For several years, minimalist runners have been striving for less equipment but still have the ability to track their runs. But many of these same runners want to track their heart rate and really enjoy listening to music while they run. This has traditionally meant that they would need to wear a heart rate chest strap and either carry their smartphones, or a separate MP3 player. TomTom has made an attempt to tackle these issues and free runners. You can see the consolidation of devices over the years.
In 2011, TomTom partnered with Nike and released the Nike+ GPS Sportwatch. This was a basic GPS watch that was well received and got them out the gate with an initial design. In 2013, they released their own pair of watches, the TomTom Runner and the TomTom Multisport. The Nike+ and TomTom Runner are shown below. You can see the progression of the basic style.
When TomTom made their initial watch, they added a new method of navigation, the joystick. This is a clever idea that emulates the touch screen concept while not requiring owners to actually touch the screen. Touch screens sometimes have issues with rain and sweat. The joystick alleviates this. This watch also began the march for consolidation. They incorporated cadence on the watch. Runners no longer needed a separate footpad to determine cadence. TomTom perceived it via an accelerometer on the watch itself via arm swing. This is great for going to the gym and running on treadmills. Of course, you need to make sure that you use the non-watch hand for any fiddling of equipment, drinking etc, or you may see drops in cadence at points.
Following the the release of the TomTom Runner and MultiSport watches in 2014, TomTom made a giant leap forward and was a market leader by incorporating a heart rate sensor developed by Mio into the next generation of watches the TomTom Runner Cardio and the TomTom MultiSport Cardio. This enabled runners to drop the heart rate strap.
Now, TomTom has targeted yet another device – the music player – and incorporated it into the TomTom Spark Cardio + Music. While there are other Spark models that don’t have music, this will be the focus of this review. TomTom has been an early market leader in technology for a few years now and is continuing down this path now
The watch construction is a basic plastic and sturdy enough. It has a rather unique clasping mechanism. Instead of a normal buckle with a tongue, there is a peg the locks into the bottom of the band and a second that locks into the top. Also, in lieu of a retaining ring for the band, there is third peg on the end of the strap that locks back into the band. This makes for a secure fit.
The bands are replaceable, but proprietary. There are two sizes available and universally fit the main watch no matter which size you purchase.
One issue I had with the band and pod setup was when plugging in the charging cable, it was a little fiddly. The band would try to pop completely off. Not a big deal, but a bit of a nuisance.
The TomTom will also track both cycling and swimming, but it is too limited to call it a real multi-sport watch. There is no multi-sport mode, so triathletes would have to select another sport and start it again. Also it won’t record open water swimming. And lastly, it will not work with power meters. That puts the watch more in competition with a mid range watch like the Garmin VivoActive HR and not with the high-end triathlete watches like the Garmin Fenix3 HR, Garmin 920XT, Garmin 735XT, Suunto Ambit 3 and new Spartans, or the Polar V800.
For this review, I used the watch to track runs and it does a good job of this. I ran with the watch several times and it was fairly consistent with Garmin and Suunto devices that I wore at the same time. The information it tracks is fairly straightforward. You get your overall distance, total duration, calories burned, pace, elevation gain/loss, average heart rate and cadence. You can also see your run broken down into splits with pace speed and heart rate with the default of miles. You can see the Web interface below.
On the bottom of the Web interface, you can look at your run graphed out and if you click on the graph and mouse back and forth, you can see a detailed breakdown of that point in time and see where you were on the map. Also, the map will show you were you had your highest heart rate and quickest pace.
As you can see below, the app as shown from an iPhone shows much of the same data. TomTom does a very good job of delivering most data that a general recreational runner is seeking.
Unlike some mid to high end running watches, you can’t create custom workouts to send to the device or a pre-populated workout calendar, but you can create interval workouts on the device.
Intervals are very straightforward and work will with basic repeats. For example, 6×400 with a 1 mile warmup and 10 minute cool down. You can choose each element as either time or distance and have the options you can set of Warmup, Work, Rest, # of Sets and Cooldown.
While this works well with basic repeats, it is not as robust as other options out there because you are unable to have multiple set types which are useful for things like pyramids or ladders. Also, you can’t set the distance type in the interval set differently from your overall distance metric on the watch. This is a problem because the distance only gives you the option of tenths and not hundredths. Thus, if you want to run 400 meter repeats and have your watch set to miles, you can put in either .2 or .3 when you really need to be able to use .25.
Other options are available in the Training menu that can be helpful when training. One of these is Goals where you set the watch to a specific metric of Time Distance or Calories and get alerts at 50% and 90% of your target. This is really useful for out and back runs. You can plug in the distance and run a direction. When you are alerted that you are at 50%, you can turn around and head back. The 90% is useful too in case you are too close to your destination and need to pad, or if you are thinking of taking another route.
TomTom also includes the ability to base your training on Zones – Heart Rate, Pace, Speed, and Cadence. Whenever you leave your prescribed Zone, you will be alerted that you have left it and whether you are above or below the zone. One nice option is that you can set up a percentage for deviation. That can keep alerts down when you only drift for a second.
A third training option is the ability to Race against a previous workout on the watch or an activity on the MySports Website. You will see where you are in relation to your competition while you running.
Many runners like to share their runs or have coaching via third party sites. TomTom truly excels on being interoperable with most of the major third party run tracking sites. You can see from the screen shot below what is available.
The method for listening to music on the Spark is workable, but there are some issues. Essentially, you must put whatever songs you want in a playlist and then choose what playlists you would like to sync with the watch. The watch can store about 3 GB of music.
With audiobooks and podcasts, there is a big problem. The watch does not remember the location where you stopped listening. This is discussed on their forum page HERE.
Another issue to consider is the fact that you must own your own music. If you are using a services like Spotify or Apple Music, any of the streaming service music will not be available to sync to the watch. This is unfortunate because the new services are very popular.
In order to play music, you will have to use Bluetooth headphones. You can connect to the headphones by pressing the joystick up from the clock face and the Spark will try to find them and connect. You will have to put the headphones in pairing mode and be prepared to wait for a couple minutes. Different headphones I tried did took different amount of times to pair.
To playback music, you press down on the joystick and select playlists. Then choose the one you would like to hear. You then can select either Normal or Shuffle. That’s it. It is a very basic player with no frills.
As of August 2016, the much welcome addition of music controls have been added to the Spark. You now can control Play/Pause and Next/Previous Track. Unfortunately, volume still cannot be controlled from the watch, but this is a definite improvement.
The TomTom will track steps, sleep and as of April 2016, 24 hour heart rate monitoring described HERE.
The step tracking will display not only the overall for the day, but also breaks down how many were taken each hour on the MySports Web site. This is nice to see how balanced your activities are throughout the day. The sleep tracking is functional, but not robust. It essentially shows you how many hours the watch determined you were asleep. If you change the view to weekly, you can see times that you were awake as well as asleep on each day. Garmin and others do a far better job of breaking down sleep levels and times.
In all, TomTom has released a watch that has many compelling features at a very reasonable price. Its MSRP is $250, but you can find it frequently for under $200 at our links below. This makes it very competitive for runners on a budget who want to have some flexibility in training, no chest straps, and music on their watch.
There are some features that are not quite complete, but TomTom is releasing capabilities over time. A list of updates can be found HERE