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, 6x400 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.
Unfortunately, notifications were planned for December 2015, but still have not been implemented as of July 2016. They have addressed the delay in a support post located HERE.
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
Thank you for supporting Gearist by checking out the TomTom Spark Cardio + Music at our partner links below!
On May 12th of 2015, Garmin joined the optical heart rate chase with the release of the Forerunner 225. It was a slight update to the very popular 220 with added step counting and an added optical heart rate sensor licensed from Mio. Then Garmin surprisingly announced the Forerunner 235 less than 6 months later in October. This version and the 230 are the next generation of the 200 series, mid-range running watches and have more features. I am reviewing the Garmin Forerunner 235 here which is identical to the 230 but has the added optical heart rate sensor.
The Forerunner 235 is designed as a watch for runners with additional 24 hour step and sleep tracking. It will also track basic cycling, but only GPS along with speed & cadence if you have a sensor. It does not track power. As a watch designed for running, it is very light and easy to use. The strap is a comfortable silicone and you can lock it down fairly comfortably. You will have to be careful to not lock it down too tight for too long though, it can leave an imprint. Just keep the watch snug. For 24 hour tracking, it doesn’t have to too tight. You may wish to tighten it a little more when running to get a steadier heart rate.
The Forerunner 235 is built as a mid-upper range running watch. It is essentially designed to cover the meat and potatoes of features that a runner could desire. It covers the basics like GPS, pace and distance, and heart rate with aplomb, but also adds some more advanced features.
The overall accuracy of the watch is decent, but not as good as the Ambit 3 which I have found to be the most accurate watch I have used for distance. It seemed to short the mileage by .03-.08 miles in workouts. On the bad days, this is nearly one and a half football fields off.
The Forerunner 235 does offer GLONASS (Russian Satellite) capability which may help with accuracy at the cost of some battery life, so try turning it on and off to see how things improve for you.
Like more advanced Garmin watches, the Forerunner 235 allows you to save workouts and create interval sessions on the fly. This is a major feature that separates entry level GPS watches from advanced.
After you have created a workout, you can send it to the watch via the Garmin Connect app and then start it from the watch. These workouts can be very simple or very complex.
Garmin takes the workout principle to another level with the Training Calendar. You can pre-populate all of your planned workouts for a spell and have them sent to the watch. You then can just perform the workout on a given day. This is very handy if you have a structured training cycle.
Another feature of the watch is the ability to create Interval sessions on the fly. You can plug in Intervals on the watch itself and perform the workout.
The biggest advantages to setting up pre-planned workouts and Intervals on the watch are for the convenience of having the watch prompt you via sound and/or vibration when to perform the next step while you are working out and to have a clearer breakdown for viewing later. On Garmin Connect, you will see the different portions of a workout separated into splits, so you can really drill down into how you performed.
Another new feature with the Forerunner 235 is the addition of Finish Time. This is a cool countdown tool that will tell you how much time you have remaining at a set distance. You can choose from common race distances, or use custom.
All day tracking has been moving its way into most Garmin watches. Having built in optical heart rate makes it even more effective. It’s also liberating to have one device that tracks both your steps and your runs for a more seamless daily picture.
What gets even better is that the Forerunner 235 also tracks your sleep. And again, with the heart rate also being tracked, you can get an even fuller picture of how you are reacting to training. By following your resting heart rates and averages, you can see how you are responding to workouts and also see warning signs for over-training and/or illness.
Since this is the only difference between the Forerunner 230 and the 235, it deserves to be broken out into its own section. Also, while it is only one feature, it is a major feature. The ability to just go out and run without worrying about a heart rate strap is incredibly liberating. It doesn’t seem like much, but it really is.
The accuracy of the heart rate I would say is good with one notable caveat – temperature. When running in cooler weather, you may have unreliable readings. Specifically too low. I found that on some cooler days, the heart rate would be really low and take a long time to actually be read. As you can see from the images below, the heart rate from the Forerunner 235 shown on top had a distinct lag and some drops as compared to the same run with a chest strap recored on a Suunto Ambit 3 below.
So, the bottom line of the optical heart rate sensor is that it does a good job, but has limitations. It is very good with warm temps and excellent for all-day tracking, but I wouldn’t throw out the heart rate strap yet. Garmin was wise and left the ability to pair with a heart rate strap instead of the optical hear rate. This is very good because not only might you want to use the heart rate strap when you need the upmost accuracy, but also, when it is cold and you would like to wear the watch on the outside of your clothing.
