Fitness trackers are ubiquitous in the running, fitness and outdoor communities. Between dedicated activity trackers and smartwatches that double as GPS units and data collectors, the market is saturated, and, unfortunately, it’s in the same way that the auto market is saturated with mediocre crossovers. Yet, to keep that comparison going, a new, promising offering from Garmin, the Forerunner 235, is akin to an Alfa Romeo 4C.
Now, I’m not much of a watch wearer; historically speaking I’ve owned one or two Wengers and a Casio G-Shock (when those were the “in” thing). So, with that established, know that it takes a lot to make me want to occupy the space on my wrist with anything. But after a solid month of testing, the Forerunner has changed my perspective. Now, I’m reluctant to take it off.
Typically when I am running and training, I either carry nothing on me or use my phone in tandem with a tracking app. It’s a simple and economical solution to keeping track of my runs or rides. It also requires no additional hardware, which is a big plus for a minimalist. When I started using the Forerunner 235, however, my fitness “carry” changed. My phone was no longer a necessity on runs and I ditched the added weight for the smaller, sleeker smartwatch.
So what was so endearing about this intelligent timepiece? Straight out of the box, the watch is comfortable. It takes some time to set up, and the settings aren’t exactly intuitive, but once you pair the watch with your phone via Bluetooth, the interface works smoothly and integrates with Garmin’s Connect app. The app allows you to track your progress, and it can also compare your progress with that of friends who also use the app.
Stated Battery Life: 11 hours training, 9 days watch + activity tracking + notifications + heart rate
Water Rating: 5 ATM
Heart Rate Monitor: Yes
Foot Pod Compatible: Yes
Tracks: Heart rate, sleep, calories, distance traveled, time, VO2 max estimate
The Forerunner 235 also features a heart rate monitor. There’s an optical heart rate sensor on the bottom of the watch that finds your pulse quickly and displays it on the screen along with a graph showing your heart rate data over the last four hours. The heart rate sensor can also be disabled if you want to save battery life (the battery lasts about six days with it on). It isn’t quite as accurate as a chest-based heart rate sensor, but it does a serviceable job and also tracks HR during sleep. In addition, there’s a VO2 max estimate in run mode. For me, it wasn’t terribly useful, other than for comparing my fitness to that of professional athletes, which only made me sad.
Though the Forerunner 235’s primary function is as a fitness tracker, it also doubles as a smartwatch. When connected to your phone via Bluetooth, the Garmin will display the weather, texts, calls, email, calendar events and other push notifications. The Garmin won’t let you take action on any of these notifications, but it allows you to read texts, which led to less of me looking at my phone in general (always a plus).
Another useful feature is the watch’s ability to track sleep. I have never worn a watch to bed, but I found myself eager to keep it on at night, to check my sleep stats day over day and week after week. The watch needs to be on your wrist in order to track sleep effectively, which can be slightly uncomfortable at first for non-watch-wearers. When you sync the Forerunner with the Garmin Connect app, you can look back over your historical sleep data to find stats like your average amount of sleep over the past seven days as well as sleep quality throughout the night. Looking at the stats inspired me to sleep more, which coincidentally also improved my running performance and training.
As for tracking performance, compared to Strava, the Forerunner 235 was more accurate in distance traveled and elevation gain, two stats that I look at frequently. I also found that I tracked activities more often with the Garmin. I often won’t track a run or ride on Strava unless I am headed out on an all-day affair, and even then I sometimes forget to turn it on. With the Garmin on my wrist, it was a constant reminder to track my stats, which then led to me heading out to pump up my stats more often. And that alone — the motivation to go outdoors and start moving — is justification enough for this benevolent little tracker to stay on my finicky wrist.