My very biased review of the Garmin Forerunner 920xt

To get it out of the way as to where my bias lies…allow me to present my Garmin collection:

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The Forerunner 201 dates back to 2004, I bought it on a whim and it allowed me to fall in love with running all over again. Since then I have logged thousands of miles and its pretty safe to say that I have had a Forerunner on my wrist for every single one of them.

So yes…I am a Garmin loyalist and lackey. But to be fair Garmin has gone a long way to earn that loyalty. In addition to the short beeps of encouragement provided by the watches themselves, I have found that Garmin has been a pretty great company to deal with. As with all gadgets, things don’t always work quite as advertised and I have always been able to talk live with a representative at their Kansas facility to help me through the problems. They have also been pretty amazing at replacing broken units or at least offering a factory refurbished unit as a replacement at a significant discount (the exception was the FR305, I had cracked the screen and then very stupidly took it swimming in the salty waters of Destin). As with all tech companies, your mileage may vary but Garmin has always been pretty good to me.

The new addition, the FR 920xt—out of the box:

I received my 920xt shortly after Thanksgiving 2014 and was immediately awed by it. It’s hard to tell from the picture above but it is significantly smaller than any of my previous models (I think its comparable in size to the 910xt—a watch I skipped because rumors of the 920’s awesomeness preceded its actual release by a few years), this means it is wearable as a day to day watch. I love this feature because I always have it with me (in fact I kept all my previous watches was because invariably I would be headed out for a run and would not be able to find my Forerunner, so strapping an older model on was a great way to keep my momentum going and not find a silly excuse to skip a run). This also makes it pretty useful when you activate the Activity Tracker, which gives you a running tally of your daily steps as well as a sleep tracker (more on this later). A lot of people don’t like the gaudy red and white but I think it’s pretty cool, but they do make a more subdued blue and black version and I have seen aftermarket “faces” and bands that apparently offer some customization. To be fair, the 920xt is a pricey unit. At $500 with heart rate monitor, you won’t have to sell a kid (I did anyways) but if you’re on a budget, you may have to make a choice between the watch and saving for a new wheel set (or, you know, food, rent and medicine).

The guts:

When it was first released there was a lot of debate on Garmin’s own forums as to whether or not this watch is as accurate as past models. Garmin crammed a lot of functionality in a very small, waterproof package and a lot of people on the forums seemed to think this may have affected its overall accuracy as a strait GPS time/location/distance/speed monitor. My experience thus far has been that it is at least as accurate as my past models. That isn’t to say it hasn’t gotten squirrely at times, on an early run I looked down and the watch said I was cruising along at a leisurely 13 min/mile then a second or so later and I was apparently closing in on Usain Bolt’s record pace at 3:15 min/mile. I know my pacing well enough to know that I was running between 9-9:30 and nowhere near the broad range the watch was showing me. The 920xt has an option to use the Russian GLONASS system in addition to the American GPS and my theory (as a former Air Force navigator BTW) is that the watch’s software is just not good enough to reconcile what it is being told by two very different Satellite Navigation Systems. So I turned off the GLONASS receivers and have never seen the previously mentioned issue again.

Garmin also touts an amazing battery life with the 920xt; up to 40 hours in GPS mode and about a week in watch/standby mode. So far their claims at least seem to be in the ball park. The longest I have ever used my watch in GPS mode has been on snowboarding trips where I used it for about 7.5 hours total in a single day. I would guess that this burned about 1/3-¼ of the total battery life. Given that my estimation is not scientific and the cold probably drained the battery faster, I could see the watch lasting for 30-40 hours in conditions that you would find during an ultra run or long distance triathlon. I do have to mention that on one occasion, something happened where my watch went from 100% off the charger to completely dead 2 hours later in standby mode. I talked to tech support and they suggested fully recharging, resetting and then using as normal. To their credit, it worked to fix the problem but if this would have happened in the middle of a race I would have come unglued.

