the product or service. If you close your Microsoft Health account, Microsoft will stop collecting your Microsoft Health data. To close your account, please contact customer support.

Q: Who owns my Microsoft Health data?

A: Microsoft Health is designed to create a security enhanced, centralized location for the industry to store and democratize data for the benefit of everyone. Customers have the ultimate power in deciding what data they choose to share, and with whom. We do not share anything without your permission.

If you’re into wearable tech and like to always be connected to the interwebs and/or you’re very active and love to track your stats, the Microsoft Band is a fun and useful thing to wear. And at $199.99, it’s priced competitively with other tech on the market.

Note: As part of the Microsoft Bloggers program, I have been provided hardware for the purpose of these reviews. The views expressed in these posts are my honest opinions about the subjects involved.

Fitness-Oriented Data Lovers Will Adore Fitbit Flex and Aria

Image: FitBit
Image: Fitbit

I always wished that my body had a readout that kept track of how many calories I consumed and how many I burned—a clear indicator of whether I was gaining or losing weight. Such a thing still doesn’t exist, but the Fitbit products come pretty close.

FitBit logoFitbit makes a variety of devices that track your steps and your sleep. I was able to test out the Flex. It’s a wristband that tracks your movement, and the quality of your movement, so it knows if you’re walking, vigorously exercising, or holding still. If you let it know you’re sleeping, it can also track how restless you are when you sleep.

Fitbit also makes the Aria, which is a digital, wi-fi-enabled scale that also detects body fat composition.

Along with the Flex and the Aria, to get the most out of your experience, there is a smart-phone app and a fantastic web interface, and everything is integrated together. I highly recommend them. Want to lose yourself in weight and fitness data? Fitbit has you covered.

How comfortable is the Flex?

At first, it felt like I was wearing a watch again, after so many years of not wearing one (since college). But I quickly stopped feeling it, and it was really comfortable to wear. It even wasn’t too bad to dry off after a shower (yes, you can wear it in the shower!). It was comfortable, that is, until the weather turned and got warmer, and I started working out regularly at the Y. Water from a shower and sweat are two different animals, and the sweating made the Flex somewhat uncomfortable to wear, at least for me. But if you spend much of your time in air conditioned locations, it still should be comfortable to wear most of the time. Unfortunately, it’s the least comfortable to wear at the times when it’s most important to wear it—when you’re exercising.

The Flex is shipped with two different sized wristbands, so you can wear the one that fits you better. The small one is pretty small, though, and will work best for small-framed people.

Image: FitBit
Image: Fitbit

How accurate are the Flex and the Aria?

I found that the Flex was mostly accurate, but it didn’t accurately track my very active minutes. It might get the steps counted, but doesn’t realize I’ve been sweating myself silly for the past 30 minutes. It also doesn’t account well for exercising on machines such as recumbent bicycles. But if you rest your hand on your leg, it will be able to count those steps.

For sleeping, the Flex measures pretty well how restless you were. When you go to bed, tell the Flex you’re sleeping by tapping on it a few times, or use the app to say you’re going to sleep. The Flex monitors your movement and determines whether you’re asleep, restless, or awake. While it didn’t peg me exactly, on nights when I didn’t sleep as well, there were definitely more restless periods. Being awake and moving around aren’t the same things, though, so on my one night of trouble sleeping, it thought I was asleep for much of my awake time because I was playing on my phone with my dominant hand, and the Flex is on my non-dominant hand. But generally, it’s a good, basic sleep monitor.

Image: FitBit
Image: FitBit

The Aria, for us, has been really useful. It’s super easy to just weigh yourself and forget it. You can look at your results, or not, if you want to avoid checking in on your weight daily. It weighs considerably heavier than my usual scale, but it’s consistent to itself. The percentage body fat varies with levels of hydration and other things that contribute to weight (*cough* menstrual cycles *cough*), but if you look at the long term trends, it works well. I love how it recognizes who I am because of my previous weigh ins.

