Why I’m sticking with Garmin

This past week was not a good one for Garmin. Their ransomware attack was one of the worst that I’ve ever seen. I’ve spent over 20 years in IT and I’ve never seen a company become so paralyzed for so long. Everything seems to be back up and running now, but a lot of people in the fitness communities are asking if it’s time to move away from Garmin. I considered it briefly, but I have one very strong reason for sticking with them, and it’s actually what saved their bacon in this outage.

Direct file access.

Unlike most fitness watches on the market place, you can still plug your Garmin in to your computer and grab your .fit activity files, and do whatever you want with them. It’s why most people were able to continue to upload to sites like Strava just fine during the outage. You can still use the watch, and access your data, without the intervention of an online site. Granted, it’s not as slick and cool as the full interface, but it works, and I know my data is safe. That’s the key.

My wife used to own a Suunto, and their MovesCount platform seemed to have issues periodically. When that happened, she was S.O.L. The Suunto watches don’t have any way for you to get into their file system, leaving your only gateway, the app and online service. Coros appears to be the same as well.

So despite having one of the worst cybersecurity breaches in history, I’m going to stick with the tried and true, that gives me the most flexibility at getting access to my data. Thanks Garmin for that, even if you need to work on your cybersecurity infrastructure.

Gear Review: Garmin 735XT

Despite picking up a Garmin 920XT just a few months ago, it looks like I’m actually going to take the plunge on a completely different watch. Shortly after I picked up my Garmin 920XT, Garmin introduced the 735XT. This watch is based off of the Forerunner 230/235 form factor, including optical heart rate on the wrist. A couple of weeks ago I decided to pick one up to try it out and decide if it was a better watch for me than the 920XT. After using the watch for a couple of weeks, I’m feeling very confident in saying that this is a really great watch.

First, let’s talk about what makes the 735XT special. As I stated above it has an optical heart rate monitor on the wrist, so you can do away with those annoying chest straps. I’ve found it to be mostly accurate, but I’m not an elite athlete either, so I would point you to DC Rainmaker’s review where he goes into tons of data and details on how the OHR works. I’ve only had one issue with the OHR, which I will get into later in the review. On my test runs it has performed as expected, and I’ve enjoyed having the extra data without the chest strap. Additionally, the 735XT is MUCH smaller and lighter than the 920XT, and even the fenix3. The size is one of the biggest benefits of this watch for me.

Apart from the optical heart rate, the 735XT is very similar to both the 920XT and the fenix3. The underlying operating system is almost identical, and all of the screens seem to behave the same way across all of the watches. The 735XT can also take advantage of the Connect IQ store of apps to add more features to the watch, as well as additional watch faces. I had no issues finding things in the menu system, and the 735XT adds in additional options that you can scroll through while simply in watch mode.

The 735XT also has basic smartwatch functionality. I can get phone notifications on my wrist, including phone calls, which I can answer with a press of the button. Obviously this is only useful if my phone is tucked away and I have an earpiece in my ear, but it’s nice knowing it’s there as an option. You can also control your music through a special music control menu accessed by holding the up button while on the main watch face. Keep in mind that this only works with Apple Music on an iPhone however. You cannot control other apps such as Google Play or Pandora. I have not tested the feature with an Android phone, but I would assume that you are limited to Google Play Music on that platform.

As with most new watches, the 735XT has the full compliment of activity tracker features. I’ve attempted to wear the watch every day for the past couple of weeks to see how I enjoy the activity tracking features, such as heart rate and steps. I’ve never been a big watch guy, but I’ve actually gotten quite used to it now. Not so much for the step counting, but for the notifications on my wrist, and basic time/date checking. One day I didn’t wear the watch at all and kept looking at my wrist when I wanted to know what time it was. Obviously the conditioning has taken hold.

My experience with the step counter has been adequate. It seems to be a better measure than my iPhone, which often estimates higher than I know I’ve done. You can also integrate with sites like MyFitnessPal to get full tracking of all activity and calories taken in. I tend to shy away from using steps taken in my calorie tracking, as those are often steps that I would be taking no matter what. So I have turned off that integration point. I still glance at my steps every now and then to make sure I’m getting enough movement. If I see that I’ve yet to hit 7000-8000 steps by mid-afternoon, I know I need to go for a walk. This feature is great for reminding me to not sit around all night on the couch without moving a bit. You can also turn on an activity reminder feature.

