- Super accurate
- Looks smart
- Impressive array of metrics
- Nasty Strap
- No swim plans on Garmin Connect
- Not enough coaching
There are sports watches by the dozen for runners and cyclists but, when it comes to swimming, not so much. Sure, you can pick up multi-discipline models which cover the full triathlon of activities but that's quite a lot of added expense and overkill if all you want to do is 60 lengths in the pool.
Essential reading: Best swimming wearables, trackers and MP3 players
That's what the Garmin Swim is about, and at a very reasonable sounding £99, we took it for a few dips to find out a little bit more about our front crawl.
Garmin Swim: Design
The Garmin Swim is a good wearable but its looks and feels are not our favourite part. It's a very intentionally unisex device with a face just about small enough to suit feminine wrists without being too dainty for men. It's no bother to wear at just 40g and just 1.3cm thick. It would be nice to have more colour options but it's black with turquoise highlights for everyone. It might not be jazzy but it's certainly smart.
There are six clearly marked and easy to press buttons around the bezel. They each have icons both on the rim of the watch and sometimes etched into the metal, so there's never any mucking around trying to remember which one does what. That might sound like a small point but when you've been beasted by 500m of butterfly, these things need to be as obvious as possible.
The most important button of the lot, though, is the big, colourful swim button. It activates all your in-pool functions and, again, clearly marked, it makes you feel a bit special when you press it; a bit like playing with a car sunroof for the first time.
The only aspect of the Garmin Swim's design that we really take issue with is the strap. It's quite a hard, cheap-feeling plastic that has a habit of pinching your skin. It makes the whole thing come off a little like a knock-off Casio G-Shock which is a bit of a shame, really.
There are nicer waterproof possibilities out there like the wetsuit-type strap found on the Adidas miCoach SmartRun. Something like that would have afforded the Swim a lot more class and might have turned it into a watch to wear all the time rather than something only for the pool.
Garmin Swim: In the pool
Now, just to be clear, this is not an open-water watch. It's for indoor swimming. There's no GPS, so the watch has no idea where you are or how fast you're moving, at least not by means of satellite. Instead, you have to tell it how long your pool is. There are standard options of 25m, 33.3m, 50m and 33.3 yards but there's also a custom setting if your local sports centre has taken matters into its own hands. Between that knowledge, your body weight – which you input yourself – and sensing when you've pushed off the wall for the start of another length, the Garmin Swim can figure out the rest.
The gyros and accelerometers found within the watch are smart enough to tell you what stroke you're swimming, how many you've performed and how efficiently you're paddling along. What you end up with are metrics of the number of lengths you've done, your total swimming time, your distance, your time per 100m, your strokes per minute and an approximation of the calories you've burned in the process.
How effective a swimmer you are is measured as your SWOLF score – a wonderful mash-up between 'swimming' and 'golf' which measures your par swimming score. Like golf, the lower your SWOLF, the better. We're not going to tell you ours.
Essential guide: Garmin Vivoactive launch date, features and more
To start you need to do is set the thing off once you get going and remember to hit the pause button any time you take a break. If you need to perform any drills to work on certain parts of your game, then there's an option to have those lengths omitted from recording altogether.
Aside open-water swimming, the only other measurement that would be seriously handy is your heart rate but that's not currently possible under Garmin's system owing to the added complications of the water.
Garmin Swim: Does it work?
Yes, it does. The length counting and stroke recognition - which are the core jobs of the Garmin Swim - worked every time without fail. No wall push was too weak and no stroke to floundered. It even managed to figure out our butterfly.
The big surprise for us was the amount of time we spent actually swimming once our breathers were taken out. Not as much as we'd thought. It was also frustratingly difficult to have much effect on our SWOLF but, presumably, that's where swimming lessons come in.
So, the Garmin Swim does its sensing and measuring very well but what you're then left with is the classic wearable dilemma: “What can I do with all that data?"
Firstly, you can log it and see how that changes over time, but you can do some of that with a non-connected swimming app too. What Garmin's offering is to do it in more detail and, if you're swimming in any moderately serious way, then that's probably enough to justify buying one. If all you want is 20 minutes of breaststroke once and week, then it's not going to make much difference to you.
Garmin Swim: App
Garmin Connect is the platform that this watch works with. There's decent mobile and web app versions of it. The Garmin Express desktop software used to auto-upload your details whenever you're in range of you computer is nearly good. You need to plug in a little USB ANT dongle to get it to work but the real irritant for us was Express insisting that it had failed in its uploading task each time when it clearly hadn't. At the very least, it works. It just needs ironing out.
That's just a misdemeanour, though, compared to the high treason that Connect itself perpetrates. You're all taken care of as a runner, a cyclist or even a triathlete but, if swimming is what you want to do, there are absolutely zero training schedules on offer. They just didn't bother. Thanks Garmin, and that leaves you with the task of picking through the tables and analysing the line graphs on you own to figure out what your body needs next.
The strangest part about it is that it's a move that's just so out of character for a company that's really owning the sports wearable space. Reading the forums and official responses, you get the idea that swim plans are on the way but, without any promises, all we can suggest now is trying the Speedo app which seems to be getting better every month. It can't do anything with most of the technical data that the watch can provide but it's a decent place to log your sessions with a nice range of goals for all abilities with realistic programs on how to achieve them.
How we test