First of all, I am still alive. It has been a long time since I posted, mostly because the pandemic wrecked havoc on my running and health motivations. I haven’t been completely run free, and have even had a few bursts of fitness, but I have not been consistent beyond a few months at a time. My racing has gone to crap and I’ve gained a lot of weight and a few bad habits. I’m resolving to run and write more this year!
Eighteen months ago, after nearly two decades using Garmin (Garmin 305!), I made the switch to Apple Watch 7 (my last Garmin was the Forerunner 245). I’d grown frustrated with the software and several glitches that resulted in lost runs. The reviews for later versions of AW were getting better and better with each iteration. Also, as an Apple Fan Boy, I felt it was my duty to try it out.
Before I get to my review of the AW7, a big caveat. If you are not an iPhone user and do not intend to become one, you can stop reading now. The Apple Watch, currently, must pair with an iPhone. I’m going to present this review as a list of things I like, a list of things I do not like, and whether I believe Garmin’s new watches (Forerunner 265 and Forerunner 965) or the Apple Watch Ultra address them. Also, I am not considering non Apple and Garmin watches. Let’s start with the positives of AW7.
- If you care more about smart watch usage than sports usage, any of the Apple Watch options are a no brainer.
- The Apple Watch app ecosystem is amazing, both for alternatives to the built in Workout app and also for general smart phone usage.
- If you want rich integration with Apple Health and its connected apps, this is a great option.
- Apple Pay on the watch is extremely easy to use.
- The screen is beautiful and, when not running, very easy to interact with.
- The option to not carry a phone but still call and text can be very convenient, but does have its limitations (more on this below).
- Apple provides many more heart related features than Garmin. As this is a blog written by a post-CABG runner, this matters.
- The built in Workout app appears to be very accurate in the pool.
The Less than Good
Touch Screen vs Buttons
The lack of physical buttons is an issue. It is problematic with gloves, and is worse when very sweaty. This hasn’t been a huge issue for me during last few years because I’ve done fewer hard workouts/long runs than I previously did, including interval workouts where I’d prefer to interact with the watch more, as I am not a fan of preloaded workouts. During the summer, there are times when I cannot operate the watch because my hands are too sweaty (note that this only matters for manual lap creation, swiping left and right, and saving a workout after pausing, which can be done after hands have been dried).
Built in Workout App
I do not like the built in app for running (it works really well for swimming). I paid for iSmoothRun, which is remarkably Garmin like, but to get the full use of it you need to pay a monthly subscription, which I have not done. The biggest issue with the built in app is how you start workouts. Once you enter the app, it counts down from three and starts. It does not tell you if you have GPS/HRM lock. This is really problematic for anyone racing. Nothing about this makes any sense for runners. I actually like the count down timer for the pool, as it forces me to jump in instead of lingering because the water isn’t perfect and I’m less concerned with precise timing in the pool.
Accuracy (GPS & HRM)
Related to the above, I do not believe the GPS and HRM are as accurate as Garmin. The GPS issues are likely two fold: the watch does not tell you when you have GPS lock and also most of my runs are with a phone, which impacts accuracy (see below), but the net result is less accuracy. The HRM issue is likely because it does not indicate HRM lock before you begin. This manifests itself in runs that begin with wildly inaccurate GPS (usually too fast) and HR (my runs will start with a HR that is approximately 40 beats too high).
Interaction with Phone
The interaction with the phone is a big deal breaker for me. What does this mean?
When the watch and the phone are connected to each other, the watch will use the phone’s GPS, which isn’t as accurate as the watch’s. This is a huge deal. I can disable bluetooth and wifi to break this connection, which will continue to allow me to use the camera, but it prevents me from using the phone for music, forcing me to use a buggy Spotify or Apple Music on the watch.
Part of the beauty of the Apple Watch is theoretically not having a phone. However, I have the following reasons for wanting to have a phone:
I prefer to listen to music through my phone as the options are better. Spotify on the watch is very buggy and I do not want to be limited to Apple Music.