When it comes to GPS tracking, the 735XT has all the same features as the 920XT except that it uses a GPS altimeter instead of a barometric one. I’m OK with this as I’ve used a GPS altimeter for years, and found it to be adequate. You can set up many different activity profiles, and alter the screens that are available on each profile. The Garmin 735XT adds in a fun built-in screen called “Strava Suffer Score”, which is a feature of the Strava tracking site to tell you how intense your workout was. It’s not really terribly useful while running (at least not to me), but it’s fun to see.

Uploading activities is over either Bluetooth or through a USB connection. Wifi is non-existent on the 735XT, but frankly wifi was never that big of a selling point for me anyway. It was nice to come home from a run and have my watch automatically sync over wifi, but Bluetooth is fast enough for my needs. Plus, if I’m away from home I’m going to use Bluetooth no matter what. I’m already using the Bluetooth notifications, so it’s not a big deal to sync over it.

I mentioned that I had one small issue with the OHR. My wife picked up a FR235, which also has an optical sensor. We’ve noticed that if we take the watch off of our wrist, and place it on a bright white surface (like our desks) with the OHR facing down, that when you put the watch on again, the OHR has extreme difficulty locking on. Both of us have needed to do a reset on the watch to get our OHRs to function again after not wearing the watch for a long period of time. In the future we’re going to try only setting them on a dark surface to test our that theory. Because the optical heart rate sensor uses light and reflectivity, I could see there being issues with the sensor being overloaded by a bright white surface. I’ve posted on Garmin’s forum about it, but I haven’t heard any more discussion.

One of the trade-offs from the 920XT is a bit of battery life. The 735XT only gets around 15 hours of battery life, which would be cutting it close for me in a 50 mile race. However, unlike the 920XT, the Garmin 735XT can be charged while on the run. It uses a clip charger, so it might be awkward to wear on the wrist, but placing it around the shoulder strap of a vest with a battery in the pocket would solve that issue. I don’t plan on doing 50 mile races every day, so the 15 hour battery life is more than enough for my weekly activities.

Overall, I’ve been very, very happy with the Garmin 735XT. It’s size and weight are amazing for the features that it packs into a small package. It has all the GPS features I need for running and biking (it can do swimming and multisport as well), and the battery life is more than adequate. I’ve come to enjoy the connected capabilities for notifications and activity tracking, despite not being the main reason that I wanted to try out this watch. I think it might be eBay time for my 920XT, despite being a very capable watch. The 735XT seems to be everything I need in a much nicer package.

Why Garmin 920XT?

As promised, I wanted to spend a couple moments explaining why I chose the model of watch that I did. In my considerations I looked at the Garmin 920XT, the Garmin fenix3 and the Suunto Ambit 3. My wife has an Ambit 2, and really loves the watch. However, I ran into one issue that bugged me, and made me decide to stay away from Suunto for the time being.

One of the things I like about my Garmin watches is that all I had to do was plug them in and I could copy the FIT files off of the watch just as if they were regular files. Suunto is much harder to work with in this regard. The watch does not mount on your computer as a standard drive, and you can only access it through their dedicated MovesCount software. This means that using devices like my Chromebook aren’t an option with Suunto watches.

You might say that this isn’t a big deal because of all the smartphone integrations of these devices, but for me it’s more of a principal thing. I like to be able to get access to my data in the easiest way possible. That doesn’t mean I always will use that method to get my data, but I want to know it’s there. Even though all of my workouts from my Garmin watches are uploaded to multiple fitness sites, I still do a regular file copy of the FIT files to a secure location, just to make sure.

This lack of open standards means that Suunto was a hard sell for me. Additionally, my wife has had issues with MovesCount outages at inconvenient times. This combined with the fact that I really didn’t want to have yet ANOTHER site where I have my fitness data stored, and the Suunto option became less and less appealing.

