Sunday, August 31, 2014

I Love Garmin…Except When I Hate It

When it comes to sports watches, Garmin is the only brand I’ve ever known. I bought my first Forerunner 201 back in 2005 when I had just gotten back into running and it seemed very novel and innovative at the time. I was just happy to have a watch that kept such accurate track of how far and how long I ran. All of this despite the fact that it connected via a serial port rather than USB and upload times were painfully slow. Even the limited amount of data that one could add to the old Motion Based web site was okay. At least I had something of a buffer that would hold activities until I could manually record them on my spreadsheet-based log.
My old 201 was with me through my first half-marathon and my first full marathon. I kept it for a little over a year until I had the opportunity to buy the newer Model 305 at a discount. Now I had all kinds of great stuff including a heart rate monitor and the ability to upload via USB.
My running waned in the years to follow though it never actually stopped. When I got into triathlon, I discovered DC Rainmaker and started learning even more about the capabilities of my now four year old device including foot pods and cadence sensors. Who knew the venerable old watch had so much capability with the ANT+ chip onboard? I did my first season of triathlons with it on all events except the swim since the 305 was water resistant but not rated for long term submersion.
By late 2011, the watch was showing its age in the form of a battery that would not hold a charge of much more than a couple of hours. Most of my workouts were not that long but I knew that would change as I started to prepare for my first half iron distance race in 2012.
I had held off on buying a 310XT due to its cost and the promise of a new watch appearing on the market sometime in the first quarter of 2012. The 910XT was probably everything a triathlete could have asked for at the time. It was fully water-proofed and had the ability to measure both inside and outside swim metrics. For the first time, I had a single unit that could go with me through all phases of my training and even better, through a race.
By now, Garmin had acquired Motion Based and removed the restrictions on how many workouts one could upload. That was fantastic but not surprising given the overall trend in the technology industry toward cheaper and cheaper storage. It was the right thing to do and they did it.
I swam extensively in the pool and in the open during 2012 and also spent plenty of time running and riding as well and the watch dutifully recorded all of my activity. It had proved to be a good investment and I was pleased, especially since it set me back $400 (I had purchased a new heart rate strap before the unit was released so it cost me a little less).
To this point, Garmin had done everything you would expect a sports technology company to do. They had released a high quality, reliable product with excellent support. As 2013 unfolded, I began to see more and more of the watches on the wrists of my fellow triathletes. It seemed to be nearly as ubiquitous as the 305 had been in its heyday.
As you might imagine, this is also where trouble started for me. The most notable issue was the loss of signal on open water swimming. By their nature, radio signals don’t do well through the water. That’s just a law of physics and it’s understood that no one can violate them. Garmin had presumably solved this problem by allowing the watch to reacquire the signal whenever your arm was out of the water and it smoothed the appearance on the map by combing the satellite data with the stroke data. This had certainly been my experience through many races and a couple dozen open water swims.

That was true until IM Boulder 70.3 in early August of 2013. It was probably the second biggest race of my triathlon career to that point. It really turned out to be kind of an inauspicious day (I blew up on the run) but the swim went reasonably well. Unfortunately, the signal was lost about halfway through and it never reacquired:

