Next up in the ‘cool tech to geek out about’ category: the Garmin Forerunner 55.
I started out seeking a decent looking everyday-wear smartwatch with some more powerful fitness tracking features. For example, many higher end trackers these days can track stress levels, something of particular interest to me (although I knew that having access to that info could be either a blessing or a curse depending on how fixated I got on it). Android powered watches are in a rut these days: the environment is mostly stagnant, as only the Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 supports the newest WearOS 3, with no other existing watches able to upgrade due to new hardware requirements. If WearOS 3 is desired, the only other choice is a Fossil Gen6 smartwatch, which starts shipping around now and isn’t even upgradable to WearOS 3 until some point next year.
That said, I didn’t even need or want phone notifications on my watch. Nor were mobile payments something I sought. So I was free to explore more fitness-focused devices outside the bounds of WearOS. Having come from a square WearOS 2 watch (the Asus ZenWatch 2), I was quite keen to avoid another square watch – I don’t think it looks good. Perhaps an Apple Watch would get me thinking differently, but no iPhone = no Apple Watch for me, so it’s a moot point. All the Fitbit smartwatches, however, are square! So I wasn’t really feeling it there either. How about the circular Samsung Watch 4, with WearOS 3? I didn’t see enough for me to warrant the price point. The Fossil Gen 6 was more or less the same, plus I would have to wait a few weeks to get it, and of course since it was unreleased, it was also unreviewed, so there’s a bit of additional risk there.
What, then, to do? I started looking at more fitness-oriented brands, landing upon Garmin, and I found out that the company, beyond just making great fitness smart watches, had entire lines dedicated to specific sports, chock full of specialized functions. The Forerunner series is dedicated to runners, the Approach series for golfers, the Swim series for swimmers, and so on. And if you didn’t fit into those categories, there were also more general watches like the Vivoactive and Venu series, and on the higher end, fēnix for multi-sport functionality.
For me, I have a significant history with running. In my mid-20s, I found running to be, at first, a great way to keep stress and anxiety at bay, but then it quickly grew into a hobby and later even a passion as I found myself constantly improving on my distance and time records. I ran a few 5Ks, started training further and blasted through 10K, and then… my foot started aching after 12K, my farthest distance run to date. It was both somewhat sudden and painful – after resting, I simply couldn’t walk with my right leg. A step would be too much pain. It’s not a big mystery why: my right foot is flat, which any serious runner knows requires a lot of special attention. And there are some extra concerns making my foot situation somewhat unique. The point was, I met a limit that, after a one-off meeting with a sports podiatrist where the basic takeaway was that there wasn’t much I could do (which I now suspect was a waste of money – we could have at least discussed the best orthotic/shoe combinations and exercises), kind of broke me and my desire for running. I felt deflated for a time, able to somewhat identify with professionals who get career-ending diagnoses. Later, I realized that even though it meant I couldn’t expect to continue breaking distance running records on the regular, it didn’t have to mean the same when it came to setting time records. I could still run a 5K with basically no negative effects. But I found it a whole lot tougher to keep myself interested when it came to that. For one, the break I took after my ‘injury’ was significant enough to have to work my way up again to where I was before, so for a long time, I wasn’t doing anything I hadn’t done before. Then I found myself using treadmills because of the ability to set a constant pace, but treadmills just aren’t the same as outdoors, where you can explore and cover a lot of ground. Those factors and others eventually led to me dropping running as a constant activity.
So I came to be intrigued in the Forerunner line. The 55 in particular was one of Garmin’s newest Forerunners succeeding the 45 model, and also the new low-level entry at $200. Calling it low-level does it a disservice though. I have read several reviews comparing it with the next step up, the 245, saying the 55 has most features the 245 has. In fact, comparing the 55 and 245, I felt like I would simply be paying $150 more for the 245 for the ability to store Spotify music on the watch. Which is something I was definitely interested in, but it wasn’t worth THAT much to me. Of course, it’s not the only differentiating feature from the 55, but it’s the only one I felt was significant. So the 55 won out, at least if I was to get a Forerunner. It was a hard choice, though. With the Forerunner watches, even the $600 945 model, you are getting something that looks unmistakably like an sports watch, not quite the fashion-forward watch I wanted for wearing around the office and such. So I also considered a $350 Vivoactive 4 (which was on sale for $250 at time of selection), a watch looking more like what I wanted, but it didn’t have some of the running-specific features of the Forerunner like the ability to recommend your workout for the day based on what the watch thinks you could handle, and instead focused more on typical smartwatch bells and whistles like music storage and mobile pay. With either watch, I would need to additionally get a non-silicone watch band, so the Vivoactive would start to take me out of my price range. After taking all that into account, I decided to take the Forerunner, banking on restarting my running habits.
