Monday, January 18, 2016

The Best Smartwatch for Athletes isn't an Apple Watch or Android Wear Smartwatch, it's a Garmin

I feel like Garmin has been keeping their smartwatches secret. Whenever I hear anyone talk about smartwatches, no one mentions Garmin. So I conclude that it's my duty to shed some light on one of these fabulous new models.

Let's back up a minute. I never even wanted a smartwatch. But I did need a new Garmin GPS, after mine finally died. For me, Garmin has always been the best option for running (and cycling and triathlon.) I’ve gone through several models over the years. Lucky for me, mine died in time for the FR 230 & 235 models to be released. These two models combine GPS fitness functions, smart notifications, and activity tracking all in one watch. For real - no more having 2 or 3 items banging around on my wrist!

These models are not only inexpensive for all they do on the GPS side, but considering the "smartwatch" features, they're downright bargains. The 230 is $249, while the 235 is $329. (With a coupon, my 230 was only $225, yay!) The only difference between the two is that the 235 has an optical heart rate sensor. I already have a Garmin heart rate sensor strap, so I opted to save the cash.

Here are all the features of my new favorite watch. (By the way, its compatible with Android AND iOS.)

On board GPS w/GLONASS  I don’t care what anyone tries to tell you, carrying your phone around with your watch to use its GPS is never as accurate as a Garmin GPS watch. I’ve compared the two. The phone GPS is off by about ½ mile at like 4-5 miles, and then gets greater the farther you go. So forget about accurate pace and distance. The GPS on this Garmin acquires satellites quickly and simply works beautifully.

It measures running cadence! This feature only available previously on pricier Garmin models.

The “workouts” feature. Previously, you had to get a more expensive Garmin for this feature, too. You can program intervals such as 8x800, 2x15min w/2 min recovery, etc. You can also do heart rate workouts. There are apps that can do some of this with other smartwatches. However, the options aren't nearly as advanced and without accurate GPS, it doesn't matter. Your paces and distances won't be accurate. This is crucial for athletes training for races.

Speaking of workouts, if you’re an indoor runner or cyclists, this watch has indoor mode. Cool.

VO2 max, Recovery Advisor, Race Predictor, and Finishing Time calculator - With the heart rate monitoring (using a strap, or buying the 235 model), the watch gives you these stats after each workout. Also, if you want to know your finishing time during a race, Garmin can tell you that based on various factors while racing. So, if you want to know if you're on pace during a race, you can take a peek at that. Super cool.

Waterproof. It’s completely waterproof, so I can swim in it! Also, I don’t have to worry when a surprise thunderstorm hits while running. I am in Houston, after all.

Live Tracking - If my hubby wants to track me during a race or a long training run, I simply click the option in the Garmin app on my phone. It will send him a link and bam, he can see exactly where I am during my run or bike ride. We tried it out the other day and it's super cool. I like this for safety reasons, as well as for races that don't have live tracking (or live tracking is spotty). As I said, I have to start it - it's not like people can track me without my permission. In case you're worried.

Battery life - Garmin claims the battery lasts 5 weeks in regular watch mode and 16 hours with GPS on (that’s helpful for an ultra marathon or Ironman.) But this is so dependent on how much you use the running/cycling mode. When you start a run, the GPS turns on, which uses more battery. Also, you can turn the GLONASS aspect of the GPS on or off - and that uses more battery (not much, but still.) (GLONASS = Russian satellites, something, something.) One reason I chose the 230 over the 235 is that the 235 with the optical HR sensor takes a huge hit on battery life. Frankly, I don’t need my HR tracked except with exercising, so I don’t mind wearing the strap. And my battery life is fabulous. I charge it once a week, just because I need it to be part of my routine. But the first week I had it, I was long into the second week and it was still going strong. The battery gets used about 10% per day, without a run to use the GPS. That’s completely fine with me. It feels like it could go 2-3 weeks, but I just haven't tested that.

Activity Tracking - Yes, if you’re interested in tracking your steps when you’re not running or cycling, it does that. It also senses when you’ve been sitting for a while and gives you nudges to move. You can turn this feature off, if you want. Some of the custom watch faces do fun things with tracking and the “move” nudge. The Steptris one plays a Tetris game while you step. The blocks disappear as you get closer to your goal until you've met it, and then it says "you win!" When you flick your wrist to look at it, the letters blink at you. Fun stuff.


The LCARS III (this is my favorite watch face) has a move bar. It drops down if you’ve sat around too long, and it requires a certain amount of steps to get it up again.

You can customize the colors on the LCARS watch face.

Speaking of watch faces, here are a few more. Custom watch faces is a thing I didn’t realize I needed, until I had it. Now the generic face that comes with the watch is so boring to me.

Many of these do some kind of movement based on your wrist, your activity, the sun or moon, etc. There are many more. These are a few of them:

The smart notifications work great. You can be notified via buzz or beep - you can choose. My favorite aspect is that when you dismiss one on your watch, it dismisses it on your phone too - and vice versa (thank goodness!) It also has a "do not disturb" mode, which turns on automatically when you’re running/cycling and when you’re sleeping (or anytime you flip the switch). The watch mirrors your phone notifications: apps, emails, phone calls, texts, and calendar events, etc. You can read the first few lines of your emails, and much of your texts too, right on the watch. Responding requires your phone. That's fine with me. I have no desire to look like Inspector Gadget talking into my phone.

Widgets and Apps - I didn't think I'd have a need to access widgets or apps on my phone. I certainly don't have a burning desire to plan games on my watch. However, the few widgets I use are helpful. 
It takes a simple click on the up arrow to scroll through the widgets. You can customize this list in the Garmin app. I have the steps widget, weather & rain widgets, notifications, sun & moon, and my calendar.

Customizable Data Fields - I haven't even checked this feature out yet. But when you peruse the Connect IQ app store, you can see tons of other data field apps to download. So if you want to cram 7 different pieces of data on the screen a once, while running, you can do that. There's a wind surfing and a rowing stroke analyzer app. Clearly a a wide array of stuff out there.

Of course it also tracks sleeping. I really like the “deep” sleep versus “light” sleep indication, rather than just movement. I had to research that to make sure I’m not in trouble with so little “deep” sleep. (Verdict - I’m normal, well, a normal sleeper, anyway.)

How it looks - I’m a big fan of an athletic looking watch, so it fits me perfectly. It’s pretty big, but not abnormally big. I chose the black with white accents, because I think it looks sleek and the white adds some class. It was hard to resist the Force Yellow, though, I do admit. I like a little flash in my running gear. But I had to remember that I’d be wearing this to work, so yeah.

It's big, but not abnormally big, right? 

The profile is slim. 

That white is special. 

Force Yellow 
Purple Strike
I mean, seriously, that yellow! 

Anyway, here's what I wore before, so really the Garmin is quite the step up (in size and quality).

Lastly, I haven't mentioned it much, but the Garmin app on your phone is pretty great. I have no complaints.

If you want a lengthy review of all the running features, DC Rainmaker is the best. I always use his reviews to help me decide what fitness equipment to buy. Check out his review of the 230 & 235 here.  Also, full specs from Garmin are here.

Now you see why Garmin smartwatches really are the best all-in-one fitness smartwatch.