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Runner Review: TomTom Runner GPS Watch

About a month ago, I got my hands on the new TomTom Runner GPS Watch.  Now, I had never run with a GPS watch before as I had been exclusively training with the GPS on my phones (using MapMyRun on iPhone 4 and HTC Droid Incredible), but when this watch was announced earlier in the year, it piqued my interests, and when I had the chance to get my hands on it, I had to check it out.

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Why was I eager to make a switch to a watch?  Well, I had become increasingly frustrated with the GPS signals on the phones.  Yes, they are older phones (both approx. 2 years old now), but they either took forever to get a signal or gave inconsistent locations (leading to guess-timations in my training).  Even though I had the ability to upload those workouts directly to MapMyRun, I’d still have to spend 5-10 minutes fixing the maps each time to get a better representation of my workouts.

Another factor was my training.  For my longer runs in May and June, where I was going 8-12 miles, my phone batteries would drain by 40-50%.  Since I’m working on training for a the Thunder Road Marathon in November, that kind of battery life wasn’t going to cut it for race day, or even for the training leading up to the race.

I know lots of fellow runners with an assortment of GPS watches, but what intrigued me about the TomTom watch was a combination of the style and seeing a company that had been in the game for a while (TomTom makes the core of the Nike+ running watches) going out on their own and trying to distinguish themselves.  That said, I had read some preview reviews that indicated it might be a bumpy ride, but I’m often willing to be a bit of a beta tester when I see what appears to be a good product, so here are my thoughts after 16 runs and almost 100 miles over the last month:

The Watch and Accessories

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Unboxing the watch, it came with:

  • watchband
  • GPS unit/watchface
  • USB dock
  • instruction book

All in all, pretty minimal packaging.  You’ll notice that the watch is designed to be separated from the wristband, and that the wristband has an upper “face” and a lower “control block”.  So, where many watches have buttons surrounding the face, the TomTom watch is divided into two portions.

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On my wrists, the unit sits nicely.  The first time or two, it did feel a bit different than a typical watch, with the control block sitting lower, but I’ve grown to find it very comfortable.  The controls are easy to navigate when wearing, and the watchface is always very visible (especially with the backlight at night).

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The watchband is also a good size.  I tend to have larger wrists, and I’ve got a few notches to spare.

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The watchface pops out of the watchband fairly easily, but the dock was a little stiff at first.  Inserting it was a bit of a funny angle, but it’s gotten better with practice.  The angle does make it pretty readable when sitting, but that’s kinda funny because that’s when you least need to see what it is displaying.

The watch also claims to be waterproof up to 50m or 5 atms (but I have yet to expose it to more than sweat) and a 10-hour batter life, which I have only put a minor dent in so far.

The Features

I have to say that I have fairly minimalist needs as a runner.  I like to have the data, but don’t like to spend time setting up goals or compare my runs.  I also have yet to get into heart rate training, so haven’t tried those features.  And I despise treadmills, and haven’t been forced to use one in the last month.

That said, I do love the Laps mode on the watch.  I have set up the watch to alert me every mile, and the vibration is a good marker for me to note my distance and check the watch for my pace.

You can also customize the information that displays on the watchface.  I like mine on the default (time, distance and overall avg. pace) but there are several other measurements to display instead if you prefer.

Yet, the top feature of the watch is the QuickGPSFix technology.  Every time the watch is synced with the computer, it updates the location of the GPS satelites, which allows it to quickly get a location.  On average, it takes about 10 seconds for me to get a GPS fix.  The only time I have had it take longer is when I let it go without syncing for a few days.  So, with just two clicks and a few seconds, I’m ready to go.

Accuracy

Overall, the accuracy of the signal has been very good.  The first time I uploaded a run, I was impressed in how smooth the route on the map looked, as I was used to a more “bumpy” route as my poor phone GPS would jump around.

On my first long run with the watch, I used it in parallel with my phone to see how the two compared.  The end result on a 12+ mile run over 2:24:

  • Phone: 12.50 miles
  • Watch: 12.17 miles

After reviewing the maps, which looked nearly identical from a distance, and mapping the route out manually, the watch was consistently closer to the mapped route.

My big takeaway was that the phone added a whole 0.33 miles to my run.  That’s a gap that is large enough to throw off pacing and training plans, and secured the importance of a standalone GPS unit to my running in my mind.

However, I have noticed that I do occasionally that the watch has some troubles when I’m running among tall buildings in cities.  The signal isn’t terrible, but not quite as pinpoint as I’ve seen elsewhere.  Since this is my first GPS watch, I’m not sure if that’s a consistent problem, but it has had a minimal impact on my overall distance measurements.  And it’s still far better than the phone, where I would completely lose a relevant signal in similar areas.

The Software

If there is an area where this watch struggles, to date is has been with the software.  Initially, I did have some syncing issues with the initial versions of the software, and had one workout that I could not upload to their dashboard and MapMyRun, which I did report in their support forums.  However, in the last month, the watch firmware has been updated once, and the software client has been updated twice, and it is strikingly more consistent.  I get the impression that the TomTom software wasn’t quite ready for primetime when they launched, but they have quickly gotten up to speed and are responding quickly to feedback that is left in their forums.

As for the dashboard, the nice thing for me is that it was built to be integrated with MapMyRun as its backbone, which has allowed me to keep all my workouts in one place still.  However, the TomTom dashboard, which opens in your browser after workouts are synced, I have found to add little value to the TomTom Runner ecosystem.  Yes, it’s launch does confirm that my workout uploaded successfully, but it presents little more than a stripped down and ugly version of what I could view on MapMyRun.

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That’s all you get…

Overall

After a month of using the TomTom Runner GPS Watch, I have to say that it is a great product that I intend to continue using for quite some time.  It’s comfortable, easy to use, fast to find a fix on a GPS signal, and very accurate.  While the software wasn’t great out of the box, it’s grown by leaps and bounds.  However, the dashboard adds absolutely nothing, and I am very thankful that I can just switch over to MapMyRun to view all my workout details without any additional processing.

So, if you’re looking for a watch that is sleek, has great battery life, and fulfills what I consider to be the core needs of the average runner, then the TomTom Runner GPS Watch is a great selection in a growing marketplace, and a solid value at its $169 price point.

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