Another added feature of the built-in optical heart rate monitor is that it can both read and display your heart rate on the watch and also broadcast your heart rate over Ant+. This is really handy if you have a separate bike computer and want to ride without a chest heart rate strap.
Surprisingly, some of the features from the Forerunner 620-630 top of the line running watches have trickled down to the Forerunner 230-235 watches. This is quite welcome. The notable add-ons are from Firstbeat technologies and can really assist you in gauging your performance progress. You can find a white paper describing their methodology here. The race prediction numbers on the watch as shown in the image below are different than the white paper. I have collected what I could find into the table:
The Race Predictor times I have put in are not published anywhere that I have found.
I have collected them by either hitting the VO2Max times myself, or looking at friend’s times. The list is not complete, but it should cover the majority of mid-pack runners. If you have a current Garmin watch, have race prediction times not shown, and want to share, please comment and we will be happy to adjust the table.
The VO2Max and race prediction go hand-in-hand and can be fairly accurate, but this is with a caveat – weight. For a while, I was confused by results. I have been getting consistent VO2Max numbers on Garmin watches (I have been getting them on 4 different models), but my actual performance ability is no where near what was shown in the Race Predictor. This was baffling because they lined up fairly close in previous years. Then I thought about weight. As shown in this article about being overweight and losing speed, there are obvious negative effects. I have found in research that each lb can add approximately 2 seconds per mile to a race. Over time and distance, this really adds up. It makes sense though, imagine running with a 20 lb backpack.
After each run, if you wait before saving or discarding a run, after two minutes, you will see your recovery heart rate. This is the difference between your exercising heart rate and the rate after stopping. The larger the span, the better you are recovering. It is a sign of your fitness.
You also will see the advised recovery time from the Recovery Advisor shown in the picture above next to VO2Max. That is the recommended amount of time you should wait before another hard workout. This has ranged for me from a few hours to over 3 days. It is very useful information to determine exactly how hard your workout was. This can keep us from being our own worst enemy. We have a tendency to downplay pain and effort if we want to go further and faster. By adding tools like this, you can potentially prevent over-training and injury.
You can always access the screen under Menu > My Stats > Recovery Advisor to check how much time is remaining.
Unlike its previous generation of running watches, Garmin has added the ability to receive notifications as well as ConnectIQ for apps. The notifications work really well and over time, Garmin has modified them so when you clear them from the watch, they are also cleared from the lock screen on iPhones. This is very handy so you don’t have to do as much housekeeping when you return to the phone. As you can see, the text is easy to read and clear. The picture on the right shows how they are readable in full sunlight. One thing to consider, the notifications don’t display emoji, so it’s best to keep to words if possible.
Like other smartwatches, Garmin has some pre-made widgets like Weather and Calendar available to go along with smart phone notifications, but it really open things up with Connect IQ.
The addition of Connect IQ is hugely important. It is Garmin’s app platform where owners can download watch faces, data screens and applications to extend the functionality of their products. With it’s addition on the Forerunner 235, it opens up the possibility to use other devices and see results while running. A good example of this is the BSXInsight which has a Connect IQ app for displaying Sm02 (muscle oxygenation) during a workout. You can see it added to the screen below. One thing to note, there are only two configurable data screens unlike more expensive multi-sport watches like the Forerunner 735 with four or the Fenix 3 HR with a whopping ten. This means that you will have to add extra fields to a current screen or replace what is currently displayed.
Another option available with Connect IQ is the ability to change your watch face itself. This is a great feature of smartwatches first popularized with Pebble and now seen in most. To have that on a GPS running watch is really awesome. Here are a couple examples.
While the Livetrack feature has been available for a while on several Garmin watches, I cannot say how much I appreciate its inclusion.
The Forerunner 235 also has the ability to control music on iPhones and Androids. Sadly, the feature is much better on Android as you can control different apps that are playing. On the iPhone, it is only connected to the built-in music player which includes Apple Music. That is a definite letdown. I like to listen to audiobooks as well as podcasts and when I press play to control music on the watch, it changes out of whatever app I am using and plays the next track from the music player. Hopefully that will be rectified in an upcoming firmware release. This issues exists for all Garmin watches with music controls and iPhones at this point from what I have researched and experienced.
Live Tracking is also available if you run with an iPhone or Android. This is a great tool for telling your friends and loved ones where you are running while it is happening. This can be useful for safety and if they want to meet up with you at different points during a race.
