Adidas miCoach Smart Run review: the almost-perfect training partner

When we first heard about the Adidas Smart Run, we were more than a little eager to try it out. If you're both a techie and a runner, then the boatload of sensors (GPS, WiFi, Bluetooth, heart-rate monitor, accelerometer) and feature list (Android, real-time coaching, custom workouts) should have you pretty excited, too. Why? Well, until now sports gadgets fell into three distinct categories. There were the wearable fitness trackers -- the FuelBands, Jawbones and Fitbits of the world. Then, there were the watches that measure your heart rate and use GPS to track distance (think Garmin, Polar, et cetera). Lastly, there's everything else that a runner might want to see them through the session: MP3 players, motivational apps (Zombies, Run!), foot-pod and so on. The prospect of having all this in one manageable device? What's not to like?

The Adidas miCoach Smart Run -- to use its full name -- arrives at an interesting time, too. Firstly, it was announced on the coattails of two other high-profile Android-based watches (the Samsung Galaxy Gear and Sony SmartWatch 2). Secondly, it made it to market shortly before Nike's new FuelBand SE sports tracker. The Smart Run may have an impressive spec sheet, and equally robust $399 price tag, but does it show the competition how a timepiece is done in 2013? Or is it just an exercise in box-ticking? We spent more than a few hours (and miles) with it to find out.

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Adidas miCoach Smart Run Review

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Adidas

miCoach Smart Run

Pros

  • Performs the job of multiple devices
  • Real-time training plans
  • Well-built hardware

Cons

  • Poor battery life
  • Music playback too quiet
  • Unable to export your data
Summary

The Adidas miCoach Smart Run is effectively a personal trainer, run tracker and media player you wear on your wrist. It has a premium feel and performs well, but poor battery life and a high price dampen our enthusiasm.

Hardware

As there's quite a lot going on in the hardware department, we'll just dive right in. First up, the watch is a chunky piece of kit. It has a wide, rubber strap with two teeth-like pins on one end (in addition to the regular clasp mechanism). These let you really pull it tight to secure it firmly in place, and also prevent the end of the strap from flapping as you run. The actual watch body pokes through the middle of the strap, with the metal frame and glass touchscreen above, and a wider section below, that's curved to follow the camber of the wrist.

The underside of this is where you'll find the optical heart-rate monitor and charging pins. The Smart Run has just one button, which sits nestled in the strap, just below the watch body. Pinch the sides of your wrist, and it sits where your thumb is likely resting. It serves different roles depending on where you are in the software, but for the most part it's the power, lock and wake control. As you'd hope from a manufacturer as established as Adidas, the Smart Run feels incredibly well-built. It's comfortable to wear, even when worn tightly. The watch's chunky design won't necessarily be a turnoff for women, but it certainly gives it a more masculine appearance.

Much of that high-end feel comes from the brushed metal and glass used in the body. While this top section initially appears quite large upon comparison, it's actually a shade smaller than the Sony SmartWatch 2. The outer metal edge frames a (moderate) bezel and 1.45-inch transflective color display (184 x 184). Hidden beneath that is a 1.2GHz dual-core Texas Instruments OMAP4430 (ARM Cortex-A9) processor (with dynamic clocking), 512MB of RAM, 4GB of storage (3GB of which is user accessible) a 410mAh battery, Bluetooth 4.0, an accelerometer and, of course, GPS. That's quite a tricked-out watch by any standard.

There's potentially more, too. We looked up the GPS chip it uses, and it's a combo-affair that also has the Bluetooth and WiFi on board. But it turns out there's also an FM tuner! Don't get too excited, though: Adidas confirmed to us that it's currently disabled, plus there's nothing to use as an aerial (not even a headphone cable -- thanks, Bluetooth!). All of the above comes together (software-wise) via the totally re-skinned Android (4.1) interface, and weighs a lightweight 80.5 grams (2.8 ounces).

