SmartWatch

Review – Microsoft Band 2

Another Smartwatch! How does it compare?

I’ve reviewed the Fitbit Blaze (to /r/fitbit reader’s disgust, as I’m not a fitness freak) and the Samsung Gear 2 Neo – neither of which I loved.

I was hoping the Microsoft Band 2 would be a different experience for me. I still wasn’t fussed about the fitness side of things, so they won’t be covered in this review. A special came up where it was $249AU rather than the $389RRP which was enough of a push to order one.

A few days later, the box arrived. Inside was the nicely presented Band 2:

20160610_132619Semi-unboxed Microsoft Band 2

Setup wasn’t too bad – for my Samsung Galaxy S6, I had to download the Microsoft Health App and sync to my Band 2 (which took me a while to work out, I had to first remove the Band 1 I’d mucked around with ages ago but Microsoft still remembered, before adding the Band 2. That wasn’t clear at all!). Once that was done, I went through the config and changed a few settings around the shortcuts; I hid things like golf which I’d never use.

One thing I’d enabled was the Notification Centre, which was soon disabled again because I realised I didn’t want my wrist vibrating each time a notification turned up on my phone. Just the important stuff was what I wanted, and each of those (phone, sms, email) had it’s own app anyway.

Once it was on my wrist, I felt I couldn’t get it comfy and in the right spot. I’d opted for the large model as I’d measured and medium was too small, but there was something a bit lumpy about it.

20160620_094427Microsoft Band 2 Time Display

I knew battery life was still going to be an issue, with a best of 48 hours from the Band 2, but on paper the rest of the boxes were ticked for me:

Supported by iOS, Android and Windows Phone (so I’m not stuck on a type of mobile phone)
SMS/Email Notifications
Sleep Tracking (with the ability to turn off display at night)
Colour, readable screen.

Gizmodo recently ranked the Band 2 as their 5th best smartwatch (I have no idea why the pictures of the watches are on bikes, rather than wrists), which is a fairly reasonable ranking (even though I disagree with their reasons).

Anyway, if you’re after a detailed review on what the device is and does, there’s plenty of online content about that. Here’s what I found personally after using it for a while:

My Experience – Positives

Although the band can seem clunky and uncomfortable, it’s a matter of getting used to it. For me that only took a day, now I don’t notice it on my wrist at all. It’s not lumpy or awkward after a day (I was wearing an analog watch before this), so if you try one on and it feels weird, that will probably pass.

I also didn’t mind that it’s designed to be on the inside of your wrist. From a resting position, there’s less wrist turn required to see the bottom of your wrist rather than the top.

The screen is easy to read, the buttons easy to press. Touch is responsive, and I found navigating around easy to do. What surprised me the most though, was the device’s ability to write messages:

It works really well and for a short message, I’d generally not bother taking my phone out of my pocket.

Alerts about meetings, SMSes, calls etc work quite well. Feeling a small vibration on your wrist and glancing at it is still much better than fishing your phone out of your pocket.

I also like setting an alarm on the Band 2 itself rather than my smartphone. They don’t sync up, so you’ll have to turn your phone’s off… but a vibrating wrist is a nicer and quieter way to wake up than a sound, especially when you have a sleeping child in the next room.

The setup of the Band 2 is somewhat customisable, where you can decide which icons are shown or not, and what order they display in. There’s also a few third party apps such as The Associated Press’s news, but I didn’t find anything particularly interesting (news isn’t something I want to read on this screen).

My Experience – Negatives

Negatives, there’s a few. Battery life annoys me more than I’d hoped. Charging via the car wasn’t putting through enough juice, so over an hour each day wasn’t enough to keep it going. Charging at home while I get ready in the morning seems to be enough as long as I do it daily. I’ve already forgotten my Band more than once because of this change in routine.

Worse than the battery on the Band 2, is the heavily reduced battery life on my Samsung Galaxy S6 running Microsoft Health (required for the Band 2). For the first time ever, my phone was going flat before a working day was done:

band1Battery usage of Microsoft Health

 

band2That’s a lot of errors!

Microsoft Australia contacted me on Twitter when I posted about this. They said to reinstall Microsoft Health, which I’d already done. From there it was suggested to contact Microsoft Band support online, which was actually either Australian based, or more likely at least in an Australian time zone.

Their recommendation (after telling me “we’ve got you back”) was to reset the Band itself. Skeptical, but without any other option, I tried it. As mentioned previously, the setup process is pretty quick so it’s nowhere near as bad as resetting a smartphone.

Since then, the battery usage of Microsoft Health on my phone isn’t even listed, and my phone’s battery life seems to be back to normal. No errors either! I’m surprised this made a difference, but there you go.

