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Swimming Watches Comparison Essay

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Certain tracker features are now ubiquitous: step counting, distance calculation, sleep tracking, and most recently, heart rate monitoring. But one of the more elusive features—swim tracking—is often mentioned as a side-note or overlooked completely. It might be seen as a niche activity for enthusiasts or just for a particular time of the year, but swimming is one of the best workouts you can do for your body.

Unlike wrist-bound heart rate monitoring, swim tracking hasn't become so popular that companies are trying to outfit all of their devices with it. Some of the most affordable fitness devices can track swimming, but then there are mid-tier and high-end trackers that have similar features. Which one you ultimately decide to buy depends on how you plan on using it every day.

"These things are not inexpensive," Ramon Llamas, research manager for wearables and mobile phones at IDC, told Ars. "Take a look at what you plan on doing.... Don't get the wearable for the device, get the wearable for the experience and the information that it provides to you." Before you go to purchase a swim tracker, consider these questions to help you decide what you should be spending your money on.

1. What kind of data do you need?

The amount and type of data is the first thing you'll notice when you start using a swim tracker. Some devices keep it simple, tracking just duration, lap count, and lap time. Others dig deeper into stats like stroke length, stroke count, and more. If you mostly swim casually and are just trying to beat a distance or time goal, you can likely go with a device that offers basic swim tracking. Anyone who is training to swim competitively will want a device that can provide a more in-depth look at swimming style and technique. Rather than focusing on speed or time alone, focusing on technique to be a more efficient swimmer requires analysis of more advanced metrics.

2. How do you want to see your data?

Wearable displays are often taken for granted, but not every device has one and that's something to consider if you're looking for instant gratification. Some devices will show you quick stats like lap count and time via an onboard display, but others forgo the display to make the device smaller and more lightweight.

However, almost all devices will have a smartphone app to syncs with. With apps, you'll be able to see swimming stats after your workout. Some options like Garmin and Polar devices also have online portals where you can analyze workout statistics on a larger screen if you desire. These desktop applications often let you see more in-depth stat graphs and charts as well.

3. Do you need heart rate or GPS capabilities?

Advanced metrics that come from heart rate monitoring and GPS mapping can come in handy while swimming. Some devices may have built-in optical heart rate monitors, but you'll have to check the specific device to see if it can be used in the water. More often, trackers can have the ability to connect to heart rate chest straps, but those straps usually have to be purchased separately.

In terms of GPS, the only reason you'd need it is if you regularly swim in open water and want to map out your swimming routes. If your workouts are confined to an indoor pool, you don't really need to spend the extra money on a device with built-in GPS. In this use case, a GPS may come in handy only if you don't know the exact length of the pool (in yards or meters). In that case, GPS can be used to estimate your total distance.

With these considerations in mind, I selected a few swim-tracking activity monitors to test out to see how they compare. Ironically Fitbit, the reigning king of fitness wearables, has yet to make a device waterproof enough to track swimming. So instead, we took a look at some of the other devices that can accompany you in the water while also offering day-to-day tracking features.

Swim tracker specs at a glance
DeviceGarmin SwimPolar V800Pebble Time SteelMoov NowWithings Go
How to wearon wriston wriston wriston wrist, on ankleon wrist, clipped to clothing
Display type55 x 31 pixel monochrome128 x 128 pixels high resbacklit e-papernonee-ink
Water-resistant levelup to 50 metersup to 30 metersup to 30 metersup to 3 metersup to 50 meters
CompatibilityAndroid, iOSAndroid, iOSAndroid, iOSAndroid, iOSAndroid, iOS
Trackable statslaps, distance, time, stroke type, stroke length, pacelaps, distance, timeyards, time, laps, pacelaps, lap time, strokes, turnstime, laps
Heart rate monitorNoYes (with additional sensor)NoNoNo
Battery lifeup to 1 yearup to 13 hoursup to 10 daysup to 6 monthsup to 6 months

    Garmin Swim

    This is the lone dedicated swim tracker of the bunch, meaning Garmin Swim will only track water exercise and not daily activities or multiple sports. Garmin Swim has been mentioned a lot on online swimming forums, largely for its simplistic nature. Those who buy it only need it for swimming and likely don't need or want an general activity tracker.

