The Ultimate Running Watch Shootout

So you want a running watch and cannot figure out which watch to buy. The choices confuse the most informed of runners. Watches continue to be launched with tons of features, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed selecting the right watch, and something I have personally struggled with. I continue to get messages from runners on which running watch to buy, and what usually stands out is that they are not sure about what they need, and are simply asking for advice without that information, not an easy task.

So, I finally sat down and put the proverbial pen to paper. Runner’s identify what features are important to them in a running watch, refer to the watches in this shootout, and quickly be able to figure out which watch cuts it for specially for them. It may not be what every Tom, Dick, or Harry is wearing around your neighborhood, but that’s the exact purpose of this shootout, to help you select something you need.

The biggest challenge for doing this running watch shootout was selecting which watches to shortlist out of the very vast set of units available from a variety of manufacturers. The watches were finally shortlisted based on the below mentioned feature set. GPS capability was a must, since the primary focus of this article was runner’s watch shootout. Price was an important consideration which eliminated a few high end products from the shootout.

Shortlisted Features  
GPSOn-board MusicMulti-sport support
HR, 24 hours HRInterval TrainingBattery
NotificationsColor screenActivity tracking support

Based on the feature set above, the following watches were shortlisted. Not every watch meets all the requirements, in fact, none of them do. But these watches surely meet a majority of these features, and provide users an opportunity to select the running watch as per their requirements, and not what the manufacturer would like to sell to you. So, here you go, straight on with the shootout, without wasting any further time, and see how the selected watches did.

Shortlisted Watches  
Garmin FR235TomTom Spark 3FitBit Surge
fr235spark3surge
Garmin FR35Apple Watch 2
fr35aw2
Garmin VivoActive HRPebble Time 2
vivohrpebble2

Runner’s Watch Shootout: Results

Running watches shootout. Click to enlarge.

Detailed Result Analysis

GPS: What’s a runner’s watch without GPS? We shortlisted only those popular models which had this as standard. Several other popular models like FitBit Blaze, or the Garmin Vivosmart HR may have most of the tracked feature set, but without GPS, the accelerometer based distance measurement simply does not cut it for pace/distance accuracy for runners. Pebble Time 2 depends on the additional clip-on Pebble Core for GPS access, a separate device which is expected to go to retail at $100 in Jan 2017, along with the Pebble Time 2 which will start selling at $200 this December.

HR: 24×7 hours HR enables continuous monitoring of your heart rate, which also enables you to track your resting heart rate (RHR), an important metric to check our current fitness levels. Things are looking good here with most of the watches, with continuous 24×7 heart rate monitoring and display quickly becoming the norm. Surprisingly, two of the newest models here, the TomTom Spark 2/3 or the Apple Watch 2 both lack this. Apple Watch 2 has a heart rate monitoring app and the sensor is activated only when the app is loaded (or a workout app is turned on).

Phone Notifications: As watches continue to become smarter, leading to overlapping of feature sets between a typical runner’s watch and a smartwatch, the expectations are higher to have your running watch phone notifications enabled (calls, text, other app notifications), and be able to wear it through the day. The running watch manufacturers have responded with getting notifications to your watch. TomTom Spark is the only model which does not support this (though rumors about a software update to enable this have persisted since 2015, but remain to be materialized).

On-Board Music: This remains a niche feature limited to just a few running watches. Note that we are talking about onboard music capability which can be used by runners to load their songs on the watch and listen via bluetooth headsets and not having to carry their phone around for the same. TomTom Spark has been one of the pioneers here with 3GB onboard music. Pebble Time 2 will once again depend on Pebble Core to bring along this feature, though it will have a wider collection of choices, with 4GB onboard storage, and options of streaming music online directly via a sim card on the Core, supporting Spotify, Amazon Alexa, and other services. Apple Watch 2 is also in on the game with 2GB onboard storage for music.

Interval Training: Serious runners need interval training support in their watches, the ability to do repeating workouts of the kind like 400m repeats with 2 mins rest, or other combinations of distance and time. Many runners also require support for custom intervals which may not be as simple as a repeating sequence of work/rest interval, but different distances or time for each interval (think ladder intervals). Only Garmin FR235 has full basic + custom interval support here. Other watches have basic interval support while Garmin Vivoactive HR and FitBit Surge do not have interval capabilities.

