It hopefully won't come as much of a surprise to you, but I love running tech. Anything that I can strap to my body while I trot is a brilliant thing – so you can imagine my excitement this week after seeing some real innovation in the smartwatch space to make things better for runners.
I've spent the week in Berlin at the IFA 2015 trade show where Samsung, TomTom and Moto all offered new watches that really seem to have moved the wearable fitness message on – albeit from different ends.
Motorola's new Moto 360 is probably the watch runners are most excited about. Let's slip past the fact you'll have to accept the 'Sport' version of the device (although that does mean you get a sweatproof and sleek silicon frame, GPS and additional battery life) and look at how this is the best running smartwatch to date.
I annoyingly didn't get a chance to look at the new Moto 360 Sport up close, as the brand is being oddly closed off about showing it off, but it's very similar to the 'normal' 360 launched.
This means a fast processor, strong heart rate monitor and the addition of GPS and an inbuilt music player, which added together mean I wouldn't feel the need to take my phone out on a run any more… this thing can do it all from the one device.
It's the first time all these bits have been thrown together on an Android Wear device – previously the best you could have was the Sony Smartwatch 3, as that packed GPS, but it was devoid of a heart rate monitor and had a terrible screen for a smartwatch.
The Moto 360 Sport is streaking ahead though – it's got an adaptive 'AnyLight' display that can both shine brightly and reflect natural light to make it easy to read in any situation. Think a Kindle screen mixed with a Samsung Galaxy display, and you're there.
Moto Body is also included, which is the brand's attempt at the now de rigeur activity tracking throughout the day – so you'll get the usual motion, step and heart rate tracking information recorded.
There are some big question marks about the price though – Motorola hasn't announced it and that usually means something's going to change before launch or it's really rather high… either way, it's worrying.
Samsung Gear 2
The other big smartwatch to emerge from IFA this week was the Samsung Gear 2, the South Korean's attempt at taking on the Apple Watch. It too has gone for a deliciously circular display, but has a clever rotating bezel to help you navigate the screen.
Runners will have to make a bigger sacrifice though, as the two most popular options (the Gear S2 and Gear S2 Classic) don't have GPS on board – you'll need to upgrade to the more expensive and heavier 3G-enabled version for that.
On the plus side, you can stick a 3G SIM card in there and connect to the internet or send messages when out and about – great if you're lost without a phone.
So let's assume you've shelled out for the more expensive model (and the prices still haven't been announced… eek) – what are you getting? Well, out the box you've got access to two decent running platforms: Samsung's own S Health, which can track you across all manner of activities, and Nike+.
The former is as basic as the Workouts app on the Apple Watch, with the ability to only set distance, time, calories etc as a goal – there's no on the go coaching here. Nike+ seems to be a little bit more advanced, but I've not had a chance to go out trotting with the watch attached to my arm yet.
There's a heart monitor that reads from your wrist too, and this should be pretty accurate during running given older Samsung smartwatches were pretty good at this – plus it can monitor your pulse nicely during the day to tell you how stressed / active you are.
The Samsung Gear S2, being based on the brand's own Tizen operating system (where the Moto 360 uses Google's own Android Wear) giving it some advantages – the battery life is little longer, and Samsung can add some clever tweaks like being able to monitor your water and caffeine intake daily through a simple tap of the screen.
Both the Moto 360 Sport and Gear S2 impressed me: it seems the brands finally have added in some things runners need. Be it tracking you accurately, giving you effort data or just playing tunes it's all covered.
But even without taking a step with these things strapped to my arm during a run, I know they're still going to be inherently flawed. They won't have the same data access and analysis that my Garmin, SmartRun or Polar can offer, and exporting that information isn't going to be easy.
The apps on Android Wear that the Moto 360 can use (like Runkeeper, Strava etc) are far greater in number than on Samsung's own platform, although I suspect if the Gear S2 start to get some traction in sales, that could soon change.
I don't get the feeling Samsung is as bothered about health and fitness with the S2. Putting GPS on one, expensive, model that probably won't be marketed heavily doesn't bode well – the brand would rather show off how it can do everything, rather than being fitness focused.
A proper runner's watch
While I'm really happy that smartwatches are getting to the point where they can be seen as credible alternatives in the fitness space, they're still lagging miles behind dedicated hardware – and TomTom's new Spark watch has just extended that lead.
The Spark is a refined and retooled version of 2014's Cardio Runner, taking all the best bits of that watch and giving it more features.
The biggest change is that this watch is no longer supposed to just be worn for workouts – it now has motion and sleep tracking, and the ability to play music stored onboard over Bluetooth headphones.
I've never been drawn to the TomTom platform for a number of reasons. The design of the watches has never really appealed, and the battery life of the first Runner was truly terrible (as it often is in the first iteration of any running device). The uploading platform originally needed the watch to be plugged into a computer, which irritated too.
I was impressed by the new Spark though. It's certainly not innovative – the company's founder was on stage speaking in hushed tones about how the watch can now playback music on the go, as if this was the first time it had been seen – but it's all packaged together really nicely.
Being able to stream tunes without a phone is pretty good, and the Watch will be able to scan your computer to grab music from iTunes or Windows Media Player (hello, 2005).
That's great, but it's a bit of an effort in an age where I can send music to my Apple Watch with a touch of a button on my phone. And TomTom told me it has to be created as a playlist, rather than individual songs, which again adds effort.
I get that having offline streaming from Spotify just can't work with the current licensing algorithms (hearing about that gave me new respect for Adidas putting MixRadio on the SmartRun) but if I am going to have to use MP3s, then I should be able to chuck them over from my phone.
I'm a big fan of podcasts on my longer runs, so having to download them, put them in a single playlist and upload to the watch is too time-consuming.
If you're a current TomTom wearer, you'll be pleased to know the strap now fits much more snugly around the watch face, so it won't pop out every time you take the watch off. It's also thinner, and despite that is faster to pick up your heart rate, taking just a couple of seconds when I tried it out.
The interface is still the same, but there are other metrics in there (if you for the multi-sport version) so you can keep an eye on swimming, cycling or working out in the gym. The options there seem fairly basic though, so wait for the full review before deciding whether the TomTom Spark is your new triathlon buddy.
It won't be hyper-cheap, unsurprisingly, but £189.99 (around $290/AU$413) isn't too bad considering the amount of features contained within. It will soon even pack the ability to get call, text and other notifications from your phone, making it the equal of something like the Garmin 920XT.
Overall, I'm quietly excited about the new watches coming out. Whether they're smartwatches with a greater focus on running, or running watches that are smarter than ever, there's a lot to think about ahead of the Christmas list – here's hoping they actually perform well in proper testing.
- If you've got any tips, tech you want tested out or just want to mock me, I'm @superbeav on Twitter, and you can see my stumblings on Strava too.
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- Read the rest of the Running Man of Tech story here
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