Microsoft Band 2 vs Fitbit Blaze

This is a close one. Fitbit Blaze has a superior battery life, over double of the Band 2. It also (to me) looks a bit nicer, but I do like the watch look (Moto 360 is the winner in that area!), but the Fitbit Blaze is more of a fitness watch first. The Band 2 tries to make everyone happy, and I think does a better job of that. Support was better on the Band 2 by far too.

I’d rate them on par with each other, and you’ll need to work out what’s more important to you on features and differences to pick which one you prefer. Neither are a bad choice!

Summary

I like the Band 2, and it’s a big jump from the Band 1 which felt unresponsive and bulky (I tried one for a few days). I’ll keep going on about poor battery life, because it bothers me so much – hopefully with advancements in OLED screens which have power savings on dark screens due to no backlight… maybe the Microsoft Band 3 will have one. Give me a week without charge and I’ll be happy, so Sunday nights can be charge night!

That aside, it’s an all rounder that does everything it does reasonably well. Readability is quite high, anything that shows up as a notification I can quickly tell what’s going on. Navigation can take a little time to learn; not that it’s difficult, it’s just different to how you’d use a smartphone.

I still think it’s overpriced at $300AU, even though that’s a heavy discount from the RRP of $380. The $250 price I paid makes me feel a little better, but from the outside it doesn’t look like it should cost as much as it does. That price pain applies to all mainstream smartwatches really, and since they’re in the early stages still, we should see a ramp up of the technology used in them in the next few years to come.

 

Fitbit Blaze Review

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Preface: I’m looking at this device from a smartwatch point of view, as I’m not a fitness buff in any sense. If you want to know about the FitBit Blaze from a non-fitness person’s point of view, please read on!

Smartwatches. I love the idea of them, a quicker way of seeing information you’d normally need to get by taking your phone out of your pocket. Yet, I dislike the general implementations of any smartwatch I’ve tried: their features, price point, lack of battery life and the annoyance of having them ‘in the way’ of being able to look at my wrist to tell the time.

I’ve reviewed the Samsung Gear 2 previously, and since then tried an original Microsoft Band. They fit into my above description, where I’m hoping the technology and design improves enough to meet my expectations.

While Smartwatches were adapting, so were fitness bands. They seemed to start out as ‘dumb’ devices where a digital watch with a heart rate monitor was considered high end. Those have come along way, with Fitbit and Garmin leading the pack.

Fitbit however (like Microsoft and others), seem to be blending the two devices together into one. Part fitness with step counts, heart rates, GPS and a bunch of other fitness junkie options, as well as phone notifications and music control.

One of Fitbit’s latest releases is the Fitbit Blaze, which seemed to tick a lot of boxes for me personally (aka ‘the stuff I care about’):

  • Battery life: lasts up to 5 days
  • Notifications: Text and call via Bluetooth 4.0
  • Syncs with Windows Vista and later, Mac OS X 10.6 and up, iPhone 4S and later, iPad 3 gen. and later, and leading Android and Windows devices (i.e. all the things)
  • Charge time: One to two hours
  • Fitbit Blaze is sweat, rain and splash proof
  • Sleep Tracking
  • Touch screen
  • Color LCD

This gives us a device that can last for days, charges relatively quickly (charging while getting ready in the morning daily would cover it), provides useful information I care about in a non-bulky form factor, and I can use it on whatever device I’m currently on.

First Setup

When you first power on the FitBit Blaze, you will see a single prompt asking you to set it up by going to a URL fitbit.com/setup. Somehow through black magic I assume, you can install the app on your mobile device of choice and it will detect your watch, ready to be configured. The black magic part is that you don’t configure any connections. Nothing, it just knows you’re near an unconfigured watch. I don’t know if it’s GPS or just seeing the watch broadcasting it’s Bluetooth availability, but whatever they’re doing, it works and is a well designed setup process.

That is, until I tried to do it on Windows Phone 8.1 care of a Lumia 640 XL. Please see my rant* at the bottom of this post for further details, it’s frustrating enough that on this issue alone I wouldn’t touch a FitBit again.

After using an Android phone instead, the above setup process was what I experienced, which was the great experience I’d hoped for. The setup process from the app side asks for your basic information, such as sex, age and weight to make calculations around step count and other nifty functions

Hardware

Technical specifications like CPU don’t matter when a product has it’s own OS – it’s how it works, and the experience that matters. I’ll cover function rather than under the hood here.

