TomTom’s latest GPS running watch does away with sweaty, constrictive heart rate straps with a clever sensor that measures how your pulse subtly changes the colour of your skin.
Running watches start cheap and simple and stretch all the way up to expensive and fiendishly complex. The trick is to find the right one for you: do you really need GPS? A heart rate sensor? Advanced interval training support? If not, you can save headache and money by opting for something more basic.
Here TomTom has tried to cram all those advanced features into a very simple package. And it’s largely succeeded, although the cost is still up there with its most expensive competitors.
The main draw here is, without a doubt, the heart rate sensor. Most watches use separate, wireless sensors that you strap around your chest. These can feel a little restrictive when you’re breathing heavily and get unpleasantly sweaty. In short, they are just one more thing to worry about before heading out of the front door.
The Runner Cardio uses technology licensed from Canadian company Mio to integrate a sensor onto the watch itself. Because strap sensors tend to detect electrical impulses, and this doesn’t work well on the wrist, it instead uses a clever system that measures the colour of your skin.
Two green LEDs shine onto your wrist and an optical sensor analyses the reflection. When your heart pumps, the blood changes the colour of the skin slightly, and the watch detects this to calculate your heart rate. It’s essentially the same system used in the Withings Pulse which we recently reviewed, and it works well – we found it to match readings from other devices closely.
It makes the Runner Cardio much easier to use. Plus, the electronic gubbins can be removed from the strap, making cleaning easy. On the other hand it can feel a little bulky on the wrist – particularly as you have to have it quite tight to get an accurate reading.
It is extremely simple to use, though. Most of the input is done with a four-way cursor button on the strap under the face of the watch and the drid-based menu is so intuitive that you’ll be up and running within minutes.
There are advanced features, such as intervals and custom targets for each run based on time or distance, but settings and options are kept to a minimum. The watch doesn’t have the same degree of customisation as competitors such as the Garmin Forerunner 620 but many will be willing to sacrifice this for the sake of simplicity.
Once you’ve got home from a run it’s easy to upload your data. A TomTom smartphone app allows you to upload directly to TomTom’s own, rather basic, sports tracking website MySports, but you can also share data with popular websites such as Strava. It seems that any running watch manufacturer also feels the need to create a website to track this data, but it would be nice to see one with the courage to admit that competitors like Strava have the edge and the existing user base and hand over the software side of things to them.
Despite its name, the Runner Cardio can also be used for cycling and swimming, giving speed and distance data. When swimming it uses motion sensors to detect when you take a stroke and when you push off from the side of the pool. You have to input the length of the pool before you start. Similarly, you can use the watch for indoor running on a treadmill and it will use those same motion sensors to take a best guess at how far you ran.
All in all, it’s an attractive package: accurate, simple to use and easy to clean. But those with small wrists would be well advised to try it on before buying, and the cost will be prohibitive for some.