That put my choice between the 920XT and the fenix 3. As many reviewers have noted, these two watches are very, very close to each other. The feature differences are minimal, with the fenix 3 being targeted more at the outdoors crowd, and the 920XT towards the triathlon crowd. The only real physical differences in the watch are the shape. The 920XT has the rectangular shape, and the fenix 3 is the traditional round watch form factor.

As I weighed the differences between the two watches I also weighed the price. The 920XT is $50 cheaper than the fenix 3, and so I had to ask myself if the couple of added features, and more traditional shape were worth the extra money. Since I don’t wear a watch on a daily basis, the shape wasn’t a big factor for me. I’m not looking for a fashion statement.

In regards to the features, the only thing that I would have possibly used on the fenix 3 was the ability to charge it while running. Yet, that would only really come in handy in something like a 100 mile race. Since I don’t have any of those on my radar for the immediate future, I decided that I could forgo this feature in the interest of saving a bit of money.

So I decided to go ahead with the 920XT. I feel like it’s the best choice for me right now, and I’m very satisfied with how I came to my decision.

Quick review: Garmin 920XT

I’ve had the opportunity to run with my new Garmin 920XT a couple of times, and wanted to share some of my thoughts on how the watch has held up so far in my runs. I did a 31 mile training race on Saturday, so the watch was put through its paces during a 7+ hour morning.

One of the best things about GPS watches is the tremendous amount of customizability in the information that is displayed to you while running. The 920XT in particular has tons of different options for customizing its screens. I decided to immediately add a new running mode designed for trail running. For this mode I changed the largest number displayed to distance, instead of overall time. Because I’m a slow trail runner, it’s more about completing the distance than how fast I’m going.

I also added another screen to show various elevation statistics, which is more fun than really useful mid-run. I then added in a special screen called a “Map” screen. The map screen displays course that you’ve just run. This is tremendously useful when you’re running a loop in a large wooded area, and trying to remember where to turn. I simply went to the map screen and could see which of the turn-offs where I turned previously, and could follow my previous course. The map can also be loaded with pre-defined courses you create on Garmin Connect and then can follow on your run.

Throughout the run the watch performed as expected. It beeps when it was supposed to, and the GPS track was accurate. I had phone notifications turned on, so I was able to see all of my emails and texts that came in while I was running. Because it shows my every notification from my phone, this will be a useful feature in only limited circumstances. It does allow me to quickly see if an incoming message is important (such as from my wife), or is a message I can ignore till later, saving myself the hassle of digging out my phone.

Because of the built-in bluetooth and wi-fi connectivity, my activities sync automatically when I’m connected to my phone or home wi-fi. This is a convenient feature, meaning I only need to wait a few moments before going into Strava to update my run details. It is dependent on getting some form of internet signal on the phone however, so if you’re in the middle of the woods you need to wait until you can actually connect on your phone.

Battery life of the watch is looking quite good. It worked for almost 8 hours on Saturday, and then another hour or so on Sunday. I’m going to refrain from charging it this week until Friday to see if I can get all of my weekday runs completed on a single charge. From what the image of the battery is showing me, this shouldn’t be a problem.

From a physical standpoint the watch is barely heavier than my Garmin 220, and despite its large shape, it fit quite comfortably on my wrist for hours at a time. The buttons were easy to reach and press while mid-run, and the screen is huge and easy to read. In particular the rectangular shape allows for a lot more information to be displayed than on a round watch face.

I’m extremely happy with the Garmin 920XT, and I’m looking forward to a long summer of running with this watch on my wrist. I promised some explanation as to why I picked this watch over its competitors, but I’m going to share that blog post tomorrow.

Customer Service

Last night we picked up a grill. We decided to invest in one that was a bit more money, but holds the promise of being usable for a long time to come. When we were buying the grill my wife and I were talking about how, as adults, we’ve come to realize that sometimes paying a bit more for a quality product is worth it. It’s also worth it for working with companies that try to really put out good customer service.

As a case in point I’ve come to really love Garmin as a company that supports the products that they put in the marketplace. On a couple different occasions I’ve had issues with my GPS equipment, and they’ve always stood behind what I’ve bought, and offered me options that are above and beyond what I would expect from a large company.

Sometimes it sucks to have to save more money so that you can buy the better product, but more of then than not it will pay off in the end.