The Garmin Forerunner 630 is the company's latest tech-packed flagship running watch, as it takes the fight to the likes of of Fitbit and TomTom.
Announced earlier this year alongside the Forerunner 230 and the Forerunner 235, Garmin's justifying the $449 price tag by gunning for advanced running analytics, smartwatch-inspired features and access to Garmin's own Connect IQ app store.
Disappointingly, it doesn't pack a built-in optical heart rate monitor like the Forerunner 235, so you'll need to rely on the optional heart rate monitor chest strap to track your workout intensity.
For $399 (or $449 with the heart rate monitor), it's significantly more expensive than a Fitbit Surge and the TomTom Spark. You certainly get a lot of features for your buck, but is it worth spending the extra? We hit the roads to find out.
Garmin Forerunner 630: Design and build
If you've picked up or used one of the newer Forerunners recently, like the Forerunner 225, then you'll quickly see the 630 is built on the same design principles. Generally, sports watches have a habit of looking like they've been hit with an ugly stick but Garmin has actually built a sports watch I really didn't mind wearing all day.
Essential reading: Best heart rate monitors
There's a nicely sized round watch face, which hosts a 1.23-inch colour touchscreen display that's doesn't lose the fight for space with the generous black bezel surrounding it. Its screen tech is less impressive and one look at the 215 x 180 pixel resolution is enough to show it's a way off the Apple Watch or Android Wear devices. Colours are pretty dull, but it's fine for glancing at stats during the day with a backlight giving you a helping hand for those nighttime running sessions.
The matte plastic build and blue finish certainly give it that sporty look and feel suitably robust to withstand the rigours of a workout without making it too chunky. The plastic strap is comfortable enough to wear for all day tracking and doesn't feel too tight, with ventilated holes to stop things from getting too sweaty.
It's waterproof to 5ATM, which means you can take it swimming, technically to 50 metres. It's good enough for a session in the pool, although you'll have to make do without the dedicated swimming modes that you get on the Garmin Forerunner 920xt.
There are four physical buttons in total, two either side of the display engraved with their dedicated features. That's in addition to a small capacitive button below the screen, which allows you to scroll down through menus and notifications.
The touchscreen might not be as slick or as responsive as an Apple Watch or an Android Wear smartwatch, but I had no major problems swiping through data screens or reading notifications during a run.
As mentioned, there's no optical heart rate sensor. What you will find are four charging pins where you'll need to clip in the clothes peg-like proprietary charger. If you go for the most expensive version, then you'll also get a 5ATM waterproof Garmin HRM Run chest strap bundle that's surprisingly snug to wear. I'd have definitely have preferred the wrist-based monitor option you get on the 235 though.
Garmin Forerunner 630: Running features
This is a running-focused sports watch, but it's also built for cycling if you go for the extra add-ons available. We'll update our thoughts on how it well it works for cyclists at a later date. For runners, I can tell you it's fantastic.
It's one of the easiest watches to get up and running. Hit the top right button, select your running mode (there's indoor and outdoor tracking and race modes) and you're good to go. If you're running with the heart rate monitor chest strap, it pairs in seconds. It's a similar story with the GPS. The longest I've had to wait is about 30 seconds, thanks to the addition of GLONASS satellite support.
The screen is split into three data fields all easily viewable with a second screen of data you can swipe across the screen to see. During a run, a nice purposeful vibration will let you know when you've hit a mile or indicate some of the newer running metrics. Some are more useful than others, but if you're serious about your running, you're going to love the insights.
There's the standard pace, speed, timing, elevation and heart rate readings along with a training effect number. Then there's metrics like threshold measurements, which is essentially an estimated level of effort. Go over your threshold and that's when fatigue can kick in. VO2 max, which requires the heart rate monitor to produce the readings, gives you an indication of athletic performance and is illustrated by different coloured zones. Purple is excellent, red is poor.
But they keep coming. You can get predicted race times based on training, stress scores, a recovery advisor to tell you when it's the optimum time to go for another intense running session and a performance condition number based on pace and heart rate variability in real time. If you see a +5 reading, you're in a good state to go running.
With built-in Wi-Fi on board, sessions are quickly uploaded to Garmin Connect where you can see more running dynamics data on cadence, stride length, vertical ratio, vertical oscillation, average GC time balance and average ground contact time. Basically, there's loads here and it puts most other running watches to shame.
Having all that data is one thing, but obviously if it's not accurately captured, then it's pointless. Thankfully, that's not the case here. For GPS and heart rate tracking, it's one of the best we've used.
Up against the TomTom Spark and Runkeeper running on an iPhone 6, I had no complaints with the GPS accuracy. There were no dropouts and picking up a signal was generally quicker than the TomTom watch.
Left to right: Garmin Connect, TomTom MySports and Runkeeper
It's a similar story with the heart rate monitoring. EKG chest straps are still the most reliable ways to deliver bpm (beats per minute) readings and that's what you'll find with Garmin's ANT+ strap. Against the TomTom's wrist-based heart rate monitor, which I've tested against the Polar H7 chest strap for accuracy, it was spot on again as the graphs show below.
Garmin Connect (left) and TomTom MySports (centre and right)
For indoor run tracking you're relying on the accelerometer, which is never going to be as reliable as GPS but should improve after a few runs. Again, compared to the TomTom Spark's indoor mode, the data remained consistent.