Firstly, they’ve designed the watch face so it pops out, by pushing it inward. I thought this would be a benefit due to not having to take the band off, but it’s too tricky to do. The watch itself is quite comfortable to wear and doesn’t feel like it sticks out or has weird lumps. It’s also very light, lighter than my metal analog watch, so there’s no weight concern.

20160429_092442
Fitbit Blaze on Wrist (Hairy arm not included)

The popped off watch face can then be inserted into the dock for charging:

20160429_090727Watch face docked

That system seems to work pretty well – I don’t know if the clipping in and out daily of the watch face will eventually wear the plastic that holds it in, but you’ll probably throw it in the bin due to being obsolete before that happens.

The back of the watch has the standard sensors for heart rate (apparently detecting the volume of blood) which emit green beams of light:

20160429_092801
Underside of FitBit Blaze

The band itself is upgradable, since it’s just a chassis for the watch face. The one that comes with it doesn’t feel premium, but also doesn’t feel cheap, so I see no reason to swap it out.

Buttons and Touch

There’s 3 buttons on the watch, one on the left and two on the right. The left is a ‘back’ button, while the top right is ‘action’ and the bottom right ‘select’. I haven’t really worked out what ‘action’ does, as normally I’m just using the touchscreen or the back button. Pressing it on several menus did nothing.

The touch interface is amply responsive, doesn’t feel laggy, and seems to accurately detect where you’re pressing.

Also, the screen goes off when you’re not using it. To bring it to life, you need the motion option enabled (which is annoying in bed at night when the room lights up because you turned over), or by pressing any button. I’d prefer a low energy constant output of the time, like the Microsoft Lumia phones have.. but then we wouldn’t have 5 days battery life. Still, I’d like the option.

Menu Options on Watch

There’s a few different watch interfaces you can choose from the Fitbit app, and when I say few, there was about 3 from memory. Not a huge choice. Beyond the default time screen there’s:

Today – shows you all your stats for the day such as steps, fat burn, distance walked, calories and floors (as in, how many floors you’ve walked up)

Exercise – A set of exercise options that will track what you do while running, biking, doing weights etc. Suffice to say I haven’t tested these.

Fitstar – Your watch will tell you what to do, and take you through a workout routine. Also untested, got as far as seeing this and quickly exited the menu option:

20160429_112450Cat and Cows?? The more I think about this, the worse it is.

Timer – Yep, both stopwatch and countdown options here.

Alarm – I like this one, setting an alarm which just vibrates your watch is less distruptive than a noise based alarm. You can’t set the alarm on the watch though, you’ll need to use the app for that.

Settings – 4 settings in there, not very customisable.

Overall, enough options for a basic smart watch. You can also get notifications such as SMS from your phone, and that’s configured from the app too.

Summary

Do I like this watch? I’m asking myself because I’m still not sure. It still has a few inherantly annoying things that smartwathes have, such as low battery life and a screen that doesn’t do the basic function of showing you the time without pressing a button, or enabling ‘light up at any movement’ which has other drawbacks. However. it’s very handy to glance at your watch to see an SMS rather than dragging your phone out of the pocket, and it’s still a step (rather than leap) forward from the smart watches of a year ago.

It’s also a hybrid fitness watch and smart watch – I do like to know the basics of step count and heart rate, but the other functions are lost on me personally. Along with my rant below, I can’t recommend the watch, but nor can I dismiss it. It’s one of the better ones out so far, and I don’t believe anyone would be disappointed in their purchase. If you don’t mind buying a new watch every year, then this is worth getting. If you don’t want to buy a new watch every year, then maybe wait for something newer… however, something better may take quite a while to show up.

 

*Rant time:

FitBit Blaze is not supported on Windows Phone 8.1, despite the box implying that it is, and the support site not indicating any issues against the Lumia 640XL phone I was setting it up against.

20160420_213758“Works with iPhone, Android and Windows devices.” – the word ‘some’ apparently left out.

I raised this with FitBit’s Support Twitter account and didn’t get any helpful answer:

Giving up on their lackluster Twitter support, I searched their forums and found this: https://community.fitbit.com/t5/Windows-10-App-Windows-Phone-App/Blaze-not-listed-on-Windows-phone-app/td-p/1213142

The ‘answer’ from that from 1st March 2016 (almost two months ago from time of writing) was this:

Hi everyone! Thanks for moving this to the Windows forum @PureEvil! 
I understand that some of you have already done this but, for those that haven’t tried it yet; if you’re not seeing Blaze appear in the app, please try uninstalling and reinstalling the app.
For users with Windows 8.1, the Blaze tracker is optimized for Windows 10. I highly suggest using a mobile device, tablet, or a computer with Windows 10 installed for Blaze to work properly.
There will be an app update coming later on this week to help with Blaze not appearing on the current app version. I’ll make sure to update you all here once it’s released and will be available to answer any questions.
Thanks for your patience!

