There has been something of an interesting shift in the Android Wear watch market over the past year to 18 months. Traditional companies are seemingly approaching the product category with more hesitation, while fashion companies like Tag Heuer, Guess, Montblanc, Casio and Fossil are jumping on board.
One newcomer in recent times is New Balance, which falls into the fitness-focus category, a company which outed its running-oriented RunIQ watch at the beginning of 2017.
The idea: to offer a watch which can be worn all the time, but that is aimed at runners who want to track their runs without needing their phone.
New Balance RunIQ review: Design
- Waterproof to 5ATM
- Simple, black metal case
- Interchangeable 22mm strap lugs
Without meaning to be overly cruel, the best way to describe the RunIQ's aesthetic is that it's plain. The round metal casing feels solid; it's thick and well made, but it doesn't feature any eye-catching or extravagant trim anywhere. It's not at all flashy.
There is a bonus to this rather simple design: as it's not brightly coloured or ostentatious like some other fitness watches, ut means you can wear it with almost anything. It's not classic enough to wear with a dinner suit, but it's simple enough to wear with most other dress codes. What's more, you can swap the 22mm strap for other standard fit ones if you want.
One element we really like about the RunIQ is its strap. Featuring dozens of heart- and diamond-shaped holes means it's always comfortable to wear. It doesn't get hot and sweaty, even during long runs, ensuring your arm stays cool underneath the strap. The diamond-shaped holes running down the middle are to fasten the clasp - and as there are so many of them, so close together, it's easy to find a comfy fit.
Unlike more Android Wear watches, the RunIQ has three buttons on the right edge. They're not especially clicky, but they work. It's here, perhaps, that New Balance could have done more, because with there being three buttons, you'd assume it would add a lot of extra functionality. Realistically, however, they're limited.
The middle crown acts like the single button on an Android Wear watch normally would. Press it once to go home, press-and-hold it to launch the apps list. The top button is used only for launching an activity, whether that be running or bike riding, while the bottom one is used purely to launch Google Play Music, either on your connected phone or on the watch itself.
One area that could have done with a little more attention is the underside of the case. This is where you'll find the heart-rate monitor which - with most watches - is hidden behind dressed-up windows of some kind. Here, you get small windows, exposing the sensors in their entirety. It doesn't look very refined. But people aren't going to be staring right at that most of the time.
Also on the back of the watch, nestled near the top edge, are four contact points for charging. It's similar in design to the Huawei Watch and Tag Heuer Connected in that regard, and clips onto its small, light charging base using strong magnets. Although even with that, we had to ensure the watch base was completely flat in order for the contacts to be secure and charge effectively.
New Balance RunIQ review: Performance and battery
- Intel Atom processor
- 410mAh battery
- 5 hours GPS/HR use
Rather than go with the latest Snapdragon wearable chipset, New Balance partnered with Intel to power its first Android Wear watch. In our testing, however, we've found the RunIQ to be a little sluggish at times, showing noticeable lag when viewing or dismissing notifications, as well as loading functions and apps.
This lethargy is most noticeable when attempting to track a run. When the top button is pressed it takes a second or two to load up the interface for tracking the activity. Then there's the waiting time for the watch to lock onto a GPS signal, before a green ring appears to tell you that you can start your run. Except, in all of our runs, it was premature.
After starting a run, we noticed the little icon denoting the GPS signal had a cross through it still. So we had to wait 10-20 seconds more until the watch successfully logged our location. The first time we took it running, we hadn't realised this and run nearly 500 metres without it logging the route. When all you want to do is click a button, tap the screen and get going, having that delay is a little frustrating.
Once you get used to the waiting at the beginning of a run - throw in a couple of stretches to keep warm - the watch does as good a job of tracking your location as a smartphone would. And it's this sense of freedom that's easy to get used to, and helps you forget that 20 second wait at the start of the run.
