Running out of excuses
The Apple Watch is looming large on the technology horizon at the moment – we’re mere weeks away from its April launch.
What’s been interesting, if not surprising, is the sudden outcry over what it won’t do, namely monitor your stress and blood pressure (down to hairy arms, apparently).
Apparently we should all be up in arms because Apple was supposed to have made the greatest health device ever to adorn our wrists. I got the chance to check one out in Cupertino, and while it is well made, even slapping it on the wrist of a stupidly chiselled model in running gear couldn’t convince me this was going to be a replacement for a standalone watch.
That’s simply because it doesn’t have the necessary chops to do what runners want: give you the control to find out what’s going on with your weekend trail-pounding.
So is Android Wear, which has been around for nearly a year and has a swelling number of apps (with a handful of dedicated running options from the likes of Strava, Endomondo and RunKeeper) the better option?
In a word: no. The functionality is still very limited and (mostly) requires a phone to work. Those apps are just second screen extensions of what’s on the phone… that’s a nice touch and makes it easier to clock the miles without fumbling for – and inevitably smashing – a phone, I’m not paying over £200 for the privilege.
And I simply don’t understand why a decent running smart watch has been made. The Garmin Forerunner 920XT can show me texts, emails and calls on the go, so why has no company made a brilliant smart watch for exercising?
There are advantages: inbuilt storage means you can play back Bluetooth tunes while running, with touchscreen control letting you skip straight to Bonny Tyler when your gradient nemesis rolls around.
So can a smart watch be a decent running companion? I’ve played with a few of the best on the market at the moment though, and they’re not without their charms…
Sony Smartwatch 3
The big draw with this one is that it has integrated GPS, allowing you to ditch the phone and go properly out into the wild, unencumbered by armbands or a fanny pack / bum bag hybrid.
That’s fine, but there are only two or three apps out there which can actually use the GPS without a phone (admittedly, RunKeeper is one of them) so it’s hard to see how this can currently be seen as a running watch that lets you lose the phone.
It’s more ‘sporty’ in that it’s got a silicon strap, although you can transfer it to a metal frame if you fancy hitting the town and feel a desperate need to show off your early adopter status.
However, unlike the other two Android Wear devices, it doesn’t have an integrated heart rate monitor underneath, and you’ll need to pull the module out of the rubber strap to charge it every day or two… no wireless charging here.
LG G Watch R
The LG G Watch R is designed to look like a more futuristic G Shock timepiece, and given the subtle watch faces you can imbue it with, it largely manages that. It’s certainly the watch I’d plump for if forced to strap on Android Wear.
The ‘health’ abilities come with the inbuilt barometer, which allows you to check altitude while hiking. While I’ve no stats on the amount of hiking geeks in the world today, LG has to be pitching to a pretty minuscule number.
It does use the heart rate monitor well though, with the watch constantly checking in periodically to see how your ticker is getting on… sadly there’s no way to use it as a replacement for a chest strap on a run at the moment, which is odd given headphones with heart rate monitors can be read by Strava, but Android Wear can’t.
It’s a shame there’s no GPS in here – LG told me this was simply to preserve battery, but I suspect design played a part – as that would have made this easily the best running watch out there (as long as you switch out the leather strap).
The Moto 360 is seen as the smartwatch Apple has to beat this year, with its sleeker styling and round screen. But despite making a song and dance about the lovely and vague ‘health abilities’ of Android Wear, I found the Moto 360 to be sub-par as a running watch.
You can do cool things like set custom exercise goals, and the watch will passively work out when you’re doing so (presumably using the accelerometer to know when you’re active) and it will give you your heart rate zones when you’ve hit that goal.
However, like the LG G Watch R, it comes with a leather strap, which means you’ll have to switch in a rubber one to take it out on a weekly trot.
The battery life is a little suspect on this one too – it’s one of the weakest on the Android Wear platform, so perhaps it’s good that this one doesn’t have GPS inside either.
Pebble / Pebble Steel
There is another option out there, and it’s a bit cheaper: for £100 you can get the Pebble, which hosts an e-ink screen for week-long battery life (or £150 for the more grown up looking Steel version).
It can work as a running watch, but only as a very rudimentary second screen: you can’t even start and stop a run, although RunKeeper is available here. As it’s waterproof, it can track your swims as well, and apparently it’s pretty accurate, although I’ve yet to try it.
The Pebble relies on the developer community to come up with the cool stuff, it seems, although some of the bigger names are involved – decent apps like Pebble Runner, which is a more powerful running app for the watch, are created by individuals.
So are smart watches any good for running?
In a word: no. They’re OK, but far from displacing the Garmins and Polars of the world at the moment. They’re too expensive, have too poor battery life and while do have cool things like heart rate monitors built in, there are nowhere near enough apps to make them irresistible.
And trying to work out which model can do what is a veritable nightmare… this one can do GPS, but XYZ doesn’t fully work with it for some reason.
What’s more confusing is that brands could mimic their running watches on this platform as simply as making an app: after all, there’s GPS and heart rate monitors there already, plus inbuilt music playback, so why not make the Sony SmartWatch 3 look like the Adidas SmartRun?
According to the designers of the dedicated running watches, it’s because the platform just isn’t quite ready yet. There are concerns over how much the GPS will destroy the battery, or how much access they can get to the sensors to do precisely what they want.
I’m not giving up on the smartwatch yet though. There’s a lot more growing it can do, especially in the fitness space, so if brands work out how to make them thinner, longer-lasting, cheaper and more sensor rich, the TomTom Cardio on my wrist might suddenly look a little less tempting.
That’s not too much to ask for, right?