Fitness bands have been a global craze the past few years. Starting from simple models that measured steps taken daily, they have evolved into devices that can measure heartbeat, use GPS, receive emails, and interact with other devices such as cycling computers. It was only a matter of time since they morphed into golf centric versions, since so many of the features are perfectly suited for golf, especially the step counter – walk eighteen and you’ll pretty much reach any daily goal you set.

But the new golf fitness bands do much more, using GPS to take the place of larger, bulkier devices already popular with golfers. Yet by functioning as a normal fitness band, they also work every day off the course. In short, if you play golf (or know someone who does) and have any interest or reason to wear a fitness band anyway, these new devices really can do it all.

Golf Buddy BB5 Fitness Band

The Golf Buddy BB5 is a fitness band and step tracker made specifically for golfers, using GPS to provide precise distances on the more than 37,000 golf courses. This image shows 325 yards to the center of the green. Photo: Golf Buddy

In the past couple of weeks I’ve tested the leading two devices, Golf Buddy’s BB5 band and the Microsoft Band, both using samples supplied to me by the manufactures. They are very different animals, but for golfers both have the same basic limitation over other devices – with no “screen” per se, they can provide just numbers, not course maps or hole images. The upside of this is their tiny size and convenience.

Golf Buddy is a long established company specializing in golf distance devices. They make a full lineup of handheld laser rangefinders, standalone golf-centric GPS devices (the size and shape of a smartphone with display of holes and distances), and GPS golf watches. This spring they released the BB5 which they claimed was the very first golf band, packing many of their golf watch features into a smaller package.

The advantages of the BB5 are in its simplicity. It has built in GPS to measure distances to the front, center and back of the green, and a pedometer to count steps, and those are the two main features, making it perfect for the low tech golfer. It comes preloaded with a database of more than 37,000 courses, and immediately recognizes which one you are playing when you arrive. It’s water resistant, comes with interchangeable wristbands in two sizes, with many colors available, and charges via USB. It knows what hole you are on, and can measure the distance of your shots precisely via GPS, regardless how you get to your ball, which some golfers love to know. That’s about it, basic golf features and basic daily walking features – oh, and it tells time.

Golf Buddy BB5 GPS

The Golf Buddy BB5 comes in a range of colors. Photo: Golf Buddy

It is very easy to use right out of the box, comes from a company with lots of GPS golf experience, and I liked it, because I’m pretty low tech myself. The LED display is very easy to read outdoors, even in bright sun, the long battery life (they claim 13 hours for golf, 20 days in watch mode) was easily enough to play 36 holes. Suggested retail is $ 250 but it can be bought online for closer to $ 200.

Immediately on the heels of the Golf Buddy came an announcement form the two biggest players in tech and golf respectively, Microsoft and TaylorMade, that they were teaming up, using TaylorMade’s golf content to support Microsoft’s Band. The upgrade was just released in conjunction with the 115th U.S. Open Championship, and I say upgrade because this is an extension of the existing Microsoft Band (and Microsoft Health) product rather than an all new device. Golf is now one of many sports the Band supports, like running or cycling, but in far more detail.

Microsoft Band for Golf

The Microsoft Band has partnered with TaylorMade to provide a wide range of golf functions including GPS distances, automatic scoring and post-round analysis. But it also offers a huge slate of other sports and health functions and communications connectivity. Photo: Microsoft.

Basically, before you play you use TaylorMade’s comprehensive course finder, now on the mobile Microsoft Health app, to find the courses near you and pick one to play. This is the single biggest drawback of the product, and the reason why golf-specific GPS devices now almost all come with a huge preloaded course database, so you don’t have to do anything to get ready before you go play – or go on a golf trip.

After selecting the tees you’ll play, the band’s GPS will provide accurate distances to the front, center and back of the green. It not only knows what hole you are playing but uses automatic shot detection to automatically keep your score, posting it as you step to the next tee (there’s a simple swipe and edit function for “gimme” putts, “mulligans” and other creative adjustments). It stores the details of your round for later analysis, making paper scorecards obsolete. On the fitness side, in addition to steps, the band tracks heartrate (24 hours a day) and calories burned. Afterwards, a concise downloaded round summary shows everything from your longest drive of the day to distance walked, steps, calories burned, average heartrate and the scores from your last few rounds to show trends. Data mad golfers can log into TaylorMade’s myRoundPro and even view all shots plotted via GPS onto a map of each hole just played. myRoundPro is being upgraded to feature even more detailed golf statistics and analysis, such as fairways hit and greens in regulation, proximity to the hole, strokes gained and more – it’s like playing in a TV tournament. Post round info can be viewed on a computer or smart phone (iOS, Android or Windows Phone).

The bottom line choice is based on what you want to accomplish. The Microsoft product does a lot – a whole lot – more, but is a bit too techie for me personally with tons of features I know I am never going to use. For old fashioned golfers, the Golf Buddy’s appeal is its simplicity and ease of use. The MS Band offers a little more golf info and a laundry list of non-golf features. From a fitness perspective, it can tie into all sorts of other devices and workouts via the Microsoft Health platform, it offers sleep tracking, heartrate, workout/event timer and alarm, saved running maps via GPS, tracks distance and elevation for cycling, and is partnered with services such as MapMyRide, Strava, MyFitnessPal, RunKeeper, and several others. It measures your skin temperature and even UV to alert you to put on sunscreen. It has Bluetooth 4.0, displays e-mails, text messaging, and accesses Cortana, Microsoft’s digital assistant. It displays incoming phone calls, has a virtual keyboard and voice recognition, and in short, is more of a full featured smartphone for the wrist, minus actual phone calls or image display. Probably because it does so much more, it has shorter battery life, 48 hours without using GPS (charges via USB). For many of these features you also need to have your smart phone with you and on.

To be honest it is hard for me to evaluate most of these non-golf features, because I didn’t use them. But now I am tempted and will likely start using the Band while cycling as well. If you already are a Microsoft Band user, the choice is a no brainer, since there is nothing to buy to start using the golf features. If you plan to use a fitness band for other things besides just counting steps, or wear it as watch and want to stay connected with functions like email, the choice is again easy. At $ 200, and more like $ 175 from some retailers, the Microsoft Band is cheaper and it does more, so to me, the main reason to buy a Golf Buddy is if you know you want it mainly to use on the golf course, and maybe as a daily step counter, without having to find the courses you are going to play in advance or go through a lot of initial set up. Golf Buddy is also standalone and works even for someone without a computer or smart phone, while the MS Band needs to be used in conjunction with other devices. But for the most part, the MS Band is clearly a better value, with more features for less, and unlike the Golf Buddy, it will likely continue to improve over time using the same hardware. The specificity and user friendliness of the Golf Buddy still gives it real appeal to a niche audience, especially as a gift for the hard to please, low tech golfer in your household or on your gift list.

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