Screen display and Color: To be used as your regular all day watch, it needs to look good, and a bright, sharp display, along with support for colors goes a long way to make that happen. Most of the typical running watches are more focussed on functionality over form, but this too is changing gradually. We no longer see those bulky alienish looking watches any more. Sleeker watches are in (even with compromise in battery life due to size constraints), and the displays are getting better. Apple Watch 2, Garmin FR235 and Pebble 2 take the lead here, with nice color displays, ability to customize screens with watchfaces and widgets, and color screens. Vivoactive HR is the cheapest one with color display support. Rest of the watches are monochrome, with simple, functional looks.

Multi-sport Support: Cycling and swimming support is demanded by runners, who look at them as tools for cross-training. We are not talking about full triathlon support with transitions here, but meeting the basic needs of tracking for these sports. All watches listed here support bike rides. Support for swimming is however a bit limited here, since that brings in additional hardware and design complications to keep things working in water. Garmin FR235, FR35 as well as FitBit Surge are not designed for swimming.

Activity Tracking: All watches here support the basic activity tracking feature. Steps, sleep tracking, calories, its all there. Not really the most desired feature for a typical runner, but more like a good to have to keep up to date on how active we have been through the day.

Battery: 10-13 hours with GPS (with 24 hours HR if applicable) seems to be the norm for most of the watches here. Basic time display and activity tracking, notifications etc can get these watches from a week to up to 3 weeks. The significant exception here is the Apple Watch 2 here, with a meager 5 hours GPS support, and a day as your regular smartwatch. What that essentially means is that if you take it out for say an hour training run, you would barely be just be able to make it through your day. If you are looking at running more, like a half marathon or a marathon, well that will mean the watch will need to be charged again before the end of your day. For runners who are not that fast (slower than a 4 hour marathon), well, they may risk not having their activity recorded completely, or unable to make calls right after the run with no battery juice left, not a very inspiring thought when you would be running.

Price: With an entry level price point being $250 for most watches here, most of the watches reside in the middle to high end price bracket. Garmin FR35 provides great value at a reasonable $200. The two best looking watches here, the Apple Watch 2 ($369) and Garmin FR235 ($320) are the priciest. The Pebble Time 2 is the odd one out here, since you have to essentially buy 2 devices to get the required capabilities, with the watch itself at $200 and the Pebble Core, which provides GPS and Music support at another $100.

Where to Buy?

I hope this article was able to help you identify the right runners watch for you. You can use the below links to buy your choice online from Amazon store (US and India links provided), or from the Apple or Pebble stores (linked below). TomTom Spark 3 is not yet available in India and so the original Spark link is shared below (functionally similar for this features shootout).

Buy Online (US)Buy Online (India)
Garmin FR235Garmin FR235
Garmin FR35Garmin FR35 (NA)
Garmin VivoActive HRGarmin VivoActive HR
TomTom Spark 3TomTom Spark 3
Apple Watch 2Apple Watch 2
Pebble Time 2Pebble Time 2
FitBit SurgeFitBit Surge

Please share your feedback and any comments below.

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Garmin Forerunner 35 vs TomTom Spark Cardio – How They Stack Up

Garmin has just released the next iteration of their entry level GPS watch for runners, the new Garmin Forerunner 35. This series started with the very basic Forerunner 10, before moving on the Forerunner 15 (activity tracking, HRM strap support, and improved battery), and then the Forerunner 25 (phone notifications, bigger screen).

garmin_fr_35
The new Garmin Forerunner 35

And now, Garmin improves the experience for runners who prefer a simple device (if we may refer to this device as ‘simple’, with increasing number of features on offer) by bringing in the hottest trend for running watches, a built in optical-HR sensor. No putting on those uncomfortable chest straps anymore. What more, all this is brought to you at an almost entry level price point of USD $200. Ok, that’s not strictly entry level when GPS watches from Garmin itself and other respected brands are available in the market for $100, or even lower in some cases, but, a basic runners watch nevertheless with some advanced features.

