The ultimate running watch: our wishlist

Running watch

Sure, they're not as glamorous and marketing departments don't think they have the power to get millennials all hot and bothered, but they do what you need them to and don't need charging every day.

Unless you're someone who thinks a marathon a day is the way to keep the doctor at bay, that is.

The problem is the dream running watch is still a thing of the future. I love the Garmin Fenix 3, the Forerunner 630, the Polar V800 and TomTom's Spark, but the watchmakers of the world can still do better.

TechRadar has used and reviewed dozens of sports tracking watches - so here's a good idea of the things to improve that will make a running watch the ultimate tech-fan's wristpiece (and get a few of us healthier in the process).

Less chunk

Right now, all the best running watches are big. Very big. Take a look at the Garmin Fenix 3 or Forerunner 920XT to see what I mean.

While that sort of size will look fine on the wrist of the ultra-runner whose social skills have deteriorated to the point they can only talk to fellow runners, it's not much good for the rest of us.

Ultimate running watch

My initial assumption was that the battery was to blame, that these watches need to pack phone-size batteries into a watch frame. But things are getting better. The Fenix 3 'only' has a 300mAh battery. That is the same as the much smaller Moto 360 2 and yet the running option is capable for working for days.

While a runner's watch has to pack-in more sensors than the average smartwatch too, It seems the chunky designs of pro-grade runner's watches may owe something to convention as well as necessity.

So let's slim down the frame a bit, and make it a bit less clear we're wearing an expensive fitness gadget on our wrists.

Garmin UK Fitness and wellness product manager Shame Harman maintains slimming down might not quite as easy unless smaller components are used, though.

"If a product is of a certain size, it is because it needs to be. Whether that be down to housing an altimeter, a long-lasting battery or an exo antenna. When some of our high-end devices offer all of previously mentioned, a larger size is necessary – this may therefore lead to an increase in perceived value from a customer, which is an added bonus!" Harman told us.

The good news is the change is already coming. Garmin's new range is much slimmer, and there are new chips coming to help get more power from less battery capacity.

We just need a more advanced system-on-chip runner's watch brain that crams the necessary parts into a tiny PCB.

Longer between charges

We don't want to trade good battery life for a millimetre reduction in thickness, though. Today's top runner's watches have excellent battery life already: the Polar V800 lasts for 13 hours of full-on GPS tracking, enough for three back-to-back marathons (there's a challenge for you).

Garmin's top models last even longer, with up to 20 hours of full tracking.

Stamina isn't just about how long a running watch will last while you're in the middle of a run, though. This sort of watch needs to be something you can wear all the time.

What I'd ask for is a month of solid use as a day-to-day watch with basic step tracking, and at least 10 hours of full GPS use. Looking at the capabilities of current models, that's not a great deal more than the Garmin Vivoactive.

This is Garmin's attempt at a runner's watch that looks and feels a little like a smartwatch. It's largely a success, but is pretty ugly and its software feels like various parts of a smartwatch and running watch stitched together.

While we're not too far off with battery life, we're always after getting longer between charges. More advanced features are going to be asked for and screens higher-res, so ulimately this is going to depend on battery technology improving and slimming down.

Bigger, sharper screen

The key to getting a watch that can last for weeks off a charge is using the right screen technology.

Standard LCDs and even OLEDs are no use because what's on the screen is only visible thanks to light shining from the pixels. LCDs use a backlight that covers the entire rear of the screen, OLEDs use light-up pixels.

Neither is right for a runner's watch - the former is chunky and battery heavy, and while the latter is better, it stll draws too much power.

We need a screen technology that uses ambient light to make what's on-screen visible during the day. The best currently available technology for the purpose is Memory in Pixel (MIP) LCD.

The idea behind these MIP screens is to use as little battery as possible, by using no inbuilt backlight and sub-pixels that hold what they display without using additional power.

Ultimate running watch

So where a normal LCD uses an energy-sapping backlight and pixels that refresh themselves (for example) sixty times a second, MIP LCDs use a transflective architecture that means ambient light is used to brighten up the screen.

With a normal LCD, a bright sunny day is the enemy, reducing how bright a screen appears and creating annoying reflections, where it's perfect for MIP (think Kindle screens and you'll get the idea).