That thick red line is my supplement. It’s one thing to lose a signal, but quite another not to reacquire it as soon as possible. The logic here is something along the lines of: Well, lost the signal, guess I’ll just quit.
Of course, a single problem does not failure make. It sucked that it happened during a race, but it could have happened just as easily during a practice. I proceeded to the bike and the altimeter said I started out at something around 2500 feet above sea level. In Colorado, such an altitude is deep underground. As a result, I had skewed altitude data.
Maybe it was just having a bad day.
Let’s fast forward nearly three months to the final race of last season, IM Austin 70.3. Once again I’m about halfway through the swim and the same problem occurs; loss of signal and absolutely no attempt to reacquire. Two big races and a failure to get valid swim data on each. Imagine if this was a full iron distance of a single loop?
In fairness, I’ve done a few long swims since and not encountered the problem, but I remind you, I paid $400 for the watch and that ought to include online support to track my workouts.
Recently, I’ve had some peculiarities with the alerts feature. Once of the things I really enjoyed about the watch was that it in addition to audible alerts indicating laps, heart rate, pacing and so on, it vibrates. You notice it on your wrist and even mounted on the bike, it can usually be felt through the frame. That’s helpful because often it’s hard to hear the faint beeping.
For some reason however, my watch has decided only to vibrate intermittently. That’s been going on most of the current calendar year. On more than a few occasions, it has resulted in me failing to start an interval on time. On workouts, especially runs, my focus may be elsewhere and it helps to be reminded that it’s time to start pushing the pace or that it’s time to start the recovery set. Once again, I paid $400 for this watch and it’s just over two years old.
In addition to issues with the watch, Garmin has done a below average job of modernizing their online support. Late last spring, they moved from the ANT+ agent software which handled data transfer from the watch to the computer to a newer version called Garmin Express. The newer software has the advantages of directly posting workouts to not only Garmin Connect, but also to TrainingPeaks, Strava and some other sites that I personally don’t use but several others do (Map My Fitness comes to mind). Great concept but my initial experience with Garmin Express was not good. I apparently made the mistake of updating some of my personal data (I’ve lost some weight this year) online which caused massive failures to not just transfer that data, but also accept uploads. I actually went back to the ANT+ Agent until just a few weeks ago.
Early this week, Garmin (and in fairness some other sites as well such as Suunto’s Moves Count) went down and would not accept uploads. It was fixed in short order and I considered not even writing this post until I went to look at last night’s run data and I got this message:

And, yes, it’s also affecting all of the links on this blog as well.
The point of all of this is not merely to rant at Garmin. That’s part of it, but it goes deeper. Based on what I read online, it sounds as though a follow-on to the 910XT may be coming in the next year or so. There are several new features in sports watches these days including integrated optical heart rate monitors, foot cadence sensing built into the watch more adoption of both Blue Tooth and ANT+ data transmission. In short, there are a lot of reasons one might be compelled to upgrade.
There is no hard data, not even a rumor about when or even if such a watch is coming out and certainly no indication of the price point. However, if it is released late this year or early next, it would not be unreasonable to believe that it will cost at least as much as the previous model and probably more.
I actually really like Garmin Connect. The new site is visually pleasing and (when it works) functional. Integrating maps and data into a single visual is actually very helpful when I go back and look at past efforts. But none of that matters if there data is not available. Couple that with maintenance updates that take place in the middle of the day (rather than overnight as most software firms would do) and I start to get the impression that Garmin is saying, “Hey, it’s a free site, what more do you want?”
My counter is that the site is, in fact, not free. I paid a lot of money for the watch and if that does not include a functional and reliable place to view the data it records, it should. I mentioned earlier that I see the 910XT on the wrists of fellow-triathletes all the time. In other words, it’s not just me their failing with the glitch website and minor but nevertheless annoying performance issues in the hardware.
I can’t force a change on their part. While I’m pleased that anyone at all reads my humble little blog, I have no illusions that I could lead some sort of grass roots effort to force them to devote more resources to their online support. In truth, I really would not want to.
However, I do believe that I am representative of a large market of people who may be considering replacing their existing watch and Garmin’s seeming indifference will cause me to look seriously at their competition. Suunto, TomTom, and Timex are three companies in this space and have released or are releasing new products. While I like the connect site, I also get a lot of what I need from TrainingPeaks and Strava and could certainly learn to live without it.
With luck, someone at Garmin is well aware of this fact and in short order, problems like those I have experienced will be resolved. But if that is not the case, this spring, for the first time since I became a consumer of sports watches, the product on my wrist may be made by another company.

Thanks for reading and please feel free to share your comments about any experiences you've had with either your Garmin or any other product.

1 comment:

  1. Funny. As I'm reading this, I'm waiting for my Garmin 310xt to upload my latest workout. It's going on five minutes now, and still nothing. I didn't have problems with it for the first 6 months I owned it, but ever since the update, it's rare that I don't have an issue.