With that, let me get to a head on head comparison of the key features of this watch with the one watch I regard as a great value proposition for a basic running watch, the TomTom Spark Cardio.

TomTom Spark Cardio
TomTom Spark Cardio

Feature Comparison

FeatureTomTom Spark CardioGarmin Forerunner 35Winner
AnnouncedSep, 2015Aug, 2016
Interval TrainingYesYesDraw
Racing against timeRace ModeVirtual PacerDraw
Zone based trainingYesNoTomTom Spark Cardio
Activity TrackingYesYesDraw
Auto LapYesYesDraw
Multisport supportRunning, Cycling, SwimmingRunning, CyclingTomTom Spark Cardio
Vibration AlertsYesYesDraw
Phone notifications, call alertsNo (rumors of late 2016 addition)YesGarmin FR 35
Phone music controlsNoYesGarmin FR 35
Wireless phone syncYesYesDraw
BatteryAs watch: 3 weeks
GPS: 11 hours
As watch: 9 days
GPS: 13 hours
Draw
Optical HRYesYesDraw
LooksModestModestDraw
Cost$160$200TomTom Spark Cardio

Verdict

With the feature comparison covered, lets look at how the two scored. We will award 2 points for a win, and 1 for a draw. Adding up, we get to the following results.

Garmin Forerunner 35 – 13
TomTom Spark Cardio – 15

Winner: TomTom Spark Cardio. The Spark Cardio edges the Garmin Forerunner 35 not only in overall feature set, but more importantly, at a price point which is $40 less than the Garmin.

Final Words

So, there we have it, a nice little comparison of the key features of both these GPS watches, to help you decide based on what’s important for you! From my perspective, TomTom Spark continues to be the king of the runners road with greater features per dollar. One thing to keep in mind though is that unlike Garmin Forerunner 35, Spark comes in a variety of variants, with the one compared here being the Spark Cardio. In fact, with a budget of $200, you get the Spark Cardio + Music which includes 3GB music storage on board and an ability to play music wirelessly to your bluetooth headphones without requiring a phone.

Where to Buy

Amazon.in: TomTom Spark Cardio, Garmin Forerunner – NA
Amazon.com: TomTom Spark CardioGarmin Forerunner 35

 

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C.VOX Performance Wear Review – Bringing Music Tech On Your Tee

C.Vox is a Gurgaon based tech company driving innovation in the field of wearable technology, and tech-fitness sports apparel. Their goal is to make a positive impact on your active life by enhancing real-time performance and experience while you are on the go.

So, when I was presented with a Music-enabled T-shirt at the annual Runner of the Year awards, I was quite fascinated by the stuff, to try it out and see if this is something which can actually work for us runners.

IMG_20160515_124626

How Music Benefits Runners

It is well known how music impacts running. Not all runners prefer to run with music, but there are some definite benefits for those who do:

  • Music can sometimes make running feel easier, lowering perception of effort
  • Provides ongoing stimulus and generally leaves you feeling more positive
  • Can help you run to a target cadence (say 180 spm), depending on your music of choice and the beats per minute it generates.

There will always be pro and anti music camps, but if I were to generalize, music helps a majority of runners enjoy their exercise. And C.Vox tech T-shirt enables that for runners by providing built-in earphones to put on in your ears, and a built in pocket to place your mobile phone or music player inside and to keep it from moving around too much while running (which is quite important).

C.Vox Technology

Here’s how the music enabled t-shirt works:

IMG_20160515_125400

  • The earphones come out of the tee neck, and you plug them in to your ears. No struggling with the loose wires hanging down to the phone or music player in your shorts or waist pouch.
  • The internal wiring connects the headphones to the pocket at the tee bottom, where the phone gets connected. The pocket was good enough to fit my Nexus 5, though I think anything larger would struggle to get in.
  • That’s it basically, you start your music device, put it in the pocket, and you are good to go on your run!

IMG_20160515_124948

Now comes the tough part. What happens when you get down and dirty, and the tee needs a good wash. Tech comes in here too to your help. The earphones are made detachable from the tee. Remove them, wash the tee, and put them back on, its quite simple really.