On the road, in the pool or on the treadmill (a GPS watch on the treadmill?):

The 920xt is designed to be a Triathlon watch. Of course it is able to track your outdoor runs and rides, but using the activity tracker built into the watch it will track your indoor runs as well. This is a basic pedometer function which I have found to be about 90% accurate if I compare my indoor runs to a treadmill distance or a known distance on an indoor track. I would say this function is useable, but if you are doing serious indoor training where meters/seconds matter go with the measured distance on your indoor track. With an additional speed and cadence accessory kit you can also use the watch to track your indoor rides on a trainer or rollers. I have found this to be as accurate as any other cyclometer because it’s a simple measure of your wheel’s circumference as it revolves transmitted to the watch. The cadence seems to be spot on as well. To round out the tri-training experience, Garmin added indoor/outdoor swim tracking to the 920xt. Using the internal accelerometers, the 920 is supposed to give you an extremely accurate measure of your swims. Again this is not perfect and I’ve found it to be about 90% accurate when measuring indoor swims. The watch consistently shows me at ~1075 meters for every 1000 front crawl meters I actually swim and if I mix up the strokes it shows quite a bit more error. I realize I may zig and zag off the black line in the pool but I don’t think it’s 75 meters worth of movement. The outdoor swim function combines GPS tracking with the accelerometer so it should be quite accurate but I haven’t had to have a chance to swim outside with the watch yet.

The data..the precious data:

Hands down, the best thing about this watch is how it uploads your data to Garmin’s servers. The watch pairs with your smart phone via Bluetooth and instantly uploads all your data to Garmin’s own training website; Garmin Connect. All your data is then viewable through their app or website on your PC. You can also set it up to upload data over a wireless network so gone are the days of ANT+ sticks and cables both of which were easily lost (for me at least). For all the great points of the data uploading, Garmin Connect needs a lot of work it’s rated as a one star app on Itunes, which is almost unforgivable for a company with a reputation like Garmin. It does give a ton of information but Garmin Connect is just not a user-friendly experience; it’s slow, the buttons don’t always load correctly and there are some big differences in functionality between the app and PC website.

This is a sample of what a run can look like mapped out on the iphone App:

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Here’s a sample of diagnostic data from a short recovery run I did:

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I have always had issues with Garmin’s heart rate monitors which I think is unique to my body and the way the signals transmit. The lag in heart rate is pretty standard representation for me and I don’t think this happens to most people. I have yet to figure out what to do vertical oscillation and ground contact time. I’ve spend some time discussing this on the Garmin message board and no one else seems to either.

Other cool stuff:

The 920xt also has some minor “smart-watch” functionality when paired to your phone via Bluetooth that allows you to see incoming calls and read emails and text messages. It’s not a two way connection so you can’t call or text out from the watch but I do find myself relying on this feature quite a bit to take a quick glance at texts or emails.

The 920xt as fitness and weight loss tool:

I mentioned before that the 920xt can be used as an activity and sleep tracker. I’m not super interested in my step tally but I like that if I check the daily total and I have 2000 steps left to my goal it will inspire me to take the dogs for a walk instead of slopping in front of the couch to watch Real Housewives. The sleep tracker is a “nice but not great” function and Garmin’s fitness trackers really lag behind the competition in the sleep tracking category, especially the industry leader Fitbit. Garmin just gives you a total time slept and the amount of movement you had during those hours. Fitbit on the other hand uses a very complicated algorithm to determine cumulative movements and how that affects overall sleep and waking times.

Since I’m on the comparison with Fitbit, if you are using the watch as a weight loss tool the Fitbit functionality beats it hands down. Garmin Connect uses myfitnesspal.com (MFP) as its calorie tracker. This is good because you simply can’t beat MFP’s database of foods and ease of use, however the sync with Garmin Connect is far from seamless and has given me more erroneous entries than I can easily count. Fitbit on the other hand uses their own software/app for both activity and food tracking which leads to pretty seamless integration and a far more effective tool if you really want to get to the nitty gritty of your calories in/calories out. If you don’t need all the triathlon functions of the 920xt, the simpler and far cheaper Fitbit Surge may be for you if you want an easy to use GPS watch that uses Fitbit’s activity tracking system and integrated software.

So overall…

As an admitted Garmin loyalist, I certainly found my faults with the new Forerunner 920xt. To be completely fair, Garmin did pack an incredible amount of functionality in this very small watch. In addition there simply is not a better product if you are serious about data collection to aid you in reaching your fitness and racing goals. It does have its quirks but so far I’ve been able to fix or workaround all of them. The profoundly easy data upload is amazing but I really wish Garmin would spend some time fixing Garmin Connect to make it more useable. For all the issues, I’m glad I bought the watch and use it daily. So far, no other product comes close to the 920xt but my concern is that other companies like Suunto, Fitbit or even Apple and Google are going to seize upon the weaknesses of the 920xt and pass them up with their next generation releases.

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