Garmin Forerunner 910 XT Sportswatch
19th Sep 2013
A month or two back I reviewed the Garmin Fenix GPS watch which was aimed at runners and outdoors folk (walkers, hunters, fisherman etc). It was great, but had its limitations. The 910 XT is aimed squarely at those wanting to record their activities and is set up specifically for running, cycling and swimming. What it is not, is a watch to wear all of the time, to tell the time, set alarms and so forth, and then turn on to GPS mode when you do some activity. It does tell the time, and you can turn off the GPS, but it's not entirely intuitive.
So let's start from the start. The watch arrived boxed and with some charge so I was able to immediately start playing. It did require some charging to get it up to a full charge, but that's no great shakes. It charges via a USB clamp with two contact points that match up with two recessed ones on the back of the watch. The clamp is easy to fit, and 9 times out of 10 works first time. On occasion you need to remove the clamp, lick the contacts (remembering to remove the usb end from the socket so as to avoid a tingling sensation on your tongue!) and then reconnect. If the contacts are made the display shows a charging indicator. Interestingly the clamp covers the on-off switch which means you can't turn it on and off during charging. Whilst we are on charging let's talk briefly about battery life. There are two data recording modes: Every Second, and Smart Recording. The first is obvious, and what I use, the second records whenever there is a change in data, supposedly lasting longer. To be fair I ran a 6 hour mountain marathon in August and the battery indicator was somewhere just below a half by the end of it so I've not needed to change to Smart Recording yet. I've had no problem with battery life whilst using the thing, but I have been surprised at how quickly it drains if you forget to turn off the GPS after an activity. It always pays to make sure, a few hours before an activity, that it is charged.
What does it look like?
It's black, with as nice flexible rubber strap with plenty, and mean plenty, of adjustment settings. It's designed in such a way that it's pretty eas to almost ratchet it tighter if you need to, a handy feature if you are already on your run and want to do this with minimum fuss. The screen fills most of the front face of the watch meaning that you get plenty of information without having to wear a large computer on your wrist. It's slightly chunkier than your average wrist watch, but comparable to many sports watches - think G-Shock. There are a fair few buttons on it. Top left is the power button - long press to turn on or off., short press gives you a basic summary to tell you what the screen brightness is set to and what devices are connected wirelessly, though frustratingly not including a battery level indicator. Bottom left is the mode button which also acts as a 'back' button though it doesn't say this on the watch. Top right are a pair of arrow buttons for scrolling up and down through the menu systems. Bottom right is an Enter button for making selections. Then on the front face, bottom left is a Lap button and bottom right is the Start / Stop button for activities.
Ease Of Use
Once you turn it on it immediately begins looking for satellites. If you are outdoors I've found it to be pretty quick at locking onto them and you are ready to go within 30 seconds. If you are indoors and want to use the watch, albeit with limited functionality, then you need to press the Enter button to bring up the option to stop it looking for satellites. Frustratingly there doesn't appear to be a way to turn the GPS back on without turning the watch off and back on. Not sure why they didn't make this an easily switchable function given that it is the watch's primary bit of functionality, but it's easily livable with. Once you are locked on and ready to go there are two screens - the status screen and the menu screen; you toggle between the two with the Mode button. First off you need to go into the Mode screen to select your sport and, if you haven't already done so, tweak the settings to suit you (more on this in a minute), before switching to the status screen and you are ready to go. As you start your activity it's a simple job of pressing the Start button and things kick into motion, or rather you kick in to motion and the watch tracks you! When you finish, press the Start button again (counterintuitive I know), and then if you want to save the activity you have to long-press the Lap button (counterintuitive again!), which brings up a message saying that it will reset the activity in 3 seconds. Resetting it actually saves it. Why they can't use sensible terminology and button names I don't know, but once you get used to it it's fine. As you are excercising you can scroll between the various status sub screens which are very customisable to see all manner of information about your activity with the up and down arrows on the right-hand side.
