I recently took advantage of the Amazon Prime sale to buy a Garmin Forerunner 235 watch. I’ve now used it for half a week and two whole runs, so this is an "early impressions" review.
Clearly I don’t yet know the Garmin well and I am very much learning how to use it, so apologies to those of you who have been long term users and please feel free to correct/guide in the comments.
So, I’ve had my Apple Watch for almost 3.5 years, bought in Feb 2016. It’s a Series 1 (which, confusingly, is the second model to come out). It does not have built in GPS, meaning it is a slave to your iPhone for GPS. But you can run without a phone - it will uses its accelerometers to guesstimate your position after you’ve done a few runs with a phone. I never tested this as it also relies on the phone for music, and I haven’t yet run without music.
It served me extremely well as a smart watch to accompany an iPhone. Up front I will say the Garmin is slightly disappointing in this respect - it offers some smart watch functionality but the Apple Watch is much more integrated and flexible. Hardly a surprise, really, given the Garmin is a running watch with smart watch functionality, and the Apple Watch is a smart watch with exercise functionality.
All through Couch to 5k my Apple Watch served me reasonably well. It gave me the ability to put in a time or distance target and run it, it let me thread together the warm up walk, the run, the cool down walk and yet keep my running stats separated. It gave you a "halfway" alert so that my out-and-back routes worked. The Activity app had what felt like a wealth of data.
It had problems.
During my raining run, the touch screen wasn’t happy. This interfered with me loading in the running phase; setting a half distance sector; ending the run; saving it all.
The heart rate monitor was incredibly flakey. It worked perfectly during the day but, whilst running and when I got a sweat on, forget it. Even really tightening the strap didn’t help. Basically, if I sweat, it fails to record my heart rate. No biggie - time and distance are what really matter to me - but it hampered my ability to note my progress getting fitter by seeing my average heart rate fall.
The battery life was also an issue. Obviously my watch is nearing the end of its useable life - the battery will have been recharged well over 1200 times by now. On a non-running day, when I put the watch on charge it usually had 30-50% left. Ample. But on a running day once I was doing 4k and 5k runs it would regularly fail to make it to bedtime without going into low power mode and twice it shutdown completely.
But I was used to the Activity app and using it became one of those "rabbit's foot" things surrounding my runs - change that and the magic might evaporate and suddenly I’d find myself unable to run any more!
My plan was to upgrade to the latest version of the Apple Watch as a Christmas present to myself this year. The new one has built in GPS, can store music, and (if you choose and if, unlike me, you are on EE only at the moment) full phone functionality all without the phone.
Then some people (you know who you are!) started gushing about their Garmin watches. And some were talking about things like cadence and pace. And all of these runs were going up on to Strava automagically.
So I started looking at the Garmin watches and came to the conclusion that the best balance of functionality and cost would be the Forerunner 235. So I changed my plan for Christmas and I would get one of these, saving about £200.
Then Amazon Prime Day and they cut about £35 off the price. So I sprung for one.
First impressions were good - although it is pretty much all plastic, it looks quite smart. The footprint is similar to the Apple Watch and it looks like one of those slightly oversized fashion watches. It is a fair bit more prominent and the heart sensor noticeably sticks out and into your arm. (I haven’t found this uncomfortable despite almost constant wear.)
Installing the Garmin Connect app and pairing the watch was easy. I took the precaution of fully charging the watch first (about 2 hours) and in that time removed and reset the Apple Watch.
The little "quick start" manual is good but there is a much better, 20 A4 page manual available online, and this really is essential reading. Google "Garmin Forerunner 235 manual" - there is a webpage version and a printable version.
A nice feature is the one button press to see your past 4 hours heart rate history, and another shows you your daily average resting heart rate over the past week. This wouldn’t work at all at first, and it turned out that the watch was midway through installing a software upgrade.
The display is "always on" (unlike the Apple Watch) and the default face is plain, simple, readable. You only really need use the backlight in darkness.
Using it for running (which is the main point) is simplicity. A couple of button clicks and you are running. You can set up all manner of things like multi-step workouts, including warm up and warm downs, but I’ve just used the basic "run" mode.
You can set alerts for time/distance/calories to tell you every time you reach a value. So I have it set to tell me every 500m so I know when to turn halfway through a 5k.
(I will probably change this back to the default of 1k now I have found another feature. You can set an alert for a turning point a certain time or distance out. For my 5.5k it let me set 2.75k, which is brilliantly flexible.)
After your run you press one button to stop. You can press it again to resume (great for crossing roads etc). Or you can press the down button to select “save” and press the original button again. Simples. This then sends the run to Garmin Connect and, if you have chosen, on to Strava where it can be published automagically.
After a run the watch tells you your recovery time. After my 5k it said 68 hours. After today’s 5.5k run it said 3 days. It also shows your VO2 max estimate. These values need to learn from several runs and the manual warns you about this, so I’m taking them with a pinch of salt at the moment.
After each run, the Garmin Connect app has an immense amount of detail, basically just about everything the paid for Strava offers, as far as I can tell. I can now see my cadence and pace, overlay my heart rate or the elevation, see my splits and so much info about each split. For a stats person, it is amazing.
Another great feature, not on my radar at all, is the sleep monitoring function. Because the watch only needs charging a little more than once a week, you can wear it through the night. It senses your sleep stages (I’m not clear how but it must be movement and heart rate-based) and reports how much sleep you have had, with graphs of movement and depth of sleep. The Apple Watch can do this with third party Apps, but you'd need to charge the watch before bedtime.
You can have alerts from your phone come up on the watch. For the iPhone it isn’t easy to manage which ones - it seems too have to pretty much turn off the alerts on the phone to stop them coming up on the watch. (On the Apple Watch you can very easily control this on an app by app basis.)
I am on a busy WhatsApp group and my office colleague asked me to "please stop that thing buzzing" (or words to that effect). I’ve now turned this feature off!
I am very much still learning the Garmin and a bit awestruck about how much data it records, and I can already see how useful a lot of this information will be. It was a good purchase.
I am not knocking the Apple Watch at all - it is a fantastic smart watch. But the Garmin is a better running watch.
Happy to try to answer any questions, happy to receive any hints and tips.