TomTom Runner GPS Watch Review: A Good First Step

TomTom (the GPS so nice they named it twice) has decided to get into the crowded-but-plenty-of-room-for-improvement running watch game. The company has been making GPS devices for cars for years, so you'd think it'd be able to make a pretty good running watch. And, for the most part, it has.

What Is It?

It's a watch with GPS and accelerometer sensors, for running outdoors or on a treadmill.

Who's It For?

It's for runners who want more detailed information about their runs than an activity tracker can provide, without having to lug around their smartphones with them. Also people who get lost a lot.

TomTom Runner GPS Watch Review: A Good First Step

Design

It's a fairly slender (for a GPS watch) watch with a good-sized (1.5-inch) monochrome LCD display. Rather than having standard watch buttons, the TomTom has a four-way D-pad about a half-inch below the screen, on the wrist. From there you control all of the watch's functionality, except for turning on the backlight, which is done by tapping the right-hand side of the screen. The watch itself pops out of the band and onto the included USB charger (which is also how you sync data). You can get a black and gray wristband, or one with magenta highlights. No heart rate monitor is included, but it will pair with chest straps that use the Bluetooth 4.0 Smart (Bluetooth Low Energy) protocol. TomTom sells one for 50 bucks.

TomTom Runner GPS Watch Review: A Good First Step

Using It

Most operations are fairly intuitive, or can at least be figured out with a little fumbling around. Want to run? Press the right button, select Run (or Treadmill), then wait until the watch acquires a GPS signal. While you're waiting, if you hit the down button you can select your Training mode. Modes include Goals (time, distance, or calories), Laps (by time, distance, or manual input), Zones (pace or heart rate), or Race, which has several predetermined distances and times it thinks you should hit for those distances.

While running, your total time and distance are always displayed in small numbers at the top of the screen. By pressing up or down buttons you can cycle through various options for the main dataset in the middle of the screen. Options include time of day, duration, distance, pace, average pace, calories, heart rate, and even stride length, which it calculates using the accelerometer combined with the GPS data. Pretty smart. When using one of the training modes you get easy-to-read visual feedback about how close you are to you goals and you also get audio and vibrating alerts when you get to a milestone, lap, or fall of your pace.

TomTom Runner GPS Watch Review: A Good First Step

The watch stores your last 5+ runs (depending on how long they were). You can't see much info about them on the watch itself, but when you plug the watch into your computer, that info is uploaded, and you can then see all of your previously stored runs, including maps of them, your total distance and your average pace.

TomTom Runner GPS Watch Review: A Good First Step

The Best Part

We really liked how easy it is to set goals and the intuitive visual feedback you get on how close you are to achieving them. The vibrating alerts are great, too, since we typically run with music. It certainly has more options than most running watches, including the popular Garmin Forerunner 10.

TomTom Runner GPS Watch Review: A Good First Step

Tragic Flaw

Despite being a GPS company, and despite using its "QuickGPSFix Technology" (which is where you enter your typical location into your PC the first time you sync, so it knows where to start looking), the GPS has some problems. For starters, it takes a long time to lock onto your location. On a perfectly clear night it still took over 40 seconds to find me. On an overcast morning (not thick stormy clouds, mind you, just normal overcast) it took well over two minutes. That's unacceptable, and it would suck a lot in winter time.

Also, one time it thought I ran 1.73 miles at an average pace of 3:39/mi which would, in fact, make me the world record holder for the mile. So take that Hicham El Guerrouj, with your pathetic 3:43.13!

This Is Weird...

The watch is waterproof to 165 feet. Not that we're ever complaining about something being waterproof, it's just that this watch isn't used for swimming and I don't typically run across the ocean floor.

TomTom Runner GPS Watch Review: A Good First Step

Test Notes

  • Battery life is very good. After just over four hours of GPS-tracked runs the watch still had 60-percent of its battery remaining. This is right in alignment with the company's 10-hour claims. That should get just about anyone through a marathon, just maybe not a 100-miler.
  • The screen is a bit too reflective, which makes it tougher to see in daylight.
  • The backlight is uneven and fairly dim, making this watch fairly difficult to read at night when you're bouncing around. The capacitive "button" that turns it on is both difficult to hit intentionally, and easy to hit unintentionally. It's a riddle.

TomTom Runner GPS Watch Review: A Good First Step

  • While we love the training modes, we did find the Race section lacking. On your first use, you have to choose between running 3 miles in 25 minutes, 5K in 26 minutes, 6 miles in 50 minutes, 10K in 50 minutes, or 13.1 miles in 2 hours. Those are too fast and/or too long for a lot of runners. You should be able to enter in your intended time and distance. That said, once you've done one, then the next time you'll be challenged to beat your previous run (or your personal best), which is great, we just don't think people should be pushed too hard too early.
  • This watch doesn't work for biking, swimming, or anything else, which is kind of a bummer. But TomTom makes a Multisport version of this same watch for just $30 more. Its swimming mode has some advanced features, like counting your strokes per lap. If you swim, bike, and/or do triathlons, that 30 bucks is definitely worth it. (Note: We haven't tested that version.)
  • TomTom's metrics website is definitely still in beta. As a result, you don't get the polished, in-depth view you would on a Garmin (or RunKeeper, or Endomondo) site. It's not bad, it's just not great. We'd like to see an option to export the data to your favorite running site, like those mentioned above. UPDATE: You CAN in fact export to RunKeeper, other sites, and into standardized file formats. The reason for the confusion is that in the OSX version of the software (which is what we used), you must have the watch connected to your computer and you can only upload new runs to the website. You can't upload previously stored runs, and when the watch isn't connected, the upload options aren't shown. (On the PC version you can upload your previous runs.)
  • The heart rate monitor isn't included, but you can use pretty much any that operate on the Bluetooth 4.0 Smart Low Energy protocol. We used one from Zephyr and it connected instantly.

TomTom Runner GPS Watch Review: A Good First Step

Should I Buy It?

At $170, it's more expensive than the Garmin Forerunner 10 (which is $130, and the TomTom's closest competitor), and the Garmin is definitely easier to read, and has a faster, more accurate GPS. However, the Garmin doesn't support use of a heart rate monitor, which we have come to consider a pretty important tool, and it doesn't have nearly as many options for training. Battery life is better on the TomTom, too.

Our only real hesitation with recommending the TomTom is the GPS issue mentioned above. The wild inaccuracy only happened once (in roughly 10 runs), but it was sunny and clear at the time, and we don't know what the long-term performance would be like. We'd say buy it, but only at a place with a good return policy (like REI) in case its performance is way off. [TomTom]

TomTom Runner GPS Watch Specs:

  • Display Size: 0.85 x 1.0 inches
  • Weight: 1.75 ounces
  • Battery Life: 10 hours
  • Sensors: GPS, Compass, Accelerometer
  • Waterproof: 165 feet
  • HRM Compatible: Yes
  • Price: $170