It's fair to say I'm a big Strava fan, and while I've tested pretty much every running app over the years, it's Strava that's stuck. But the problem is that I'm also an Apple Watch Series 2 user, and up until now, that partnership has been incompatible.
But not incompatible in a technical way. Strava was straight to market with an Apple Watch app ‚Äď but thanks to the lack of GPS on the original Apple Watch, it was pretty poor. You needed to take your phone along for the ride, and when we did use it, it wasn't accurate. It was no match for a proper GPS running watch.
Essential reading: Best Apple Watch apps 2017
So when the Apple Watch Series 2 appeared with GPS built in, I thought it was problem solved. But I waited, and a standalone Strava for Apple Watch app never appeared. That pretty much killed the Apple Watch as a running device for me. It worked well with Nike+ Run Club, but I just didn't enjoy it. I missed the Strava Segments, the detailed feedback and the burgeoning group of friends and followers.
But now it's arrived ‚Äď a standalone Strava GPS running and cycling app, that works without a smartphone for the first time. As long as you have Strava installed (and updated) on your phone, then your Apple Watch app is ready to rock.
When you fire it up, you're presented with a juicy START button ‚Äď but beware: the app defaults to cycling mode, so you'll need to tweak the settings. Swipe left to toggle between running and cycling, miles and kilometers and turn on auto pause. Being the limit of the app's settings, it makes for a pretty minimal experience.
The Strava app is also well laid out (see above), with your time displayed at the top, your live pace dominating the screen, with distance in the bottom left and live heart rate in the bottom right. It's pretty much the basics covered off, but here comes the first negative: there's a lack of customisation options. You can't cycle through for average run pace, or have your run displayed by heart rate zones, for example. It's all a bit limited.
We've tested the app pretty extensively, and accuracy for distances was a mixed bag.
The first two runs were nailed on accurate to our TomTom Adventurer (see below).
First run, impressive accuracy
The third jaunt was almost a mile out over a five mile run, and then the fourth run was accurate again. That's in keeping with our experience of the Apple Watch in general. One in four runs just aren't recorded accurately, and if you aren't religiously comparing to other watches ‚Äď like us ‚Äď you likely won't notice.
Another gripe was pacing. Average pace was regularly a lot lower on the Apple Watch app than shown on our GPS watch, with one difficult windy run recorded at rapid 8:18 min/miles, compared to a more realistic 8:51 min/mile on the TomTom. And it wasn't just average pace; live pace was very slow to register changes. After a quick break to take photos, we were running for a few minutes before the Strava app reported a normal pace again. If you're a runner that gets hung up on your pacing ‚Äď and let's face it, we all do ‚Äď that's going to grate.
Run three showed a disparity between TomTom (left) and Strava (right)
The heart rate monitor works well ‚Äď a win for Apple's hardware rather than Strava ‚Äď and the app is quite capable of reporting on your bpm during steady runs. You won't want to start hitting too many intervals, but you'll get an honest appraisal of even high tempo runs.
So it's a mixed bag for Strava. We're delighted it's available and we will use it when our normal GPS watch isn't at hand, and that's a small step forward. But unreliable accuracy means we won't be ditching dedicated wearables anytime soon.
But for whatever reason ‚Äď and we apportion no blame ‚Äď third-party Apple Watch apps still aren't troubling dedicated wearables. It's perhaps a subject to be tackled another day, but the Strava Apple Watch experience should make the need for a low-end Garmin watch redundant ‚Äď and it doesn't. It's not a bad alternative in a squeeze, but a replacement it's sadly not.