There are two main players making these sorts of screens, Sharp and Japan Display Inc (JDI). While not officially recognised, Pebble's popular smartwatches are believed to use JDI's displays while Garmin uses Sharp and JDI screens, and these two are the most advanced you'll find at the moment. And, yes, I know Pebbles aren't running watches.

The best JDI tech right now is a 1.34-inch 320 x 300 pixel round display, with Apple Watch-challenging sharpness of 238ppi. It hasn't been used in a running watch, yet.

What's particularly interesting about this display is that as well as being able to run as an 8-colour MIP screen, it can switch to regular-style LCD pixel driving and boost the colour palette to 262k colours. Basic colour coding for regular parts of the interface and a richer look for the more complicated bits: what's not to like?

The screen's spec document was only published by JDI in January 2016, so you can expect to see it in a runner's watch this year with any luck.

A better smartwatch

Having a larger colour palette in a runner's watch is becoming more important as they begin to take on more smartwatch duties. The debate rages though: do you really want notifications on your running watch?

I do. Garmin and Polar already offer this in their higher-end running watches, while TomTom has plans to add the feature in 2016 at some point.

In terms of being smarwatch susbstitutes, Garmin is way ahead here. Not only does its mid-range Vivoactive tracking watch offer smartwatch-style notifications, it and the more expensive Forerunners already have a full app platform, complete with dedicated app store.

It won't compare to any of the full-on smartwatch app platforms, of course, but having the flexibility to add custom displays for really quite niche uses is handy. There's a basketball app on there to track your time on the court, for example, and even some basic games.

Garmin's Harman gives us a clue as to why it got in early. The crux: it wasn't a reaction to smartwatches, the impetus was already there and Garmin wanted to harness it.

"It was not the smartwatch which pushed these function, but the smartphone... it was the smartphone which truly brought multi-functionality to everyday devices," Harman told us.

There's great room for improvement here too. The current smart home / Internet of Things trend is seeing a intense development of ultra-small, ultra-efficient CPUs designed for devices with very little room to play with. The Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100 is one to watch.

It's much more powerful than the CPU of any running watch and 30 per cent smaller than the chipset used in smartwatches like the Moto 360 2, and would make the ability of today's trotting trackers to keep on eye on where we're going even more effective.

Brilliant GPS

No matter how many extras you pack into a running watch, they don't add up to much if they're not accompanied by rock-solid GPS tracking. It's a bare essential of any runner's watch.

Not all GPS chips are made equal, either, and this is an area where Garmin loses some points, despite doing well elsewhere. The GPS watch of our dreams would use a last-generation SiRFstar chipset, widely regarded to be the most accurate readily available right now. Polar uses it in the V800 to great effect.

Ultimate running watch

Good enough, but not great

Garmin's latest use MediaTek GPU chipsets, which just aren't quite as accurate out in real-world use, although it does combine in Glonass support in later models to be able to read and connect to more satellite signals.

It comes down to the accuracy you need. I've been perfectly happy with the Fenix 3 and Forerunner 630 andI don't mind if a watch seems to think I'm running on the other side of the road.

But that's something that the more dedicated runner might hate - I've found Garmin watches suffer with distance accuracy on the track , for instance, so the more dedicated athlete will need to have a real think about what they need before getting involved with a certain brand.

In the future we need a watch that connects to satellites in seconds (using smarts pulled from your previous run to get an instant fix every time) and the end of any of random tracking where you'll look at a post-run route map and see you've supposedly run left and right in a zig-zag across a motorway

A wrist HR sensor that actually works

The key element in running watches that needs improving is heart rate tracking. A lot of watches still expect you to use a chest strap, which is frankly a bit of a pain unless you take running at least half-seriously.

Dedicated wrist HR sensors like the Mio Alpha 2 have proved wrist-bound accuracy is possible, though. TomTom is also having a good crack at its own heart rate solution, in partnership with a company called LifeQ, and Garmin is developing its own solution.

Ultimate running watch

Mio is noted as having a decent heart rate monitor

TomTom's idea of a new system is to provide more useful data by analysing the blood oxygen level and heart rate variability as well as basic heart rate info. This means you'll get a better view of your state and health than a plain old HR graph will provide.

