After a little more time spent with the Mi Band, I decided to see how it squares with my trusty 10-year-old Polar F11 sports watch.
What’s become apparent is that the Mi Band’s initial functionality and the accompanying app can very easily be expanded through third-party additions.
Typically you’d think that you’d buy the gadget, download the app and that’s it, but as with many popular Bluetooth-based accessories, functionality can be extended by downloading third party apps and customizing your experience.
What you essentially get with the band is a dumb sensor that tracks steps and assesses your heart rate with the help of an app and a smartphone. However, a great many things can be done over and above what is offered through the primary Xiaomi-authored app.
Summary of experience
I’ve tracked my sleep across a number of days now with aid from the Mi Band. Generally, the results seem fairly reliable, with the app correctly assessing the time I began sleeping and the time I woke up.
I must say that the heart rate sensor, when used in conjunction with the official Mi Fit app, seems a little underwhelming. It does not appear to provide any added benefit other than the silent input it provides to your sleep metrics. Indeed, when I browsed on over to the heart rate tracker (it’s not conveniently accessible but buried in the menu), a screen comes up displaying what appears to be a real-time display, but I can’t seem to make it do anything, leading me to believe I can’t really get any manual input.
Another potentially compelling feature is the ‘route tracker’ feature which works something like a Strava substitute. In addition to steps, the route tracker feature is able to record your route (through GPS tracking) and pairs time and map inputs with data from the heart rate sensor, making for a complete treadmill or GPS watch substitute.
But forget what is included in the app – how about using the device with third-party apps?
At this stage, the Mi Band is compatible with Google Fit, which means it is able to keep an ongoing daily log of your mileage, steps, and weight, all from the convenience of a vendor-neutral interface. Yes, this is a similar experience to the Mi Band’s route tracker, but I find it quite encouraging that a major Western tech company has added support for Xiaomi, leading me to believe others will follow in the near future. Additionally, if you type in ‘Mi Band’ in the Google Play Store, you get a whole host of app listings claiming everything from light customizations, to custom vibrations and even custom notifications. This is an encouraging sign, showing the depth of interest in the device and the high likelihood that popular apps like Strava will likely add support.
What’s it got that my classic F11 doesn’t have?
At the end of the day, this all comes down to what you want to achieve. With the F11, users are typically interested in accurately measuring heart rate over a period of time, in addition to estimating exercise-induced calorie consumption and even some auto program building functions.
What the last generation of F11 doesn’t do, importantly, is link up with smartphones, GPS and lastly, because of the nature of the device set-up, if you are unhappy with the display experience there is nothing that can be done to get around that.
The F11 still stands on its own when it comes to sports features, but it is mostly an offline experience and works well as that.
The primary grab of the F11 is that it is a self-contained experience. It provides the most reliable level of heart-rate sensing on the market with its chest strap monitor, and all other features are very well designed at the level of the watch – with little need for customization with 3rd party apps and the like.
Polar, if you didn’t know – and you might not, since it no longer appears to be the tracker of choice for many – invented wireless heart rate sensing back in 1977 and has been the leading brand in this space for a good 20-30 years until comparatively recently with the arrival of ‘smart’ trackers. The last generation of Polar technology is definitely still relevant. However, it fails to grab the attention of the modern crowd due to its lack of easy link-up with computers and external displays. You can essentially still use standalone GPS watches and heart rate monitors to do what Xiaomi promises, but part of the fun of the fitness tracker movement is being able to gamify your lifestyle and instantly share results among peers or on the internet. This last part is important because for many, sports are kind of lame and inserting a social element into them is enough to win people over and have them get up off that couch every once in a while.