The first thing you might notice about the Forerunner is the display. Especially if you try the ability to use your own picture as a watch face via the smartphone app Garmin Connect IQ (Connect is the main app, Connect IQ is like the storefront for watch faces, apps, and more). Checking the Forerunner 55’s tech specs revealed that the display had only 8 colors, which is nigh unimaginable for a $200 smartwatch in this day and age. The other Forerunners have 64 colors, not much better but certainly more than 8. But why isn’t it bright and crisp like a cellphone OLED screen? Most Garmin smartwatches nowadays use memory-in-pixel displays. Whereas conventional LCD screens refresh themselves constantly, memory-in-pixel displays have memory for each pixel, so only the pixels that change color require power. This is a large factor in the Forerunner 55 battery lasting for roughly 2 weeks instead of the more conventional 2 days for, say, a typical Android smartwatch. Another is that the display is highly optimized to make use of sunlight and indoor lighting. The display reduces reflectivity, and it is optimized for sunlight. Outdoors (or indoors under optimal lighting conditions), you can look at the display and it is surprisingly clear and sharp, almost as if it was backlit. You don’t need to hold it at the right angle to get it out of the sun, it’s just there.
There is a backlight that activates for a couple seconds after pushing buttons or when you raise the watch to look at it. These settings can be changed – I turned off the gesture light so it only lights up using buttons in order to wear it at night. Given the above paragraph, the backlight really only needs to be used in darker conditions. So the display was an intentional choice by Garmin to cater to runners and athletes. In my experience with the thing so far, having only eight colors seems like more of a limitation on paper than it actually is. It’s really only painful when looking at pictures (like what I did with the picture on the watch face described above), but the stock apps do not use tons of color. The display for the 55 also seems to have a lower resolution (208×208) than other smartwatches, so you can see a fair amount of pixelation. But even the 945 model is not much better at 240×240.
Physically, you get a default 20mm silicone band, easily swappable for any other 20mm band (Garmin themselves has a selection of other bands, including ones made from nylon, leather, and metal, in the accessories section of their site). The watch itself seems plastic-like, and as mentioned before, looks very much like a sports watch. The oddest addition is a bit of neon green around the start button of the watch, further hampering all attempts to make it look like anything other than a sport watch. The watch itself is light and seems like a good size for my wrist (at 42×42 mm). As you’d expect, a watch like this is water resistant. Swimming in a pool should be no problem, you’ll only need to think twice if diving 50 meters or more.
Now we move into the features, and there’s a lot here. Healthwise, you have a heart rate sensor. It can alert you if your heart rate is high or low at rest (or during workouts if you set that up), and you can track your heart rate zones (even setting up custom zones) if you’re into that. Your heart rate variability is the engine behind the watch’s stress tracking. And when your stress is high at rest, it’ll prompt you to try a breathing activity. The watch/app can also tell you your stress balance for the day, if it seemed high or not. I have mixed feelings about the stress tracking. Since your HR variability is being tracked, an unhealthy meal or the aftermath of a workout will be considered higher stress times. It helps if you think of this as physical stress instead of mental stress – there are times where I am in a worried state but the watch doesn’t pick up on that – it may even think I’m relaxing. It’s not a useless score though. It sometimes reminds me to calm down before stress get worse after seeing my score in a given moment.
The watch also tracks your respiration rate, and your VO2 max, which gives insights into how fit you are. A higher VO2 max is generally good (although what is considered high for you varies by age and sex), and can be improved through exercise.
The watch has GPS, so it’ll collect where you run and your location can even be shared with others. Combined with step data, you’ll get speed, intensity minutes, and all that good stuff. It’ll log your lap times, your pace, how well you seem to be holding up when combined with the other health data.
The smartwatch brings the above together in a few VERY interesting ways. First, you have a daily suggested workout feature. The watch will recommend a length and pace to run each day based on what it thinks you can do. Taken a step (or two) further, you have the Garmin Coach feature, which allows you to craft a training plan to run a 5K, 10K, or half-marathon (either for the first time or at a specified pace up to 7:05 minutes per mile) with one of three coaches. I’ve started a 5K plan targeted to about 23 minutes, which is forecast for 11 weeks. If you can do better than 7:05 minutes per mile, you probably already know what you’re doing anyways, and if not you can rely on the daily suggested workout. These plans are interspersed with short articles and videos to give you tips along the way, and a confidence meter tells you how well you’re doing compared to your goal. Two weeks in, I’m trending in a positive direction!
