TomTom Runner review

Wearable tech is all the rage at the moment, particularly smartwatches. It's hardly a surprise, then, that plenty of manufacturers want a slice of the pie. But what makes TomTom - the company better known for its satnav devices - believe it has what it takes to create the sports watch that you'll want to wear? That's what its Runner smartwatch aspires to be. But with well-established brands such as Garmin already in the mix and more recent additions from trendy go-to brands like Nike already making waves, how does the TomTom Runner sit against the competition? We've been running to find out.

Going it alone

Wearable tech comes in many different guises. At the top of the price tree is Google Glass, while towards the bottom there's the Nike FuelBand. The TomTom Runner sits somewhere in the middle of that group, in a similar vein to the Nike+ SportsWatch that was released a couple of years back. Here's where the first obvious connection comes in: TomTom was behind that very Nike product - a partnership that is said to continue despite it going alone with the TomTom Runner.

READ: Nike+ FuelBand review

That ought to set the Runner out of the starting blocks in good stead. Using TomTom's skills and strengths in GPS and navigation technology it's an obvious product venture. In addition to the Runner there's also a second device: The Multi-Sport, a watch for those who like to cycle, canoe, and do all that other stuff.

READ: Hands-on: TomTom Multi-Sport review

Even though TomTom's association with Nike continues to bubble away somewhere in the background, none of that can be seen in the Runner. It's gone. This is a TomTom device through and through and that includes the software and fitness platforms it works with. There's not the ability to pair it with the Nike pebble that fits in your shoe, nor the Nike+ software. Put simply, if you are using the Nike running platform then stop reading, this watch isn't for you.

Step forward

So what do you get on the inside of that shiny TomTom Runner packaging? The watch itself is thin, light and offers more features than the early Nike+ SportsWatch. This is a new start, and in a good way.

Alongside its dedicated menu system and software, there's also the ability to either upload your data to TomTom's own running platform or a range of open platform fitness apps like Strava, Runkeeper and TrainingPeaks.

Step back

But while TomTom has moved on, it's sad to say that its software has taken a step in the wrong direction. It's the equivalent of a twisted ankle. The Runner feels very much like a version 1.0 device at best. What TomTom has achieved as a first stab is fantastic, but this is 2013 and we expect more. Not that, necessarily, other companies are delivering more, but this is very much a product that lacks many of the features and tech you would expect for a device of this type for this price - especially considering what TomTom and Nike achieved with the earlier SportsWatch.

The first major ode to a pre-tablet era is the need to dock the Runner with your computer every couple of days, not only to connect it so you can upload your data, but also to update the GPS data to allow you to get a GPS location quick-fix. There is no Bluetooth support for connecting to a phone or a tablet, no accompanying app, no ability to delete false/mistake activities from the watch, and no real way to properly edit or manage from the device.

Then there's the alleged single button control. At least TomTom claims it's one button. But it isn't - it's a four-way d-pad as anyone who uses the watch will clearly know. Feels like a mis-sell to us.

This single control area - it could possibly be described as a button, but it's more d-pad - is large and sits towards the lower portion of the watch. But its location means that it can be knocked accidentally and that leads to false starts or, worse still, false pauses or stops. As a press of the left of the d-pad pauses activity, while two presses stops activity altogether, perhaps the more common multiple button smartwatch layout isn't so wrong after all. It's less accident prone anyway.

First timers

TomTom, having given us a run through with the watch at the UK launch event, told us that we would need to plug it into a computer to gather the local GPS data and allow the watch to find the satellites quickly.

We have to admit we were cocky. The cads that we are sometimes, we ignored that advice on our first run. "What do they know?," we thought. Turns out a lot, but we just wanted to see what would happen - much in the same way that many of the non-manual-reading public would. In this first instance - and totally to our own fault - the watch took 22 minutes to find the signal, by which point we had given up waiting and were well into our first 5km test run. That left us just a few minutes to test the watch before we finished our run. Darn it.

After that we ate our pride and followed instructions. Turns out that if you do connect the Runner to your computer then the moment you next step out the door and press Go it takes around 20 seconds to locate the GPS signal. That's it, then you're ready to hit the streets and record your run.

The GPS is good enough to track you by the second and if you don't set any training goals - more on that in a moment - you can simply focus on getting a range of stats on your run. A flick of the wrist and information which includes - deep breath now - pace, average pace, distance, stride, time, duration, estimated calories burned, and heart rate is available. Heart rate will only work if you've bought the optional hear-rate monitor accessory.

Training

If you are running for a purpose, then there are a number of training programmes and goals to help you and it's here the TomTom Runner proves that it is worth a lot more than the Nike+ SportsWatch. These are divided into four modes: Goals, Laps, Zones, and Race.

