We've almost reached the point where not owning a fitness tracker is as taboo as loudly answering your phone in a train's quiet carriage or breaking out a selfie stick, well, anywhere. Without even a barebones bit of wrist tech, how else can you compare step counts and calories burned like you would chat about last night's TV viewing or the latest box-set binge?

For those of us who want to move beyond the simple step-counting and get a better grip on improving fitness, however, dedicated running watches have tumbled in price and become easier to use as new entry-level options appear. This is where the £170 Garmin Forerunner 35 fits in.

A GPS running watch with an built-in heart-rate monitor, it's a fitness fanatic's friend that's also adopted some smartwatch smarts with wrist-based notifications and call alerts thrown in.

We strapped the Forerunner 35 on and put it to the test to see if it's an all-round win or a try-hard that falls short of the mark.

  • 35.5 x 40.7 x 13.3mm; 37.3g
  • Available with black, lime, blue or white straps

Running watches aren't always the nicest looking bits of kit. They're often oversized and overly plastic. The Forerunner 35 falls into just one of those categories: while it's not particularly big - it's just 40.7mm tall and 13.3mm thick - it's anything but a high-end looking bit of kit.

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Plastic is king here (whether you like it or not). No matter which of the four different strap options you go for - traditional black and white options are joined by more adventurous light blue and lime green colour schemes - the Forerunner's body is the same dull, black plastic offering.

Its looks are somewhat uninspired, therefore, with that plastic build and squat, boxy shape making it look like a far cheaper device than its near £170 asking price would suggest. Despite this Garmin's looks, however, it's well built, feeling strong and sturdy when strapped to your wrist.

Although its plastic body is great for chucking in your gym bag or for doing a bit of trail running - unlike devices such as the Misfit Phase or Apple Watch - you're not going to want to wear it on a night out. It's a watch that screams fitness fan, and will struggle to blend in with anything but your running kit or more casual clothing.

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It's comfortable though, and waterproof too. Capable of being submerged in up to 50-metres of water without succumbing to a watery demise, its rubberised strap and metal buckle mean it can be tailored to fit your wrist and will remain secure and comfortable while walking to work or running a half marathon. It's comfortable enough to sleep in, too, which is handy given the watch's integrated sleep tracking skills.

  • 1.3-inch square screen
  • No colour panel option
  • 128 x 128 pixel resolution

Sadly, the watch's screen does nothing to boost its design credentials. Unlike many of the high-end running watches out there, Garmin's not squeezed a touchscreen in here. Actually, there's not even a colour display. Instead, there's a 1.3-inch monochrome panel with a basic 128 x 128 pixel resolution. It's basic and bland.

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No, it's not going to win any beauty contests, or really fit with many of your outfits, but it's a screen that's detailed enough to get the job done. It's also easy to view when running - which is what's important.

Instead of a touchscreen, the watch features four physical buttons. Again, these aren't particularly pretty, but they work well. The top left control triggers the watch's backlight while the bottom left button will take you back through the menus. On the right side, the upper button lets you make selections while the bottom control scrolls down through menus and options.

The Forerunner 35's screen might not be the most visually impressive, but when out running its monochrome panel makes it a simplistic joy to view and read. Whether your taking your 10k at a steady pace through the woods or upping the tempo while pounding the pavement, the Forerunner's screen and software offer plenty of glanceable data.

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During a run, when your arms are bouncing around, these slightly raised buttons also make scrolling through data screens a breeze.

  • Integrated GPS tracking
  • Built-in heart-rate sensor
  • Wrist-based call and message alerts

Although capable of capturing cycling and cardio work, the Forerunner 35 is a true running watch at heart. Keeping tabs on all your daily movements, it will count your steps as you go on a training run, walk to the shops or simply float around your office trying to dodge actually doing work.

If you've been inactive for too long, it will prompt you to get up and move around. Unlike most watches, simple standing or shuffling from sofa to fridge isn't enough to clear the move bar. This is a watch that'll get you fit, as such, you'll have to make a notable effort, walking for a minute to clear the bar.

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This is just the tip of the activity-tracking iceberg, too. Gear up to go for a run, and the Garmin Forerunner 35 will track much more than your footfalls. It's integrated heart-rate sensor will monitor how your body reacts to exercise - and how quickly it recovers - while the built-in GPS will map your route.

Thanks to this integrated GPS, we found the watch to be pinpoint accurate with its distance tracking. Running a known 10k loop, the watch was spot on.

