Photo credit: Vjeran Pavic/Recode.

Photo credit: Vjeran Pavic/Recode.

Health & Fitness


There has been so much chatter lately about “smart” watches, lightweight activity trackers and fitness apps that it’s easy to forget about another category: GPS sports watches.

Both Garmin and TomTom put out new running watches last year, wagering that serious runners are still looking for features beyond what activity trackers or apps offer.

So my column this week is focused on the TomTom Runner and the Garmin Forerunner 620. I’ve tested the TomTom Runner intermittently for the past few months, while the Garmin Forerunner 620 has been my go-to more recently. (I wouldn’t call myself a hugely competitive runner, for what it’s worth; mobile apps like RunKeeper and Strava Run are often sufficient for my run sessions.)

The Runner costs $170 without a heart-rate strap; throw in the heart-rate monitor and it’s $220. The Forerunner 620 is much pricier, costing $400 without a heart-rate strap and $450 with one.

After testing, it became clear that the feature-packed Forerunner 620 is the more powerful watch.

The TomTom Runner, the company’s first running watch not made in collaboration with Nike, is better suited for consumers who want a less-expensive, simplified running watch.

They share some similarities, including GPS capabilities, a compass and an accelerometer for tracking treadmill runs. They track metrics like your distance, pace and cadence. Each watch gave me one bizarre treadmill reading — the TomTom told me I ran 3.47 miles; the treadmill recorded three — otherwise, their readings were fairly consistent.

Both pair with a heart-rate monitor via Bluetooth, and they’re both water-resistant up to 50 meters, though to be clear, these aren’t swimming- or multisport watches.

Both claim 10 hours of active battery life. Since most of my runs are pretty short — 30 to 40 minutes — the watches would easily go a couple of weeks without needing a charge.

And both watches store data from your most recent runs, so you can go through your immediate history, but also sync wirelessly with mobile apps for quick data uploads. TomTom’s MySports mobile app was released a couple days ago, and only works with iPhone. I haven’t been able to fully assess it yet, but I found Garmin’s data dashboard to be more comprehensive; the Garmin syncs to Android phones, too.

But that’s where most of the similarities end.

The square-faced TomTom Runner stands out because of its slimness. It’s made of mostly-gray plastic, and the watch module pops out from the band for charging and syncing to the desktop.

It has a monochrome, .085-inch by 1.0-inch LCD display — not a touchscreen — and weighs 1.75 ounces. The display is okay, but not great. (Mine had a weird bright spot in the corner.) The right side of the display has a capacitive touch-spot, which cues the backlight.

Below the display is a multidirectional button for toggling through menu options. I found this to be pretty intuitive, and after just a couple runs with the Runner, I got the hang of it.

Some months ago, while running in New York’s Central Park, I had trouble pulling down a GPS signal on the Runner. On my current running route in the Bay Area, I haven’t had significant issues with the GPS signal.

Some key features of the watch are Goals, Laps and Zones. Goals lets you set a goal and then presents your progress in a pie chart as you’re running. Laps lets you preset a time or distance per lap, and Zones allows you to establish a target pace or target heart rate. If you fall below these zones, you’ll get an alert.

One nice feature of the TomTom Runner is that it gives haptic feedback — a nice little vibration — when you’ve hit a mile marker or are halfway through a goal. I much prefer this over the audio alerts from smartphone running apps. (I’m usually right in the middle of a good workout song and getting into the zone, when a robotic voice pipes up to tell me that I’ve hit two miles … at a pace of … 8:37 … per … mile ….)

Garmin, meanwhile, has made so many running watches over the years that it’s easy to get confused, but in short: The Forerunner 620 is the latest, preceded by the Forerunner 610; the Forerunner 220 is a stripped-down, less-expensive version of the 620 (at $250). For this review, I only tested the Forerunner 620.

The 620 has the same large, round face as the 610, with a wide bezel. Despite its size, the plastic 620 weighs less than the TomTom.

Garmin Forerunner 620

Unlike the TomTom Runner, the Forerunner 620 does have a touchscreen color display. The touchscreen is a bit resistive, but this also means you’re not going to mess up your run recording with your shirtsleeve or an erroneous swipe.

There are four physical buttons on the sides of the watch: Time of Day, Backlight, Timer/Start Run, and a Lap button that doubles as a Wi-Fi Connect button. Finally, the face of the watch has a Back arrow on the left side, and a Settings bar on the right side.

While running, you toggle through your various metrics by tapping on the watch face. When not in training mode, the Garmin is a little more complicated to navigate than the TomTom; even something as simple as turning off GPS had me searching through sub-menus at first.

You can install and follow training routines, though you’ll have to tether your watch to your computer to send these from the Web to your 620.

That’s the standard stuff, but what really sets the Forerunner 620 apart? First, when used with a heart-rate monitor, it estimates your body’s maximum oxygen consumption. It also measures your vertical oscillation and your ground-contact time, the amount of time your foot is in contact with the ground (in general, less time is better).

It also has a “recovery advisory” feature that tells you when you need a break. I haven’t seen this advisory yet, which tells you a little bit about how hard I’m really running. Garmin tells me I would need to run at more than 70 percent of my maximum heart rate for a dozen minutes or so before I’d get a recovery check.

As I mentioned, the new-ish category of activity trackers may have an impact on these kinds of sports watches. Even Garmin is getting into that game; at CES, the company showed off its own activity tracker that will work with a heart-rate monitor. Eventually, the two categories might converge.

But, for now, let’s just say the Garmin Forerunner 620 is the souped-up runner’s watch, while the TomTom Runner simply gets the job done.




2 comments
Der_Lizzard
Der_Lizzard

Do you know if these work in cold weather?  I've been using RunKeeper on my iPhone but after 20 minutes in the cold my phone shuts down.  I live in Chicago and it's been sub-freezing (8 to 25 degrees) on every run I've done this year and it's very frustrating to have my phone bonk on me.

LaurenGoode
LaurenGoode

@Der_Lizzard  Hi Der_Lizzard: Good question. The Forerunner is rated to -20 C/-4 F, and the TomTom's limit is the same. I hope this helps!  

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