On Purchasing My First Running Watch
About two to three years ago I started running. Running, as in endurance sports, with a declared goal of eventually doing a marathon. I’ve been at it more or less regularly and enjoy it quite a bit. There have been so many unexpected benefits to it that I need to write a separate post. This one is about my experience attempting to find and buy my first running watch.
This can be a daunting task. If you’re anything like me, when you initially set out, you don’t know the first thing about what makes a good running watch and have no experience whatsoever to draw from. Which features do you actually need and which ones are window dressing? Which brand and model to pick? What do I need to invest to get a decent one?
For the longest time, my Apple Watch 4 was more than sufficient for tracking my heart rate, distance and pace. I used it because I already owned it, it is reasonably precise and offers an exceptional user experience. What I quickly discovered though is that even with all energy saving options enabled, its battery life is … problematic. While you have to charge it every night with regular use, GPS running workouts put additional strain on the battery — more often than not leading to mid-day charges to get through the day. This is particularly noticeable when playing music while running. That’s when you can actually watch the battery drain itself, counting down.
Around 18 months ago, I ran a half-marathon distance in 2:45 with a fully charged watch. Playing music half of the time, I arrived home to notice a remaining battery level of 10%. It was clear it would never hold up during a first marathon run, estimated at 4:30 with proper training and preparation. The half-marathon distance happened organically on a day I felt like I could run for hours on end — and did.
I realise that an Apple Watch and similar “smart watches” are primarily meant as a daily health tracking gizmo. They’re a mix of lifestyle and medical device. I know it was for me. Then, once you start running longer distances, for longer stretches at a time, an Apple Watch becomes a limiting factor. Taking the marathon goal serious for 2023, I needed a dedicated running watch.
Being confronted with all the different options, brands and models was (and still is) overwhelming. I was reminded of my PC building days. Dozens of manufacturers, building hundreds of different parts, often with confusing and marginal differences. Also, what’s ANT+? Do I need a pulse belt? Is the included software any good? Do I need running power measurement?
So I asked an experienced runner. They told me they use a Suunto watch, but only because of ultra marathons of days past. Before that, they had used a Polar watch. If the battery life had been better, they would never have switched in the first place.
Interesting anecdote but not helpful.
So I dove in, a bit anxious, to compare brands, features and prices. I set my budget at 200-300 EUR. To make an annoyingly long story very short — in the end, it came down to:
I ended up ordering the Polar and Coros watches, one after the other. Suunto support took almost two weeks to answer my questions, which was too long for me. They also had active downtime with their web platform, affecting all devices, apparently not for the first time. For some reason I quickly dismissed the Garmin.
Polar Pacer Pro
Given that Polar was recommended to me as a safe choice and, coincidentally, had just kicked off a 25% off promotion, I went with the Polar Pacer Pro. Delivery was swift and I was pumped to try it.
This being my first running watch, the disappointment happened the moment I turned it on: the display is of an entirely different quality than pictured in the marketing shots. In fact, it has almost nothing to do with it. The marketing imagery is all Photoshop. Even the typography and kerning are way, way off. Coming from the Apple Watch with a high-resolution OLED screen, it was quite a shock. This goes for all running watches though, the Pacer Pro just had the misfortune to be my first exposure to this kind of display in a watch form factor.
Rationality persevered and I realised that it’s basically a colored e-ink display, much like a Kindle, which saves tremendous amounts of precious battery runtime. Also, in daylight, it offers superior contrast and readability, at the expense of resolution and fidelity. Everything’s a trade-off.
I don’t want to go into too many details, as it’s boring and mainly an intellectual exercise in comparing raw features. Ultimately, it comes down to a gut feeling. Having handled something, does it feel right? Is it pleasant and frictionless to use or does it add complexity? Is this the right fit for me? Having grown up being a rather rational person, I have slowly learned to trust my instinct and gut feeling as well as my other senses along with my analytical mind.
