I have tracked my running and cycling distances for years as a useful input into my training plans.
Looking back, it has been an interesting journey from paper to the point where I now run with (what feels like) a supercomputer on my wrist.
In the old days, I used to estimate how far I had run, based on my time and an average pace. Unsurprisingly, if I measured the route later with gmap-pedometer, my guesstimated distance was often well out.
When I upgraded my heart rate monitor, I bought a Garmin FR-60, which uses an accelerometer in a foot pod to measure cadence, stride and distance. This was surprisingly accurate, especially when calibrated: on a typical flat run of 10 – 15km, it was often out by no more than 100 – 200 metres. Hilly courses, where my stride varied, would cause inaccuracies, as would longer runs where I tired, and my stride changed.
The only real downside of the FR-60 (apart from the below-par strap design) was the lack of GPS features, which meant I had no record of the route I took, and also had to carry a separate GPS device for navigation on trail runs and bush walks. I never bothered using the GPS on my Samsung Galaxy S, as the GPS was completely unreliable, with a known hardware lag bug and poor performance in any built-up or forested area. When I got the Samsung Galaxy S3, which has an excellent GPS, I evaluated a range of running apps, including Strava, RunKeeper, My Tracks and MapMyRun before finally settling on Endomondo (the pros and cons of those various apps and their accompanying websites is a blog post for another day).
Running with a phone for GPS mapping has a lot of problems: where do you carry it (especially when it’s as big as the Galaxy S3)? I used a small running waist bag, but whenever I wanted to pause the run or check the course, pace or distance, I had to fish it out of the bag. The bag wasn’t waterproof, so I had to also keep the phone in a ziplock bag to ensure it didn’t die in the rain. Combined with the phone’s screen lock, it all became a massive pain in the proverbial. I considered other options, such as an armband holder, but I was not convinced that I would find a phone the size of the S3 comfortable strapped to my arm for long distances.
The combination of (a) my bike computer dying, (b) a long run in the rain, trying to keep my phone dry, and (c) the release of the Garmin fenix ABC watch prompted me to look at moving to a GPS watch for running, cycling and bushwalking.
Having mapped out my requirements for a watch that had GPS, heart rate, long battery life (12+ hours), and decent support for running and cycling, the list of potential watches was whittled down to three candidates:
All three are excellent watches, with different strengths and weaknesses. Having done a lot of research online, I wanted to actually test how comfortable the units were to wear before making a final decision. The staff at Highly Tuned Athletes were really helpful; I was able to check out all three units and settled on the
DC Rainmaker has exceptionally in-depth reviews of the fenix and Ambit that are well worth reading. This is particularly important if you are looking for a watch that is primarily for running or cycling, rather than an all-rounder GPS/ABC watch, as both the fenix and Ambit have a number of limitations.
After two weeks of use and two firmware upgrades (v2.60 and v2.70), I am reasonably happy and getting happier with each firmware release…
- The watch is well made and very comfortable for running, cycling and walking.
- The overall set of features is a good compromise if you want a watch with long battery life for bushwalks, trail runs and long bike rides.
- The watch is waterproof to 50 metres and happily survives runs and rides in the rain.
- The watch is highly configurable and the ability to modify all of the settings on the watch is excellent. The Ambit requires a PC application for configuration, which is not very useful when you need to make a change out in the field.
- The watch mounts as a standard USB mass storage device on Windows, Mac and Linux, allowing me to access FIT and GPX files directly, without having to rely on Garmin Basecamp or Connect. The Ambit requires OS-specific device drivers, with no Linux support.
- The GPS features are excellent, even if it does take anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes to actually get a GPS lock in the first place.
- Garmin are very responsive with bug fixes and new features, but they have to be! See the dislikes below…
- The GPS takes minutes to lock onto satellites. The Ambit doesn’t have this problem, but it does have a large, ungainly antenna “lug” on the strap.
- The firmware is buggy but slowly getting better as Garmin continues to roll out fixes and some new features. It’s fair to say that they released the watch with beta firmware that we are testing. Hopefully in a couple of more releases, the remaining bugs and missing features will be sorted. Hopefully!
- Before v2.70 firmware, I needed both Garmin Basecamp and Garmin Connect to get all of the features I needed to upload data from the watch, download courses or waypoints. Support for Garmin Connect is getting better.
- There is no support for the foot pod, so no cadence measurements. The watch is ANT+ compliant and works with other ANT+ devices, such as the tempe temperature sensor, so this should just be a firmware change.
- A number of really useful running features from the FR-60 and other Forerunner watches are missing, such as Virtual Partner.
- The manual is appalling in terms of both structure and detail. If you’ve used Garmin products in the past, you know what I mean. There is a massive thread about the fenix on watchuseek which has proven to be a useful resource for understanding the various features, quirks and bugs.
- No ANT+ or Bluetooth connectivity to a PC. To download data, you have to connect the USB cable to the watch. My FR-60 had wireless (ANT+) data connectivity, and it worked well with Garmin Connect. Again, hopefully just another firmware change!
- I still haven’t figured out the quirks of the altitude sensor.