The Garmin Forerunner 235 is a great choice for an all-around running watch with activity and sleep tracking thrown in. With the optical heart rate sensor, you can comfortably leave the strap behind for much of the year. As an added bonus, you can get notifications from your iPhone or Android and use them for Live tracking your runs. It doesn’t have all the features of the highest priced running watch – the 630 or the triathlon watches, but is has a surprising number of them. With Connect IQ, more features can be added in over time allowing for a bit more future-proofing. The only downside to the watch is the GPS inaccuracy. It isn’t awful, but it is there. Hopefully, over time that will be addressed as it has in other previous Garmin watches in the past. The Forerunner 235 is a solidly mid-upper level device in both capabilities and price. At it’s MSRP price of $329.99, Garmin has worked in every penny of value. It is worth it. But for every dollar under that price (ahem…CHECK THE LINKS BELOW), you are getting a bargain.
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Fitness trackers and running form tools are among the hottest thing in running and endurance sports. Running form has risen to the top of concerns in recent years and much of this is related to cadence and foot placement. The conventional wisdom in most running publications is that the ideal foot placement is on the mid to forefoot and an ideal cadence is around 180 steps per minute. Athletes all over are working diligently to achieve this. Sensoria socks offer another tool to assist in this effort.
There are actually multiple product offerings by Sensoria which are available in their Fitness Running System bundles for men or women. The Men’s bundle includes a compression shirt with an optional Bluetooth Heart Rate monitor which pairs with smartphones or BTLE watches like Suunto, Polar, TomTom, and Timex. The T-Shirt for men or Sports Bra for women is compatible with many other HRMs on the market. I actually tested it with my Stryd power meter successfully. I will say that the shirt is very snug. I normally wear a large tech-t, but probably should have an XL/XXL shirt. The M/L I have is a little much and actually affects my breathing — not to mention is a little unflattering to my non-strapping body as can be seen below.
The stars of the Sensoria line-up however are the fitness socks and anklet. These are sold either as one pair of socks with a single anklet with the option to buy add-on socks and anklets or as part of the Fitness Running System bundle. The ideal system is to have two anklets for tracking runs as you can see imbalances between feet.
Socks are well constructed comfortable with sensors built in. I am happy to report that they don’t seem to give me any issues on the bottom of my feet. This was a relief as I am prone to blistering. They are fairly warm though, so I’m not sure how they will be in the summer (testing for this review was done in the winter and early spring). Each sock has three sensors sewn in for picking up pressure. These consist of two on the ball of the foot and on on the heel as shown in the image below of the sock turned inside out.
These sensors pick up pressure being delivered on the sock and send the info via Bluetooth into the app on iPhones or Android smartphones. This is the magic of the system. What is the best way to find out if you are landing on the heel or the forefoot? Well, having something underneath that detects directly would seem to be the best possible way. Everything else detects or extrapolates using different methodology which can’t be as certain.
The sensors of the socks feed an anklet which is magnetically attached to the sock by way of small spikes on the front. After applying the anklet, make sure that you fold the sock over top of it to keep it in place as shown below. I was so eager to get out and run with the socks the first time, I didn’t read the directions and wound up kicking one off immediately as I was starting to run. I have to remind myself that directions are not for wimps.
Once the anklets have been activated by placing them on the socks, you can pair one side or both anklets if you have two to your iPhone or Android. If you only have one, you can choose whichever foot you want to pair the anklet cuff. After the pairing is complete, the app dynamically shows pressure which is really cool.
The warm to hot colors show the pressure being applied while the cooler colors are not being compressed. The purple on the left heel shows in between pressure and no pressure in the moment. It is really neat to see how pressure is being applied in real time on the screen, but not really practical while running or you might be like a texter headed to a water fountain as seen a few years back, only faster.
Instead of viewing the screen, the Sensoria app is designed to coach you while running through audio prompts of two types – status updates and running form guidance. The status updates can be set to chime in based on time or distance and the running form guidance happens about once every minute and involves turning down whatever you are listening to, giving you the feedback, and raising the volume back. This feedback can be adjusted within the Sensoria app and you have the following options from which to choose:
Current Heart Rate (requires Bluetooth Heart Rate)
Heart Rate Zone (requires Bluetooth Heart Rate)
The default settings for status updates are every minute, distance, pace average, cadence average and current heart rate.