Goals gives you the option to set the distance you want to run, the time you want to run, or the calories you want to burn.

For all modes the watch then monitors what you are doing at gives you status updates - including visual, rather than straight text information - along the way in the form of percentages. 'You've got 10 per cent left' - that kind of thing. We like this, it's incredibly handy if you need that extra push at the end of a run, or in some cases just to know that you've reached the halfway point.

If you are into your interval training then the Laps mode is really handy. Time and distance can both be set down to single minute or 1km increments and the Runner vibrates to let you know when you've reached your lap.

Zones, as you can imagine, allows you to set a zone to work in either for pace, or - if you have the heart-rate monitor accessory - heart rate. Move outside of the manually set parameter - such as when exerting too little or even too much within your defined beats per minute section - and the watch vibrates. We tested this feature with the Pace setting over a 5km run with the pace set to 5-minutes per kilometre with a plus/minus setting of 10 seconds. You soon know if you are going too fast, or too slow. It's really useful.

Giving up the ghost

Finally there is the Race mode that allows you to race pre-determined race times and, in the future, to ghost your running self.

In its current form it's rather frustrating as it only allows you to run five races - there's 3 miles in 25 minutes, 5km in 26 minutes, 6 miles in 50 minutes, 10km in 50 minutes, and 13.1 miles in 2 hours.

The idea is that you select a race to run and then set the watch going. Throughout the race you are presented with a dedicated screen, in addition to all the information about your running that allows you to see whether you are ahead or behind the imaginary runner. Psychologically it's amazing knowing that you are 100m ahead or behind the target pace. It's almost crazy what that can do for your running.

But, and depending on your capabilities, those pre-set race times might be too fast or too slow to be of use to you. That they can't be changed and there's no way to race against your previous runs is a major shortcoming. We wanted more.

However, TomTom says that in the near future the watch will record your last five times and let you race against those times. Great stuff - but that's not available right here, right now. And that's what we want. In this day and age - and with so many other runners also using tech - we'd like to not only ghost ourselves but also other users. The fact it's not possible to just punch in a distance and a time to race against and be done with it isn't good enough.

When it rains, it pours

If the wet stuff is hammering it down outside then the TomTom Runner also offers up a treadmill mode. Here the watch calculates your distance by detecting your arm swings in order to count your strides.

Depending on how much you run - whether indoors or out - will determine how long the Runner's battery lasts. We've done seven 5km runs with the watch so far while trying out the different modes and features - including our botched first run prior to calibrating - and we're half way though our second charge. That's good enough for us in terms of performance, and means that if you are training for a half-marathon - the level of runner we think this watch is aimed at - then you'll probably be charging once a week. No biggie.

The only problem is that unlike the Nike+ SportsWatch, you will need to bring the docking station with you when out and about as you can't just plug in the strap via USB.

Getting the data out of the watch and on to your running platform of choice also involves the dock. Both PC or Mac are supported, but even once synched up the TomTom MySports site is woeful in what it allows you to do and the level of data it gives you compared to the competition. We would highly recommend you join RunKeeper if you are planning on getting more from your runs as TomTom's own-brand data management doesn't cut it.

Verdict

For every feature we don't like about the TomTom Runner there is another feature we do. For everything TomTom has presumably learnt from its hand in the Nike+ SportsWatch, however, it also seems to have unlearnt something else. Which is really frustrating, especially considering the Runner costs £150. 

As a watch and nothing else we like it. The Goals and Zones modes tick the boxes, but the Race mode won't suit all in its current state. It did keep us happy as, luckily, the pre-programmed races fit our personal goals, but it's not a one-size-fits-all solution and we'd still like to see more personalisation.

In every other facet we expected more too. We expect a smartwatch that is Bluetooth-enabled to be able to connect to our phone or our laptop without a docking station. We expect a smartwatch to not need to be physically connected to a computer every three days to get the best performance. We expect a running watch be able to edit erroneous activities. We expect to have full custom control over everything. We expect to have accompanying software and app integration that does more than just list the activities we've done. In short, we expected a lot and the Runner came up short.

When it comes to satnav devices there is no better than TomTom. It's up there as the best. It's this knowledge that had us excited and that has, conversely, led to disappointment. Furthermore TomTom's hand in the Nike+ SportsWatch showed off what it could do as a company in this market sector at the time. But this is 2013 and not only are failings of old still present, the Runner adds new issues. We didn't expect that at all.

As a watch it's not bad, but there are a series of shortcomings that add up to a disappointment. If you can cope with the frustrations we've outlined then go for it. Otherwise it's probably best to wait until TomTom release the Runner v2.0 before everything gets up to speed.



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