(Pocket-lint) - The Motorola ACTV sees Motorola Mobility branch into a new sector. It's a bold move, taking on the established Nike+, Polar, Garmin and Timex, to name a few. But does the Motorola ACTV bring anything new to the table? Does it offer a viable alternative to those existing systems and what's it like to use?
We've been running, riding and walking with the Motorola ACTV to see what it has on offer.
The ACTV is a simple square design and at first glance it looks like an iPod nano. It's a reasonable comparison too, because like the iPod nano, it features a colour touchscreen display on the front. You'll also find a back touch button, one of the few nods to Android, which underpins the software.
Around the sides of the ACTV you'll find various buttons and controls. On the bottom is the 3.5mm headphone jack and on the left-hand side is a covered Micro-USB connector for charging. There is no cover on the headphone socket, perhaps on the assumption that you'll always be using it with headphones, but if not, it's open and exposed to dirt and water.
On the top you'll find the "workout" button and the music button. The workout button is labelled "start", which may cause a double take when you see references to the workout button mentioned. On the right-hand side you have the main power/standby button and volume controls.
The back of the ACTV is a lipped metal plate, which not only looks like good quality, but adds to the versatility of the device, as you can slide it into various different straps and holders. In the box you get a clip (like the iPod nano clip) for attaching to clothing.
Measuring 46mm square and weighing 36g, it's pretty large as watches go, but you do get a decent display size, which is vital for glancing at stats on the run. Worn with the optional Sports Wrist Strap, we've been happy using it as a regular watch, although the screen dims to save battery so you'll have to press the standby button to read the time.
The feature set of the Motorola ACTV is certainly expansive and as an expandable system, we've not been able to test every accessory that the ACTV offers and some aren't available yet. Starting with basic functions it offers music, with 8GB of internal memory, and sports watch features thanks to the on-board GPS and motion detector.
But this is a well-connected device as it has both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi too, so is fully connected to the outside world when it needs to be. It is also ANT+ compliant, so is compatible with sensors that use that system, such a heart rate chest strap. Of course, physical cable connection to your PC is needed to initially setup some of the more advanced parts of your profile on the watch, update software and sync music, but syncing activity data to motoactv.com can take place over Wi-Fi.
The Bluetooth connection will allow you to use wireless accessories, and there are Bluetooth headphones as well as a notifications link for Motorola Android handsets. We connected it to the Motorola Defy+ and found that our calls and SMS messages could be routed via the watch. We found this especially useful when riding, as it meant we could read messages and see callers, even though we chose not to answer any. You also get a neat "call back" option, so you can step off the treadmill and return that important call.
There is no external speaker, however, so if you're not wearing headphones, you won't hear anything - and this extends to any alerts relating to your workout too.
The link to your phone is currently restricted to Motorola devices and then not all - we weren’t able to access the app on the Motorola Xoom for example. It would be great to have universal support here; if Motorola made the app accessible on all devices, it would broaden the appeal of the ACTV amongst Android users.
Software and user interface
The watch works in partnership with MotoCast USB software on your PC for syncing, just as Motorola's latest tablets and smartphones do. The application will access iTunes (on the Mac we tested) and let you select various syncing criteria.
In truth, if you are using this as a sports device, you probably only really want your sporty tracks on there; Michael Bolton won't propel you to glory in quite the same way as The Prodigy might, so a running playlist might be a smart move, although you can allocate "fitness songs" on the ACTV itself, which basically creates your fitness playlist.
The ACTV is based around a carousel-style interface at the top level. This gives you five screens to swipe through, from left-right offering: settings, workout, clock, music, notifications. Each section then lets you tap through to a menu (except the clock) to get to the relevant details.
There are shortcuts too. A long press on the workout button takes you directly to the workout section and you get the same from music. If you're playing music you get start/stop and track skipping options with multiple button presses. If you're "working out" a quick press of the button will let you pause your workout. From within the menus, a long press on the back button will return you to the clock, so getting around is fairly swift after you get familiar with the system.
All of this is important because navigating the device with the buttons is easier when running than using the touchscreen. You'll still need to use the screen, so if you live in colder climates, consider investing in some touchscreen-friendly gloves (we used Agloves).
Navigating music, particularly finding new music to play, is a little fiddly on the run because you have to use the menu system to navigate to the playlist, album, artist or genre and then scroll through lists. Better to organise your playlist than scroll through hundreds of tracks.
Fortunately the bundled headset offers a single button control that will give you start/stop/skip controls, including firing up your "performance music" with a long press. The bundled headset is of the over-the-ear type, so nice and secure when out running and includes an in-line mic too for taking calls.
The performance of the headset isn't the best however, even if it is comfortable. We found it lacked bass delivery on the sort of upbeat tracks we prefer when out running, although you do get two types of in-ear tips so you can choose music performance or sports specific. We also found that the ACTV was happy to be controlled by the Klipsch Image S4A headphones, which offers single-button control.
There is an FM radio on board, as well as a separate section for podcasts. In terms of sport-specific functions, aside from fitness and performance songs, the ACTV also tracks your performance during particular songs. After an initial phase of collating data (we think it's four workouts) it will give you a section with your "performance songs" in.
