GPS Watches

GPS Watches


I have always the valued the usefulness of having a GPS watch to help record my training runs and races. The information was useful as I would use it to see how well (or poorly) I was doing in training or races.  I thought it would be great to share my thoughts on past watches that I have used before coming to terms with the current one that I’ am using now, the Suunto Ambit3 Peak.

This post is not meant to be a detailed review of the various GPS watches I have owned, but rather a quick narrative on why I chosen a particular watch for that particular time.

A quick history

Garmin Forerunner 305 (2010)

The 305 was the first GPS watch that I used, and was recommended to me by an internship senior (shout out to Jeremy!). Back then, budget GPS watches such as the Forerunner 15 didn’t exist, so this was the best choice for a GPS watch that packed a lot of features for a reasonable price. The watch was basically a featured down model of the 310XT.

However the watch wasn’t very durable; the rubber around the casing started to deteriorate, causing the button to work erratically and the battery started to become very weak. The 305 served me well into early 2012, but has since been retired, with the battery failing to charge properly and the buttons all damaged due to wear and tear.

The Garmin Forerunner 305 and the Forerunner 910XT - two excellent watches marred by durability issues

The Garmin Forerunner 305 and the Forerunner 910XT – two excellent watches marred by durability issues

Garmin Forerunner 910XT (2012)

In late 2011, Garmin announced the 910XT, which was the successor to the 310XT. I was already looking to replace my 305 and it made sense to upgrade to something better. The 910XT was the best Garmin watch I had ever used. It was reliable, the GPS accuracy was great and it had a long battery life (of 20 hours) which was useful for both triathletes and ultra-runners.

However, it suffered from the same durability issue of the rubber casing starting to deteriorate and I was worried if sweat could enter the internals of the watch and damage the circuitry.

Garmin Forerunner 910XT - Fenix 2 - Not sure which elevation to trust here.

Garmin Forerunner 910XT – Fenix 2 – Not sure which elevation to trust here.

Garmin Fenix 2 (2014)

The 910Xt would survive my first 50km race before I sent it back to Garmin for an exchange unit. While waiting for the refurbished unit to be sent to Singapore, Garmin launched the Fenix2, the successor to their adventure line of watches, the Fenix. I figured it was the right time to upgrade to a watch which really catered to ultra-runners and adventurers.

I was one of the first Singaporeans to receive the first local shipment of Fenix 2. Despite being packed with impressive features, the Fenix 2 turned out to be a big disappointment and I sold it off after just half a year of use. Below are some of the issues that I faced when using the Fenix 2.

  1. Inconsistency: When it worked, it worked. When it didn’t, you either had to restart the watch or re-flash the firmware, which meant you’ll lose all your custom settings in the watch. There was no way to back up all the settings or customization that you have done in the watch when you re-flash the firmware. You’ll also notice with the picture above, that the barometric altimeter displays two different readings for the same room!
    Considering the course profile of the 2014 Standard Chartered Marathon is quite flat (aside the bridge section), how was it possible that the Fenix could get up to 600+m in elevation?!

    Considering the course profile of the 2014 Standard Chartered Marathon is quite flat (aside the bridge section), how was it possible that the Fenix could get up to 600+m in elevation?!

  2. Weak GPS Signal: I had never experienced any loss in GPS signal on the earlier 2 Garmins, so it came as a shock when I ran the Macritchie 10km loop and the Garmin lost GPS not once, but twice in the same session. I thought it was an anomaly that would go way, but the GPS signal kept dropping many times over, from Macritchie, Bukit Timah and even during some road runs. Many on the Garmin Forums attributed it to thenewMediaTek chipset usedintheFenix 2, which probably reduced energy usage but sacrificed GPS signal strength.
    The GPS disconnected mid-way during the run!

    The GPS disconnected mid-way during the run!

  3. Poor GPS accuracy: Like the first point, when it worked, it worked. When it didn’t, the GPS track accuracy was very poor, here is an example.
    The trail is the same, but how the watch talks to the satellites is different.

    The trail is the same, but how the watch talks to the satellites is different.

  4. Frequent crashes: The watch crashed on me on the 2nd day of the Sabah Adventure Challenge last year, at that point, I was enduring heat up to 40 degrees and I need the compass on the watch to work; it was a frustrating day.

In preparation for my first 100km race (later this March), I made the decision to sell the Fenix 2 to fund for the purchase of the Suunto Ambit 3 Peak. It was a hard decision to make as I was on the Garmin ecosystem for a long time. But with the failings of the Fenix 2, I grew frustrated with Garmin’s delayed response to fixing the problems of their watches and more so, on releasing watches that have too many bugs in them to begin with.

Suunto Ambit 3 Peak (2014 onwards)

Suunto Ambit3 Peak

It took me a while to adjust to the Ambit3. I thoroughly enjoyed the reliability of the watch and its ease of use. Here are some of the pros and cons of buying and owning the Suunto Ambit3.

Pros:

  • Reliable: Battery life works for weeks on a single charge. It has a standby mode which conserves battery by turning off the screen when no movement is present.
  • Easy to use: The packaging is similar to that of an Apple device, very minimal. Majority of the instructions are presented during the setup on the Movescount Website and iPhone app.
  • Settings and data syncing via phone: The watch is capable of communicating with a Bluetooth enabled smart phone to sync both data and settings both ways. Data from the watch can be uploaded online while the settings can be changed from theMovescount website or app into the watch.This may seem troublesome, but if there was a need to change to another watch or re-flash the firmware, the settings can be re-loaded with ease. Click here to watch a video of how you can change the settings of the watch via the iPhone App.

Cons:

  • Expensive: Be prepared to save up loads of money to get this watch. It’s at least $800 at online retailers and about $1000 at local shops.
  • No vibration alert: I miss the vibration alert feature found on most Garmin watches, as I sometimes listen to music during a run. The alert on the watch is audible, but barely if you have headphones on.
  • Lack of a proper interval feature: The interval features on the Garmin system trumps the Suunto by a large margin. In the Garmin, you can program intervals easily before loading them into the watch. The Suunto has basic interval function which only goes by distance, time, or repetition.
    Garmin-Suunto-Interval

For the most part, the Suunto Ambit3 is 99% similar in its basic functions of GPS tracking and navigation as with the previous model, the Suunto Ambit2. However the Ambit3 uses Bluetooth Smart instead of ANT+ for connectivity and has a bit more features. DC Rainmaker covers it more in-depth here.

 

Recommendations for GPS watches

So if you really want to get yourself a GPS watch, you may want to ask yourself a couple of questions, like

  • Are you going to run often?
  • Are you going to run a distance of at least 10km or more?
  • Will you be willing to learn to understand the data that the GPS watch churns out?
  • Will you be willing to spend that amount of money to have a dedicated device when you can track with your phone as well?

If so, then here are some of my recommendations. Prices are as of what I can find when this post was published.

As usual, please do a little more research before making your first GPS watch purchase. My advice would be to look on the user forums for these watches and see whats the general feedback on the watch or if there are any recurring bugs with the watch that you want to buy.

 

Thanks for reading!

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