Garmin Goes For A Biathlon With The Multifaceted Forerunner 15

As a long time runner, Garmin GPS watches are as beloved to me as a nice pair of trainers. I ran my first (and last) marathon with a Garmin watch that looked like a giant candy bar that had melted onto my wrist and have used their watches for years. That’s why I was interested in their latest offering, the Forerunner 15, a small, entry-level watch that looks more like a Timex Ironman than a fully-featured GPS device with built-in training tools.

The 15 is also unique in that it offers two modes – a Fitbit-like movement tracker that can count your steps and a full-blown run mode that takes GPS readings as you exert yourself and can play back your runs, your heart rate, and your performance when you get back to the house. In a way it’s the best of both worlds.

This Garmin is by no means the top of the line training tool. It doesn’t have Garmin’s virtual trainer, a system that encourages you to run faster and through different routines to improve performance, nor does it support ANT+ connections to treadmills and computers. It also only supports running or walking, not biking or other activities. In short, it’s a dedicated running watch that doesn’t cost much and can replace both your old running watch and your fitness tracker.

The Hardware

The Forerunner 15 is surprisingly thin and light. It comes with a docking adapter that allows you to connect it to your computer and you can add a wireless heart rate monitor and foot pod to sense your performance on the road or indoors.

Battery life is about 5 hours in running mode – I saw about 3 hours on a charge during my runs – but Garmin claims this thing can hit five weeks in fitness tracking mode. Like Garmin’s Vivofit, this is an eternity compared to competing trackers. I can’t get more than a week out of my Fitbit Force, for example, and the Basis watch lasted about three days on a charge.

Getting started is easy. You turn it on, enter a bit of personal info, and start running. The system senses compatible heart rate bands and will connect to GPS satellites automatically. Automatic lap systems allow you to see how fast you’re going per mile. You charge it using the dock – there is no direct USB connection – so you can’t plug the watch directly into a computer without the dock.

Step tracking on the go worked fine while step tracking on a treadmill – my walking desk – was hit or miss. On the aggregate, however, it was a good indication of how much I walked during the day.

Now for the bad news: the GPS latch on is very slow on the 15. Whereas I’ve had some issues with my Nike+ watch picking up GPS satellites within a few long minutes after I started running, the 15 picks up satellites about five to seven minutes into my runs, which reduces the distance travelled in my records. Arguably I am in the middle of urban Brooklyn where the sun rarely shines and a clear view of the sky is often marred by chimneys, water towers, and gibbets from which depend AWOL sailors who strayed too far into pirate waters (not really), so GPS signal lock-in is difficult at best and impossible at worst. That said, you should take special care if you intend to use this unit in a big city.

In the country, however, lock-in happened in a minute or so and I was off and running without problems. I suspect the antenna in this watch is far smaller than it is for more expensive models. But, at $169 without heart rate monitor ($199 with) it’s still a good deal. I suspect firmware updates will improve this experience over time.

The real tool here is Garmin’s new Connect system. Connect is a web-based tracker for all of your Garmin devices and lets you see your performance, tracks your runs, and even allows you to compete against other Garmin users. It’s a great improvement over previous Garmin solutions, including some inscrutable apps I’ve used with these devices over the years. The system shows maps of your runs, can tell you how many steps you’ve taken in a day, and even allows you to view data from multiple devices. It’s a great platform and a solid improvement over previous versions.

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Again, the Forerunner 15 is Garmin’s entry-level running device. It’s thin (for a GPS device), wearable, and has a great standby battery life. While the GPS lock-on could be better and the running battery life longer, I wouldn’t hesitate switching to this from a non-GPS watch. My longtime favorite, the Nike+ Sportwatch, is now ensconced in my drawer while I try the 15, and I may not return to Nike if this model improves in terms of satellite lock on. That said, it is a very basic sports watch and heavy users might want to consider something higher up the food chain. If you’re looking for a fitness tracker with occasional run information, however, this is your watch.

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