Thursday, July 24, 2014

Garmin ForeRunner 610, 310xt, and Fenix 2 Comparison

As I mentioned previously, I love gadgets. A lot of folks from my generation are subject to this affliction, but I got the double whammy because of a genetic predisposition towards the same. My Grandfather was every bit the gadget collector in his time.

When it comes to running, the main electronic hub is a GPS watch. When I started out, I did some research, and as I often do, I overreached a bit and got what was (supposedly) the best of the best, the Garmin fenix 2. After some concerns about it's GPS accuracy, confirmed by many similar experiences documented on the Garmin forums, I decided to hit up ebay for an older watch, the Garmin ForeRunner 610. Don't let the price on Garmin's site fool you. I was able to get a new one for quite a bit less than half of the MSRP. I chose the 610 because of the research done by this guy. Seriously, that fellow's work on the topic of GPS accuracy was amazing. I should have stopped there, but as I said in my previous post, there are a few features of the 310xt (a contemporary of, and thus having similar GPS accuracy to the 610) that I was interested in, so on a whim one day, I grabbed one of those from ebay as well.

If you want amazingly detailed reviews of these devices, head on over to dcrainmaker.com (best running/cycling, swimming gadget site... period). What I'll do here is focus on the things that mattered to me.

Usability

The fenix 2 wins here, no question. Perhaps it's just the fact that it's newer, but Garmin nailed the usability on this device. Everything works intuitively. The button layout and menus is exactly what you expect. Starting, stopping, and configuring activities is very natural. The screen contrast and DPI (clarity) is terrific; no jagged edges on numbers or letters in this device. That's not to say the 610 and 310xt are terrible, but they're definitely different. The 610 is a touchscreen device, and that works decently, but I'm not sure touchscreen is really necessary for an athletic context. I usually just end up making a mess of my screen with my sweaty fingers by the end of every activity and then end up having to clean it. Still, it works and it's a bit lighter than the fenix and definitely smaller, so it doesn't scream, "Look at me! I'm a funky running watch!" The 310xt, like the fenix 2 is all buttons, but it's not as intuitive. Not terrible, just not great. It's also purely an "activity" watch. You literally need to turn it off after each activity or it will stay on and constantly try to find satellites and other connected devices, running the batter down pretty quickly. The fenix and 610 can both be in "watch" mode when not in an activity, however the fenix is nice in that being in an activity or not is an active choice, whereas with the 610 you don't have a choice. If you unlock it our of watch mode, you go to activity mode (i.e. searching for satellites and connected devices) automatically.  

GPS Accuracy

I've already kind of covered this, but to reiterate, the 610 and 310xt beat the fenix hands down in this category. The fenix get's a satellite lock more quickly, due to caching, but unless conditions are good (little tree cover and few tall buildings), it does a very mediocre job of tracking your position.  This is critically important as many of the metrics that the watch records are based off of that GPS position: distance and pace (unless using a footpod) are the two most important ones. When I've work the 610 and 310xt together and then compared the tracks, they never completely align so I can't really tell which is the more accurate, however they are both more than close enough to give pretty good measurements for pace and distance.

Footpod

A footpod is a device you can attach to your shoe to track a few things like cadence and it can be used to measure pace and in some cases distance. Fort what it's worth, the fenix has some of the same sensors as a footpod built into and supposedly can track cadence even without a footpod. I can't attest to the accuracy of it's measurements thuough. For the most part, i'd like to rely on the GPS for final activity measurements, but for real time pace the footpod tends to do a little better job. GPS readings work out well when strung together to make a track, but individual readings are usually only within a 15-25 ft range so second to second pace readings can bob up and down a little too much for comfort. The footpod, especially when calibrated provides much more steady readings. 

The 610 and 310xt both have the ability to use the footpod for "current" pace readings while leaving all of the other measurements to the GPS. This is great; exactly what I'm looking for. The fenix isn't quite as cut and dry though. When the footpod is setup to record pace, it seems to use that pace for other metrics in addition to the current pace. Not ideal. Then there's the fact that the 610 and 310 show the current pace identically when connected to the footpod but the fenix always shows a different number (yes I DID wear all three once to make this comparison, and yes, I did look pretty funny with three watches on one arm). Sometimes the number is lower and sometimes it's higher. 

Looks

As long as you're not a petite person, the fenix looks great and coiuld probably be used as a walking around watch; It's got a rugged black metallic vibe. The 610 is small and also could easily be worn for normal use, but it's definitely got a plastic look and feel. The 310xt doesn't have a watch mode, so it's not for normal day-to-day use. It's also the least watch-like of the three. That's no big deal if you're using it for it's intended purpose, but I'm sure there are some folks who just won't like the large, orange styling of the device. 

Misc

In most other respects the devices were either identical or close enough not to matter to me, but there are a few other items to keep in mind:

The 310XT has much larger display than the other two, although the excellent layout and clarity of the fenix almost negates this advantage. The 610 is certainly readable and usable, but the 310xt gets the edge here. 

The 310xt also has a "course" mode, meaning you can upload a path and then use the GPS features to keep you on that path. This is a great feature if you find yourself running in unfamiliar or frequently changing environments, but if you have a couple of regular routes, then this obviously won't matter. The fenix can do this as well. The 610 doesn't have this feature, despite having the necessary sensors, screen, and processing power to do it. Too bad... 

The fenix has a huge number of other miscellaneous features that aren't on the 310xt and 610. Remember that it's currently Garmin's top of the line device. It does a million things and if any of those things are important to you, then their absence on the 610 and 310xt will clearly rule them out, but as far as running goes, those two older devices have all of the important bases covered. 

Conclusion

The 310xt is almost a slam dunk for me. Why "almost"? Well, I did run across one bug, and really, there's no other way to describe it except "bug". For details, I'd encourage you to read my Garmin forum post on the topic, but the bottom line is that the "current pace" feature that I've mentioned several times above doesn't work correctly when using the device's "workout" feature. A workout is a preplanned set of steps. For instance: Step 1) warmup for 3 minutes, step 2) run for 30 minutes at pace xxx, step 3) recovery run  for 5 minutes. There are many different ways to setup the steps including distance, heart rate, etc. For whatever reason, when using this feature, the current pace feature doesn't actually give "current" pace. It gives some kind of average pace that I haven't been able to pin down yet. It's bizarre. The 610 does not have this problem. I am extremely annoyed by this as I use the workout functionality regularly and I am such a new runner that I'm still learning how to maintain a steady pace and the current pace metric is an important aide to that goal. 

I've been working around this bug by using the "alert" feature instead of workouts for now. I can set an alert based on time which I can use to emulate that middle step I mentioned above. It's far from perfect but it's OK. If I can't get this figured out in the long run, I may end up heading back to the 610 which would be disappointing as a like the larger screen and course feature of the 310xt. We'll see.

The other conclusion I've come to is that I'm going to keep an eye on some of the non-garmin products out there. Garmin used to absolutely own this segment, but Polar and Ambit are making some pretty strong headway (especially Ambit). Their current top-of-the-line devices do not appear to suffer from the GPS issues that plague the fenix. 

On this last note, let me just state for the record how ripped off I felt when I ran into the GPS accuracy problems on the fenix. That was a VERY expensive device. Sure, it's probably "good enough" for people running streets with at least decent sky visibility but in anything less than good conditions, including trail running which I deeply enjoy, it's nowhere near acceptable for a premiere device, especially when their previous generation devices all work perfectly fine in those less than ideal conditions.