02/10/2013 08:30 | By Dan Sung, contributor, MSN Tech

TomTom Runner review

GPS sports watch to whip you into shape

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What is it?
The TomTom Runner is a waterproof GPS sports watch that maps exactly where you’ve run and how fast you’ve done so, with plenty of modes to spur you own.

What’s great?
The in-run performance monitoring is really nice, as is the feedback to help keep your pace right.

What’s not?
It doesn’t look that great, the GPS takes an age before you can begin and some of the features need refining.

The bottom line:
It’s a really nice first stab at this from TomTom. Once they clean the Runner up a little bit, it’s going to be good. For now, though, it’s not quite ready.

TomTom Runner (© TomTom)

TomTom Runner: Review

You may know TomTom as that gadget inside your car but, go and have a chat with the Dutch company and you’ll find that it’s navigation software that it’s all about. After all, anyone can make black plastic casings and stuff them with circuit boards. So, it should be of no surprise then that TomTom has crammed all of its GPS tracking and mapping know-how into another form factor ready for alternative market of customers - the runner.

There are already plenty of wearable tech bits and pieces for the fitness fiend with wristwear from Fitbit, Nike and Garmintoo covering a lot of the bases. The TomTom Runner and sibling, the Multi-Sports GPS watch, though, aren’t just bringing the company’s navigational accuracy heritage but also the idea of giving you in-task performance information to help you achieve your fitness goals.

So does it work? Are we at MSN Tech now faster, fitter and healthier. Well, we’re not, but the watch isn’t too bad.

TomTom Runner: Smart watch?

The fact that we were sent the pink TomTom Runner watch to try out probably has something to do with this - not that we have anything against pink - but this isn’t a particularly nice looking piece of kit. And, yes, that counts for something given that this is a watch for all occasions as well as a fitness companion.

It’s nearly right but it looks a bit like it was designed as part of the utility chic wave of the late 1990s and not in a good way. It’s overly boxy and looks too much like a toy to have any real style value. Fortunately, you can remove the main face, which houses the d-pad control and on-board computer, and clip on a different coloured strap. Even then, though, it’s still physically quite a hard sell given that there are other non-GPS watches that we’d rather wear.

Granted, one could simply strap on the Runner for exercise times only but it’s still something of a missed trick here and it would only take another sports watch to do it better for us to want to change devices.

Getting away from aesthetics, however, we still found an issue with the design in terms of functionality. The buckle relies on using a rubber band to hold in the excess strap and what tends to happen as you run is that that band slips higher and higher up until the excess ends up flapping about untethered and that can become quite irritating and prevent the Runner from tucking into your sleeve when you're just wearing it out and about.

In all, it’s a bit of a shame on the design front. The TomTom Runner has clearly been well thought out from the customisable look all the way down to the control pad housed in the strap itself but it feels like it’s missing the touch of someone in the fashion world to really finish it off. On the plus side, there is the huge bonus that it's waterproof whether you're caught in a shower, having a shower or swimming down to 50m.

TomTom Runner (© Dan Sung)

TomTom Runner: GPS and the basics  

The 22 x 25mm watch display and GPS and GLONASS satellite tracker inside the TomTom Runner is pretty much all you need to get moving. There’s quite a few different running modes, which we’ll get to in a minute, but basic operation is simple enough to grasp once you realise that, quite sensibly, TomTom has not opted to go touchscreen on this watch. It’d be both frustrating and a little too fiddly to be able to use it while on the run, especially when it’s wet.

The menus are laid out rather like when a 6-sided dice is folded out flat and you move the d-pad to navigate to each one. It’s a similar UI design to that used by the Windows Phone mobile OS. One click to the right, then select Run and you’re away. Well, sort of.

It’s at this point that your TomTom Runner needs to get a solid GPS lock to work out exactly where you are before you start running. It’s called the QuickGPSFix but the truth of the matter is that there’s little that’s quick about it. It can take a few minutes to find its location and that’s even when outside on a clear day. We tried setting it off while indoors and still getting ready for our exercise but whatever we attempted, using this watch always seems to mean hanging around at your start point waiting to feel that buzz on your wrist.