Running form feedback gives you more options. You can adjust your desired landing from the ball to the heel (although I am uncertain as to why one would want to do this) and adjust cadence monitoring. If you have cadence monitoring on, you can adjust it to any number between 60-200 steps per minute, with the default being 180. I set mine to 170 as I have been working on getting my cadence up more consistently. You can also utilize a metronome with the app. This can be on all the time at the desired cadence, or it can be set to come on when your cadence has strayed too far from the desired.
One odd behavior; I set my cadence to 160 figuring that I would definitely stay above that and it should prevent the app from nagging me. I was wrong. Every time I got over 170, it would tell my that I was above my target cadence. This makes me think that the cadence needs to be within 10 steps of the target cadence. It is odd that it will prompt you for going at too high a cadence though because most often people are trying to increase it. Perhaps it is to prevent injuries by having runners overdo the change. Either way, it would be nice to shut that off or to allow for a cadence range rather than just a target.
After the run, you can see a history of when you were prompted and why in the notifications screen. As you can see, I was definitely nudged frequently for heel striking.
The notifications are valuable, but can be a bit burdensome. If you are listening to anything else such as a podcast, expect to be interrupted fairly frequently – It can at times feel like a nag, but that is the intent, so I have mixed feelings about it. I wound up turning off all notifications except for the prompting if I was heel striking. This is mostly because I am always running with a GPS watch and can look at my status at any point. I imagine if you are using the app exclusively and not listening to anything else, the app can help notify you and guide you as you go. There are probably some advantages to running without any music and just the prompts as you can hear your foot strike in between and focus on form.
The one gripe I have about the notifications is in how they are implemented when listening to something else. They lower the volume of what you are listening too. While that makes the notification easier to hear, your other content is still playing in the background, so you will miss whatever was just played. This is especially aggravating when listening to audiobooks and/or podcasts. I would love to see the app updated to pause the current audio track, play the notification, then resume the audio. This is small fix but I think would make a huge and welcome difference.
Activity Stats and Web Dashboard
After you have completed a run, you can see the results in the Sensoria app along with previous runs in the Activity Stats screen. Within that screen, you can click on any of the runs to see a breakdown of the activity including heart rate, cadence, pace, calories, distance, steps, elevation, ascent, descent, landing left, landing right, contact left, contact right on the first tab, splits on the second, and a map on the third. You can see this below:
Activity history is also listed on the Sensoria web site, which is even more comprehensive. The odd thing about the app versus the website though is they actually show different data. The run I have opened as an example above is listed differently on the web interface. This is especially notable with the cadence. In the app I have a cadence of 162 SPM as seen on the left, but on the Web, it is listed as 167 SPM. This happened with the other two runs shown. 2/10 has 165 in the app, but 166 on the Web and 2/8 has 165 in the app and 166 on the Web as well. The only thing that I can see that might be causing it is if the app is ignoring time when the app may have been paused for a stop light or break in running, but the web accounts for it. I’m not sure, but you can see the web dashboard example of the 2/27 run below:
The Web dashboard really offers a wealth of information. This is where you can see what is going on with your running and can really make a difference. As you can see above, by having two anklets, I can see problems that I am having with my left side. I am quite imbalanced and heading for injury. If I only had one anklet, I would not see this kind of discrepancy. The Web also breaks down the entire run so you can see how you were doing in any part of it.
The scores being tracked are foot landing and equally important, Impact score. Impact score is based on a scale of 1-10 and is a representation of relative G-Forces you are generating when contacting the ground. The lower the score, the better for preventing injuries.
You also have the ability to see performance trends on the web dashboard. This is done by an overall trending view of the last 6 months or dialed into a specific date range in another chart below. You can see both of these here:
The Sensoria socks are a very effective tool for determining your foot landing and can be quite useful for improving your form. But, there are a couple of downsides. One, the actual anklet with the socks can irritate over time while running. I found that during a couple of runs, the studs on which the anklet attach dug into my shin and it was unpleasant after a while. You can see that it definitely left a mark below. I would like to see if there is a way I could protect my shin and skin so I can go longer.
Also, the socks and total kit are very expensive. If you want to be the minimum, it is $199 for a single anklet and two pairs of socks. These socks are rated for 60 washes or they speculate 4 pairs will last about a year with 3-4 workouts a week. Since you only are getting two pairs, expect half that long, or you will have to buy a second pair for $49. Also, as I have shown in this review, having two anklets can be very valuable since you can see imbalances and correct your form even more. The second anklet is another $159 dollars. At a price of $358 for the basic kit plus another anklet, it makes more sense to upgrade to the Fitness Running System bundle for $399 and get the shirt/bra and bluetooth heart rate sensor included.