IMG_20160516_081507

Now some tough questions. All this tech goes into one tee, so when I need a tee change, and this one’s not washed up, I on locked out. The technology stays with the tee, and does not move from tee to tee. So, this means you basically need to buy as many tees as you want to use in your running with music on. You may be able to do with one, other folks may want to have a couple to make the job of switching tee easier if one is in the laundry.

Where To Buy

Finally, all this good stuff if available on the C.Vox website at cvox.com. check out the stuff there, they have a wide variety of music enabled wearable tees and jackets. The tee material is 70% polyester, 20% polyamide and 10% elastane, good stuff for a running tee.

 

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TomTom Spark Review – GPS, Music, HR All-in-one

The review TomTom Spark unit used for this review was provided by TomTom India. It was used over a period of a month, and will be returned back to TomTom after the review. Lets begin.

TomTom Spark

Features

The TomTom Spark GPS running watch was announced in Sept, 2015, and brings in a variety of variants, with the following highlight features:

  • Lightweight, designed to be worn 24 hours
  • Bluetooth music with 3GB on board storage
  • GPS for pace/distance
  • Optical HR
  • Activity tracking
  • 168 x 144 high-contrast LCD display
  • Battery life: 11 hours with GPS, 5 hours with everything on including optical HR and Bluetooth music

IMG_20160515_155924

The highlight feature of the TomTom Spark is of course the on board music, which means you no longer have to carry that bulky phone in your pocket or put inside your waist belt. Upload songs, create playlists, grab your bluetooth headphones and run along!

For people who do heart rate based training, the watch has optical HR to guide you. If you need to know more about how to use your heart rate to train better, check out this article from TomTom.

Data Fields

IMG_20160515_160114

The watch in running mode has a three field display. One big center field which can be customized on the run to choose any one of those available (via the big scroll button), and the two small ones at bottom left and right, which an be customized from the settings menu of the watch to display the metric of choice. Following data fields are supported on the watch.

Data fields  
DurationLap NumberCalories
DistanceLap DistanceHeart Rate
PaceLap PaceHeart Rate Zone
Avg PaceLap TimeClock Time

Variant Selection

The TomTom Spark comes in the widest combination of models I have seen, ever, in a single watch. Here’s what on offer (current Indian prices from Amazon.in and USD prices from Amazon.com):

  • TomTom Spark (Rs 11,899 / $129)
  • TomTom Spark cardio (Rs 17,999)
  • TomTom Spark Music ($182)
  • TomTom Spark Music + Headphones (Rs 18,699 / $209)
  • TomTom Spark cardio + Music (Rs 19,799 / $246)
  • TomTom Spark cardio + Music + Headphones (Rs 28,515 / $274)

Now that’s a pretty heady mix of variants to choose from. Basic variant just gets you a GPS watch with the usual pace, distance, time stuff (with a basic intervals feature as well). This is very similar to the older watch from TomTom, the TomTom Runner, which is now being phased out. Beyond that you can decide depending on your personal preferences.

IMG_20160515_120939 (1)

Like to hear music on your runs? Go for one with the music option. You can pair that with your own favorite headphones, or pay some more and go for the bundle which has the headphones included. TomTom people gave me the Plantronics BackBeat FIT wireless headphones, a reasonably costly set of bluetooth headphones specially designed for an active lifestyle. The music bundle comes with TomTom headphones if that’s what you would prefer.

Website and Features

TomTom has a basic website, which offers a neat display of your runs. This data is transferred from your watch either via the TomTom mobile phone app or installing the TomTom MySports app on your computer (Windows or Mac) and connecting your watch to it after the run. The runs are further synced to your app of choice, be it Endomondo, RunKeeper, MapMyFitness, Nike+, TrainingPeaks, Strava, besides a host of other supported apps. As you can see in the images below, TomTom does not display the run cadence through the run, but only the final stride rate figure at the end.