After workouts you’ll see how many hours your watch thinks you’ll need to recover. A leisurely walk can result in a two-hour recovery time, but my first run with the watch resulted in a 36-hour recovery time needed. The watch can advise you how many recovery hours you have left. If you have many (24+) hours accrued, the watch will tell you to keep training light, or possibly avoid training altogether for the time being.
Another wonderful feature, which is more the app instead of the watch, is the ability to choose a starting point for your run on the map, specify the direction you want to go (or pick random) and how far you want to go, and boom! It’ll create a route for you somewhat close to your distance target. This is great for discovering new routes, as long as you use it with caution. You can also build your own route as well.
The watch has pacing built into it. It can coach you to run at specified paces (used in the above running plans), and vibrate whenever you veer off target. The PacePro feature is useful for mid- and pro-level runners. It allows you to take a route you create and figure out target pacing for the route, taking into account if you want to exert more effort earlier or later, and even elevation changes (you can tell the app how much uphill effort you want to make). Then you can download the route to the watch, and it will guide you through your route at the appropriate pace. I can see this being a game-changer if you can practice on the same routes you race on.
You have swappable watch faces (and can download more via the Garmin app store), and the data points on each watch can be customized, so I can (for example) change out the date with the temperature, heart rate, VO2 max, or pretty much anything the watch tracks. For each activity you have customizable data screens using these data points. The default data screens for each sport are generally pretty good, but you can create and customize them to be as dense or as sparse as you want, and you can easily change screens during an activity with the press of a button. The Connect IQ store even gives you the ability to download new data screens. For example, I got one that draws the route you take during an activity, which could be useful if you lose your way while coming back on an unfamiliar route.
I do have to talk about the Connect IQ store for a minute. As I mentioned before, it is the app/watchface store for the watch, so it’s worth checking out. This is not going to be Google Play, you will not find most of your phone’s apps here. What’s there is definitely tailored to sport, and depending what you are looking for, you might find some neat things to play around with. But it is not intuitive how to use these new gadgets at first. In the store, you have four categories: watch faces, device apps, data fields, and widgets. The first is not an issue, changing watch faces is one of the first things the watch teaches you how to do. Device apps are accessed not from the menus where you see your stats, but from starting an activity and scrolling down the activity type list, which does not really make much sense. Widgets, however, are accessed in the stats menu. Two nice widget examples: AccuWeather Minute Cast which gives me an in-depth view on when it might be raining in the next two hours, and ‘Walk with Frodo’, a simple but neat app… er, widget… that tracks your distance on a 1,800 mile simulated trek from the Shire to Mordor, letting you unlock and read about 66 destinations on the way. The last type of downloadable, data fields, I mentioned before. You can use them to customize your activity data screens.
The watch has sleep tracking, but my first night with it was laughably bad. I only slept about half the night, and the watch came back with a graph where I was awake for a total of 1 minute (the one time I actually got up to go to the bathroom), and it never showed me in deep sleep. The entire night was spent, according to the watch, in flux between light sleep and REM sleep. So I looked online and discovered that, yeah, others find it pretty useless too. Which is disappointing as Fitbit does better with that.
A body battery feature attempts to show you how much energy you have during the day. You’ll have a score between 0-100 that’s at its highest in the morning and typically wanes throughout the day (unless you take a nap or get very relaxed, in which case it may even go up a bit). Stress and exercise will deplete it faster, and the app will interpret your day’s score for you (such as ‘go ahead and exercise’ or ‘get more restful moments’). Body battery also is dependent on how you sleep, but since sleep isn’t a strong part of the watch, I leave the watch off during the night and it simply guesses where my body battery is when I start the next day.
Finally, there are nice community elements to the Garmin Connect app as well. You can create and join groups, have friends and compare stats, and even earn badges. Badges have point values associated with them, and getting points raises your level. Some badges are associated with limited-time challenges, of which there is a good variety. I found a cumulative 505K running challenge for the quarter-year, a 15K challenge to run 15K any one time this month, and a 300,000 step challenge in the month. Those are just a few. Each week you can also be auto-assigned to a group of about 10 strangers with similar step counts for a week-long step challenge.
All in all, I love my new Forerunner. If you’re a runner or you wanted to become one and don’t really want your watch being a simple extension of your phone, there’s a lot for you here. The technology offered in the watch and app are pretty darn amazing, definitely blowing past a comparable $200 Fitbit in my opinion, especially if you do fall into the runner category. The Forerunner definitely has the tools to help you become a better runner over time, and I’m just starting to appreciate them.