We'll have some of that. It turn a running watch from a fitness gadget to more of a health and fitness gadget - but we need at least 30% better accuracy from these wrist sensors for those of us that don't have the veins of a snarling bull.

Smart syncing

Accessibility is going to be important for the running watch of our dreams. But so is expandability.

ANT+ support is a must-have. This is the standard used for all sorts of fitness accessories, letting a watch communicate with things like chest strap HR sensors, bike cadence sensors and footpods.

These extra pieces of kit are more or less essential if you want to get serious about checking out your cycling performance as well as well as running. On top of that Bluetooth is becoming a hugely important element, so being able to support both these connections is imperative.

Support is only going to get more important as even fitness clothing starts to include such sensors. Check out the MyZone MZ-3 for a recent example, which has both a chest strap based solution and a range of smart clothing that'll accept a connection from a sensor to your phone.

Uploading to sites

The more brand-agnostic a running watch is willing to be, the better. It almost goes without saying we're going to want to be able to upload our data to all the main fitness portals.

This one is particularly important if you've used your phone to track your exercise for a while and don't want to lose all that data you've racked up. The way most of today's top running watches roll is to use a proprietary software platform, but one that'll let you then upload the data to Strava, MayMyRun and other similar, popular spots.

Auto-upload is pretty high on our list of priorities. You don't have to have to fiddle around with a platform you don't want to use every time you go for a run. Step inside the door, connect to Wi-Fi or your phone, and it's uploaded. It's available on some watches, but we want it on all of them.

Auto exercise recognition

One part of the traditional runner's watch infrastructure is how you kick off exercise. The current technique is to keep the process as simple as possible. And it works.

Next generation running watches need to accurately tell what sort of exercise you're performing, even if you switch half-way through a session, as in a triathlon.

Ultimate running watch

The Spark is a good multi-function device

All top watches of the moment offer multi-sport tracking, but the key is getting the software smart enough to let you press a 'go' button and let the watch do the rest. If you're cycling to the station each day for work, you're not going to be tracking that - but that's valuable health data that could be gleaned easily if your watch was able to notice and provide feedback every month, for instance.

It's very much possible, it just needs the engineers to work out what slight variations in movement and speed actually mean, to tell the difference between kayaking, horseriding and the good ol' marathon training.

Mapping for hikes

Watches are getting smarter, and the technology needed to make them smart is getting smaller. I hope that means we'll see more watches start to offer full GPS mapping, even though there's little evidence to support that right now. Very few offer on-watch map navigation.

A little internal memory and a GPS signal should mean a running watch can act as a pretty good hiker's guide, which would come in particularly handy for fell runners. However, the only watch made with this sort of use in mind is the Garmin Epix, which isn't pretty and lacks some features of the other top dogs.

Given the idea of being able to download a whole globe's worth of ordnance survey maps to a watch is a little unrealistic at this point, the ideal scenario would be to let you pick a portion of map space to sync with your watch in the companion app. This mapping feature would be particularly useful once we get JDI's next generation of screen tech involved for the sharpness and visibility.

Bring the music

Mapping is a good one for the nerds out there, but what about music playback? This is another neglected feature, only pushed as a major element in TomTom's watches at the moment. The new Pebble Core will take things further, offering the ability to download all your Spotify playlists as you run around.

Ultimate running watch

I'm not talking about a watch that has a headphone jack on its side, which just wouldn't be that practical, but Bluetooth music streaming for wireless earbuds.

Many watches already have Bluetooth, so all they really need are a few gigabytes of extra storage for music and the software to make it all happen.

Originally, I was going to write that I'd like to see a team up with Spotify, but that I'd heard from sources that this was just too difficult. However, Pebble has shown it's now possible… which is going to open a whole world of music for us all.

  • Gareth Beavis contributed to this piece

People are actually trying to make themselves into machines... by putting tech under their skin

Andrew Williams

Andrew is a freelance journalist and has been writing and editing for some of the UK's top tech and lifestyle publications including TrustedReviews, Stuff, T3, TechRadar, Lifehacker and others.