Garmin Forerunner 205/305 GPS Wristwatch follows up on my review of the Nike+ system (see here). I've used both of these systems extensively (> six months of regular use each), and my goal here is to explain why I much prefer the Garmin Forerunner.
If you want a personal running computer that will allow you to take your running to the next level and permit you to mix up your training runs with speed and long distance, you're going to need something more than Nike+. I, unfortunately, am a perfectionist, and the inaccuracy of the pacing and distance data provided by Nike+ continually bugged me (and I was growing tired of mapping my runs on-line to figure out actual distances that I had covered). So, after about six months of consistent use, I decided to relegate the Nike+ to the treadmill only, and I asked Santa for a Garmin Forerunner 205 for Christmas (thanks Mom and Dad, I mean Santa, if you read this!). Sure enough, the fancy new GPS wristwatch was in my stocking, and it has not been absent from my wrist during a run in over a year. Simply stated, this is one of the coolest and most useful gadgets of any kind that I own, and it has allowed my running to progress in ways that probably would not have otherwise occurred.
First, let me explain the difference between the two current-generation Garmin Forerunner models (a fancy new model is on the way - the Garmin Forerunner 310 XT - but I'll explain why I'd still go for one of the current ones for now if you're considering a purchase). The two current models are the Forerunner 305 (the red one in the picture above) and the Forerunner 205 (the blue one in the picture above). The only real differences between the two watches (besides color) are that the 305 can sync with an included heart rate monitor, an optional footpod acceleromoter (for the treadmill), and an optional speed-and-cadence sensor for your bike. Otherwise, from what I can gather, they are identical, and the 305 is only about $10.00-$15.00 more than the 205 at Amazon. Given the minor price difference, most of the links here are to the 305 since I feel it is probably well worth an extra ten dollars to upgrade to this model (I wish I had done so, but the price difference was much greater a year ago).
So, I have now been using the Forerunner 205 regularly for over a year, and I have absolutely nothing but good things to say about it. The pacing data is right on (I have run enough chip-timed races with the 205 to verify this), as is the distance data. In addition to time, current pace, and distance, I have three data screens (which is the max on the 205/305) set up to show such variables as average pace, elevation, percent grade, calories burned, and time of day. Of all of these, the only one that seems somewhat iffy from time to time is the elevation, though if you smooth it out in one of the training programs that syncs with the Forerunner, elevation patterns look pretty good as well. So far, I have pretty much exclusively used the Forerunner in its most basic mode - to simply track my data while I run. It is possible to configure things like training/pacing partners and interval workouts on the watch, and to use it as a (very) basic real-time GPS mapping device for things like hiking, but I haven't used it much for this. In addition to running, I have used it while walking, snowshoeing, and biking (less extensively), and it works great for all of the above.
For me, the two features that matter most from a training and racing standpoint are accurate pacing and distance measurements, and as I said above this is where the Forerunner blows away the Nike+. I actually trust the Forerunner more than most of the on-line mapping programs when it comes to calculating distance, and being able to import all of my data into the computer is great. For the latter, I have skipped the included Garmin Training Center software and instead use an amazing, free program called Sportracks. Sportracks downloads all of the data from the Forerunner and lets you look at it in almost any way that you could possibly want. Here are a few examples:
First, here's a route map I recorded from a recent 5k race I did at Epcot Center in Florida - The Royal Family 5k (my race report for this one is here). I picked this route map since many people will recognize what's on here (Spaceship Earth, aka the "Big Ball," is near the whitish are in the center; you can click on the image for a bigger view).
Second, here's an entire screen capture from Sportracks that shows data (route map and mile splits) recorded during my running of the Vermont City Marathon (again, you can click on it for a bigger view; my Vermont City Marathon race report is here):
The data from the above screen can also be graphed in a number of ways. First, here's a split chart showing how I "hit the wall" in Vermont (the scribble was my addition from another blog post - I only wish the Forerunner was smart enough to tell me I was in trouble at the time, but it can't do everything I guess):
Lastly, here's a pace vs. elevation chart from my running of the incredibly hilly Manchester City Half-Marathon last November (probably my best ever race - no race report on this one):
To summarize the analysis and performance tracking options available for your training and racing are nearly limitless. As a scientist who loves data, Garmin Forerunner + Sportracks makes me one very happy runner.
A few last comments and I'll stop esposing my love for all things Garmin. One of the concerns I initially had about these watches was their size. Yes, they are big, but I have never noticed it as a nuisance while running, and I actually think the size is a positive rather than a negative since it makes it easier to read your data on the run. This is one of the major reasons why I would probably never consider the smaller Forerunner 405 - if you pack too many data streams on a small screen then things are awful hard to read at mile 20 of a marathon. The other concern someone in the market for a GPS watch might have is the forthcoming new Garmin Forerunner 310 XT. As I explained in my preview post for this model, it would take a lot for me to spend an extra $100-$200 to choose to purchase the new 310 XT over the current 305. The new watch looks cool, and the wireless sync feature is nice, but I don't really care if I can dive to 50m with it on. If for some reason I'm out for a run and I wind up 50m underwater, I probably won't be resurfacing to make it back home anyway (though in all seriousness, I can see how the 310 XT might be useful to a triathlete. For me, I'll stick with the 205/305.
Hopefully I've given you a feel for what the Garmin Forerunner 205/305 can do. Really, there's probably a lot more that it is capable of than what I have discussed here, but the best way to experience it is to try it out. As a runner who has now completed 1,266.01 miles (I love accuracy!) with the Garmin Forerunner 205 (and it's still going strong, with no major problems), I can honestly say that next to my running shoes, this is the most essential piece of running gear that I own. I highly recommend the Forerunner - get one and you won't be disappointed.
Update 3/31/2010: Garmin has just released a new "entry-levl" Forerunner - the Garmin Forerunner 110.
Note - as I mentioned above, prices are dropping on the current model Forerunners. Amazon is now selling the Garmin Forerunner 305 for around $150.00 (price fluctuates daily - see below for current price), which seems like a pretty good deal relative to where they were a year ago. The Forerunner 205 is about $20.00 less. I've also added a link below to the Forerunner 405, which is smaller (i.e., more wrist-watch like in size), though more expensive than the 205/305, as well as some accessories that sync with the 305 and 405.
Amazon offers free shipping for any order over $25.00, which would clearly apply to most of the items below.
Feel free to drop me a comment if you have any thoughts about this review or can think of anything that I've missed.
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