Swimming With It
You can use it for both open water swimming and indoor pool swimming. It will record your distance, pace and stroke count (it's won't record your heart rate). Have not yet had the chance to test this, but will do and will update this review.
The level of customisation is pretty astounding and is where this watch really scores in my mind. First off you can switch between running, biking, swimming and other. You can also set it to multisport for duathlons and triathlons. For the time being lets look at running. Most important for me was to be able to decide which information I want to show on screen whilst running. If you set the sport to running, and then delve into the settings there is a sub menu for run-settings. This is a Pandora's Box of possible permutations and allows you to decide how many screens (remember you can scroll through the chosen number of status screens?), how many fields on each screen, and what those fields are. You can choose from 52 different fields including the obvious ones like speed, time and distance, but also some less obvious like sunrise and sunset (interestingly there is no battery status field). You can set it to autolap, thereby telling you your data for the previous lap/s, auto pause (I find this a little frustrating as I mainly run on the fells and it tends to register me as having stopped when in fact I am walking up steep hills a lot of the time!), set a virtual partner to 'chase', and set up various pieces of additional equipment such as a heart rate monitor (HRM) or footpad (there are options for a power meter, cadence meter and speed gauge in the bike settings). Unfortunately it's only possible to set up a single user profile which is a shame as I share the watch with my wife. Setting the user profile to my statistics (height, weight etc) then allows the watch to calculate the energy I;ve used whilst excercising and even measure the training effect.
Being a Bit More Interactive With It
As I've already mentioned it's possible to pair the watch with a number of Ant+ devices including: HRM, Foot Pod, Cadence Meter, Power Meter, Weigh Scale. It has scope for setting intervals, a virtual partner, alerts to let you know when you have dropped below or moved above a certain parameter (speed, pace HR etc). You can upload a course from Garmin Connect and then follow it with the very basic on-board map (note that this is not a map as such, but a screen with a trace of your route. As such it's possible to use it to navigate whilst walking and perhaps running, but not really whilst cycling). One of the quirky features is the virtual racer. You can choose an activity you have already done or upload a course as described above, and then 'race' yourself against it.
Other Bits And Pieces
It has a compass, though only when using the 'map'. There's a useful 'Return To Start function, handy for when you get lost in the woods! There's also the ability to record a location, say a nice spot you want to return to one day but would never find otherwise. There's a countdown timer which you can customise to your own time, handy if you want to start an activity 30 seconds before the actual start so you don't have to worry about remembering to press start in the rush when the whistle goes. It has the facility to record multi sports in the same session, useful for duathlons and triathlons. You can switch manually whilst in the middle of an excercise or you can select Auto Multisport and simply press the Lap button at the end of each segment and transition. Minor quibble is that it can't really be used as a general watch to tell the time whilst not excercising as the time of day is a small data field on the main menu screen. Slightly irritating that it doesn't come with a manual as I do still like to sit down with one and read all about a device. Still, it's available online here.
Getting the data off the watch onto a computer is straightforward, but at the same time frustrating. It is done wirelessly using an Ant+ USB dongle that comes suplied with the watch. The dongle is tiny and doesn't take up any space in your computer assuming you have a spare USB slot, but it is the only way of transferring data so if you lose it or it stops working you are up a creek. Why they haven't added the ability to transfer data via the supplied USB charging cable too I don't know, but on more than one occasion I have been away from my computer and unable to transfer things until I returned home to within 3m of the Ant+ dongle. It also irritates me that this forces you to have to install some additional software onto the computer which defaults to launching itself when you start up your computer and then spends virtually its entire life searching for a device to pair with when the reality is that I am likely to be pairing them perhaps 3 times a week for about 2 minutes each time. In a nutshell, it works, but it works slowly and is very limiting. I transfer data directly into Strava which fortunately supports the device, but have also used Garmin Connect.
In summary it's a very thoroughly thought out piece of kit with some clunky menu navigation which takes a little getting used to, but that essentially does the job very well. Retails at £359.99. If you are after a dedicated cycling device the Garmin Edge 810 does a much better job with full colour maps. I reviewed this here.