    When I used it in the pool, it's lightweight on the wrist and fairly simple to navigate with the six physical buttons along the rim of its circular face. Its default face shows the time and date as well as your weekly lap total. The blue button brings up the swimming menu where you can begin an activity by pressing the start button directly across from it. The screen will show you the number of yards you have swam and the total time you've been swimming. I liked being able to glance down and see just a few stats while I was swimming, and you can also add different pages to the display so you can see different stats if you're unsatisfied with just yards and time.

    My Garmin Swim experience in the pool was hitch-free, but that wasn't mirrored on land. It's an older device so it doesn't connect to your smartphone like other Garmin devices. Rather, it comes with an ANT stick that plugs into the USB port on your computer. Then, it should connect to Garmin Express, where you can pair it and sync your swim data. Unfortunately, my device wasn't recognized by Garmin Express even with the ANT stick plugged in. A Garmin representative told me that might be due to the fact that it's an older device with an older battery in it.

    If you prefer to invest in a newer device, Garmin's Vivoactive HR is a good alternative. It has a full touchscreen and it syncs to the Garmin Connect app on your smartphone when you want to sync your swims. The interface is much more customizable as well, letting you tap and switch different stats that show up on the display while you're swimming. It has a slightly bulkier, rectangular design than the Garmin Swim, but it didn't get in my way while I was in the water.

    Garmin Connect also holds a plethora of information about your swim once you sync—way more than you can see on the device itself. It includes stats like total strokes, average and maximum stroke rate, total time, moving time, pace, calories burned, average and maximum speed, and more. While the Garmin Connect app can be slow to sync with the company's devices, it always gets the job done so I'd be inclined to choose a newer device like the Vivoactive HR over the Garmin Swim.

      Listing image by Valentina Palladino

      If you're looking for the ultimate multi-sports tracking watch, packing GPS connectivity and smartwatch notifications, you're spoiled for choice.

      Both the Garmin Vivoactive and Fitbit Surge are now released and on the market, and on paper it can be hard to choose which is right for you.

      Well, we've put both through their paces, and have everything you need to know.

      Fitbit Surge v Garmin Vivoactive: Design and display

      The Apple Watch and Android Wear brigade won't exactly be shaking in their boots regarding the aesthetics of the Garmin and Fitbit smartwatches. They're definitely not pushing the envelope when it comes to design although both watches are well built, lightweight and comfortable.

      The Vivoactive comes in just black or white models, with a skinny 8mm thickness. Its full dimensions are 43.8 x 38.5 x 8mm and it weighs just under 40g – and while it's slender, it just doesn't excite visually. It's not something you want to wear aesthetically, and that's a real shame given its immense feature set.

      Wareable verdict: Garmin Vivoactive

      The Fitbit Surge is a world away from the likes of the Zip and the Flex, and is definitely more smartwatch than activity tracker.

      It comes in three sizes and is made from a flexible, durable elastomer material similar to that used in sports watches. It also boasts a surgical-grade stainless steel buckle.

      In terms of waterproofing, it's no contest either. The Garmin's rated at 5ATM, so 50 metres, and the Surge is just water resistant, so totally unsuitable for the pool.

      Fitbit Surge v Garmin Vivoactive: Sports tracking

      The Fitbit Surge is a multi-sport watch, which means that its features extend way beyond the step and sleep tracking of the Fitbit Flex.

      The Surge represents a wearable for proper fitness types, so running, cross-training, biking, strength and cardio workouts are all tracked. It's also recently added an excellent cycling mode, and Surge users get far more advanced workout summaries than Fitbit Charge HR users.

      It will also measure all the basic Fitbit metrics, too.

      By sticking GPS on the spec sheet – making it the only Fitbit to accurately track distance – it means essential stats like pace, elevation, split times, route history and workout summaries will be accurate.

