Microsoft Band full review

We've based this Microsoft Band vs Fitbit Charge HR comparison on some hands-one time spent with the Microsoft Band and the Fitbit Charge HR. (See also: Best smartwatches 2016.)

Also see: Best Black Friday Fitness Tracker Deals

Microsoft Band vs Fitbit Charge HR comparison: what they are, why we are comparing them

With built-in GPS, a UV sensor, skin temperature and perspiration sensors, and a broad set of smartwatch-style notifications, the Microsoft Band promises a lot of cool features. The Microsoft Band can help with productivity by displaying email, calendar and message notifications. But it's really intended to be a fitness band rather than a smartwatch. And, critically, both the Microsoft Band and Charge HR will work with Android and iOS devices, as well as Windows Phone.

The Fitbit Charge HR is also more of an advanced tracker than a smartwatch. It delivers continuous, automatic wrist-based heart rate, Caller ID and all-day activity tracking.

The Microsoft Band is powered by Microsoft's new Health platform, which Windows Phone, Android and iOS users will be able to use even if they don't own a Microsoft Band. Like Apple's Health app, it collects and stores data from fitness devices (whether that's the Microsoft Band or a third-party fitness tracker like the FitBit) to offer up insights to help you live a healthier life.

The Microsoft Band tracks your heart rate, steps, calories and sleep, and feeds all of that information into the Health app. You can set goals, use the Microsoft Band to complete guided workouts, map the routes you've run, cycled or hiked using GPS, and more. (See also: Best Activity Trackers 2014.)

In addition to the fitness features, you'll also be able to connect your Microsoft Band to your smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth to get notifications such as emails, calendar alerts and text messages, which you'll be able to preview. It'll also let you know when you've got an incoming phone call, if you've got a notification from Twitter or Facebook, for example.

There's a built-in timer and alarm app on the Microsoft Band, too. For Windows Phone 8.1 users, the Microsoft Band gives you access to Cortana from your wrist. You can ask Cortana to take a note for you, or set a reminder, for example. Microsoft has also partnered up with third-parties to bring more compatible apps to the Microsoft Band, including Starbucks, MyfFitnesspPal, RunKeeper and more.

All Fitbits have a MEMS 3-axis accelerometer that measures motion patterns to determine your calories burned, distance traveled, and steps taken. The Fitbit Charge HR also monitors sleep quality. The Charge HR will also measure floors climbed. The Charge HR monitors your heart rate, without having to lash sensors to your chest as some HR trackers demand. It's all done on the wrist. It uses Fitbit's PurePulse heart rate technology that gives continuous, automatic, wrist-based heart rate, plus simplified heart-rate zones.

The Charge HR will also show Caller ID when linked to a smartphone. But that's about it as far as smartwatch features are concerned. Fitbit's website is a bit vague on the Charge HR's multi-sports tracking, and we are awaiting clarification on this. (Read next: Microsoft Band vs Apple Watch comparison.)

The Microsoft Band is a more complex device than is the Fitbit Charge HR. But neither of these is what you could call a full-blown smartwatch. Suffice to say that only you can decide which device best fits your requirements. Much of which will be down to price...

Microsoft Band vs Fitbit Charge HR comparison: UK price, value

As it's currently available only in the US, Microsoft's Band is priced at $199 and there is no UK price. Right now $199 translates to £125, but you can expect to pay a little more than that. For one thing there is 20 percent VAT to be added on, which would take the price to £150. And then there is the usual pricing uplift that happens when a device travels from a massive home market such as the US, to a localised - and generally more wealthy - market such as the UK. Nevertheless, I would expect the Microsoft Band to cost between £150 and £199 in the UK.

The Fitbit Charge HR will cost £119 inc VAT when it launches in early 2015. So if price is your concern, it makes the most sense. It may also win on availability, too.

Microsoft Band vs Fitbit Charge HR comparison: UK release date

Microsoft has made the Microsoft Band available to order right now in the US, but there's no word yet on when, or in fact if, it's coming to the UK. In a statement, Microsoft said: "This is just the beginning of a multi-year vision for Microsoft in the health & fitness and wearables category. We want to enter this space in a deliberate and measured fashion and as such we are launching first in the United States."

Which doesn't really help. However, this is not a terribly difficult product to localise for the UK. I would posit that how quickly we get it largely depends on how successful it is, initially, in the US. In the mean time, you need a US friend to buy the Band and ship it to you. And that might be worth doing. The Fitbit Charge HR is due to arrive in the UK in 'early 2015'. (See also: Which Fitbit is best to buy?)

Microsoft Band vs Fitbit Charge HR comparison: specs

The Microsoft Band runs off an ARM Cortex M4 MCU CPU. You get only 64MB onboard storage, so using a smartphone is required for smartphone-like functions: but at least the Microsoft Band synchs with all smartphones via Bluetooth 4.0. GPS is built in so you can work out without your phone being present. so there's no need to carry your smartphone around with you in order to accurately record and map your runs. You get a three-axis accelerometer, and a gyrometer. Odd inclusions are an ambient light sensor and a skin temperature sensor. Oh, and there's a UV monitor similar to that of the Galaxy Note 4. And there is an optical heart sensor so you can monitor your heart-rate 24 hours a day. (In our testing this was far from accurate.)

The Fitbit Charge HR has an accelerometer, gyrometer, and always-on heart-rate sensor as outlined above. And like the Microsoft Band it has the standard activity sensors for keeping track of calories burned while running, walking, climbing and swimming, as well as sleep monitoring and heart rate monitoring. But Fitbit isn't saying what is the CPU, RAM, storage etc. Largely because with a device such as the Fitbit Charge HR it isn't really relevant.

