GPS watch test: Adidas miCoach Smart Watch, Garmin Forerunner 620, TomTom Multi-Sport GPS Watch

December 17, 2013
(Jason Hornick/For Express)
(Jason Hornick/For Express)

“New Records: Fastest Mile! Longest Run!”

That’s a message of encouragement I got after a recent jog — not from an upbeat personal trainer but from a band on my wrist. Who needs a personal cheerleader when you can turn to a new generation of GPS watches? The latest models do a lot more than just communicate with satellites to report your mileage and pace. They’re also chockablock with features that provide stats you might never have thought about, including how many times your feet strike the ground during a jog and how many hours you’ll need to recover after an intense workout. Let’s run through the options.

Adidas miCoach Smart Watch

The device that promises the most is the Adidas miCoach Smart Watch ($400). It stores and plays music (via Bluetooth), passes on coaching tips, counts your every step, and, positioned snugly by the wristbone, tracks heartbeats without a chest strap. (Although it can exaggerate: When it told me my heart had passed 160 beats per minute, my hand-to-wrist pulse check came up with 130-something.) You can download strength plans with demos and instruction. Plus, the green digits on the face look pretty sharp.

But setting up the watch was more challenging than a marathon. It took me four days to succeed. Entering info on the screen can be, as an Adidas rep admitted, “cumbersome for some.” Once you pass those hurdles, the watch is easy to use — but is not glitch-free. And you must recharge it every night. The battery, which allows for three to 4½ hours of exercise monitoring, runs out of juice in about 24 hours.

Garmin Forerunner 620

A runner interested in self-improvement will be unable to resist the Garmin Forerunner 620 ($400). “It’s like wearing a coach on your wrist,” says Dean Silkstone, manager of the Georgetown Running Company. It delivers constant input on your minute-by-minute pace so you can speed up (or slow down if you’re overdoing it). And it comes with a heart-rate strap to affix below the breastbone. (Like the Adidas monitor, it ran 10 to 30 beats fast.)

The watch offers a full 10 hours of tracking before a recharge is needed. So it beats the Adidas by more than a few miles.

But the Garmin can be a little too meddlesome. It’ll predict recovery time based on comparisons of your heart rate from the current and previous workouts. After a 6-mile jog, I was a bit surprised to hear I’d need 72 hours rest before another strenuous run. Even my mother isn’t that overprotective.

TomTom Multi-Sport GPS Watch

At half the price, TomTom’s Multi-Sport GPS Watch ($200) proves that good things can come in less expensive (yet smartly designed) packages. This first watch from the Amsterdam-based maker of GPS devices covers running, cycling (calculations, based on wheel size, include mph) and swimming (it’s waterproof to 165 feet deep). A manual is barely necessary. Just push a button to toggle among screens, set goals or put your exercise session on pause. Battery life is like the Garmin’s: 10 hours of monitoring from one charge.

The best feature is out of sight. Anyone who’s owned a GPS watch knows the frustration of standing outside and waiting for the satellites to locate you. (I always want to shout, “I’m right here!”) Hooked into Russian satellites as well as the U.S. satellites that other watches rely on, the TomTom typically finds a runner more quickly than other brands — a welcome feat on a winter morning.

Expert Opinion

Instant feedback on a run is “hugely helpful” for a goal-oriented exerciser, says Amanda Visek, professor of sports psychology at George Washington University. But data can be distracting. “Runners in general overtrain,” says Joel Martin, assistant professor of kinesiology at George Mason University. He worries that GPS-watch wearers may focus on their pace instead of what their bodies are telling them. Visek agrees: If only a watch would buzz when your IT bands are tight.

Marc Silver has been watching TV since the days when people wrapped aluminum foil around TV antennae to improve reception.
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Dr. Andrea Bonior · December 17, 2013