Technology

Garmin's Foremost Forerunner


This combined GPS device and heart-rate monitor tracks a trove of data on your running history

It's good to be the runner. That's true any time, but especially lately—assuming you're even a little geeky and gadget inclined. These days runners are getting treated to a wide array of sexy, useful new toys.

Take the Garmin (GRMN) Forerunner 305. Garmin, a giant in global positioning system-related devices, has long offered all manner of satellite-assisted mapping and tracking gear, including wrist-mounted receivers. But the high-end Forerunner, introduced for $349 earlier this year, is by far the most innovative and usable of the bunch.

Like earlier Forerunner iterations, the 305 is essentially a high-precision GPS receiver, capable of measuring speed, distance traveled, pace, and calories burned. On top of those basics, the 305 features a host of other features, including triathlon training and a wireless heart-rate monitor.

The most notable improvement is the size. At 2.72 oz., the Forerunner 305 won't make you feel like you've got an electronic brick attached to your arm. Make no mistake—it will seem large compared with a run-of-the-mill heart-rate monitor or sport watch. I kept expecting a call from Dick Tracy. Still, this device earns its squatter's rights.

STEADY SIGNAL.

And while the 305 is a trove of advanced features, Garmin keeps ease of use paramount. It's possible to unpack the watch, strap it on, and go—with minimal fuss. As soon as the watch arrived at BusinessWeek's midtown Manhattan offices, that's exactly what I did, skipping the gym and running straight into Central Park.

Garmin says it entirely revamped the antenna inside the unit to better deal with overhead obstacles like trees and skyscrapers. Over two weeks of heavy use, 11 runs between 5 and 11 miles apiece, I lost the signal only once. Admittedly, that was during a run through a forested area of South Orange, N.J.—in the rain. Otherwise the unit had no problem tracking my movements, even amid tall factory buildings in Tribeca or thick tree cover of public parks.

One disadvantage of depending on satellites in orbit is having to wait for the watch to pick up a signal on startup. The process takes between 30 and 60 seconds. That can seem unbearably long if, like me, you find yourself jonesing for a run at the end of the day.

TREADMILL OPTION.

The 305's display is large, crisp, backlit, and, best of all, user-customizable. A feature called "Virtual Partner" lets you "race" a watch-based icon. If tracking a 3 cm-tall digital stick figure gets your motor running, you'll love seeing whether you are ahead or behind your wrist-top rival.

And if testing the ticker is part of your routine, the included heart-rate monitor strap is wide, thin, and flexible. So it's likely to be comfortable even on a smaller frame. Unlike the stiffer, heavier straps on rival devices, Garmin's fits a wide range of users. Better yet, the strap hooks are well-designed and heavy duty, helping you avoid the embarrassment of a strap coming undone.

For when you're inevitably stuck on a treadmill, Garmin offers an accessory it calls the Foot Pod, which transmits a signal loaded with pace, speed, and distance information to the watch. The shoe-mounted attachment works as advertised, providing an apt solution when the sky won't cooperate, though it's rather large, costs an extra $99, and looks, well, a little silly.

TRAINING TRACKER.

The Forerunner comes with some other features that will appeal to the geek in every runner. One is the Training Center software that organizes data on your runs.

Even better, the 305 is compatible with Garmin's online service MotionBased.com. Think of it as Training Center on performance enhancers, opening a world of interactive maps and graphs that catalog everything about your run, from pace, distance, and heart rate to the weather in the areas you covered. A database of past runs makes your entire exercise history available at the click of a mouse. It makes great use of Google (GOOG) maps to display your routes. Never have I been so thrilled looking at a set of maps.

All in all, the Forerunner 305 is a tremendous little device, even for the price. The GPS technology isn't bulletproof, but the combination of precision tracking and voluminous postworkout reporting is a real winner. It's enough to encourage longtime runners to keep going—or beginners and others to kick it up a notch. It very well may be the best thing to happen to runners since Pheidippides strapped on his sandals.


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