When I saw that Garmin had a new triathlon watch on the way that included an SDK, I thought “hey, that might make a neat upgrade” and ordered one. Unfortunately, production delays dragged the release date out, so I ended up canceling my original order and reordering. I got the new watch about two weeks ago and have been putting it through its paces since. I’ve used it on the bike indoors and out, for outdoor runs, and while weightlifting. It’s also an activity tracker that tracks steps and sleep and uses that data to estimate calorie burn. Here are a few of my thoughts based on my experience so far.
First, IMHO it is ugly compared to the Suunto. That’s partly a result of the white/red color scheme but also because there are lots of little 1970s-style touches (the GARMIN logo, the little red pinstripes around the bezel) that don’t need to be there. It is substantially smaller than the Garmin 910t and about the same thickness as the Suunto. The band is comfortable enough for daily wear.
Side by side, I prefer the appearance of the Suunto.
Setup was very straightforward. I signed up for a Garmin Connect account, plugged in the watch, and that was about it. Suunto requires that you set up most aspects of its watches (including which activity types will be available on the watch) using their web site. This is very flexible, and generally easier than punching buttons on the watch, but it means that you can’t customize anything on the watch itself— a drawback if you get to a race and notice “oops, I forgot to enable open water swim mode” (which I’ve done!)
As typical, the first thing I did with the watch was play with all the settings. For example, at first I thought I’d want the “auto scroll” option on so that the watch would flip through all available data pages. It turns out that auto scroll means whenever I looked at the watch, it was likely to be showing me anything other than the data items I was most interested in at that point in time, so I turned it back off.
A few things I particularly liked:
- Garmin’s Connect web site is much more attractive and more useful than Suunto’s. I love seeing weather conditions recorded along with my workout. (Take a look at this workout as an example).
- Being able to set a target pace, then have the watch buzz / beep any time I deviated from it, is a great help. I’m still not quite sure at what interval the watch checks pace.
- Wireless sync via wifi is brilliant. I was on the street corner outside my house, walking back in, and the watch buzzed to tell me it had uploaded my workout.
- It was trivial to pair the watch with my bike sensors, my HRM band, and the TrainerRelay feature in TrainerRoad.
- GPS acquisition seems just as fast as the Ambit 2s, which is noteworthy for its fast sync.
The watch has a few drawbacks, too. I don’t have a phone that works with the 920xt’s Bluetooth features, which means I don’t get notifications on my wrist, can’t use live tracking, and so on. The chances that Garmin will support Windows Phone are just about nil, so I have to decide if I am willing to switch to a supported platform if I want to have these features. The jury is still out; there are lots of things I prefer about WP compared to iOS, and I am loath to give them up just to have wrist notifications. I suppose that’s not the watch’s fault though, especially since the Ambit 2s lacks those features altogether.
Another annoyance: you can’t customize the data fields in the same way that you can with the Suunto. There I was able to set up a custom screen that had exactly the data fields I wanted, no more and no less. On the 920xt it looks like you can enable individual data pages, but you can’t customize the fields that appear in those pages. For example, when cycling I want a page that shows current speed, current cadence, and total distance. The 920xt has all that data, but not in a single page.
There are some things I don’t understand about creating workouts in Garmin Connect and sending them to the watch, too. It looks like the workflow is to log in to GC, create the workout, then plug your watch in for USB sync. When I do this, sometimes I get the workout on the watch and sometimes I don’t. This may be a watch problem, a Mac sync connector problem, a GC problem, or some combination thereof. I haven’t done it enough yet to have a really solid repro case.
The social features of Garmin Connect are poor, too. In fairness they are no worse than Suunto’s, but compared to the features in Strava, MapMyRun, RunKeeper, and Fitocracy, they stink. It’s hard to find friends, to name just one flaw. I’d love to see them fix this in a near-term update.
A few tips for things that were not obvious to me at first:
- You turn the backlight on by pressing the power button. By default, it shuts back off after 8 seconds. This is adjustable: go to Settings > System > Backlight and you can change the delay. The Ambit 2s had a lock button that you could use to lock the light on; there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent.
- On the Suunto, you define a multisport activity on the web site, load it to the watch, and transition between activities. You can do that on the Garmin as well, but you can also just switch modes on the watch— so you can go from weightlifting to running to open water swim to cycling all within a single activity. The Garmin Connect web site still seems to have some issues dealing with multi-activity files, or it’s possible that I have something set up wrong.
- The activity monitor knows when you’re moving your body, but it doesn’t know when you’re unable to move, e.g. sitting in a car in traffic, so it will buzz you anyway. Such is life.
Overall I’m delighted with the watch so far. Garmin has been the gold standard for multi-sport watches and I expect that, as I learn to use it, I’ll get more useful training data from it. The ability to easily do intervals and to track my pace are already making a different. Bring on race season!