The scale setup was a bit tricky, since you have to set it up through the Fitbit app on your phone, and then connect it to your home network. But once it is set up, it’s a no-brainer. Up to eight people can be remembered by the scale, plus guests can weigh themselves as well. But hopefully none of those people have very similar weights and body fat percentages, or else the scale might get confused.

What else do the Fitbit products do?

My favorite thing about Fitbit is the web interface. You can look at all of your data in the most user-friendly way, set goals for yourself, and so much more. You can also earn badges such as weight loss goals and step goals. If you record your food and water intake, it keeps track of that as well, and you can record specific exercises that you’ve done. The iPhone Fitbit app can also show you much of this information, which is great when you’re away from your computer. Fitbit is entirely what you make it. You can add friends, for a little friendly rivalry, and it will tell you how many steps they’ve taken in the past week.

The Flex syncs via wi-fi with an included Bluetooth dongle that sits in one of your computer’s USB ports.

How did I do?

Since I sit for much of the day, homeschooling the kids and working on my computer, I don’t get nearly as many steps, usually, as when I’m out running errands. Most days I exercise, though, which results in a lot of steps, but I’ve noticed that I get even more steps shopping at Target than I do exercising. YMMV. So steps aren’t everything when it comes to keeping track of how much you exercise. But it is one indicator of how much you move around.

I get a much better picture of how active I am with the Flex, and it encourages me, from its mere presence, to exercise more and move around. The Aria keeps me from indulging in too much food over time, and keeps me honest.

Conclusion: Fitbit is awesome.

Would I recommend the Fitbit products? Definitely. It’s a “fix it and forget it” type exercise and fitness monitoring system. With it, you can obsess over data on a daily or hourly basis, or you can just wear the Flex, weigh yourself daily, and only check on your progress once per week or month. The numbers aren’t 100% reliable, since there are so many factors involved, but if you want to get a really good idea of how well you are doing in fat loss and being active, the Fitbit products can’t be beat. And if wearing a band on your wrist constantly isn’t something you can get used to, Fitbit makes a variety of other products that clip onto your clothes.

Fitbit also has excellent customer service. GeekMom Jackie lost her Fitbit Flex on a recent trip, and someone found it. They recognized what it was, returned it to Fitbit, and they sent it back to Jackie. I assume they were able to access the information in the memory of the Flex’s electronics which told them where to send it. But they do this often enough that Fitbit has special “lost and found” packaging. I was impressed.

The Fitbit Flex costs $99.95 and comes in a variety of colors. You can also get additional wristbands so you can change the color with your mood. The Aria is $129.95. It’s a bit pricey if you’re just looking for a scale, but the wi-fi integration and data tracking is really fun and useful for those of us who like to focus (a bit too much) on numbers.

Note: I received a Flex and Aria for the purposes of this review.

Product Review: Wii Fit U and Wii Fit Meter

Image: Nintendo

My family’s first experience with the Nintendo consoles turned out to be a lot of fun. We tested the Wii U, Wii Fit U, and Wii Fit Meter. We loved the included games, and I ended up liking the Wii Fit Meter much more than I thought I would. One concern below, but overall: Yup! it’s a go.

From Wii Newbies…

We weren’t a Nintendo family. Not a single Nintendo platform in the house. We played our (numerous) games on other platforms.

So when I set out to review the Wii Fit U and Wii Fit Meter, I knew, going in, that Wii had a different philosophy, and was prepared for a bumpy transition.

Instead, we all found it pretty easy to figure out, especially the younger testers. The Wii U comes with a step-by-step setup guide that is clear and helpful, and the platform has a sleek profile. It also comes with new GamePad that allows for play and simultaneous TV watching, as well as a few other features I’ll discuss below. There was, in our case, a lengthy software update, but once we got through that, registering for the Wii U shop gave us a lot of download options*—and I’m excited about all the new games listed for 2014. I’m not the only one. Various members of the family are looking forward to playing a lot of Wii games together, from SuperMario World 3D to Legend of Zelda, Wind Walker (recently reviewed by GeekMom Cathe Post).