With all the caveats, I have to say, they work and they give good information. I can see using them for some of your runs to check-in on your form improvement. And while being expensive, an argument can be made that a couple visits to a physical therapist or chiropractor can cost a lot as well. If you can use these as a tool to prevent injury, they will likely pay for themselves over time.
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There are four watches available in the Suunto Ambit3 series, the Ambit3 Run, Ambit3 Sport, Ambit3 Peak and now the Ambit3 Vertical which was announced earlier this month.
For the purposes of this review, the Ambit3 Peak and Sport were used. They are very similar to one another with the Peak being the top-end and having a barometric altimeter and much longer battery life. Either watch should fit most multi-sport athletes well, but ultra runners may want to consider the Peak for the barometric altimeter and the added battery since they will often be running over 24 hours and on varied terrain.
Since the Ambit3 watches have been out for a while, it may seem like this review is late. However, the watches when released are not the same as they are today due to updates with firmware and software.
The Suunto Ambit3 series was released in September 2014. The Ambit3 Run then followed in March 2015. The Android App was released in Beta May 2015, and fully August 2015 (nearly a year after the watch came out). Support for Stryd was released in December 2015 though there are still a few issues with app stability as of this review’s publication.
Note: Suunto is not the only company who seems to be struggling with software. Polar’s V800 was released a couple months prior to the Ambit3 in 2014 and had delayed features like notifications added to iOS in April 2015 and Android in October 2015. Open water swimming features (stroke and distance) were added in July of 2015.
The Ambit3 looks nearly identical to the Ambit2. The only differences really very minor. The watch on the left in the photo below is the Ambit2S and the right is the Ambit3 Sport. There are minor differences between the Ambit 3 models as well. The Ambit Sports have a smooth bezel whereas the Ambit3 Peaks have screws in the bezel (as does the Ambit3 Sport Sapphire).
The Ambit3 Peak can be seen with the screws in the bezel below. You can see a couple more differences like the red line at the top, there is no border line inside the bezel around the text and the logo is a bit bolder versus the Ambit2. Again, the differences are very slight. The changes are upgraded hardware and chipsets inside the watches.
The overall build quality of the watches is excellent. They are sturdy and have some weight to them without feeling too heavy. On my wrist, the watch feels very comfortable and overall I like its looks. It resembles a normal watch that most can feel comfortable wearing as an everyday device since it isn’t over-the-top sporty. The only quibble that some may have is the protrusion of the GPS sensor on the bottom of the bezel shown below. It does detract a little from the appearance and limits the availability of different bands. However, I feel that this is a case of function over form. By having the GPS antenna there, the watch has outstanding GPS reception with quick satellite acquisition.
The Suunto Ambit3 series is an update on the Ambit2 with the addition of smartphone and Bluetooth support. Another feature is the ability to track heart rate of swims. A form of activity tracking was added as well – the watch tracks overall activity, but not steps specifically. Through the smartphone connectivity, the Ambit3 adds the ability to both receive smartphone notifications and create workouts on iOS and Android.
Notifications, while available, are not quite fully featured as of now. They do show all notifications that one has configured for a lock screen on an iOS device, but there are some issues. One, there is a noticeable decrease in battery life when using them. Two, you cannot read the full notification on the watch itself. Suunto explains this on a support page. You can see a typical notification below.
When adding the support for Bluetooth, Suunto removed support for Ant+ just as Polar did. This is a very serious consideration. If you have Ant+ sensors, you will have to really consider whether you want to reinvest in new accessories. A good example of this is a power meter – I have a Powertap Ant+ power meter and as such, I am not reviewing any of the cycling features of the watch. I can’t afford to buy a power meter that costs more than the watch itself just to be compatible.
This is a very frustrating thing. I feel it is short-sighted to end all support for a protocol that dominates the market. In Suunto’s case, it’s not only a matter of trying to peel away some Garmin users, but also to retain its own. Right now, many Ambit2 (which has Ant+ on board) users have an incentive to jump ship to Garmin for new technology because they are set up with Ant+ sensors.
All Ambit3 models offer full support for the Stryd running power meter as of December 2015. Running with power offers some intriguing possibilities.
