Chis Dwyer is the creator of One ___ at a Time. His blog One ___ at a Time is a big adventure into the little-known endurance sport of astro-athleticism and all things “stickin-it-to-the-man”. It intertwines his passion for planetary salvation, athletic empowerment, home-energy renovation, community enrichment, and general mischief. Chris is a regular and favorite blogger, Ironman extraordinaire, and close friend of us here at Fitness Electronics Blog. Today he is reviewing the Garmin 910XT, and giving us his real life experiences with the GPS multisport watch. Check out his website at http://oneblankatatime.blogspot.com.
For the last six years, I’ve merely trained and raced with a low-frill, yet trusty, Nike heart rate monitor and a not-so-trusty bike-mounted Sigma odometer. Prior to this week, I was a complete virgin to GPS watches. The good news is that I’ve lost my GPS virginity and have found each experience with the Forerunner 910xt radically better than that first clumsy encounter. This review is certainly not exhaustive of all the features on the 910xt, but merely an introduction to the equipment coming from the perspective of someone who is generally a minimalist when it comes to training with gizmos.
Why I Don’t Have a GPS Watch
Being a triathlete, the Garmin Forerunner 310xt had been on my Christmas wish list for many years. But I could never bite the bullet financially, hearing tales from the tri community that the 310xt had trouble logging swim distance/pace. The satellite connection was supposedly erratic when the watch went under water. In truth, the 310xt “isn’t really a triathlon watch, but a multisport watch”, confessed the Garmin rep at a Spinning conference I attended in Miami. I felt almost-duped. She asked me, “Then, why don’t you just get a GPS watch for runners and forget the bike mount and the swim capabilities altogether?” Instead, I decided, “I’ll just wait till the bugs are worked out, so I can get what the ‘triathlon watch’ is supposed to be.”
Why I Got the Forerunner 910xt
My good friends at the Fitness Electronics Blog were sweethearts last week and asked if I wouldn’t mind testing the Garmin Forerunner 910xt. It seemed like a peace offering given in place of what I really wanted—them, riding with me, in my first ever do-it-yourself ultra-distance triathlon I called DWYRMAN. Unfortunately, they couldn’t come due to their newborn baby, the bar exam, and general life craziness. DWYRMAN was supposed to be a celebration of summer with some of my best cycling, swimming, and running friends. The course was to circumnavigate five state parks with lakes around Cincinnati, passing through Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky, totaling 5 miles of open water swimming, 190 miles cycling, and 32 miles running. It was all theoretically possible based on my tinkering with maps and recon rides over the years. My Fitness Electronics Blogger friends thought the 910xt would be a cool addition to the DWYRMAN in their absence.
How the Forerunner 910xt Faired
As the host of DWYRMAN, my mind was primarily focused on making sure everyone was having a good time, being safe, and getting our mission accomplished. While riding without my glasses, I had difficulty navigating the digital architecture of the zillions of features. The additional stimuli on my wrist completely flustered me. I had a hard time figuring out what all the numbers meant and which of the six buttons did what. It was just information overload. Race day is not a good day for one’s first orientation to new gear. So when we got to the first open water swim, I had to ask for tech support from my buddy Rob, a Garmin-devotee, and he changed the settings for me to “open water swim mode. This is where it got cool.
We took off toward the opposite shore of the lake. When we got to the other side, the watch indicated that I had gone 506 yards. Rob’s watch said 501 yards, but I’m pretty sure he swims straighter than me, which could explain the discrepancy. Then we turned 90 degrees and swam along the shore and traced out a triangular path. The watch indicated ~28:00 and ~1600 yards back at the boat ramp, so we called it a “Kentucky mile.” From the image below, you’ll see I forgot to hit STOP on the watch.
At the upper left vertex of the triangle, the satellites think I went up on shore, but I didn’t. So the map features have bomb-dropping, but not fly-swatting, precision.
Throughout DWYRMAN race day, I basically ignored the watch except for the open water swim sessions. I’ve come to discover that there is basically a six-workout learning curve for a newbie to figure out the full power of A) the watch in the field and B) the Garmin Connect data analysis back home. I needed two workouts in each triathlon discipline to finally have that eureka moment.
The night before DWYRMAN, John handed me a zip lock bag containing the Forerunner 910xt contents: 1) watch (with the rubber wrist-strap option)
2) heart rate monitor
3) USB recharger
4) ANT+ device
Strike 1 – The Software
I first went to the Garmin website and try to find a “Quick Start” manual, which was easy. But then I devoted 45 frustrating minutes proving that despite meeting the system requirements, my MacBook with Mac OS X 10.4.11 operating system was incapable of downloading the second of the two necessary software packages – 1) Garmin Connect for analyzing your data, and 2) ANT+ hardware installation (for wirelessly uploading the watch’s data to your computer).
