Training Tuesday: Upgrading to the Garmin Forerunner 920xt

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.

Paul robichaux net 20141214 001

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!

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “Training Tuesday: Upgrading to the Garmin Forerunner 920xt

  1. Tom M

    Great blog post on the 920XT, Paul! Thanks for your thoughts. I returned my 620XT yesterday and ordered the 920XT to replace it.
    Some thoughts as I read:
    I’d be very surprised and very disappointed if you cannot customize the fields available on each screen. I’ve done that on my Forerunner 305s and on my 620XT as well. This includes both the running screen, the custom screens, and the cycling screen. Your example is exactly what I do on cycling mode; current speed, cadence, and overall distance.
    As far as the pace, it samples every 5 seconds by default. One tip that I found somewhere, that I really like, is to turn off the instantaneous pace. Turn on auto-lap at 1 mile, and use lap pace instead. That makes you less susceptible to running 12:00/mi pace, then looking down and running 9:00/mi pace because you had a short downhill, etc. It will vary slightly for the first little bit after each mile, but after that it will tell you, “What is my pace for THIS mile?” which I feel is much more useful than, “What is my pace during this 5-second interval?”
    I, too, don’t have an iPhone or an Android phone, and thought about how I was going to deal with that. Well, I have an iPad! So I can couple my watch with the iPad and as long as I’m within range I’ll get email notifications and such. I won’t get live workout sharing, which is a bummer. It will give me the email notifications, which I’ve come to really like on my Microsoft Band. I know, not as cool as our fan clubs knowing our SWOLF score for the second 500 yd interval down at the YMCA pool, but it’s something!
    I also am addicted to using the pace buzzer. I do HIIT and tempo runs on the trails, and it’s safer to pay attention to the terrain and obstacles rather than staring at my wrist. For some reason in five years I still can’t tell the difference between the “speed up” jingle and the “slow down” jingle.
    Have you used the heart rate strap? I really like how it gives you a color-coded performance chart & goal for vertical oscillation, steps per minute, and dwell time.
    Can’t wait to find out how it performs against the Garmin Swim. I love the Garmin Swim but I find that its black-on-grey display is difficult to read during the flip turn. Lose too many goggles to invest in a prescription pair!
    Thanks again for a great write-up of your initial experience. I’ll be waiting at the mailbox for mine to arrive!

    • robichaux

      Thanks for the detailed reply, Tom. You’re 100% right: you can customize fields directly on the watch, so I did. I’ll have to experiment to find the layout that works best for me.

      I have auto-lap turned on because my normal workouts are to run 1 mile at X pace, then 1 mile at Y pace, then… and so on. I’ll try the lap pace setting as you suggest.

      Since Garmin just released a WP app to control VIRB action cameras, I’m hopeful that we might see a Garmin Connect Mobile app someday. Hope springs eternal, etc. I would really, really like to have notifications, which were the only feature from my Pebble that I consistently used back in my iOS days.

      I use a Scosche RHYTHYM+ for HR, which I looooooove: comfortable, accurate, and comfortable. I didn’t think the running dynamics metrics would be worth $50 to me, given that I am not such a fantastic runner anyway.

  2. nice review. thank you for your thoughts. what would you change on it if you could?

    • robichaux

      I really like the size, look, and industrial design of the Fenix3, but I miss having the extra shortcut button from the 920. If anything, I think I’d change the 920’s cosmetics by removing the pinstripe and faux-carbon background, and perhaps ship it with a less flamboyant set of band options, but the basic functionality is really solid.

  3. Ezra Jordan

    I am thinking about purchasing the 920. I have the Garmin 810, 220 and Garmin Swim. It is hard to justify the purchase, but I want to have the data in the open water. I am in my 2nd Tri season and I love the sport. Any thoughts on my decision to buy the 920 considering I have the 3 other Garmins?

    • robichaux

      Everyone I know who has a Garmin Swim looooooves it. Personally, I prefer having a single device that tracks everything.

  4. Thank you for the review. What information/stats was available to you during weight lifting?

    • robichaux

      Very little– it can measure heart rate, and (unless you turn the GPS off in the activity) it can measure me wandering around the gym, but that’s it. There are a couple of other wearables, such as the Atlas, that claim to track weightlifting reps and sets but I haven’t tested any of them.

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