*NOTE: There’s a limited-time software trial: If you are interested in the Wii Fit U and already have a Wii U and a balance board, Nintendo is offering a free software trial through January 31, 2014. Best part? If you get and register a Wii Fit U Meter by that time, they say you can keep the Wii Fit U software “forever, at no additional charge.”

… To Wii U Converts

Image: Nintendo

More to the point, the multiplayer options of Wii Fit U mean that I can work out with my daughter—though actually, she calls it playing games, and so do I.

But these are games that get us both up and moving, and we’re having a lot of fun doing that together. It also means that I can get a workout even when the weather is horrible outside, or there’s no school or childcare. And I don’t have to join a gym for the winter. I’m looking forward to playing during the holidays, so I won’t have to do so much fitness catch-up once New Years Day rolls around and reminds me of Resolutions Past.

… Possibly More Than Converts

The whole Wii U setup has my imagination working overtime. I want Nintendo to partner with Dark Horse Comics for a River Tam fight workout, with Marvel for a Superhero challenge, and with Nickelodeon for an Avatar: The Last Airbender balance and motion practice. Seriously—Waterbending? Earthbending? TOTALLY perfect for this system. Nintendo- please get on this? I want to fight like River Tam. And to waterbend. Your system is perfect for that. Hook me up!

Highlights of  Wii Fit U

The Controllers – Balance Pad & Tablet:

What was most impressive for me was the interactivity of the balance pad, the tablet, and the Wii U—specifically all the different ways that Nintendo programmers have figured out how to game the balance pad and the controller. I love it. Luge? Fantastic. Yoga, so perfect. The way the balance pad works with step aerobics and Zumba? Really outstanding. So, Wii U? I’m sold. We’ve unlocked advanced features on a number of games so far, after only a few days, you’ve lured me in with your exergaming. A few things will need to change in our house, for instance, because we didn’t have a Wii before, we realized that we need a Wiimote to do some of the boxing and dance games, but those are coming.

Fit Meter:

photo1.jpgI expected to be annoyed with the Fit Meter—in part because it’s a puck roughly the size of an Oreo, and my friends have been showing off their sleek Fitbit wristbands, and in part because I didn’t want to have something clipped to me all the time. But you know what? The Fit Meter did exactly what it was supposed to do. Counted my steps. There were lots of them! The meter’s size wasn’t a problem. And the Fit Meter is much cheaper than a Fitbit wristband.

Syncing the Fit Meter and the Wii Fit U tablet and software is a little complicated. Because both the meter and the tablet transfer data by infrared signal, you must aim the head of the Fit Meter at a very small area at the top of the Wii U controller tablet. This is a little awkward the first few times (also counter-intuitive, as I was expecting to be able to just “dock” the puck to the base of the tablet, or have it sync in proximity). But it is doable, with practice.

The Games:

Our entire test group loves the games that came with the Wii Fit U download. If you have Wii Fit software already, Nintendo says there are nineteen new games in this version, including luge and climbing, plus a new dance mode.

The core building exercises are great—from luge to ski-jump—as are the obstacle courses and hula hooping. And it’s all exercise that gets counts on the Fit Meter.

My family in particular thinks the winter sports mentioned above are great fun. And I totally felt the effects of the core workout the next day.

Image: Nintendo

Then there’s the bit I was most excited about when I first saw the box: Wii U’s Yoga. This is a great video yoga trainer, both for basic moves, broken out into individual practices, and for longer sessions. One of the best parts, for me, is that the balance pad constantly tracks your center of gravity and visually helps you auto-adjust to perfect your balance. More than that, an option to “mirror” and self-assess lets the Wii yoga practitioner place an image of themselves on the screen next to the yoga instructor.  I am finding that tool very helpful for perfecting posture. The mirroring is done using the Wii U tablet’s built-in camera. Mirroring is an option, not a requirement—excellent flexibility on Nintendo’s part.

To sum up: just an all-around great application of software and hardware.

