GPS: app vs watch showdown

30 June 2015, 13:01

This post has been brewing in my mind for possibly longer than anything else I’ve written so far. I’ve been tracking my runs ever since the first Nike+ foot pod came out back in 2006 and my little iPod Nano could suddenly tell me how far I’d run on the gym treadmill. I switched to GPS apps when I restarted running after my bone marrow transplant in 2010, first using Runkeeper for a few years before settling on Runmeter, sharing everything to DailyMile, and recently switching over to Strava.

But there were a few things that bugged me about using my phone to track my runs, and I started to be jealous of my friends’ fancy GPS watches that told them exactly how far they’d been, beeped when they needed to switch up their interval session, and seemed so much more accurate. I was lucky enough to receive one for Christmas last year, and I’ve been running with the watch on pretty much every run for the past six months, including a full marathon, two half marathons, and a handful of shorter races.

Enough people have been asking me how I’m getting on with my watch that I think it’s worth laying out the Pros and Cons of each method, plus what I think will be my ideal solution, even if it’s not quite here yet.

My Garmin FR15
Getting Location…

GPS Watch (specifically, my Garmin FR15)


Pro:

  • I can easily see my current pace any time I want. This is unbelievably useful in races for ensuring I don’t set off too fast, and I’m hitting my target pace.

  • The pace is usually pretty accurate.

  • It integrates with Strava.

  • It integrates with a heart rate monitor chest strap.


Con:

  • It can take forever to find a satellite (15+min about a quarter of the time!), or find it within 10 seconds, and there’s no rhyme or reason or any way to predict which it’ll be.

  • The Auto-Pause feature takes way too long to recognise I’m stopped, so the several seconds of 15min+/km pace really skews my average pace stats.

  • I need a computer with USB to share my run. What year is this again?!?

  • The battery life is pretty poor, considering I’m only going on short (<1hr) runs several times a week. It lasts for a marathon, but not much more.

  • It’s too big and uncomfortable to wear as an everyday watch.

  • At £150, it was a pretty big investment.

Yes, I’m aware there are other brands and models of GPS watches, and that my Forerunner 15 is a fairly low end one. But as my first foray into the format, I didn’t want to spend £££ on a top of the line model in case I didn’t like it, or it was too big or too masculine or indeed still had all of the same Cons as I’ve listed here. I could pay £200 more and get a model that has slightly better ability to find a satellite and has Bluetooth integration, but I’m still left with the other downsides.

My Runmeter app

GPS App (specifically, Runmeter on iOS)


Pro:

  • It tweets/posts/shares when I start a run so anyone can reply and have their message spoken into my ear. AFAIK this is the only app that does this and it’s a killer feature – I cannot stress enough how motivating this is in races.

  • My run can be shared the second I’m done.

  • It integrates with Strava and DailyMile.

  • After the first kilometer, the pace is pretty accurate.

  • It’s very cheap (presuming you’ve already got a phone).

  • It integrates with several heart rate monitor chest straps.


Con:

  • I can only check my pace (via spoken commands) every 1min maximum, though I have it set for every kilometer (~4 or 5min).

  • I have to carry my phone with me, either in an arm strap, pocket, or backpack.

  • It’s difficult to hear notifications in noisy or “no headphones” races.

  • Often the first kilometer is wildly inaccurate (telling me I’ve literally run faster than Mo Farah’s race pace), which skews my average pace for the rest of the run.

  • It requires data for many functions, which limits its usefulness abroad.

Yes, I’m aware there are plenty of apps out there. I’ve even tried a lot of them, but ultimately I feel that Runmeter has more Pros than the other apps, and in general, the Cons are the same for all GPS apps seeings as how they’re all using the same phone chipset. Plus I’ve had over the top fantastic support from the developers there whenever I’ve had issues or questions, which counts for a lot in my book.

As you can see from my lists, neither of these are perfect. But if I could somehow merge the two, and have the features and reliability of the app but with the ability to check my pace on my wrist whenever I want, then I honestly think I could overlook the crazy first kilometer pace (which is likely to be diminished with a better built-in GPS chipset on future iPhones anyway).

Which brings us to the Apple Watch. We’ve got one for testing purposes at my office, and honestly, I’m waiting for Apple to release the next version before I test my theory that this might be my perfect solution. I never, ever buy Rev A hardware, as the first version always has too many bugs to be entirely worthwhile (and besides, I need for Apple to release an updated, smaller phone since my 4S isn’t compatible with the Watch right now anyway), but I think this could be just the solution I’m after. I’ll get all the Pros of my favourite app, but also the Pros of the watch, too. Plus it’s something I can wear when I’m not running, too.

Or at least that’s the theory.

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