Review: Nike+ SportWatch GPS

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While I am aware that my body generally looks like poorly mixed pizza dough spread over a misshapen skeleton, I do like to get my runs in when I can. For years I’ve tried all sorts of sports watches, from GPS devices from Garmin that looked like cigarette packages with straps to heart rate monitors that told my how hard I was working while wandering down the stairs to make a sandwich.

That’s why I was actually quite intrigued by the Nike+ SportWatch. Nike+ has long been the domain of iPod and iPhone users and the original Nike+ devices were designed to work specifically with Apple music players. Slowly, Nike weaned themselves off of the produce of Cupertino and began building standalone devices including an underpowered “sport watch” that worked with the Nike+ foot pod and now this, a more complete solution with built-in TomTom GPS sensor. It is also compatible with the Polar Wearlink+ Transmitter heart-rate transmitter, in case you also wanted to check your heart rate during the run.

The SportWatch connects to Nike+ footpods or it can grab data from orbiting GPS satellites. The footpod, actually a tiny disc-shaped device that fits inside certain Nike shoes or, with a bit of finagling, on the outside of any standard pair of running shoes, senses your footfalls and distance travelled and allows for exercise measurements indoors and in locations where GPS reception is limited. The GPS sensor, however, is quite superior to the footpod and offers an up-to-the-second read out of your speed and distance.

When you’re done with your run you simply flip down an ingenious little cover to expose a USB connector and then plug it into your Mac or PC. Your run is uploaded to the Nike+ website and stored. There you can set goals, see your performance, and even challenge other Nike+ users to races. The screen is quite readable and a built-in backlight ensures you can see how fast you’re going in the dark.

Like all sports watches, this model requires considerable discipline to gain any benefits from it at all and even those benefits – unless you’re training for a longer race – are dubious. However, I was pleased with the overall design and usability of the watch and I barely noticed it on my wrist during the few runs I took it on. Nike has done an excellent job of completely stripping out extraneous settings, even to the point of removing date and time settings and requiring a PC sync to change any settings. Many sports watches suffer from a surfeit of features all controlled with two or three inscrutable buttons. This watch basically lets you start a run and end a run and then go over previous runs. It will also remind you of upcoming planned runs. You can also tap the screen to set lap times. But, thankfully, that’s about it. Many newer watches create “ghost competitors” for you to race against and offer way too many read-outs and numbers on screen at a time. The closest thing this watch gives to feedback is a “Good run!” message when you’re done.

The watch is rechargeable and lasts about four days on one charge. You can charge it via USB in a few hours.

Again, rather than stuff this watch full of on-screen functionality, most of the magic happens in the included Nike+ app and website. For that Nike is to be commended. Most GPS watches of this sort are far too complex for their own good.

That said, does the world need another GPS watch? If I didn’t, for example, carry and iPod or iPhone with me during runs I’d say “Yes.” However, many of the features built into this watch can be replicated with a good app. But you are not always going to be carrying a few hundred dollars worth of mobile electronics with you during a 10K, so this is the next best thing.

At $199 the SportWatch is a little pricey but I would agree that you’re getting what you pay for. Again, I’m no longer a huge fan of the whole “all-in-one” sports watch system but this one performs quite admirably and is amazingly easy to use. And if it gets me out of the house for a run or two, I’m happy.

UPDATE – When I first tried the watch it consistently picked up a strong GPS signal. Over the past few runs, however, the signal has degraded considerably and my last run was GPS-free. I would not recommend this watch for urban areas or runs where the sky is overly occluded. The cardinal sin of a GPS watch is to fail during the duration of a run and this watch has committed that sin too often for me to recommend it without serious reservations.

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