Not having to carry your phone as well is this watch's biggest selling point, but it's one now shared with a number of other smartwatch makers. Brands like Apple, Samsung and Garmin all make GPS-equipped wrist gadgets, and are a tough crowd to compete with, especially with a first watch - and one which needs a little more improvement and refinement.
Battery life is another area that could be improved. The built-in battery performs exactly as New Balance claims it will. That's to say, it's a one day battery.
With relatively minimal use, we made it through into the morning of a second day before needing to plug the RunIQ in again. With GPS and heart rate switched on during a run, the watch can last for a claimed five hours (our testing suggested it might go a little longer than five hours).
With Android Wear 2.0 coming to the watch soon, some of the performance issues could be solved. GPS logging, for instance, should be even more accurate and faster because of the new software, which New Balance tells us is arriving some time around 27 March.
New Balance RunIQ review: Software
- Currently Android Wear 1.5
- Dedicated running app
- Google Play offline
The software experience on the RunIQ is virtually identical to every other Android Wear watch on the market. Like most other manufacturers, New Balance has added a couple of its own fitness-focused watch faces. There's also a dedicated running app which - as previously mentioned - you launch by pressing the top button.
This running app ties in with Strava to track your run, so you can link it to your account, and when you're finished, the route, pace, distance and heart-rate information is all displayed in your Strava feed.
One of its best features is that it auto-pauses when you stop. That means you don't need to worry about waiting at crossing affecting your overall time or pace.
If you don't use Strava, however, then the button function is useless because you can't map anything else to its use. It's Strava or nada.
Same with music: it's Google Play Music or go home. You can still use the watch to control music on your smartphone, but you can't tell the watch to launch Spotify instead of Google Play Music when you press the bottom button.
It does seem like a big oversight on New Balance's behalf, giving two fixed, physical buttons such specific functions.
New Balance RunIQ review: Display
- 1.39-inch round screen
- 400 x 400 resolution
- AMOLED panel
There are positives and negatives to the round display on New Balance's first Android Wear watch. It's an AMOLED panel, so colours are saturated and high contrast is possible. What's more, because it's completely round and "flat-tyre" free (take note Fossil), there's no slice missing from the bottom portion of the display.
This means New Balance has been able to add icons near the bottom of the screen for starting and pausing exercise or music, without the fear that they'll be cut off.
Despite this, the screen isn't terribly bright. Comparing it to the original Fossil Q Founder, with both screens set to the same brightness, the RunIQ was noticeably dimmer. In most instances, indoors, this doesn't pose too much of a problem. Outside, in bright daylight, it's a different story. It can be hard to see what's on the screen, especially if it's reflecting the sun, or you're looking at it from an angle.
The long and short of the RunIQ is that it's not a bad bash at a fitness watch, but it's a bit too plain to be an everyday watch. There's nothing remarkable or anything that truly stands out about it. We wouldn't choose it as our go-to fitness watch or our go-to smartwatch, which leaves it in something of a grey area.
Also, Android Wear 2.0 can't come soon enough. When it does we're hopeful that the RunIQ can fix its limited button issues, GPS tracking tardiness, and, to some degree, slow operation. Right now this watch feels like an Android Wear device that could have been released a year (or more) ago.
With all of that said, however, the RunIQ delivers roughly the same experience as we've had with most other Android Wear watches on a daily basis. The capability is there, it just needs to be eked out of it with various tweaks.
The alternatives to consider...
Samsung Gear S3 Frontier
If you're after a well-made, attractive sports watch that works well with Android, the Gear S3 is an ideal choice. It runs its own wearable operating system which is so much more intuitive and attractive than Android Wear, and its rotating bezel is a brilliant control option.
Read the full review: Samsung Gear S3 review: Android Wear, beware, this is the smartwatch to beat
Polar's square Android Wear watch is purpose designed for sport, and costs considerably less than the New Balance Run IQ. It has its own companion running and exercise app, which includes dedicated swimming functions as well as the usual running and cycling options.
Read the full review: Polar M600 review: Top-notch smartwatch and fitness tracker fusion