If I’m driving to a run, I need the phone to listen to music in my car, as the watch will not pair with a car. As I live in an area famous for car break-ins, I cannot leave my phone in the car.
I really want to have a camera for runs beyond local streets, including during races.
As a person with health concerns, there is a feeling of comfort of having a more complete communications device, including the ability to get an Uber from wherever I am.
Apple Find My Notifications
The Apple Watch has a fancy feature where it will tell you if you’ve left your phone behind (and will exclude your home if you want it to remember that location). However, I noticed recently that a) it did not alert me when I left it in the car and b) it will alert me when I’m in the pool and my phone is 20 feet away. This is distracting because I then have to worry if it is because of water or because someone has stolen my bag from my lane. I’ve also recently had the watch alert me that I’ve left my headphones behind despite them being in my ear and playing music from my watch (which I do on occasion-shorter runs when I will not need the phone).
Apple is not very good with open information. There are apps that will export data to other data sources, but it has been best for me to use iSmoothRun to export to Garmin Connect, which then subsequently exports to all other places I want to see my data. This doesn’t work for swims and bikes, however, as I use the built in app. Using a Garmin automatically exports to all the sites I use, without having to jump through the hoops I must use with my AW7. There are workarounds for all cases, but it isn’t as seamless as Garmin.
Which Watch to Buy Next?
For starters, I know the Apple Watch 8 will not solve any of my above issues. Which leaves the question: do the new Forerunners (265 & 965) and/or the Apple Watch Ultra solve them?
|Issue||Does Garmin Solve?||Does AW Ultra Solve?|
|Touch Screen vs Buttons||Yes. Garmin allows for disabling touch screen during a workout and is completely operable with buttons||Theoretically the addition of the Action Button allows for operation without using touch screen, which can also be locked.|
|Built in Workout App||Yes, Garmin’s app for running is very good.||AW Ultra solves this with a feature that should be available on all watches called Precision Start.|
|Accuracy (GPS & HRM)||Yes||Yes|
|Interaction with Phone||Yes||TBD|
|Apple Find My Notifications||Yes||TBD|
|Information Sharing/Openness||Yes||Ish. One can export Workout data to Garmin Connect using yet another app called RunGap, which subsequently pushes elsewhere.|
What do the new Garmins offer that the Apple Watch Ultra does not?
Better Battery Life. This manifests itself in two ways: how long you can exercise with the watch and how long you can wear it without recharging.
To address one thing with battery life, the AW Ultra is misnamed. For anything longer than 12 hours, this watch will not cut it. This means anyone competing in long distance ultramarathons or Iron Distance Triathlons likely needs a Garmin (or other) solution.
If you have a problem charging your watch with similar frequency to your phone, this will be a problem.
Built in Analytics. Garmin appears to provide more out of the box information to analyze runs and recovery. This should not be confused with information that is gathered and can be reported on during a run, which I believe are close enough (at least for my purposes). Also, it is possible to use other, 3rd party tools, to get similar level of analysis on the Apple Watch.
One thing I have noticed in many reviews of Apple Watch Ultra is that reviewers indicate that the watch is not meant for serious endurance athletes. To this, I call bullshit. Most reviews indicate that the sensors of Apple are at least on par with Garmin, and this is what matters most. To think that a watch that provides information that was not available on any watch a few years ago, and most likely most runners do not really need or even use, is not sufficient for serious athletes, is a huge stretch. Further, there are tools to provide deeper analysis.
Integration with a Bike. This is not currently an issue for me, but I believe integration with existing bike computers and power meters is less than stellar for AW Ultra.
Built in Offline Mapping. Garmin offers better built in mapping. I do not use mapping, so I’m not hugely concerned with this, and there are 3rd party tools (WorkOutDoors comes to mind) that will do this on the Ultra.
Importing Workouts. This is not an issue for me as I do not like using preset workouts on the watch, but Garmin offers the ability to import workouts from something like Training Peaks, which is important for some.
So, Which Watch is it?
To answer the question at the top of this section, I have decided to go with the Apple Watch Ultra and use it for the two week period during which I can still return the watch. I will provide a review regardless of whether I keep it or not!