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Monday, 2 April 2012

Review of Garmin Watches for Running

Review of Garmin Watches for Running

One of the biggest one off costs for runners usually involves the purchase of a watch. The use of watches with GPS features is now more used than not. The ability to track your distance, pace and heart rate during a run is a big plus for runners following formal training programs and there is a myriad of applications to go with the devices to allow the user to check feedback. The market is also flooded with different brands of GPS devices and add ons to make it easier to get into using the GPS tracking devices and even includes iPhone and android applications for your phone. However, all of these other options like the Timex models, Polar editions, Nike and Adidas sport watches and the applications available for your smart phone fail in comparison to all the Garmin forerunner options...yes every single Garmin option hands down beats every other option. So if you’re ready to start tracking your pace, you’re ready for a Garmin Forerunner GPS watch. So the only question left is which one?

Summary of Editions

Gamin produce a wide range of products for the Car, Bike, Hiking and Running. The range entitled Forerunner is the range we are interested in as GPS wrist devices. This list is in order of model numbers only. Features increase as model numbers go up (more or less) and so with the increase in features, so does the price. But is it money well spent if you’re a runner. The watches target the big spending tri-athletes as well and many of the features of the watches include features that make tri-athletes drool. But your swim stroke count may be wasted on land unless you hit a massive puddle...or is it?

Garmin Forerunner 110

The cheapest model of the ranges starting from just under $200 without a heart rate monitor strap making this a very affordable entry point. It’s targeted as easy to use but this limits the screen options and displays and with it the features. I didn’t find it easier to use but my wife and her running group friends say it is and I don’t want to argue. I think its because their husbands can’t change the screens on them so that its always the same every time they head out to use it. It comes with a charging cable that also allows synchronising with the PC and it all seems pretty easy but the uploading to Garmin connect (web site that allows you to review your runs and data collected) is very manual which I find a little confusing seeing as they manage to get the other watches to automatically synchronise. It is ANT compatible with the heart rate monitor but not the foot pod which is confusing especially considering the data transfer for most other watches is via a wireless ANT transfer as well. In saying that, the whole process is easy enough. The watch is also small and very similar to a normal wrist watch in size and weight. The battery lasts about 8 hours in continuous use. The main concern I have is the lap pace feature and how it works. Every time the lap clocks over (either automatically or by you pressing lap) the lap pace goes into a spin showing the current lap pace either way too fast or slow depending on its mood. After about a minute or so its back on track but I hate the way it does this and even more, I hate the way people running with me wearing this watch declare that I’m not running at the right pace and I’m either too fast or slow.
I see this watch targeted at those runners wanting a cheap and easy to use GPS watch. It has just enough to track distance and long distance pace. It’s just not useful for those wanting run fartlek style runs with intervals of 2 minutes or less. But it has a definite market and it works well.

Garmin Forerunner 210

This edition of watch looks and feels just like the 110, but with a few slight additions such as some limited ability to change the screens from Lap Pace to Average Lap Pace and remove the heart rate screen if you don’t need it. But that’s about it. Its almost $100 more expensive and comes with a heart rate monitor strap and is compatible with the footpod but is it worth it? Nope. Put simply its one to avoid. If you want a cheap watch buy the 110, if you want more features buy anything else. This watch suffers from the same lap pace issue that the 110 suffers from and its almost like Garmin realised how bad this was and decided to allow you to change to Average Pace instead of Lap Pace. I just don’t see the point of this watch so look elsewhere.

Garmin Forerunner 305

This is an oldie but worth mentioning as they still sell on eBay and people that have it still love it. This was really the first of the GPS watches from Garmin and was out at a time when no one else had anything close. The size of it will be too much for many especially on the smaller wrists of female runners. It has customised screens and every feature you could hope for from a runner’s watch but the display isn’t great (it was in its day but is dated now) and the wrist band is uncomfortable. The fast clip options to move it from the bike to a run makes it attractive even to runners as most runners also ride for fitness and want to track that as well. But there are better options now days.

Garmin Forerunner 310

For me, this was the first watch that really hit the mark. A natural extension from the 305 but with a better display, better button layout and a smaller form albeit only just. Its not as long and cumbersome as the 305 but still sits high on your wrist. The fast clip options are numerous but the best I have seen for runners simply involves a rubber mount that you loop the normal watch band through as if its going on your wrist. It’s not fast transfer so maybe triathletes will find this method an issue in a race but for runners who just want to cross train its ideal as it doesn’t change the wrist band into something that is bigger and less ideal. The watch has every feature you could want as a runner and doesn’t suffer from the Lap Pace issues that plague the 110 and 210. It’s fully customisable and includes swim and several bike modes that allow you to have even more screens available as well as multisport mode for Traithlete and Duathletes. The only feature I would like to see is having several run modes so that I could use a track mode and race mode so I have everything I need and nothing I don’t. I still found the wrist band a bit of a pain in the longer distance races and came up with a normal “Nike” sweat band and looped the wrist band pins from the watch through the sweat band. This watch is still available with and without the heart rate monitor strap at just under $300 (without strap) it’s an excellent option for most runners. It really has been the best choice for runners since its release even though the size and shape aren’t very watch like. The battery run time whilst in use moves from 8 hours to 20 hours. This could be an advantage for all you ultra-runners. All in all it was the best until recently...

