Microsoft Band full review

We compare the Microsoft Band and the Apple Watch based on spending extensive time with both. (See also: Best smartwatches and wearable tech of 2015.) Spend a fortune replacing your existing wristwatch with the beautiful Apple Watch, or add another, cheaper, device to your wrist with the functional but ugly Microsoft Band? It is an interesting debate, and it strikes at the heart of the differences between Microsoft and Apple. It's Apple Watch vs Microsoft Band, and there can be only one winner (for you).

Microsoft Band vs Apple Watch 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 offers a lot of cool features for a good price. And, unlike the Apple Watch, this wearable works with any smartphone. But the Apple Watch offers more.

Let me be the first to point out that these are two very different devices. Apple's Watch is a customisable smartwatch designed to work only with recent iPhones that is also a comprehensive health- and fitness device. The Microsoft Band, meanwhile, 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, the Microsoft Band will work with Android and iOS devices, as well as Windows Phone.

So on the one hand we have a high-spec smartwatch limited to use with Apple smartphones, and on the other hand a souped-up fitness band/activity tracker that will work with any smartphone. It's Apple vs Microsoft, in the battle for your wrist. This stuff just got interesting.

Microsoft Band vs Apple Watch comparison: UK price, value, availability

The differences between the Apple Watch and the Microsoft Band are evident from their respective prices.

The Apple Watch Sport Edition is the cheapest you can buy, and will set you back £299. Apple's cheapest model is bound to be popular, but prices soon scale up and there are lots of optional extras. You can spend more by opting for the Apple Watch Edition which starts at £479. The most expensive Apple Watch is £13,500.

And that is if you can get them. As I write, there is nowhere in the UK that you can walk into and buy an Apple Watch. People who pre-ordered are still waiting, although that situation will resolve itself soon.

You can order the Microsoft Band right now, and get it delivered tomorrow. No danger. The Microsoft Band is now available direct from Microsoft for £169 inc VAT. You can also buy the Microsoft Band from PC World (and Currys), also for £169 inc VAT. It is available at Amazon UK for just over 50 quid. If it becomes more successful, you will find it all over the place. (See also: Apple Watch vs Motorola Moto 360 comparison review.)

So the Microsoft Band is much cheaper than is the Apple Watch. As it ought to be. And, given that it doesn't tie you to a particular phone, it will be a much less weighty long-term investment.

But the Apple Watch is a much more fancy device than is the Microsoft Band. One is a shrunk down smartphone, the other a souped-up activity tracker. Which do you want? Let's investigate further.

Microsoft Band vs Apple Watch 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 Microsoft Band is the epitome of Microsoft: conceptually smart, useful, uncomfortable, ugly. Say what you like about Apple, but it would never release a product like the Microsoft Band. That doesn't mean you shouldn't buy it, just that you should know what you are getting.

Microsoft Band

Big and chunky, the Microsoft Band is a lot of device to wrap around your wrist. The strap of my actual wristwatch is around half as thick at its chunkiest part. Even the watch itself is about the same width as the whole of the Microsoft Band.

The Microsoft Band is basically rigid, and the back of the display is roughly 5cm of straight-edged, rock-hard computer. Everyone will find one that fits, but I found that the straight edge rubbed against the bony bit of the top of my  wrist, and moved around whenever I exercised, even when the strap was pulled tight. Reader, the Band is uncomfortable, even though it is well constructed and robust. Made of thermal plastic elastomer, the band is both water and sweat resistant, and designed for extreme temperatures. We put it through multiple workouts in a variety of environments, and it never blinked.

Simply, the Microsoft Band does not scream out 'desirable gadget'. It looks like what it is: a big, chunky activity tracker. The display is a tiny sliver surrounded by big thick bezels, set into shiny black plastic that is pure function and no style. (See all wearables reviews.)

Microsoft Band

The Apple Watch comes in two sizes, for men and women, and in three collections. The Apple Watch collection has a polished silver or black case made from a custom alloy of stainless steel; the Apple Watch Sport collection has a 60 percent stronger anodised aluminium case in silver or space grey, with strengthened Ion-X glass; and the Apple Watch Edition collection uses 18-carat yellow- or rose gold, and features equisitely crafted straps and closures. Then there are six strap options: Link Bracelet, Sport Band, Leather Loop, Classic Buckle, Modern Buckle and Milanese Loop.

In terms of watch faces (or 'complications') the Apple Watch has 11, yet Apple claims to offer more than two million ways to tell the time through various customisation options. There's everything from Astronomy and Solar to Modular, Timelapse, Utility, Motion, Photo and even Mickey Mouse.

Apple uses this 'Digital Crown' to let you interact with the watch without obstructing the screen, and it also operates as the Home button. Touch is also supported on the Apple Watch, although you'll primarily use this crown to navigate the device. The Apple Watch is far more beautiful than Microsoft's less expensive Band. It is much more comfortable, and just as robust.

Microsoft Band vs Apple Watch comparison: display

Again, here we see the difference between these two products. The Apple Watch has a much better display, but that is because it needs to - and you pay for it.