Although accurate, it's not the fastest to secure a signal, however. As the watch lacks GLONASS skills, its GPS will take the better part of a minute to prime itself. Set the watch to running mode and you'll be able to get through your pre-run stretches before it's connected and ready to go. Once a signal has been secured we had no issues with its connection during our runs.

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The Forerunner 35's impressive features aren't just limited to its run tracking, either. Although not as attractive as the Apple Watch, the Garmin features some similar smart skills, bringing call and message notifications directly to your wrist.

Although many activity trackers are capable of this, unlike some, the Forerunner 35 doesn't just tell you you've got a text or WhatsApp, it lets you read the messages directly on your wrist, too. Yes, text is big and blocky, but with a few clicks of the down button you can quickly see how urgent a message is or not.

It's not faultless though. As well as being able to keep tabs on your movements and fitness levels, this more entry-level Forerunner can also monitor your sleep for comprehensive 24/7 tracking. The trouble is that its sleep-tracking can be easily tricked. Take the watch off and place it on the side to have a shower or even if you go to bed and it'll class this lack of movement as sleep, skewing the data enough to make it useless.

  • Garmin Connect app works with iOS and Android
  • Data automatically syncs to app

The Forerunner 35 isn't just about the hardware - a key ingredient is its supporting software and app, that not only turns all your running data into something meaningful, but which presents it in such a way that'll help you improve.

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Fortunately, Garmin's app is better looking than its watch, but just as impressive on the features front. Unlike devices such as the Huawei Fit or Misfit Phase, Garmin Connect takes your data and turns it into more than just a list of dates and numbers that show you little more than how far you've covered or the amount of calories you've burned.

Yes, all the usual step, distance and calorie counts are all here, but things run deeper too. You can track your progress on a series of graphs and graphics, with continual heart-rate tracking mapped out alongside your cadence and pace. All of this works together to paint a deep, rounded picture of your fitness and how its changing run to run.

Helping you keep pushing to improving fitness, the app can automatically adjust your targets based on your past activity and performances too. If it notices you've been cruising through your daily targets, it will slowly start to increase them, helping you edge up your activity. If it notices you're struggling, they'll be gradually reduced to stop you becoming demotivated.

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Using your GPS data to map out your run, the app combines this with your activity metrics to add more depth to your training. You can use the results to compare recent outings to see exactly where on your run you're making up or losing time on your past personal best, with mile and km markers marked out with split times.

  • Up to nine days battery life
  • Circa 13 hours GPS-tracking per charge
  • Crocodile clip-style bespoke charger

Unlike devices such as the Apple Watch Nike+ and Moto 360 Sport - watches that need charging every day or two - the Garmin Forerunner 35 features a seriously impressive battery life. We're talking a week between charges, and that's if you hit it hard with the GPS-enhanced run tracking.

Take things a little easier - just a couple of 5ks a week - and the Forerunner will cruise past the week marker without recharging. Garmin claims you can get nine days out of it before needing a trip to the mains, and in our tests this rang true.

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It's a good job that the battery life is impressive, because charging the watch is a bit of a faff. Like most smartwatches, the Forerunner 35 comes with its own proprietary charging dock. Unlike the masses, however, this isn't some simple, elegant magnetic cradle that closely and snugly hugs the watch. Instead, Garmin's effort uses a weird crocodile clip-style charging dock that clasps to the side of the watch, making it a bit awkward to prop up while charging.

Verdict

If you're looking for an entry into the world of running watches then the Garmin Forerunner 35 is a watch that attunes itself brilliantly to the riggers and requirements of a dedicated running watch. Its fitness tracking is faultless and it's easy to read and control while running.

It's hard to escape that design though. If you want to track your activity 24/7, you're going to want a better looking bit of kit.

If, however, you're after a gadget that will accompany you to the gym or on your marathon training sessions before being dropped in a gym bag, it's a great option. It's not ridiculously expensive either.

It's £170 asking price puts it in the same bracket as the Misfit Phase and Withings Activité Steel HR, two devices that although easier on the eye don't pack-in the same degree of fitness-tracking skills.

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A lack of GPS is the only downside of this otherwise brilliant and versatile fitness tracker.

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Lacking GPS, the run and activity tracking here isn't as on-point, but with an elegant design that'll take you from office to evening out, it's a solid alternative (the HR version, while more expensive, is also forthcoming).