Looking Forward & One Hurdle

I can see where the Wii Fit U tools—the great gameware, the intuitive controls, the low-profile platform—could be amazing for anyone looking to work out at home, either in between tasks, or as a way to start a fitness routine in private. And especially for those looking to recover balance and strength after illness or injury. Back when the Wii first came out, years ago, this was some of the best buzz I heard about it. But I think there’s one item that’s holding Wii U back from becoming the go-to video fitness software of choice for lots of diverse audiences. And it’s a problem that’s been around since 2008.

That’s the in-game fitness assessment.

This is the only major hangup I have with an otherwise great platform-software-interface package. Unfortunately it impacts the usefulness of the Wii for the above groups. It’s not a deal-breaker for my test group, this time, because we’ve figured out a few ways to hack the assessment (below), but it is problematic.

In order to play any of the Wii Fit U games, you must take a fitness assessment. There’s no way to opt out of it. Even if your kid has a friend over who just wants to try a luge run with their own avatar. Fitness Assessment required. That’s problem one.

Problem two is that the algorithm that drives the fitness test is BMI-based. This results in some strange calculations if your weight/height ratio is off due to any number of things, including—amusingly—fitness indicators like muscle mass. Several family members and friends who are in reasonably good shape—including two runners with 5Ks under their belts, a weightlifter, and a weekend basketball player—were told that they fell outside BMI norms. Worse, when they were informed of this, their avatars immediately changed shape onscreen. This kind of body-shaming was not OK with me, and my test group questioned it too.

I know that Wii had some issues with the BMI ratings in the past, and it looks like this part has not changed. For someone who is dipping a toe in the workout waters, or who is getting back into it after an illness or injury, this kind of automated feedback could be discouraging, at the very least. In addition, the proposed optimum weight level for several of my test group members was much lower than what they were comfortable with as an optimum weight for their age and health. I can only hope that Wii uses their software upgrades to make the fitness tests—or at least the assessment responses—optional in the future, at the very minimum.

In addition, accuracy of the balance assessment varies. I fail the balance portion of the fitness assessment regularly, then go on to rack up “perfect posture, perfect balance” points in advanced Yoga. Who knows why.

Since the fitness tests are mandatory, not optional, some friends have helpfully provided suggestions for how to hack this most unfortunate portion of an otherwise great setup.

  • “You can avoid the judgmental bits by telling it you’re 8 feet tall when you make a profile.” (Jess, NYC – who got the trick from a Molly Wood podcast, circa 2008)

  • “You can make your clothing weigh 7lbs.” (R, DC)

  • “Don’t take weight recommendations from a computer. Talk to your doctor about what a healthy fitness level looks like for you.” (Andrea, NYC)

  • “BMI is used as a surrogate for whole-body fitness in many places (USAF, for example). I don’t agree with it. It’s a good first-look indicator, but then that means you should delve deeper and see if the heavier-than-you-like weight is fat or muscle.” (Patricia, CO)

  • “Skip the balance tests. There’s no reason to stick around with the assessor for longer than you have to.” (T – LA)

  • “Hack the scale by placing the balance board on thick carpet.” (Natalie, DE)

So, Overall Recommendation?

Image: Nintendo

An enormous thumbs up from our family and friends for the new Wii U and Wii Fit U. An additional thumbs up for the Wii Fit Meter.  One request that the fitness assessment become, at the very least, optional.

And, oh yes, an ongoing plea for a River Tam Fight Workout. The last one would be supergreat.

Buying Information

Wii U (box set with Legend of Zelda, Wind Walker), other options and prices available: around $300-350

Wii balance board: price varies

Wii Fit U Meter: around $19.99

Rating: E (Everyone) – Mild Cartoon Violence

Developer: Nintendo

*Reminder: If you are interested in the Wii Fit U and already have a Wii U and a balance board, Nintendo is offering a free software trial through January 31, 2014. Best part? If you get and register a Wii Fit U Meter by that time, you can keep the Wii Fit software forever, at no additional charge.

Nintendo plans to offer a Fitness Bundle, coming January 14. More information here.

GeekMom received items for review purposes.