It wasn’t until after DWYRMAN that I resorted to using my wife’s newer MacBook (with the Mac OS X 10.6.8 operating system). It took about one hour to install the softwares and upload my first workouts. Since that first lengthy installation process, uploads from the watch to the ANT+ have been wireless and easy, which is cool. All you do is turn the watch on when it’s within 5 feet of the ANT+. By the time I checked my email for the day, my first 15 workouts were uploaded from the watch to my desktop. Details of each could be explored ad nauseam. The details are where it gets really fun and nerdy.
The Summary page in Garmin Connect shows all workouts and is sort-able– by date, sporting discipline, duration, etc. Workouts show up as “untitled” files, but can be re-named by route or date or whatever you like. They can also be exported as *.CSV files for easy manipulation in common spreadsheet software like Excel.
As soon as the workout is over, it’s fun watching the data re-tell the story of the workout. Where was I trying my hardest to keep up with traffic? Did I let my heart rate sink too low while coasting down that hill? How long was that potty break at the gas station?
One weakness of the watch showed up in while lap swimming. The screenshot below is from a swim that lasted about 60 minutes. It included an extended warm up drill and then some 100 yard repeats—all freestyle, mind you. So, why does the 910xt think that I threw in a length of backstroke after completing a length in 0.0 seconds? I can only hope that the quirks like this average themselves out over the course of the workout.
- Accurate swim distance
- Comfortable heart rate strap
- Heart rate signal detected almost immediately
- Heart rate strap is waterproof
- The fully charged battery lasted just over 15 hours on day one of DWYRMAN
- Not overly big and clunky like older Garmin watches
- Can measure everything important in a multitude of ways:
- Heart Rate (beats/min, % of max, zone #, average),
- Speed (Instantaneous, average)
- Pace (instantaneous, average)
- Strokes, Power, Cadence, %Grade, Altitude, Position,
- Communicates with other ANT+ devices (which I didn’t test)
- Once you upload your data, at the GarminConnect.com website, you can name your routes, share them, and compare them to previous performances
- The data analysis experience was clean and intuitive there
- Personalized settings so I could share the watch with my wife who has her own settings
- Heart rate fabric feels wimpy and prone to stinking (compared to my durable 6 year old Nike HR monitor strap)
- Heart rate monitor does not work under water
- “Multisport” setting is not a convenient setting for a non-traditional triathlon sequence like DWYRMAN (i.e. bike-swim-bike-swim-bike-swim-bike-swim-bike-swim-run-bike)
- Menu/buttons are hard to navigate for a newbie—(Would it possible to engineer a Blackberry-like trackball or scroll-button? It could be a business opportunity for the sinking ship that is Blackberry’s maker, Research in Motion. Or maybe touchscreen is the way and RIM is just doomed.)
- Tough to read while riding the bike. The bike mount accessory (~$15) could be helpful but too timely to operate for a speedy race day transition. I’d rather just have a dedicated bike computer.
- The Mode button is difficult to push without simultaneously pushing the “Scroll up” button, which is the top secret button sequence that inconveniently locks all keys when you don’t want it to
- Can take several minutes to find a satellite connection
- Battery did not last the claimed 20 hours on a full charge
- The data experience at Garmin Connect was not a social experience like the experience at strava.com or trainingpeaks.com, which deserve their own review in a future blog.
My favorite feature is the accuracy of the swim workouts, whether lap swimming or open water. Everyone knows they need to do more open water swimming and we’d all love to look at something other than the black lane lines at the pool. The watch can also push you to swim faster than your previous workouts by setting up the Virtual Partner feature. This is where it stands out from all other Garmin watches.
My second favorite feature is the post-workout analysis. It’s so convenient that much of my training diary is basically written for me in a thorough and objective way. However, the analysis feature I was most hopeful for, but didn’t find, was a method of measuring and displaying the duration of time I spend in each heart rate zone. Even my low-frill heart rate monitor does as much. And that’s the most important metric I keep track of in my training diary. With the 910xt it would be possible to export the Garmin Connect data to an Excel spreadsheet and make the calculations myself, but it seems like an easy enough feature for Garmin to include in a future software update. Their inclusion of their “Training Effect” metric is a poor substitute that lacks the transparency and objectivity of a more thorough heart rate analysis.
After I conquered the initial software hurdles and figured out how to navigate the plethora of options, I really came to enjoy training with the 910xt. Then I made the mistake of letting my wife try it. She’s been hoarding it ever since.
We have been doing a lot of trail running this year in preparation for our first 50 mile race in Madison, Wisconsin, in September. She loves it so much, she just ordered the 910xt for herself, (since we have to give the demo watch back to Garmin, of course). Her rationale was that the battery life, unlike other Garmin models, would last long enough for the 50 miler cut-off time of 13 hours, which the other Gamin GPS watches would not. Also, since most of her training is on trails in Cincinnati parks, without the GPS it would be tough to measure distance and altitude, which are important metrics to her. All-in-all, my earlier excuse for holding out for a great “triathlon” watch is no longer valid. It’s even family-friendly.