Garmin Forerunner 405

This was the first of the Garmin watch range that decided to leave the triathlete market and move into what was a runner’s only watch. No bike or swim modes and rain proof only (its classed to 1m of depth but this simply means it’s safe to leave on when you’re washing your hands). The watch is more like a watch and is a nice small form (only slightly bigger than the 110 and 210) and reasonably comfortable but very light. The buttons on the watch to start/stop and lap buttons work well and are positioned great. But the watch is very much let down by an attempt at a touch style user interface or more specifically a touch bevel. The bevel works by scrolling your finger around the rim of the watch to scroll through the menus and then pressing and holding to select a menu option or using the enter button. It sounds intuitive but it’s not. It’s the opposite and trying to adjust whilst on the run or in a rush is just not happening with this watch. The screen size is good but not as good as the 310 and limits the number of screens to 3. This may sound like enough but most people train with time, distance, heart rate and pace so it doesn’t take long to wish for that extra display. You can always use the multiple screens but again it’s a compromise. The watch works once up and running but you have to ensure you lock the screen after you start as sweat will cause the bevel menu to start reacting randomly. So a nice attempt but at the end of the day it is a bit of a fail with a poor UI design. At the same price as the 310 you would only down grade to this watch if you were worried about the look, something runners shouldn’t be concerned with over function. 

Garmin Forerunner 405cx

This watch is hardly worth mentioning but if I leave it out then everyone will complain. It’s a 405 and not much more. The CX branded simply adds a calorie counter based on heart rate. It really doesn’t do anything else and I can only think that what the people at Garmin thought with this one was to target those worried about their calorie output more than their running. It has a few more colour options but it’s nothing that they couldn’t have done with a simple software update.  And the calorie consumption is only really a guestimate further decreasing the supposed added value.

Garmin Forerunner 410

The 410 is the only one I haven’t owned and it’s easy to say why. It’s nothing more than the 405cx with “improved bezel” and updated “calorie consumption formula” and neither of these Garmin is willing to tell you about. I’m not sure what is improved about the bezel but once stung by the 405 I can’t go back to it and as for the new formula on a calculation I don’t use and Garmin won’t say how they work it out - well the less said the better. Its $50 more expensive and I’m not sure what you get but if you want to take a chance then maybe the bezel menu works, although I doubt it as the whole idea is not intuitive, just ask my wife!

Garmin Forerunner 610

This is another watch that I haven’t owned but at least I got to use this one both at a stall at an event and running once at a training session where a mate let me borrow it for a few laps. The touch screen is intuitive and the hardware buttons on the side make sense for start and stop functions. It worked well and the touch screen is responsive and feels OK. It’s not easy to select menus whilst on the move as the touch screen makes it hard to accurately press the right buttons but this aside it seems OK. It’s a very similar size to the 4xx series but a little shapelier on the wrist so it feels very nice to wear. It’s a nice looking watch as well so all in all it was promising. However, I’m not sure the touch screen is the way to go on a watch. I like the feel of hardware buttons whilst running and the advantage of a touch screen when standing still isn’t that much of an advantage. You also have to lock the watch after heading off as the touch screen re-acts as sweat falls on it. I’m not convinced that this is the watch to buy and I always worry about the longevity of touch screens on sports equipment. It’s not like a wrap the watch in cotton wool as I throw it around my running bag. At close to $400 its better than the 4xx series but still not my choice.

Garmin Forerunner 910

Last but least we see the introduction of the 910. A new series but a familiar style. This could be seen as more of a 3xx series upgrade. It seemed more like a natural progression of the 305 to the 310 to the 910. The size is about the same, the screen is similar and the buttons are almost identical to the 310. The menu is almost identical as well. But it is an upgrade and worth while. It adds stroke count for swimming and barometric altimeter for accurate altitude changes (yes on mappings the Garmin Connect data shows altitude but it’s a guess and very inaccurate). It also adds virtual race which also exists on the 4xx series as well but I have never used this feature and don’t rate it as something that runners need. The screen is interesting as according to the specifications its identical to the 310 buts its much clearer and easier to read and I’m not sure why, maybe because its new and exciting? The watch band is different as well and a little more shaped around the wrist which adds to the comfort and ease of use. At $460 it’s a fair price increase on the 310 but it’s worth it for me plus others might like the fact that it’s not “look at me orange”.


All in all it’s an easy choice for me. The 910 has everything I need and in a nice package. If I’m spending money I want the best and the 910 is the best of this range. It works on the track as well as long road runs and races. If you don’t want a watch to use on the track (or at least with limited display options) then the 110 is the best alternative. It’s cheap and easy to use but the issue with the lap pace means I don’t like it but I recognise that many people just want distance and time and this watch does that. 

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