Heart rate has been an invaluable training metric with many systems including Phil Maffetone who worked with Mark Allen to win 6 Ironman World Championships. However, it is not effective in every case. There is something called heart rate drift and a definite lag when tracking it. Heart rate drift occurs over time. As the body heats up and fatigues due to time and distance, the heart has to work harder to generate the same output. Heart rate lag can be seen when doing short bouts of intensity. These can be running an interval on a track or even on the road with a Fartlek (stop giggling!). It can also be a factor when climbing an incline or having a kick to pass someone in a race.
What happens is that the change of effort causing increased heart rate is often delayed until you are well into the activity. And then the heart rate lowering is also delayed. This can really be seen with an interval session. For example, if you are doing 400 meter repeats with 400 meter recoveries, you often will see that the heart rate doesn’t increase until you are well into the interval. Then, when you are doing a recovery, it takes time for the heart rate to decrease. This causes anomalies that make the workout effort difficult to track because the interval average heart rate is recorded too low, and the recovery is too high.
Power on the other hand displays immediate change. As soon as the effort is increased, the power number reflects this. And as soon as it is lowered, it also reflects this. What makes this invaluable is you have the ability to get exact information as to the amount of effort expended during bouts of effort. This can be a game changer in race situations as well.
Imagine when you are running in a race and have to tackle inclines or need to overtake another runner. If you are running by heart rate in an attempt to keep your effort down, you may not get a true reading on how much effort you are expending until you are well into the activity. Then it’s too late. You just burned a match. With power, you know as you are doing the activity how much effort you are expending immediately. So you have the potential to keep the effort down enough to last longer.
Your power is available while you are running on all Ambit3 watches. It also is displayed on the Movescount Website. At this point, sadly it is not available in the Movescount App. Hopefully that will change over time. Auto syncing with the Stryd site should be available in the future, but is not ready at this point.
As of the firmware 2.0 update, a new feature was added called Running Performance. It is a measurement combining physical fitness and running efficiency and it can be used during a run as well as afterward to see a trend. There is a tutorial by Suunto that breaks down examples of results and what they can mean. It also has a chart correlating to Running Performance and VO2 Max which is similar to the VO2Max race prediction available on Garmin devices, but you can see it dynamically. They link to a white paper on Firstbeat, who is the source for most of this kind of data (Garmin uses them as well).
There is a nice breakdown of the feature in this blog post. Do keep in mind that the chart on Suunto and in the blog post shown for race prediction is likely off. In my case, it is woefully optimistic. If only I could race with my predictions as a result… I have the same issue with Garmin race predictions. I also know at least one other whose prediction is too conservative.
Like Garmin and Polar, Suunto keeps a training log of your workouts. It calls them “Moves” and the log is “Movescount.” Movescount is available both as an app on iPhone and Android in addition to the already available web app used with earlier Ambit models.
There are differences between the web version of Movescount. The Web shows more data by default including Power from runs than the App as seen above, but the App has a workout creation tool. Both the Web and the app can be used to adjust settings on the watch.
The Workout creation tool is very capable for creating customized workouts. You have options to create steps and/or repeats. Each duration of a workout step or interval can be based on time, distance or both. The target of each can be based on pace, speed, heart rate, power, or even cadence. You can have steps be different targets as well. Pace for some, heart rate for others as an example. This can be useful if you want to hold to a certain pace for an interval, but want to target a heart rate for a cool down.
Workouts are an invaluable addition to the Ambit3 family. They are incredibly helpful for allowing an athlete to just perform an activity without having to constantly look at a watch. For example, a workout can be set with fartlek intervals put in at varied points. The athlete then can just start running. When the watch alerts, run faster. When it alerts again, slow down. That is very liberating.
While the workout creation tool is incredibly flexible and powerful, it is a bit challenging to actually build the workouts. I find the interface to be a little bit fiddly. Fortunately, once you build a workout, you are likely to just keep using it, so you shouldn’t have to keep repeating the process. Another issue with the Ambit3 is no vibration alerts. This is a serious oversight for when you want to do workouts. Having a vibration option works really well to alert you to a condition during a workout. Are you going too fast or too slow? Its your heart rate too high? This can be useful information when you are trying to govern yourself. The reasons for vibrating alerts are to not disturb other runners, be able feel an alert even when there are many atmospheric noises, and to be able to wear headphones and still get prompted. Vibrating alerts are an option Ambit3 Vertical announced earlier this month.
The Movescount app also can make a movie of your workout. It is a 3d map with your track superimposed as shown below. Any pictures that you take with the phone can be imported to the movie as well based on the time and geotag. Very clever stuff.
