(Pocket-lint) - When it comes to GPS running watches the Garmin Forerunner range has been leading the race for wrists for years.
In 2013 the Forerunner 620 was a big jump forward in the range thanks to a colour touchscreen, Wi-Fi and running dynamics. In a bid to further improve, its successor, the Forerunner 630, adds phone notifications and design tweaks to enhance its looks.
Plenty of smartwatches now offer step-tracking and running metrics, but very few with the advantage of GPS, which is one of the Forerunner range's known selling points. Having made the 630 our main watch as well as running and cycling companion, does it offer enough to warrant that £390 price tag?
Garmin Forerunner 630 review: Design upgrade
To call the Forerunner 630 a design do-over would be overstating things, but Garmin has made obvious changes. While the company has stuck to the round face with colour touchscreen, it's cut down the bezel for more face, and removed the back button, leaving only the menu button at the bottom.
The Forerunner 630 has a comfortable rubberised strap and the watch is thin enough to slide under most sleeves without an issue. The watch is still super light at 44g but now looks attractive enough to be used day-to-day. And since Garmin has added plenty of activity tracking and smart notification extras in the 630, daily wear is a GPS watch reality.
The display is naturally white-on-black to save battery, but it lights up when a button is tapped for use. Even while running that 1.23-inch screen is clear and vibrant thanks to large lettering and a decent 215 x 180 resolution. It's even good enough for intrepid designers to create their own watch faces for download in the IQ Connect store too.
Garmin Forerunner 630 review: Running metrics
When it comes to fine-tuning running technique the Forerunner 630 has enough smarts to make a professional trainer worry about being underqualified.
The holy grail of training measurements is widely accepted as lactate threshold. Simplistically this is the measure of when lactate starts to accumulate in the bloodstream, which can lead to sore muscles the next day. It's when you're training so hard the body is producing enough fuel for your muscles but they can't digest it, creating the damaging build up. If you can train at your ideal lactate level you can push your body while avoiding recovery woes.
In the case of the 630 it's a lactate threshold estimate based on heart rate (and the heart-rate monitoring strap is an optional purchase). After enough runs, in varying heart-rate zones, the watch will work out your VO2 max and, by using all that data, offer your lactate threshold heart rate and target pace. This means you'll know exactly where you should be training, for pace and heart rate, to maximise your results.
Garmin added a recovery guide to the Forerunner 620, which tells you when you can train again based on your efforts. That was a bit like introducing a caveman to finger paints where the lactate measure is teaching you to brush-paint the Mona Lisa.
Another important metric is cadence, which is shown off in both current and average forms. But there's also stride length and ground contact time - so all the variations in gait can be measured and improved upon. To simplify, a high cadence, with shorter steps, puts less stress on the body and uses less energy. To a certain extent, as your form improves to increase cadence you should enhance pace too.
Garmin Forerunner 630 review: Smart notifications and tracking
While the Forerunner 630 isn't going to be bought by many to replace the likes of an Apple Watch or Android Wear device, it is still smart.
A Bluetooth connection to a smartphone means notifications for messages and emails, even WhatsApp, appear on the watch face. These pop in at the top of the screen and allow for you to pull down with a finger swipe in order to read them. Since this pop-up area isn't a large area to tap, particularly while running, it can be hard to select and read on the go. This isn't helped by the flakey touchscreen which takes a bit of getting used to. In normal mode these notifications come up in full-screen, but the option to choose size so you could do this while running too would be a nice fix.
There are also plenty of widgets that pull information in from a connected phone. This includes a weather widget that can help plan a run while out and about. New to the 630 are music controls, which require you to swipe to the control screen for access to the pause and skip buttons. It's easier than taking a phone out but probably not as simply implemented as it could be.
Garmin Forerunner 630 review: Activity and sleep tracking
Garmin now takes advantage of its myriad sensors to offer daily activity tracking, even in its running watches. The Forerunner 630 can be set to count daily steps and sleep at night. While the step-tracking can be turned on and off to save battery life, the sleep-tracking is smart activated when it detects a lack of movement. So don't go leaving the watch on the side table. Sleep tracking wasn't especially accurate in our testing - typically the amount of light sleep was greater than deep (the device segragates the two), which didn't match to what the likes of the Jawbone UP3 was telling us.
Another optional use of activity tracking is a move alert. While the screen can display bars to show movement, or lack of it, there is also the ability to see how inactive you've been and get a vibration and onscreen notification. A red bar buils on the screen edge as inactivity increases until the alert kicks in - you'll need to get active and go walking to reset it. This was first used in the Garmin Vivofit and has been adapted and upgraded for the Forerunner 630.
Garmin Forerunner 630 review: Cycling
The Forerunner 630 isn't made primarily for cycling, but there's support for it. Since you get GPS tracking it can work like a standard cycle computer. Add to that the ability to pair with heart-rate monitor and cadence sensors and it offers everything most cyclists could want.
We'd recommend ordering a Garmin bike mount if you're going to use the 630 on a bike regularly though. Wrist twisting to look at the screen at speed isn't realistically a safe way to ride. It can be done, of course, but it's far from ideal.
On the software side the Garmin data and Garmin Connect are compatible with Strava, with an auto-ping option meaning Connect can push the data direct to Strava without you needing to do anything. Or perhaps you're a staunch Connect user, in which case you've got just what you need here.
Garmin Forerunner 630 review: Software
Garmin Connect is the well-known software platform behind the company's myriad products. It's not necessarily well-known for being well-loved, though. That said, we've never really had any major problems with it and, over time, we've come to enjoy using it in app and browser form.
Both the Garmin Connect smartphone app and online browser-based platform have largely the same data available. There's access to top-level data like activity tracking, step counts, recent run metrics, routes and more. This can all be organised so you have what you want at a glance near the top. Then as you click in you can dive deeper into more detailed data.
The main issue for us, however, is that it's very data heavy and not well organised within its simplistic layout. It's a bit like using Windows or Mac OS if you're used to one or other, but not both. An example of an annoyance is finding things like race predication, VO2 max or lactate threshold on the app - these are all on the 630 itself but aren't found easily using Garmin Connect in browser form. A little more work on a seamless interface between devices, apps and online software would be great.
The Bluetooth can be glitchy here too. We froze the watch trying to turn it on and off again after auto connect didn't work a few times. Something you probably don't need to do unless conserving battery by turning Bluetooth on and off a lot. A restart did fix the problem, but that's one weakness we've spotted nonetheless.
Garmin has once again produced a compact yet comprehensively smart running companion device in the Forerunner 630. It does so much more than fitness-focused smartphone apps can manage and more than most GPS watches offer too.
Its weakness are found in a hit-and-miss screen sensitivity and a software platform that still needs to be streamlined across platforms. Despite these minor downsides the 630 is a perfectly capable device that offers a lot more than many other sports and smartwatches at this price.
For runners it's an invaluable option, for all other sports-lovers the 920XT or Fenix 3 offer more features. Beginner runners may find free apps do the trick, but if you really want to get better at running then the Forerunner 630 is a great way to improve.