I am sad to say: the Polar Pacer Pro never felt quite right to use. It always felt off in a way it’s impossible for me to precisely put my finger on. It felt incomplete, lacking passion, conflicting. Something like that. Its UX is rather unintuitive and convoluted, the choice of presentation uninspired, a nylon watch band annoying to mount and a there’s a wide bezel around the display.
Oh, the bezel! That freaking bezel. Even beyond all the UX issues, this remained what irked me the most. It’s almost a centimeter wide and is entirely static, lacking any function. In an outdoor watch, with a protective rim around the display glass, I can see why that may be. But here, in a watch targeted towards runners, it adds a distinctly dated look, despite the modern tech inside. It just feels old, like a product meant for a different time. It possibly simply lacks focus. In a way it’s all over the place. It cannot decide what it wants to be and tries to be mostly everything to mostly everyone. Which leads to being average across the board and missing its chance to be remarkable.
Like Bose speakers, classic Birkenstocks and white Falke tennis socks, the watch is of decent quality and well made, providing a good ecosystem — and is entirely, utterly, comprehensively wrong for me. If you like the Polar style and ecosystem, it may be worth a look. If you can look past its dated exterior, are a triathlete or enjoy many different sports and want to track that activity, it could be just what you are looking for. But no matter how you look at it, its branding seems off to me. It’s a multi-sport watch, not a running watch. It’s a confusing product, billed as a running watch but it’s not. It offers advanced features only available in higher-end models but misses recovery tracking. It’s bulky. I wouldn’t have seriously considered it at the regular retail price of 329 EUR. The discount made all the difference. As it turns out, unfortunately.
I sent it back. I’m still waiting for the refund. The parcel had to get to the Netherlands and be processed, which took almost a week. For some reason I noticed several return centers being located there. Once they had received it, the refund notice happened the same day. Now I’m waiting for the credited amount to arrive in my account. This was an uneventful purchase-trial-return cycle, which is exactly what I had hoped to experience. Perfect score across the board for the online shop.
Coros Pace 2
Next up on my list was the Coros Pace 2. I’m not big on ordering and returning stuff, so I considered it well. This watch is consistently recommended online by runners as great value for the money. Also, it’s the new kid on the block. (Sorry, that was right there.) I have always been one to root for the underdog, so I gave them a chance. Since I was unsure about whether I’d fit my requirements, I asked their German online retailer beforehand if I could return it in case of dissatisfaction. They assured me that it wouldn’t be a problem, as long as I returned it within 14 days. This sealed the deal.
Delivery was quick, setting it up was a snap and I’m happy to say that it spent most of that time up to (and including) today on my wrist. Currently, it rivals my Apple Watch for wrist time. It truly is a running watch. Everything you need is there, including recovery time and training load. You even get running power measurement, which I hear is all the rage with runners. For now, I haven’t worked with this value but it’s good to know that it’s there. There’s an adaptive running fitness measure, including an overview of predicted race times, given your current state of training. At the time of writing, my marathon estimation sits at 5:09:55. I hope to gradually improve this to 4:30:00.
The UI is well thought-out and gets you where you need to be with a minimum amount of interactions. It features a digital crown and a dedicated “back” button instead of Polar’s choice of 5 buttons on the Pacer Pro, of which one turned out to be a dedicated backlight button. No redundancy here, just a crown and “back”. UX is intuitive and consistent with no-nonsense menus and customisable list contents. I didn’t need a manual at all, whereas it took many attempts and wrong interactions to use the Polar somewhat smoothly.
What I don’t get about sports watch manufacturers (and not only them) is their insistence to plant their name and logo on the watch face itself. Coros at least offsets it to the left side, nestled in the decoration around the outer bezel. It’s a neat visual trick to obscure both the bezel and blend in the name. At the same time it’s recognisable by others when you hold your arms in a natural position, as opposed to prominently subjecting the wearer to it all of the time.