Garmin Forerunner 630: Activity tracking
Taking some inspiration from the Vivosmart and Vivofit, the 630 also packs in activity and sleep tracking. It harness many of the same features like the auto goal feature, which adjusts your step count depending how successful you've been at hitting (or not hitting) your goal. There's also the great Move bar feature to display your activity with the Move alerts sending a small vibration to the watch tell you to get off your butt. From a motivational point of view, Garmin does a really good job here.
Wearing it alongside a Jawbone UP2, data accuracy is good but not perfect. On some days there was a difference of 1,000 steps, which is quite a lot. Other days, it was fine. For sleep tracking, the 630 tends to register 10-15 more minutes of shut eye, but data for deep and light sleep levels are consistent with the UP2. When it comes to reviewing sleep tracking data in the app, you're going to have to hunt it out because it's bizarrely not displayed in the Snapshots or Calendar on the Garmin Connect app. It's just one of the many app-related quirks I'll get into later.
Sleep tracking comparison: Garmin connect (left) and Jawbone UP 2 (right)
I should also mention at this point that you don't have to have the activity tracking switched on and it will no doubt be kinder to the battery life without it. When I did activate it though I began to experience some pairing issues with my iPhone.
The Forerunner 630 began displaying the wrong time and the watch didn't sync to the Garmin Connect app. After forgetting it as a device in my Bluetooth settings, it did kick back into gear but based on what my Wareable colleague James said in his Garmin Vivosmart HR review this is possibly not a problem unique to the 630.
Garmin Forerunner 630: Other features
Along with its activity tracking powers, Garmin has done its very best to pack in as much it can to make it work like a smartwatch as well. It might not look as good as an Apple Watch or a Samsung Gear S2, but it can certainly offer many of the same features.
Smartphone notifications are the 630's most impressive smartwatch feature. It'll display emails, texts, and other app alerts or updates. When it's in normal watch mode, they'll be full screen. During a run, they'll appear on top of the first data field, so you can still see progress and decide whether you want to deal with them or wait for them to disappear. There's very little delay on the delivery in comparison to landing on your phone and while you can't respond to them, they're easy to read and I actually found them really useful.
Along with notifications, there are also widgets to view the weather and your calendar as well as control music. You can't upload music to the 630, TomTom Spark style, but there's enough onboard storage to log 200 hours of activity data.
If you own a Garmin VIRB action camera, you can hook up and control it from the 630 and it even has a find your phone feature. Yes, there's loads here and the 630's smartwatch features are some of the best I've seen.
Garmin Forerunner 630: Garmin Connect and IQ apps
Historically, Garmin Connect, the companion software, has been a bit of a mess. Finally, it feels like it's developed into a place you'd actually want to spend time in. Unfortunately there's still a lot going on and it'll definitely take some time to get accustomed to where everything lives.
If you cast your eyes to the bottom of the app, you'll find a breakdown of all the key areas.
From left to right, you'll see Snapshots first where you can glance at the day's activity; this includes support for MyFitnessPal to pull in calorie counts. There's also third-party app support for Apple Health and Strava, which should come in handy for cyclists.
Swipe right and you can also see dedicated pages for your weight along with stats for cycling, swimming, sleep, running and steps. Again you'll see the same snapshot overview. You can dig deeper into those sections to see more in-depth data.
The next section is dedicated to Connections, and this is where you can connect with other Garmin Connect friends and offer to challenge them across different activities. If you've got cycling friends, there's leaderboards for that.
After that it all gets very standard. There's a calendar, where the app will plot your logged activity with a news feed of your activities rounding the sections off. In the More tab, there's even more to take in, but it's essentially another way to view your stats along with creating courses and pairing kit like shoe and bike sensors.
This is also where you'll find the Connect IQ Store. Think your typical app store, but one that's very much a work in progress. The storefront isn't as elegant as Apple's or Google's. You'll need to sign in with your Garmin login, but once in, there's a modest selection of apps, additional data fields, watch faces and widgets to further customise the 630. Once you've found what you want, they'll be synced to the watch.
Pick a watch face, and in a minute or so, it'll pop up on your watch. There's a mixed bag of stuff here, but apps that allow you the ability to view maps, add resting heart rate data fields or view hiking data do give it something extra that other sports watches lack. If developers continue to support it, Garmin potentially has something here that will really set it apart from its rivals.
Garmin Forerunner 640: Battery Life
According to Garmin the Forerunner 630 can muster up 16 hours when you're putting the sensors into action. If you're just using it as a watch and using the activity tracking and features like notifications, it can last for a month without being clipped back into its charger. Garmin actually lists a good breakdown of battery performance on its website.
Based on my experience, the estimation on battery life without using the GPS looks on the money. If you go for the full works and keep notifications, tracking and GPS all on, the drop-off is more noticeable and it'll be a week and a half with four or five hour long runs. But it's significantly better than what watches like the Fibit Surge, TomTom Spark can currently offer once the GPS is turned on.
After an hour run on full battery, with notifications rattling around in the background, the battery dropped by very little. That's not a bad effort and I'd be confident it could go the distance for longer sessions, as long as you're a bit more careful with what else is running on in the background. It's not the quickest charger however, taking more than a couple of hours to get back up to 100% when it's totally flat.