      Versus: Garmin Forerunner 225 v Fitbit Surge v TomTom Multisport

      However, the Surge's biggest trick is the continuous heart rate monitoring. As it tracks all the traditional statistics, the Surge keeps tabs on your ticker, which means it can colour activity records with accurate information on how hard you were working – which makes it way more detailed than most other fitness trackers.

      While the Fitbit Surge is great for running and cycling, the Garmin proudly one-ups it.

      There's support for the usual running, walking and cycling, but also for golf and swimming too, making it somewhat of an all action hero. The benefit here is Garmin's superb heritage in making dedicated sport watches, such as the Garmin Approach golf watch and Garmin Swim. Loads of the features have dripped down too, so the golf app, for instance, has information for over 30,000 courses.

      There's no continuous heart rate monitoring on the Garmin, though you can hook it up to a chest strap if you want to track your workouts, and that is a downside.

      Another important point to note was accuracy. In our tests we found the Fitbit Surge to lack the same GPS accuracy of the Garmin, meaning that often our runs appeared shorter – which is a very important factor.

      Finally: the issue of battery life. The Garmin will last three weeks, although our testing averaged at about a week, without too much use of the GPS. The Surge needs charging every five days, so just slightly worse off.

      Fitbit Surge v Garmin Vivoactive: Apps

      The Fitbit app lets you see your workout history, daily activity, sleep, record sessions, map routes, and even compete with friends. All that information is logged automatically, but you can also manually log your food intake and earn badges based on your activity. Everyone loves earning a badge.

      The good news is that the app is still one of the only fitness offerings for Windows Phone – and of course there's support for iOS and Android to boot.

      On Garmin's side, the the Garmin Connect platform is one of the best for true fitness types, providing some of the most in-depth overviews of training sessions, and a great choice for data lovers.

      Unlike some devices, the Vivoactive works with the mobile app and desktop platform, and is one of the quickest devices to sync we've seen.

      Vivoactive works with Connect IQ. It's a new Garmin platform which opens up APIs to developers to make new apps. That means the Vivoactive will evolve over time, and the list of tracked sports could grow to be even more diverse. The Fenix 3, for example, now tracks open water swimming, thanks to canny developers.

      Fitbit Surge v Garmin Vivoactive: Notifications

      As well as tracking your gym sessions, the Fitbit Surge will display smartwatch information such as incoming calls and texts, and it also has the ability to control your music. There's no third party app support for the Fitbit Surge – so no there's Facebook and Twitter updates to interrupt your workouts, whether you like that or not.

      On the Garmin front the Vivoactive also has smartwatch skills, with notifications for incoming calls, emails, calendar reminders and texts popping up on the display.

      The Vivoactive is totally inclusive of notifications, and any message that pops up on your smartphone – from vital Whatapps, Uber car arrivals and annoying adverts, will be pushed to the watch. It's impressive, bit could do with improved ways of pruning some of the less relevant ones. However, if you use Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp – which let's face it is everyone – this is the fitness watch for you.

      Fitbit Surge v Garmin Vivoactive: Price

      The Fitbit Surge will cost you £200, putting it directly head-to-head with the Vivoactive, which retails for an identical price.

      Check prices: Fitbit Surge and Garmin Vivoactive.

      Fitbit Surge v Garmin Vivoactive: Verdict

      With its vastly superior notifications and bulletproof GPS and syncing, the Garmin Vivoactive is the top choice for fitness fans looking for more from their running watch.

      The Fitbit Surge's top mix of heart rate tech and GPS capabilities make it a compelling purchase. However, while it's got the smarts, the app and analytics still aren't becoming of serious fitness fans, and there are accuracy issues with the GPS.

      The Garmin Vivoactive might not have the built-in heart rate tracking smarts of the Fitbit, but with Garmin's technology behind it, still excels in every sport. It's certainly a jack-of-all-trades and master of none when compared to dedicated Garmin watches, but if that represents your approach to your active lifestyle, it's a blend of tech that won't disappoint.

      Fitness trackersFitbitGarminSmartwatches

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