Gear Review – Garmin FR610 GPS

UPDATED – To get your little hands on one of these in Australia, Footpoint Shoe Clinic has got these for sale with free shipping and very well priced. Click here to visit the website and go to their online store.

The journey towards my first real investment into a proper GPS/HR monitor started in a more traditional way. I was walking the streets of  New York with a good old fashioned paper map and I found myself popping into one of their ubiquitous running stores. As I chatted to the locals I asked what is new in running?

Collectively the shop assistants all said the new must have gadget for 2011 is the Garmin FR610 GPS watch. And I was in luck, they were just unboxing 4 of the little sleek black numbers while I was there. I asked if they would sell out quickly and the response was “Hell Yeea!” The guy behind the counter suggested I grab it while I can as the previous order of 10 units they had, sold out in 30 minutes once they tweeted that they had some of them on the island of Manhattan ! So immediately I responded to Robert Cialdini’s Weapon of Influence #6 and handed over my credit card whilst ignoring all of my usual purchasing decisions which normally includes extensive research and feedback from multiple sources. I plumped for the whole box and dice and got the HR monitor to boot.

The Top Line

The Garmin 610 represent a huge leap forward in watch design and functionality at the touch of a screen, This watch has listened carefully to all of those previous Garmin Forerunner owners and listened well, as the features pack is pretty extensive. It goes without saying the first and probably single feature everyone wants to know about is the new touch screen technology. Is it more gimmick than key feature ? Is it form over function? Will it make me run faster? My immediate reaction on picking it up was the same as when I first got to play with an iPhone – sheer excitement. Is it a game changer ? Too early to tell but its close to gear nirvana.

The Details

So, what does this watch have over its predecessors that makes it so desirable ?

Well the new Garmin FR610 comes with:-

  • A touch screen that is not a gimmick
  • It adds virtual racer for more training fun and the chance to really test yourself!
  • Sleeker design that can be worn as a normal watch (in some circumstances)
  • Very fast start up- acquires satellites in about half the time of previous Garmins
  • Run/Walk Alert Function which is great for ultras
  • 1 second recording option previously missing from all Garmins since the FR305
  • Up to 4 fields per screen and up to 7 screens all scrollable and fully customisable
  • Heart Rate, Footpod and Bike compatible for multi sport fanatics
  • Garmin Connect supporting software is free and provides a pretty good training log
What is missing
  • Battery Life is limited to 8hrs in GPS mode therefore unlikely to be used in 100km plus races.
  • Not fully waterproof – so no ocean swimming ultra marathons for me.
Lets look at a few of the new features in more detail.

The Touchscreen

This is without doubt the biggest talking point about this watch. If I had a dollar for every time I am asked “Can I use is with gloves or does it work in the wet?” On both occasions I answer Yes and Yes.  It is important to note that it is not a true touchscreen like the iPhone where you can pinch and scroll, but it responds to both touch and friction. You can use your finger or nail but you can also press down on the screen, both equally effective.
Over the last few months I have found that it does get easier to use and the level of control when scrolling through multiple screens or fields as you judge the speed of the movement. Another interesting observation is that it doesn’t seem to scroll in error for example when you wear a long sleeve or waterproof jacket which is apparently an issue with some models where the rotating bevel can be activated inadvertently. On a few longer training runs in pretty gnarly conditions out on the trails it has been subjected to dust, dirt, mud, loads of sweat and even some saliva (it happens on the steepest of climbs) and yet it still seems to scroll as if new.

As I have been getting more experience with the watch and I reemphasise that this is my first real GPS/Training device I have been guilty of adding too many training screens and becoming a little overwhelmed by the information on offer. At one stage I had set up 6 screens which included:- time of day, elapsed run time, lap pace, km split time, HR, speed, altitude, HR zone, compass direction, grade and Virtual Pacer. Well this soon becomes overkill and is something to be looked at in the comfort of your own home when the run is over and becomes a little cumbersome out on the trail due to the fact that the scrolling for these numerous screens is only available left to right on the FR610. With more experience I will be able to set the screens up to give just the info I need with the slightest of glances and more chance of maintaing my eyes on the trail ahead. The good news is that the ability to set up these screens is very easy and only a couple of clicks away through the settings icon.

The display itself works best when either two or three sets of information are displayed, when I extended this to 4 separate bits of info on the one page it became just a tad too difficult to see when taking swift glances. You can probably get away with 4 windows if you are on the track or road when the potential for trip hazards are significantly reduced. For now I have my screens set up with two and three windows.

One final comment is the integrity of the screen, a few reports have been made on line that the screens on some early models have been prone to breaking when dropped on hard services etc. I can only say that I have put over 1000kms on it to date and it has been whacked against trees, rocks and car doors and still looks brand new. Thats more than can be said for my regular visit to the Apple Megastore for a new screen for my iPhone.