Microsoft Band vs Fitbit Charge HR comparison: battery life

This may be a killer feature for one or both of these devices - in the sense that poor battery life will kill them off. The Microsoft Band has a dual 100mAh rechargeable lithium-ion polymer battery, which Microsoft claims will last for two days. In our tests we got comfortably more than a day's use, and that was hammering the GPS and the screen's brightness (to be fair to Microsoft its two-day claim comes with the proviso that excessive use of GPS will eat into this).

Fitbit claims that the Fitbit Charge HR will last for five full days of use. This is much more impressive than the Microsoft Band's battery life, but it makes sense when you consider the different functions of each gadget. And, remember, no-one has had the chance to fully test the Fitbit Charge HR just yet. (See also: Apple Watch vs Motorola Moto 360 comparison review.)

Microsoft Band vs Fitbit Charge HR comparison: design

Let's start with the Microsoft Band. One look at the design tells you this is a fitness tracker rather than a smartwatch. It's a plastic band with a big face, that comes in three sizes: small, medium and large (for wrists of 39mm, 41mm and 49mm). On those wrists you will be carrying around 60g, which is mostly made up of the 19 x 8.7mm main body of the device, which has on it two physical buttons. It is that size because of its capacitive 1.4in 320 x 106 display. This is impressive for an activity tracker/fitness band, although it pales into insignificance when placed next to Samsung's Gear S.

The Fitbit Charge HR will be available in black, plum, blue and tangerine. A bright, OLED display shows time of day and real-time stats.

Our colleague Jon Phillips spent a few days with the Microsoft Band, and was less than impressed with the design: "Where the best wrist wearables are pliable and unobtrusive, the Microsoft Band is bulky and rigid, and never lets you forget you have it on. Sure, it's physically large relative to competing fitness bands. But the bigger problem is its broad, inflexible display face. Factoring in the bezel around the display, it measures more than two inches long. It's also straight as a board. A more comfortable chassis would follow the gentle curves of human anatomy.

"The upshot is the Microsoft Band never melts away into the background like a proper wearable. During testing, I always felt that something was on my wrist, especially when I banged the band on table tops, or got it caught on shirtsleeves. It's omnipresent in the worst way possible.

"There's nothing beautiful about the Microsoft Band clasp, which is what the world will see if you position the display on the underside of your wrist.

"The Microsoft Band is unique in that you can wear it on either wrist—all other wearables are designed for your non-dominant wrist. It can also be worn on the inside of your wrist. These options are nice, but I never found a comfortable position.

"In fact, the band felt most awkward—sort of like a handcuff—when I wore it on the inside of my dominant wrist. Every flex of my forearm reminded me that I was shackled to Microsoft's ambitious new Health platform. This position also hides the Microsoft Band's attractive 320x106 display, and instead shows the world its unglamorous clasping mechanism. Just look at the photo above. It looks like something designed by Raytheon, not a company interested in aesthetics."

However, it is a well-built device, designed to stand up to life on an active wrist. It's just neither beautiful nor particularly comfortable (in our tests, at least).

The Fitbit Charge HR's OLED display is much smaller than is the Microsoft Band's, but it does includes plenty of features. It shows Heart Rate; Exercise Tracking; Time; Steps; Distance; Calories burned; Floors climbed; Very active minutes; Caller ID; and Alarm.

It's comforatble to wear and clasps with a watch-like buckle that makes it feel very secure on the wrist.

And what of the Fitbit skin-rash issue? Fitbit was bitten hard when it had to withdraw and recall its Fitbit Force wristband when some owners reported developing a skin rash as a result of metal allergies. The company now says that it has employed scientific experts Dr Peter Schalock, an Assistant Professor of Dermatology at Harvard Medical School, and Dr Patricia Norris, Assistant Professor of Dermatology at Oregon Health & Science University, to make every effort to reduce the chances of Fitbit users having reactions from parts of their wristbands.

Fitbit still warns that: "if you have eczema, allergies, or asthma you may be more likely to experience a skin irritation or allergy from a wearable device."

It also advises that: "if you sweat for more than two hours while wearing your Fitbit band, be sure to wash your band and your wrist using the directions above to avoid skin irritation."

Each new Fitbit wristband is made of a flexible, durable elastomer material similar to that used in many sports watches. Look around the back of the Charge HR and you'll see a surgical-grade stainless steel buckle that's much more like that of a standard watch. (See also: Best smartwatches and wearable tech of 2014.)

Expect both the Micrisoft Band and the Fitbit Charge HR to be well-built, and reasonably comfortable to wear. There's not much more we can say beyond that. Here are images of them both - which do you prefer?

Fitbit Charge HR vs Microsoft Band

Fitbit Charge HR vs Microsoft Band

Microsoft Band vs Fitbit Charge HR comparison: verdict

It's difficult to be entirely prescriptive and fair at this point. Suffice to say that the Microsoft Band is the more powerful and full featured device, but it will likely cost more (and we don't yet know whether it will make it to the UK). This is a classic case of picking the feature set that best suits your needs, rather than spending more to get more if it is overkill. Existing Fitbit users will likely upgrade to the Charge HR. Windows Phone users should definitely consider the Microsoft Band. For everyone else the choice will be subjective.


Microsoft Band: Specs

  • ARM Cortex M4 MCU CPU
  • 64MB onboard storage
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • GPS
  • three-axis accelerometer
  • gyrometer
  • ambient light sensor
  • skin temperature sensor
  • UV monitor
  • optical heart sensor
  • 0.2in (11 x 33mm) touch-enabled TFT full-colour display
  • 320 x 106 pixels
  • 19mm wide and 9mm thick
  • 60g

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