Competition

The price range for the TomTom Spark watches ranges from $129 for basic GPS watch to $274 for the highest end all inclusive one. That’s a very wide range. If we consider what’s on offer, particularly in India, in that range, we find the following products:

  • Garmin Vivoactive HR GPS Smartwatch – a great fit for people interested in optical HR and also smartphone notifications and call alerts, a feature lacking in Spark (Rs 28,000/$249)
  • Garmin Forerunner 230 – the mid range runner’s special watch with advanced running metrics not found either in Vivoactive series or the Spark, like VO2Max estimator, Recovery advisor, race predictor, custom workouts (Spark has very basic intervals feature) (Rs 22,990/$249)
  • Garmin Forerunner 220 (and 225 with optical HR) – older versions of the Garmin Forerunner 230/25 series, but very attractively priced.  (Rs 14,990/$124) (235 – Rs 22,000/$219)

Choosing your GPS Watch

So, how to choose a GPS watch given all this? It remains quite simple really, and totally defined by the runner. If you are in for a basic GPS watch which gives you accurate time, distance and pace, then my recommendation is the TomTom Spark basi variant. If is much more complete than other entry level variants from Garmin like Forerunner 15, 25, etc) in terms of battery life, ability to do intervals, Quick GPS fix, stride rate, more data fields, etc.

IMG_20160515_120146 (1)

If on the other hand what you want is an advanced runners watch with custom intervals, race prediction, recovery advisor, etc then again, the choice is very clear. Go for the advanced Garmin Forerunner series like FR 220, 225, 230, 235. These options are simply not available on the TomTom Spark.

Finally, for the music fans, this is where the Spark excels. With 3GB of music capacity on board, there is no need for carrying the phone along with, a feature not offered by any other mainstream GPS running watch currently. This is also immensely useful for people like me who are no fans of music while running, but make use of music to run to a fixed cadence. For example, I wanted to try running at 180 spm, and so I searched online for music which has beats at 180 bpm. Running to music for a target Cadence is much easier than running to a monotonous metronome beat, and is easier to pace to it.

So, there it goes. This is my review of the TomTom Spark. You can check it out on the Amazon.in store online and buy it there, or get it shipped from someone coming over from the US if you buy it on Amazon.com.

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TomTom Runner vs Garmin Forerunner 10 – A Quick Review

So long FR10, its sold. My first day with the TomTom Runner, its a loaner from my wife. Going through it yesterday was a revelation of sorts. Here’s a comparison of the TomTom Runner as an entry level watch vs the Garmin Forerunner 10:

TomTom Runner vs Garmin Forerunner 10

tomtom_runner

The Positives

  • It has twice the battery life (10 hours)
  • 3 data fields on screen versus 2 on Garmin FR 10 (out of which the central one can be rotated at will during the run in between about 8-10 different stat fields)
  • A nice lap alert with buzz which was missing on my FR10
  • Ability to do intervals (warmup, N repeats of work + rest, and cool down)
  • Can show my stride rate (i.e. Cadence) after the run via a built in accelerometer, no chest strap or pedometer needed. This is a big plus, since I am focussed on improving it from a lowly 150-155 last year at 2014 Hyderabad Marathon, and am up to about 170 now, a huge improvement.
  • Has QuickGPSfix technology, which helps your watch get a GPS fix in 2-3 seconds (yes, verified and true), against the usual 2-3 mins or sometimes endless wait for GPS lock
  • Sync data wirelessly online via bluetooth, no connecting to the laptop anymore (though I am having trouble with this on my Nexus 5, on which it is supposed to happen automatically whenever the watch is within 10 meters of the phone. What I have to do to make it to work is to go into the phone and watch menus and repeat the setup steps)
  • Has HRM option unlike FR10
  • Lot more runner oriented functionality which I am yet to try, zones, racing against your previous time, etc
  • At $99 vs $94 (or so) for FR10, beats the Garmin hands down on features/$

The Negatives:
– I am used to Garmin connect website, better layout. But, I can live with that, not a big negative

Unknown for now:
– Distance/pace accuracy. Though I am not expecting any surprises there. Update: after a few runs (about 75km) I am fairly confident that distance/pace reporting is consistent and good.

Final Thoughts:

The perfect entry level watch for beginners at this price point. Period.

I am waiting excitedly for the next Garmin launch. Definitely giving the FR25 the pass. Its a step-up for FR10/15 users, but not by much.

Check out the TomTom Runner on Amazon India website.

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