Tech Buzz: New Wearable Tech From Garmin, Fitbit And Polar

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Garmin Forerunner 935, $500+ 

Garmin recently announced two new products focused on serious runners and multi-sport athletes: the Forerunner 935 GPS and heart rate (HR) watch, available in limited quantities in April, and the Run Dynamics Pod, available now.

The GPS Forerunner 935 includes all of the interface, training and hardware features found in the Garmin Fenix 5, 5S and 5X, except for the detailed on-watch maps and turn-by-turn directions of the 5X. The Forerunner 935 holds all of these features in a very light 49-gram watch. Its light weight is achieved by swapping the stainless steel bezel of the Fenix 5 series for a fiber reinforced polymer one, reducing weight by almost 40 grams. The difference in comfort is noticeable, but as an everyday lifestyle timepiece, the look says training watch when compared to the Fenix 5’s rugged elegance. It is also 12 grams lighter than the older style triathlon focused 920 XT ($450).

The 935 matches the 24-hour GPS/HR tracking battery life of the heavier Fenix 5. It includes a barometric altimeter, which the only 9 grams lighter 735 XT ($450) does not have. This enables a multitude of vertical focused features, including course elevation profiles if you have preloaded a route to follow. It has a vast array of easily configurable data fields—we counted over 200 options. Plus, Connect IQ downloadable apps will leave the data focused runner with everything they could want.

Smartwatch features include phone notifications, sleep and activity tracking, and music controls. It has easily customizable watch faces, identical to those on the Fenix 5, which can include data snapshots like battery life, elevation, date, and more.

We have been fortunate to test the 935 side-by-side with the Fenix 5X. On small wrists, the 935 is noticeably more comfortable and lighter. Heart rate sensors in the wrist can cause the “pendular effect,” a phenomenon where the watch weight and the shape as it fits on wrists, combined with the layout of the sensors, can cause inaccurate spikes for some runners. The weight of the watch on a smaller wrist can confuse the sensing of the motion of your arms and cadence with the heart rate sensing. From a HR sensing reliability standpoint, the 935 has had no high HR spikes in our testing, unlike most other watches, including the Fenix 5X.

We did, however, notice a discrepancy in the “distance to finish” feature on two navigation screens when using a preloaded course. When runners venture “off course,” then back “on course” on the preloaded course, the distance is not always accurate. A fix has been identified and will be in an update soon.

GPS accuracy is excellent. The screen, which is the same resolution as the highest end Fenix 5X, is visible in all light conditions.

The 935 is an outstanding choice for triathletes, ultra runners, and any serious runner seeking a lightweight, full-featured training system.

RELATED: These Are The Best Watches For Every Runner’s Budget

 

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Garmin Running Dynamics Pod, $70

The new Running Dynamics Pod is a welcome alternative to the Run Dynamics Heart Rate strap. It makes total sense, as most Garmin watches now include the excellent Elevate wrist heart rate sensing. Few runners need those uncomfortable chest straps anymore.

The Run Dynamics Pod is tiny and securely clips to your shorts in the middle of your back. It seamlessly connects to the Fenix 5 series watches, 935, and 735 XT, weighs less than 0.5 ounces and has up to a year of battery life (replaceable). If anything, it is so small there is a worry it could get lost. However, the watch does remind you to remove it after every run. It would be great to see a small loop developed to connect the pod to a keeper strap or a key ring to help prevent losing it.

The Pod streams live form data to the watch including cadence, left/right ground contact time, balance, stride length, vertical oscillation or bounce while running, and vertical ratio (oscillation compared to stride length). It is a great way to focus more attention on the relationship between ground contact time, stride length and cadence.

 

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Fitbit Alta HR, $150

The new Alta HR is the slimmest screened activity and heart rate tracker we have tested to date. It truly disappears on any wrist and is available in “basic black and stainless” as well as several fashionable colors. The real story here, though, is not an unobtrusive slim fit, or that it is another fine activity and HR tracker. Fitbit has added an excellent new automatic sleep tracking and quality analysis feature.

The recovery provided during sleep is essential to athletic performance. Sleep characteristics are displayed every morning in the app. Going deeper than sleep time, the app clearly shows your long-term trends. Fitbit breaks down the time spent in each sleep cycle: Awake, REM, Light, and Deep. How do they get such a sophisticated analysis? Fitbit uses a combination of the Alta HR’s heart rate sensing, including heart rate variability, motion detection, and very sophisticated algorithms, all extensively tested in sleep labs.

 

FitBit Alta HR

 

We particularly liked comparing our results, and competing against the benchmark set by other users our age. Viewing our 30-day averages for each sleep stage gave a complete picture of rest. The app will even suggest a sleep schedule with reminders, based on your sleep trends, wake-up times and goals. Battery life is a very commendable four days.

RELATED: Tech Buzz—First Looks at New Suunto, Strava and Decibullz Releases

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Polar M430, $229

On April 6 Polar announced the M430, a GPS and wrist-sensing HR watch, shipping in May. This watch is a worthy successor to the popular M400, which did not have wrist heart rate sensing capability. It is a great value, coming in at the same price as the M400. The watch weighs in at a very light 51 grams. However, it has a more rugged-looking casing than customary at the price point. The watch will be available in dark gray, orange and white.

Battery life with GPS and HR is eight hours, with up to 30 hours and one minute GPS sampling. It also has 20 preloaded sports modes that are easily customizable. Users will have full access to Polar’s excellent Polar Flow platform. This includes a cumulating indication of Training Load, how workouts translate into expected race times, Running Index which approximates VO2 max, and training plans which will adapt based on your actual performances.

In an interview with Tom Fowler, CEO of Polar USA, we learned that the M430 will have a 6 LED heart rate sensing array, similar to the M600, and a more moisture resistant charging port. Polar is a pioneer in fitness heart rate sensing with experience going back to the 1980’s. Particular care was given to the sensor, watch case design and algorithms to reduce the “pendular effect” that we mentioned above.

RELATED: 2017 Running Gear Guide—Tech

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