Saturday 11 August 2018

Test of the GPS watch TomTom Runner 3

 Cet article est disponible en français ici.  


After 4 years of wandering around with my faithful Forerunner, I had to change it this year, not without disappointment, since the battery barely holds two hour now and I couldn't find a 42 km long prolongation cable! Therefore, my goal for the next one is to get a reliable product with advanced functionalities for an entry-level price. I give myself a budget of 150 €. Last I've heard, I'm not Kilian Jornet, so I don't need to give out a rent for a watch!

I considered different models and set my mind on a Tomtom Runner 3, for one reason mostly: it is offering a navigation option, that you usually only find on state-of-the-art models like the Garmin Fenix. With prices ranging from 89€ (no cardio), 125€ (cardio, my version) and 199€ (cardio + mp3 player) it is one of the cheapest GPS watch currently on the market. Let's see if it's worth every penny.

1. Unboxing - The first impression is pretty good. The watch is smaller and thinner that it looks on the pictures. With 50g, you barely feel it at your wrist. It is composed of two parts, the bracelet and the watch case, that you need to take apart to charge it or connect it to the computer. It contains a square control pad too, with four buttons, that you use to interact with the watch and that I find more intuitive than the usual side buttons. The bracelet looks resistant, we'll see on the long term, and the fixation system is really well designed. The watch fits well around the wrist and does not move.

2. Test run - The Runner 3 is packed with options. I will need more that a stroll in the park to examine it from all angles. Fortunately, I got the watch just on time for my last long run (40 km), before tapering for the Eco-Tail de Paris (45 km) in three weeks. I'm ready, let's try this baby outside!

It's Sunday morning and I'm waiting in front of the door for the GPS signal to start my long run. Like most watches, the Runner 3 pre-loads the satellites position when connecting to the computer and the QuickGPS is fast. I get a green light in barely 15 seconds.

3. Interface - Let's check the interface first. It's a cold and sunny day. The readability is very good. The contrast of white text on black screen makes it visible from all angles with little sun reflections. The watch displays three data: a large one in the middle, that you can change during the activity using the control pad, and two smaller ones at the bottom, that you can configure beforehand. A fourth data would have been nice, as runners often check at least time, distance, pace and heart-rate during a run. Finally, you can find on the top bar the usual symbols: satellite, heart-rate, Bluetooth and batterie life.


4. Heart-rate monitor - Home is where the heart is, let's have a look at mine! Wrist cardio monitors are becoming a standard and the Runner 3 goes with the flows. A sensor and a green LED are embedded on the back side of the watch, in contact with your skin, and measure the blood flow. Good-bye itchy chest straps! Still, for testing purposes, I take my old Forerunner and strap with me, for comparison. The heart-rate value of the Runner 3 is pretty accurate, maybe a little optimistic and a few beats below the one I get from my chest strap.

A graph analyses my progression and what cardio zone I am in (Fat burn, Cardio, Performance, etc.) I just notice a delay after sudden accelerations. The watch needs some time to notice the change and even after, the value stays 10 to 20 bpm below the strap one. The watch seems to smooth the heart-rate variations, which is fine on a steady run but not for speed work. In that case, it would be probably wise to buy a compatible strap.


5. Navigation - It's about time to test my favourite option! Perfect timing, as I'm on the starting line of the Eco-Trail de Paris, 45km of muddy and poorly marked-out trails in the middle of the woods. TomTom Sports lets you upload a GPX file, that will be sent automatically to the watch next time you connect it. It's fast and really handy. Using an online tool like Wandermap, you can create a route and send it to the watch. See my Turtle Run article in this edition for example.

I downloaded the GPX route from the race website and sent it to the watch. I can now select it before starting the activity. There are four navigation screens, rights from the main one, corresponding to three levels of zoom (close-up, surroundings and complete route) and a metric compass.

The map is simple, just a little arrow representing you and a white line marking your progression. If you pre-load a route like I did, it shows up as a grey line that you can follow (or not, if you are a rebel like me!). All in all it is extremely simple and efficient. No directions calling, no notifications, no display of the surroundings. Just the bare necessities! I keep an eye on my progression all along the event, and avoid this way to take a wrong path or miss a turn. I just regret that I don't get notified when I step out of the route. But let's be honest, we all hate to hear the GPS repeat "make a U-turn when possible!"

6. Batterie Life -  Second aid station, I'm running out of stamina. What about my little friend? One of the main decision criteria for me in a watch is its autonomie. Who cares about having the best options when your watch dies on you half way through the race? TomTom guaranties a battery life of 9:00, with GPS and cardio monitor on. When I cross the finish line of the Eco-Trail de Paris, after 6:15 on the way, my watch still has about 10% of battery. Therefore, I guess the real autonomie would be around 7:00 to 7:30. You can increase it to 9:00-10:00 by deactivating the heart rate monitor if you don't need it. Overall it should be enough for races up to 80 km, but not above. It is unfortunately impossible to charge the watch on the way using a power bank.

7. TomTom Sports - Back home after my muddy adventure, I connect the Runner 3 to the computer, via the USB cable (also used for charging). The activity is sent in a few seconds to Tomtom Sports, Strava, Relive and all connected services. The smartphone app can do the same via Bluetooth. I take a quick look at the interface, quite pleasant, with pastel tons and cartoon pictures. It's like watching the Disney channel!

The menus are refined and simple, with the usual post-race stats, graphs, maps and everything you need to keep track of your adventures: distance, time, pace, elevation, heart-rate, splits, etc. Altogether, it looks rather intended for the casual runner than the professional one. The dashboard is a bit messy and cannot be configured, like on Garmin Connect. On the map, the precision of the route I travelled is pretty accurate, overlapping with the roads and forest trails most of the time.

8. Activity Tracker - If you are interested, the watch can be used as a daily activity tracker too, counting your steps, checking your heart rate, analysing your sleep and texting your mom what time you go to bed! I don't like being told what to do, so I deactivate it to save on battery.
9. Additional - As said, the Runner 3 is chock-full of tech and options, that I had the pleasure to discover along the way. I won't detail them all here, but to name a few, the watch includes more than 50 workouts, you can create your own, define training goals, run against yourself or calculate your fitness age and your VO2max. Finally, it is worth mentioning that the watch is waterproof 5ATM, a good thing when you've got mud up to the chest!


10. Conclusion - I have been using the TomTom Runner 3 for four months now. Let's sum up its strong and weak points:

+ Competitive price around 125 € (, March 2018)
+ Thin and light, intuitive interaction using to the control pad
+ QuickGPS fast, about 10 seconds to acquire a GPS signal
+ Good contrast, screen readable even by sunlight
+ Built in heart rate monitor reliable most of the time
+ Very useful navigation option with just the bare necessities
+ Good batterie life suited for runs up to 80 km
+ User-friendly interface on the TomTom Sports website and app
+ Countless workouts, goals and modes included

- Only 3 data displayed at once, only 2 configurable
- No recap screen displayed after stopping the activity
- Heart-rate monitor not suitable for speed work
- No notification when we step out of a pre-loaded route
- Online dashboard a bit messy and not configurable
- Phone notifications only for calls and sms

To conclude this test, I must say that I have been pleasantly surprised by the TomTom Runner 3. For an entry-level model with a price below 150€, a friendly interface and an arsenal of options, it does not compare unfavourably to its state-of-the-art expensive rivals. For me, it is now a reliable comrade in arms that will stand by my side on all upcoming adventures, that I won't forget to share with you!

Feel free to check my blog for an extended review of the watch (in French).

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