There’s no further update, and somehow that’s an acceptable answer. There is no Blaze option appearing at the time of writing. Based on this crappy support experience, I want nothing further to do with the company’s products, which are highly successful and hardly cheap. If everything they had didn’t indicate that this combination of devices was supported, there wouldn’t have been an issue in the first place.

I ended up having to buy an Android phone at a similar cost to the FitBit itself, the Oppo R7s – which I’m really impressed with for it’s price, but money I shouldn’t have had to spend.

Samsung Gear 2 Neo Review

The Samsung Galaxy S5 and Samsung Gear 2 (+Neo/Fit versions) released in Q2 this year, with high expectation. The Galaxy series of phones is one of the best selling in the world, and a product update to the Gear smartwatch had many consumers eagerly awaiting the release. The Samsung Galaxy S5 is a decent update to the Galaxy line (I’ll echo the phrase “evolution not revolution”), but the Gear 2 I believe still has a long way to go.

I’ve been playing with the combination of the Samsung Galaxy S5 mobile phone and Samsung Gear 2 Neo for the last few weeks. I really wanted to like these complementary devices, I had been waiting for weeks on their arrival. Disappointingly I’m not convinced about the usefulness of smart watches, and I’ll explain why.

First to clarify for those wondering – there are three versions of the Samsung Gear 2. The Neo version is similar to the vanilla Gear 2, but is missing the camera. I’d suggest to avoid confusion they call the Neo the Samsung Gear 2, and the Gear 2 the Gear 2 Cam… but I’m not in marketing so maybe that didn’t test well with focus groups. The third version is the Samsung Gear 2 Fit, which is a longer and skinner version, missing the camera and IR sensor.

Feature Samsung Gear 2 Samsung Gear 2 Neo Samsung Gear 2 Fit
Camera Yes No No
Screen 1.84-inch narrow 1.63-inch square 1.63-inch square
IR Sensor Yes Yes No

To start with, the Neo has a strange clipping mechanism on the strap. It just pushes in, and actually works quite well but took me a moment to work out due to requiring enough force to make me worried I was about to break something.

Once on my wrist, I found it to be very comfortable and sleek. It feels reasonably natural to wear, and the wrist strap doesn’t dig in. I was feeling good about this watch… until I turned it on.

There was a bit more of a process to get the watch up and running than I expected. On the Samsung Galaxy S5, I had to go into the Samsung Store (not the Google Play Store) to find the Gear Manager app. With all the pre-installed apps already from Samsung, it was a bit annoying to not find it already installed. I think this is because Samsung want to get you into their own App store to buy all the extra applications and watch faces, or I could just be a bit cynical.

Being a watch, I started by wanting to find the nicest watch face possible. The default was rather brightly coloured face, so I changed it to a much more sensible inbuilt time/date/applications display, with a very unexciting black background:

20140528_172105

 

I thought this looked rather smart. I played around with the apps for a bit, checked the weather and came to the realisation that battery life was still a big issue, which meant this smartwatch was a backwards step in telling time.

There’s the obvious annoyance of having to charge your watch every few days, rather than changing the batteries every few years (or never if you’ve got a fancy kinetic watch). Putting that aside, the usability of a smartwatch that’s trying really hard to preserve battery life is frustratingly annoying.

The watch display on the Gear 2 Neo is off by default. Completely black. When you make a motion with your arm to look at the time, it usually detects the movement and turns on the display for you. That’s great, but it takes half a second. If you have a normal watch, you’re used to a half second glance and you’re on your way. With this watch, you’re waiting that half a second that feels a lot longer for the display to light up. Sometimes it doesn’t even work, and you’ll have to press the button below the display with your other hand. You might as well have pulled your phone out of your pocket at this stage.

Your standard watch doesn’t have a pedometer. This smartwatch does, but you have to turn it on and off. It doesn’t just continually keep track. On the flip size, at night it will continually buzz or beep when anything happens on your phone such as a email or notification. This can be turned off by enabling sleep mode, but again this seemed to be a manual function. I had a brief look and couldn’t find a way to automate this (such as setting the times 10pm to 6am for sleep mode), which was another frustration.

To me, this is a watch that is the start of a good idea. Battery life needs to be improved vastly, and so does the flexibility around how you choose use the watch. I ended up concluding that this didn’t do as good of a job at being a watch as my analog watch, and until that’s fixed, the Samsung Gear 2 smart functions are icing on a stale cake.