I tend to know what kind of watch I wear and don’t need constant reminding, thank you very much. Have some backbone and don’t plaster your brand name over anything you possibly can. The Polar is a stellar example of what not to do: it offers a watch face that mimics traditional analog watches, including the manufacturers’ branding on the watch dial. That means you now have two logos on your watch, one in software and hardware each. Wow. How about some restraint, taste and quality control?
In short, Coros get most of the things right that Polar gets wrong. Their watch face selection is vast and ranges from the whimsical to novelty to elegant, although few truly usable ones1. It’s lighter (30.2 grams including nylon strap, not 29 grams as per manufacturer specification, measured it myself). It offers all the features important to running. Its usage is intuitive. Sync between watch and app happens automatically instead of manually (the Polar has yet another button for that of course). Access to notifications and timers is instant as opposed to being hidden away several levels deep.
The battery life is phenomenal. Since I got it, I’ve done around 100 km worth of walking, running and biking in workout mode and only had to charge it this morning — for the first (actually: second) time since getting it. Today is approximately 9 days later. That’s more than I expected it to be.
Speaking of things that I didn’t expect to happen: I’ve barely worn my Apple Watch since then. In preparation for my latest run, I even disabled its fitness tracking features and put it on my other wrist to use as a fancy Bluetooth music player. And then again, playing music for 1.5 hours to my AirPods Pro drained the battery from 100% to 70%. So the best I can hope for is using it as a lightweight music player with enough charge to keep working throughout an eventual marathon run. Well, at least that’s something. I like to use my devices for as long as possible, extending their life cycle. Maybe I’ll go back to the Apple Watch at some point. I don’t know. It sure doesn’t look like it.
Apart from tracking my runs and listening to music, my most used functions of the Apple Watch are receiving notifications from my phone (mainly messages and phone calls) and setting timers. The Pace 2 receives audible notifications from my phone that also vibrate and has a dead simple way to set timers. I now find less and less reasons to wear the Apple Watch at all. Amazing.
Of course there are some trade-offs and rough edges here and there, especially with the iOS app. For the price of 199 EUR, you don’t get a blood oximeter, the case is all plastic, the crown’s action is sometimes finnicky and imprecise and occasionally digs into my arm hairs. The training calendar cannot move or remove scheduled workouts you didn’t get around to doing. Importing workouts and training plans is awkward. There’s no integration with the regular Apple calendar (the Polar Flow app creates separate calendars for this) and syncing with Apple Health is all but rudimentary (no active burned calories and more missing).
Once I have used it for longer, I’m likely going to revisit those issues, to see what’s changed and go into more detail.
I get around the latter by syncing from the Coros app to Strava to Apple Health instead of directly integrating with Apple Health. The amount of privacy options I had to enable and public sharing options to disable to make my run data non-public on Strava was staggeringly absurd and a topic for yet another post. I’d like to track my regular runs, not exhibit myself.
None of the rough edges are deal breakers at all. The Coros Pace 2 works great, its battery lasts forever and most importantly, it feels right. I’m very happy with it. Given its price, handling and feature set, it’s probably the best advanced-level running watch available on the market today. I know I’ll be using it for all my workouts and my first official marathon run this fall.
Without a doubt, the entire package would benefit from better watch faces. Coros should just hire a skilled designer to produce a handful of high quality functional ones instead of the array of average to silly novelty ones available now. Even the more elegant ones feature baffling typography choices and more often than not irritating priorities of what information to display and how. In all honesty, it exudes “inexperienced junior designer working with free fonts and icons” all over the place. It shouldn’t. The watch is way too good otherwise. On a digital watch, numbers should look particularly well. Maybe it’s even a software issue related to missing kerning. The active workout screens are great though. I wish there was a watch face taking inspiration from those: clean, condensed typography that’s clearly legible. For now, I’ve settled on the NUMBER watch face as a compromise but I don’t particularly enjoy it. As a software developer I also wish there was a way to create my own. Maybe even a way to share them, so the community could sort out the best designs. ↩︎