Suunto has solved the problem of tracking heart rate in swims by using a store and forward model that over a year later, Garmin has implemented. Sadly though, there are some issues with the strap not staying in place. Brandon, editor of Gearist and a strong swimmer had issues with the strap not staying on when pushing off walls, even at slow speeds. To be completely fair though, this is something he’s experienced in all chest HR straps while swimming and is hardly a Suunto issue.
The Ambit3 watches are top of the line watches that are well made and a viable choice for any athlete.
I’ve found that the Suunto Ambit3 Peak is the most accurate GPS watch I have used – especially under a thick canopy. This is against other watches with GLONAS enabled along with GPS. It also acquires satellites very rapidly. I can see why it is a popular choice for trail runners and would have no hesitation recommending it to anyone on the basis of the watch alone.
However, I do hold back a little with the caveat of if you already are invested in Ant+ sensors and are not ready to buy more equipment, you have a difficult choice. If you currently are using an Ambit2, you may be better off staying with the device.
Thank you for supporting Gearist by checking out the Suunto Ambit3 Peak and Ambit3 Sport at our partner links below!
In late summer 2014, Timex announced a product that many have been awaiting – a runner’s watch that does not depend on a smartphone for connectivity. In 2015, they started to roll out to the public.
For years, runners have been running with mp3 players and their smart phones. These devices have allowed runners to use features including GPS tracking, the ability to listen to music and other audio content, a way to upload their workouts to a training log site and in some cases, live tracking of their workouts for friends and loved ones. GPS watches have incorporated the ability to do some things like Live Tracking and a couple have an MP3 player, but the Timex One GPS+ is the first major manufacturer to incorporate all of these features into the a running watch and remove the multiple device requirement.
Even though Timex has been using the Ironman branding for many years, this watch like all other GPS watches recently released is designed for running. There are no other modes like cycling or swimming as an option. The workout options available on the watch are Run Outdoor and Indoor (you have to have a BTLE footpod for indoor tracking).
Within the Outdoor options, you can choose from Timed Run, Distance Run, Intervals, and Walk/Hike.
The intervals are full featured, allowing for a warm-up, cooldown and time and/or distance in each set. They are created on the watch. They work very well and prompt you when you need to be prompted. You also have the ability to set either Pace or Heart Rate alerts for any runs.
I ran with the watch several times and paired it with both a Mio Fuse and a Lifebeam Smart Hat for recording Heart Rate. The results were consistent overall with the Garmin 920XT and the Garmin Fenix 3. Here are some of the runs where I wore both devices with the results on MapMyRun:
Timex does not have their own site for tracking runs like Garmin, Polar and Suunto, they rely on partnerships. This works really well if you enjoy using Strava, Runkeeper and MapMyFitness. It however can add challenges if you are using a training site like Final Surge or Training Peaks and there is not a current partnership. There is a bit more work to getting your data over. Timex used to be partnered with Training Peaks, but it appears that they are not with this device.
Another oddity is with how the data is sent to the sites. Sadly, if you do an interval workout, you will need to look at the watch in order to see how the laps broke down. This is rather odd because Garmin is able to send the information over. Take as an example a Fartlek workout I did on April 28th and what is shown in MapMyFitness. On the left I have the laps setting taken from the uploaded workout off of the Timex One GPS+. The only thing shown in the workout are auto-splits each mile. On the right though, you can see the upload from the Garmin 920XT that I wore on my other wrist. I hit the lap button whenever I was prompted by the Timex (and could actually remember – it wasn’t an exact science) and the different segments are better represented.
Another difference between files uploaded from Timex versus Garmin appear to be summary information about the workout. First, let’s look at the April 28th summary information from Timex:
Notice there is just PACE? Garmin on the other hand also offers HEARTRATE as seen below (I did not use a footpod with the Timex, so CADENCE was not counted – even though there is a built-in accelerometer – maybe in a future firmware update it will be offered?):
This is odd behavior because you can see by comparing the graphs from both watch uploads that this information was tracked (Timex is first):
The differences between the uploads imply that the data file written in the Timex watch can be formatted in a manner to better reflect the information being uploaded. Hopefully this will be done in a future firmware update.
One of the most important features of the Timex One GPS+ is the Live Tracking available without a Smartphone. There was an earlier GPS Watch that also offered this feature, the Bia Multi-Sport GPS Watch, but sadly the company is no longer in business. That puts the Timex in category of its own. Through a partnership with AT&T in the US and partnerships internationally, the watch is continuously connected to a cellular network. It comes with 1 year of service when you buy the watch. After the first year, you can subscribe for service with AT&T.