The 38mm Apple Watch has a 272 × 340 display, which makes for a 290ppi pixel density. The 42mm Apple Watch has a 302ppi pixel density, with a 312 × 390 display. It's like a small high-end phone display.

In conventional terms we would describe the Microsoft Band's is a 0.2in display, but that doesn't really help. In fact the Band has a 11 x 33mm touch-enabled TFT full-colour display. Once you work out how to access it, the screen is bright and clear, and the touchscreen is responsive.

Helpfully Microsoft has made the interface super simple, so that tiny display is perfectly adequate, even when on the move and with sweat running in to your fat piggy eyes (perhaps your experience is different to mine). The viewing angle is good. You can adjust the brightness to conserve battery life, and we have to say that we found the 'Low' setting worked perfectly well.

The display resolution is 320 x 106 pixels. The pixel density is high enough to not discern pixels - not least because we are not viewing photo or video on this display.

Microsoft Band vs Apple Watch comparison: features

Apple's Watch is a customisable smartwatch designed to work with the iPhone 6 that is also a comprehensive health- and fitness device. It's accurate to +/-50ms no matter where in the world you are, and allows you to connect and communicate directly from your wrist. A Digital Crown enables you to interact with the watch without obstructing the screen, and also operates as the home button. Siri is also supported, allowing for smart messages and dictation.

A flexible retina display is a single crystal of sapphire. Force Touch, tiny electrodes around the display, recognise the difference between a tap and a press, allowing for different gestures to be made. A linear actuator provides haptic feedback. This is the Apple Watch's so-called Taptic Engine: more than just helpfully vibrating when you receive a new notification, it can do such things as provide slightly different vibrations for left- and right turns within the Maps app.

On the back a ceramic cover with sapphire lenses protects four sensors that make up the heart-rate monitor, which allows the Apple Watch to build up a comprehensive picture of your daily activities. The Apple Watch also has an accelerometer to measure body movement, and it uses the Wi-Fi and GPS in your iPhone to track distance. There's a speaker, too, which is water-resistant.

A Glances feature lets you swipe up from the bottom of the screen to see whatever information you choose to have there. This is quick, at-a-glance summaries of such things as the weather forecast, your location or your calendar.

The Apple Watch lets you control music on your iPhone or computer, or music stored on the Watch itself. Any photos you favourite on your iPhone or Mac will also show up on your Apple Watch.

You can choose what types of notifications you receive on the Apple Watch, then simply raise your wrist to see the notification.

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.

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.

The Apple Watch is clearly more sophisticated than the Microsoft Band. It offers a greater feature set, and better integration with iPhones. Whether that makes it a better device for you only time - and your opinion - will tell. I like the Microsoft Band's feature set, and as an Android user I couldn't use an Apple Watch anyway. I also like the fact that I can wear both my watch, and my Microsoft Band. (See also: Best Activity Trackers 2014.)

Microsoft Band vs Apple Watch 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.)

I don't know if these are things you want to track, but if you do the requisite sensors are onboard.

As always with Apple, what a product does and how it looks and behaves are more important than what is inside. For once we agree: while we want the battery to last at very least a full day and we don't want a smartwatch to show any lag when scrolling through menus and launching apps, we're hardly about to whip out Geekbench 3. In the case of a smartwatch, looks and functionality - not speed - are key.

Apple uses its own S1 chip and has double the amount of storage at 8 GB. However, as it stands you can only use 2 GB for music and just 75 MB for photos. As usual, Apple doesn't quote RAM. It supports Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, too.  There's a heart-rate sensor, an accelerometer, a waterproof speaker and support for wireless charging, although the Apple Watch depends on a companion iPhone for GPS. A digital crown is used alongside touch input to interact with the Apple Watch.

Microsoft Band vs Apple Watch comparison: battery life

In terms of battery life, Apple touts up to 18 hours of varied use which drops to 6.5 for audio playback and just 3 for phone calls. Our testers have found very varied battery life depending on what you do with the Apple Watch. But with reasonable use you should get through the day.

With the Microsoft Band you get two 100mAh rechargeable Lithium ion batteries. And Microsoft says that the Band should enjoy 48 hours of battery life. That really hasn't been our experience. Yes, we are using it a lot, connected via Bluetooth, measuring a lot of activity. But I have never managed to get it through two days, even when the display is set to low. And when it goes, it goes.

On the positive side the Band charges really quickly via the supplied charging cradle cable - although you have to supply your own USB plug. But it does mean that if you want to use the sleep functionality as well as tracking activity, you may be in for a struggle.

Microsoft Band vs Apple Watch comparison: verdict

The Microsoft Band is far from perfect, but it is a super-powered activity tracker that offers some smartwatch capabilities. It is well priced, and flexible. The Apple Watch is considerably more expensive, but offers many more functions and features. And it will tie you to using only a recent iPhone, unlike the Microsoft Band. So buy a cheaper, more flexible but less functional product which complements your existing watch, or go all in with Apple. The choice is yours. (See also: Best smartwatches and wearable tech of 2015.)


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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