At this point, we’d also like to mention a further word to the wise. Once locked on, your watch will tell you to go. Don’t go. Press to the right once more and then go, otherwise it won’t record any of your run at all. Obvious once you know but it’s not a lot of fun making that mistake for the one and only time that you might.

Once you’re away, the watch will display you pace, your run time or even how close you are to achieving your run goals, if you’ve programmed them in. It’ll also show you your heart rate if you buy, wear and pair up the heart rate accessory.

TomTom Runner: Ghosts and goals

Probably the most impressive feature of the TomTom Runner is the accuracy with which it maps your movements once you start on your way. Sure, it takes a while for the GPS to lock on but, once it does, it never lets go. We tried shaking it by getting on a train and going through some tunnels while supposedly running and it didn’t have any problems with keeping tabs on us at all.

For the serious runner, however, there is far more to this device than simply start, stop and how did I do. The real draw of this watch over the competition is the feedback it can offer during your exercise. You can set goals of distance, time or calories burned and the display will tell you how far through each you are including wrist vibrations at half way and when just a few per cent remaining to spur you on. You can also get it to monitor laps, if that’s how you’re running, and it will count either distance around or the time it’s taking you to do each one.

Possibly the most frightening, and frighteningly effective, of all of them though, is the Zones section which will buzz you when your pace drops or goes too high. It’s a little like having your PE teacher shouting at you the moment you start slacking off.

Last of all is Race which is where you get to go up against a ghost runner. You pick which race you want to do and the Runner lets you know how far ahead your opponent is. It’s an excellent idea and incredibly motivating. The only issue is that there’s only five possible races available at the time of writing - 3 miles in 25 minutes, 5km in 26 minutes, 6 miles in 50 minutes, 10km in 50 minutes and 13.1 miles in 2 hours. Anyone else spot that two pairs of these are basically the same? What’s more, once you’ve mastered those, there’s no way to change them and up the ante. Pity.

TomTom MySports (© TomTom)

TomTom Runner: Progress software  

Another facet of this sports watch that we weren’t entirely happy with is the software. Once you’ve plugged in and transferred the up to five runs that the Runner can store in its memory, you can view the results on the TomTom web platform. To do it it’s dues, it does say clearly in the top corner that the software is in beta but that then ‘beta’ suggests ‘not fit for release’, so perhaps that wasn’t such a good idea?

What we’re getting at is that the information is quite bare. For the £149.99, we were expecting some kind of revolutionary graphic display of our running habits and an analysis of how we could improve. In reality, you get a map and a handful of stats.

They’re not all bad. It’s good to see how one’s pace varies at different points in the run. The elevation is good to note too, but there’s not a whole lot more unless you invest in the heart rate monitor and something to measure your stride pattern. Still, you can at least plug the Runner’s data into other fitness apps you might be using, so it’s not something you need to rely on if you don’t want to.

TomTom Runner: Battery and charging

The TomTom Runner is Li-ion battery based. So, like your phone and your tablet, it needs charging - fortunately, not quite as often, and it's very quick when you do. Vibration alerts certainly take the juice out of it pretty quickly but it lasts impressively long when in standby or, effectively, pure watch mode. The five runs that it can store is probably a good indication of when it’s time to plug it in again.

Speaking of which, we’re not entirely sure about the means of plugging in the Runner. It’s a micro USB affair at the computer end, which is fine, but at the watch side, there’s a specific dock that you need to use instead of another micro USB socket. That’s not the end of the world by any means but it’s not a lot of fun when you can’t find it and there’s no other option with which you can improvise.

TomTom Runner: Verdict

It’s a little tough to give what is a really well thought out, fun sports watch a three-star grade because it deserves to do better. The trouble is that, like the web software, it’s just a little bit beta at the moment. The physical design needs to be more attractive and the modes just a little more tweaked along with the activity collator application before it can become an integral part of your exercise regime. More crucially, though, the GPS needs to lock on more quickly and the watch should fit a little bit better too.

Nonetheless, there’s plenty of potential in the TomTom Runner and there’s lots of hope for the next generation of this GPS running device.

3 stars

Tom Tom Runner: Available now £149.99 - Check the latest prices with Bing   

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