The Timex One GPS+ does Live Tracking very well. Garmin also has the LiveTrack feature available on several of its recent watches, but it requires connectivity to an iPhone or Android device for the cellular connectivity.
As seen above, Garmin LiveTrack gives the option to see other information like Heart Rate, Speed and Elevation as shown above on the Web site seen in a full browser, but the data is much more limited on the Mobile Web version.
On the other hand, the Timex One GPS shows all relevant information for Live Tracking on both the mobile Web site and the in the full Web Site. This is a nice feature.
Not only can the Timex One GPS+ communicate location information with Live Tracking, but it also can be used to both receive and return messages with people directly. This is done through email communication with the watch using the built-in cellular connectivity.
When you get the device and activate it, you will create an email address of firstname.lastname@example.org. This can be given out to people for them to contact you. The watch will prompt when a message comes in. There will also be a flag on the Messaging icon (which is a little misleading because it is an email rather than text message or IM).When you tap on the messaging icon, you will have access to your inbox and each message can be opened from there.
You also have the ability to take action on the emails. This is available by swiping to the bottom of the message where you have two options: delete or reply. When you choose reply, you again have two options: Select Message, or Create Message. When using Select Message, you can choose from several pre-made messages including the following:
Out running. I’ll let you know when I’m done.
Where are you?
Done with my run. See you soon!
Here’s where I am:
You also have the ability to write custom messages by choosing Create Message. When you do this, Timex loads a rather clever keyboard for use on the watch. Since a watch face is obviously a small area on which to type, Timex had to come up with a way to cover all the letters, but still make them reachable. The way they do this is by having multiple screens broken up into blocks of text containing letters, numbers, punctuation, or a combination of these. When you press on a block the selections zoom out to cover the full face so each one is easier to choose. It really works very well and you can use it to craft short messages up to 280 characters.
You can also use the watch to send SOS or emergency messages. There are demos on how to do this and other functions provided by AT&T here.
The other banner feature of the Timex One GPS+ is the addition of a built-in MP3 player, freeing runners from carrying their smartphone or other device. Adding music to the device is very easy. All you need to do is connect it to your computer where it will be mounted as an external drive (like a thumb drive). Choose the Music folder and drag whatever tracks you would like to this location.
Originally when the watch was released, all tracks had to actually be .mp3 files, so music purchased from iTunes had to be converted or it would not play. However, May 8th saw a firmware update that allows playback of unprotected music purchased from iTunes.
Updates are done over the Cell network with no computer connectivity needed; a feature which I found is pretty cool and very convenient.
In order to play any music on the watch, you must connect a pair of Bluetooth headphones or an external Bluetooth speaker. The watch will notify you if you do not have one connected.
Once you have the headphones connected, you can re-open the music player and use it. It is one of the most basic MP3 players I have ever seen. You have the options to Play/Pause, Track Forward, Track Back, or Reshuffle tracks. Really, that’s it. You can’t even control volume on the watch. You must use the headphones for volume control which can be difficult with some pairs. Also, in what seems to be a touch of irony, you can’t control the tracks from the headphones however, you have to do that on the watch…
Another issue with the music player is you have no control over how your tracks are played. They are shuffled, or you reshuffle them. This can be really distressful if you like having playlists set up for activities. It is great having the ability to play music on the device, but it really is not full featured and may cause frustration for some.
The Timex One GPS+ is an exciting device, but it somehow does not feel complete. Overall, it delivers on what it promises, but in many ways it feels like it’s compromised. Examples include the odd exclusion of lap data and summary information on uploaded workouts as well as the ability to control volume from the watch, or change tracks using headphones. Not to mention not being able to use playlists.
Fortunately, these items can potentially be fixed in future firmware updates (like they already did by allowing tracks bought in iTunes).
Other features that would be nice to have would be cadence using the already built-in accelerometer and notifications from Smart Phones. There is an app already on iOS and Android, but it does very little to communicate with the watch other than reading messages. Just because one may not want to run with their smart phone does not mean that they wouldn’t enjoy having communication with it during the rest of the day. That would make the watch a contender to be worn all day and have it competing with offerings from Garmin, Suunto and Polar which have all been adding notifications.
The watch has amazing potential with updates and definitely should be on everyone’s radar. And with a recent price drop of $100, the watch can be purchased for under $300, making it very competitive. [Eric is the author of Hampton Runner: LINK]
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