The Virtual Racer

I lent the watch for a few days to Andrew Vize from the team to get his feedback on the watch, as most of you will know he is pretty diligent when it comes to recording times and gauging improvements on some of our toughest terrain and one of the immediate pieces of feedback was that the Virtual Racer was a reason in its own right to buy this watch. I asked him to expand on this from a practical sense, as this is not a feature that I recognise immediately as being of any use to an ultra runner. He simply highlighted that with previous Garmins the pacer function allowed you to measure your progress over a set distance with a set time but what it didn’t do is take into consideration the changes in pace within that run due to hills, terrain etc.

With the Virtual Racer function you can recreate a previous run, for example a 10 k hilly run you normally do in 45 minutes and then come back the following week and set the little stick man to race you, while he runs at your previous pace you can try and edge him out 15 seconds quicker. And it gets better, you can download any activity from the entire Garmin Connect world, load it onto your FR610 and attempt to beat it. And yes I have checked, it is possible to download this years unofficial WR at Boston !

In addition to pacing, you can also create pretty complex workouts on the Garmin Training Center and upload them simply to the FR610 for you to execute.

Garmin Connect and synching the FR610

Garmin Connect is Garmin’s proprietary online world that allows you to upload, analyse and store your activities and compare it to other similar events by 1000’s of other likeminded users. And from my perspective it does a pretty good job with minimal fuss when uploading from the watch to the site. That is apart from this week, when Garmin decided to add even more features to the analysis available  but had to take the site down due to sever bugs. Lets hope they get it sorted soon.

Garmin Connect allows you to graphically display a map of your run, although it defaults to the rather archaic looking Bing maps as opposed to, in my opinion the more detailed looking Google Maps, although I think this is more cosmetic than relevant. Other default graphs include elevation profiles, pace, heart rate and lap splits. Other boxes quickly show you pretty much everything you could possible want to see on the one page. Another neat feature is the player function which allows you to place a video-like run through your run animation style which highlights key aspects of your run as it runs from start to finish. This is pretty cool to watch on some of the longer more gnarly runs where you know you were in the hurt locker for long periods on some of the climbs and you can watch the speed drop and the heart rate climb in relation to the incline. Here is an example of a recent run around Sydney Harbour

Synching the watch is pretty simple. Plugging the ANT Stick into your USB and when the watch is within range it automatically downloads your latest runs. To date I have had about 95% success rate with this approach. On the odd occasion I have had to force the watch to pair with the ANT Stick, but this is simple to do, either via the watch or via the computer. Why didn’t it pair immediately, not sure, maybe interference from the watch or a drop out on the server, but it is possible to set the watch up to store all workouts until the memory is full and then start to overwrite the oldest run it you are not keen in sharing your activities  with the rest of the online world.

So what other features are worth highlighting, well, it recharges pretty quickly through a magnetic clip that plugs into a USB or the mains. The downside is that the best battery life to date I have got is just over 9 hours when on full power, i.e. GPS and HR monitor fully operational and the backlight activated to come on every kilometre for 5 seconds. Therefore it would not be useful for any ultras over 50-80kms. The new soft heart rate strap is very comfortable to wear especially when you have a backpack on and out on the trail for several hours. No chafing or pinching. It is fully compatible with other Garmin accessories especially those that are attached to bikes, e.g. speed/cadence sensor.

Summary and Overall Verdict

If you are considering the Garmin FR405 or FR410 then don’t bother and go straight to the FR610 as this is all the watch you will need. Does it get our highest honour of ascending Everest ? Not quite, we are called Ultra168 for a reason, we run ultra distances and so we need to be able to keep going for more than 8hrs both in training and racing so it is only let down by its battery life. Therefore it gets a 4.5/5. If you can turn a blind eye to this key issue then it is pretty much the “Cats Pyjamas”.
We would be keen to hear feedback on any other FR610 owners or what competitor watches you are considering.
Our next gadget review will be the new Suunto Quest which offers some new and interesting feature, so check back soon for more updates.
Review brought to you by Marcus Warner
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7 thoughts on “Gear Review – Garmin FR610 GPS

  1. Battery life is a deal breaker. Looks good but the 310xt will still rule for ultras with up to 18 hours real life.
    Nice work, keep ’em coming.

    1. I agree Andy, its awesome for training runs but no good for the longer stuff. Although to be honest on races like GNW100 knowing how much further I have to go is not going to be helped by a watching telling me of the unrelenting hell in front of me 😉

      I will be interested to get my hands on the new Suunto Quest due out later this year and we hope to get an advanced version to review soon.

  2. thinking a number of people will want to know more about software and whether there is yet any interface for live internet tracking direct from the Garmin, a la Spot Tracker etc. BUT personally not so fazed on that point. Could have done with more frontal nudity and less saliva but great review.
    Glad the battery life sucks otherwise I’d have to think about buying one.

    1. Agree Rog, my experience of the various software options is quite limited as this is not really my thing and as I said before, new to this whole watch thingy so would appreciate comments from those far more wise than I especially versions available on the Apple Macintosh Computers Inc 😉

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