Of course the main component of the Motorola ACTV is the sport functions. As we've said, you can combine it with a number of sensors to collect more data, but in its basic form it offers GPS and accelerometer/pedometer. The latter will need to be calibrated to provide reliable statistics, but will then offer to keep track of your daily activity, giving you your steps and calories burnt for an entire day, rather than just your dedicated workout time. This does take its toll on the battery however.
One of the biggest problems with Nike+, is that it doesn't care about anything but running. Sure, you can use it walking without making much of a difference, but anything you do will affect your averages. The ACTV has different options for running, cycling, walking, as well as elliptical trainers and step machines. It also lets you specify whether you are indoors or outdoors, so it's perfectly happy to see you through your gym sessions too.
During a workout your stats are displayed on the screen and you can swipe through different views. The total time sits at the top of the display and the default pace, calories, time and map route (which isn't especially useful on such a small display) can all be customised. You can choose between three and six metrics to display, including things like calories, distances, heart rate, interval intensity, laps, speed, step rate, and time, including time in HR zone or pace zone and various averages and options therein.
Being able to pick what you want to be displayed is fantastic. Cyclists might want speed rather than pace, walkers might be more interested in step rate. You can also make these customisations in each of the different sports, so you can setup different metrics for running and cycling, for example.
You can setup a tap shortcut to read your stats to you and you can have the ACTV tell you when you enter a particular zone through the "coaching" section. You can also sign-up for training programmes via motoactv.com, which will see the watch reminding you what you should be doing on a particular day, what intervals you should be doing and so on. It's a comprehensive system.
You also get the option to setup different bikes, so if you have fixie, road and mountain bikes, you can set up the wheel size and bike weight appropriately. The only thing we can't find a way to do is switch between activities without stopping the workout, so if you are a triathlete doing a BRICK session you can't get that as one workout, like you get on the Garmin Forerunner.
One thing we do really like, however, is being able to slip the ACTV off the wrist strap and onto the bike. Sure you could have a Forerunner and an Edge from Garmin and enjoy the same system that way, but we like this universal approach, although as well explain, it won't suit everyone.
All your activity is collated through motoactv.com. It's a shame that the Android app doesn't sync and offer stats and data too and we hope Motorola consider this for the future, as it would be really nice to check an app rather than a mobile browser.
Motoactv.com is impressive though. It's easy to get to your training sessions and plan new ones. There are training programmes you can sign up for, which then populate the calendar and sync to your device. You can setup custom workouts, including intervals, and sync those too. That means you can be sitting at work, log-on, see what you've done, change plans and that's it. As long as you sync your device - wirelessly - the changes will be reflected on the ACTV too.
There is also plenty of information to crunch through. You can look at different metrics in your stats, you have access to graphs and tables. You can even view the music data and see what you've been listening too, and for how many miles. You can set goals for yourself and track your progress and if you so desire, you can download a CSV file of workout data to import into a different system. It's well designed and laid out and feels like a more mature offering than Nikeplus.com.
And, of course, you can share your progress via a link to Facebook and Twitter.
In reality we feel the displayed details could be bigger, but we didn't actually have a problem reading the stats thanks to the size and the black on white display. As we've said, swiping between screens or menus on the run can be a little fiddly, although not to the point where we got frustrated. We've tried sports watches with buttons that don't always respond, we've tried some that need you to tap the rim. Running and interacting with a watch can be troublesome, but that's true of all devices.
We found that the GPS pickup took a while, but was fast enough once outside. You can run without GPS and we did log some runs without collecting GPS data by accident – so it's worth waiting for confirmation before you start. We've become accustomed to placing GPS watches outside whilst we strap on the trainers and lock up the house, and that just about sorts the ACTV out.
We also found the GPS trace to be accurate to our route when we viewed it over at motoactv.com, although this will vary from place to place, proximity of tall buildings and so on.
The advantage that the ACTV has over some devices is the illuminated display. Running in the gloom of winter is a pleasure as it's easy to see your stats no matter what the conditions. We also didn't have a problem in bright sunshine. The downside of this display, ultimately, is battery life.
When it comes to the battery, there is plenty going on that will drain it. Music, GPS, capacitive display illumination, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, motion sensors. Some of these things can be switched off, but still, the ACTV won't last long between charges. Wearing it as a regular watch (with everything off), we got about a week from it. The Nike+ SportWatch, by comparison, will give you about a month.
You'll also see the battery life drain on long runs. If you are a ultramarathoner or long distance cyclist, you'll find it won't last to the end of the race. Using it predominantly for running is fine, but if you want something to track your crack at the Etape, you might want to look elsewhere.
Overall there is plenty to love about the Motorola ACTV. It is sophisticated, it looks good and it's easy to use. It does just about everything you could ask of it, as well as being compatible with a range of other sensors and devices to make it a sophisticated sports system. Linking to your phone it merely the cherry on top.
But it's also a respectable investment. At £249 this is a serious companion and for those serious about running, then that's probably acceptable, given the range of features it offers. Of course it won't suit everyone as people have different requirements.
Although we've used the ACTV in the rain and washed mud off it from our rides, it isn't really waterproof. It won't survive in the swimming pool so it's not as adept as some watches for multisport athletes. The battery life won't suit anyone going long, but we'd guess that for the majority of runners in training, it will be fine.
So to conclude, we're happy to recommend the Motorola ACTV. We were unsure about how well it would perform, but it has won us over. It does just about everything and as long as you are aware of the shortcomings, it's a very capable training companion.