Software and user interface

We already mentioned the miCoach runs on Android, but unlike with other smartwatches, this seems more of a practicality than any attempt at breaking into the wrist-notifier space. We asked Adidas if there's an API, or scope for apps, and the answer was a soft "no." That said, we were also told that, while there's no planned developer network at the moment, there are no technical limitations to prevent it, either. We're not inferring anything from that, but hey, if the dev community can crack this baby open, and sideload some apps... we're just saying that could be really awesome.

The Smart Run's custom interface manages to balance ease of use with a good deal of customization; there are some fairly in-depth controls on offer here. And that's no easy feat when you've got such limited screen real estate, and minimal input options. Adidas has achieved this by dividing everything into four different sections, called "domains." All you need to know is that there are four main menus: Clock, miCoach, Music and Settings. Unsurprisingly, Clock is the default; you access the others by swiping right to left. To access the sub-menus, scroll upwards.

Some domains are more expansive than others, as you can imagine. For example, the Clock domain has just a stopwatch and timer to offer (no alarm!). The miCoach domain, on the other hand, has menus for your next workout, setting up an ad-hoc training session, intervals, your downloaded plans (more on this later), a fitness test and single workouts. Most of these contain sub-menus of their own that go into more detail about the exercises or goals involved. A lot of what shows up in the miCoach section is also dependent on what routines you've set up via the web interface. The other two domains, Music and Settings, are a little more self-explanatory. The former lets you browse and play any tunes you've imported from your PC, and the latter is where you can turn on things like WiFi and Bluetooth, set your imperial/metric preferences, choose clock faces and so on.

At first, it can be a bit daunting to find your way around some of the deeper settings. For example, you can load a running plan, and when you click "Get Ready," you have to wait until it locates satellites and detects your heart rate before you actually get the option to press "Start." That's fine, but if you're indoors on a treadmill, then you can't even use GPS. What's more, if you head over to the Settings domain, there's no option to turn GPS off. What's a runner to do? The control is actually back in the training plan menu (in the miCoach domain), under "Workout options." Weirdly, the setting you make here carries over to the next workout (i.e., it's persistent), which is no good if your next session is outside. You soon get used to it, but there's clearly so much going on, and not everything lives where you might first expect it.

Although not strictly part of the Smart Run interface, the companion miCoach website is essential to get the most out of the watch. It's basically Adidas' answer to RunKeeper, MapMyFitness, Sports Tracker and the like. The good news is it's pretty comprehensive and easy to use. The not-so-good news is that Smart Run is basically your only option. Adidas won't let you export your running data for use with other websites. That's a crushing blow to anyone who's perhaps got years of data in a competing community.

Likewise, you can't import into miCoach either. We get that it'd need some developer time, but if the competition offers this, then that's no excuse. It's also, frankly, a bit naughty: It's our data; let us at it. For those who find this a dealbreaker, it's not a total dead end. Some quick Googling will throw up a couple of enterprising miCoach users who've created software for prying your data out of Adidas' jaws, but they're either Windows-only, or overly complex. This seemingly small detail is one of the largest oversights in miCoach, and something potential Smart Run owners will really want to consider. Testament to this are a number of long support-forum threads asking for this functionality, with some of them dating all the way back to 2010.

Update (1/22/14): Since we wrote this review, Adidas has added the ability to export your mapped runs as a .GPX file from miCoach, effectively solving this quibble. We're also told that going forward there will be a full API for linking the watch to other platforms and vice versa.

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Once you've come to terms with your running data being held hostage, the miCoach platform has a lot to offer. Most pertinent to the Smart Run is the chance to customize your device. By default, when you start tracking a run from the watch menu, you'll see either your heart rate, or pace. Swipe up and you can see additional info -- splits, total distance, time, et cetera. Head over to miCoach though, and you can choose exactly what you want displayed here. Cram up to four data views into one screen, or keep things simple, and add more pages (with less data on them). This is particularly good if you're migrating over from another watch that had things just how you preferred them -- like your fave pair of worn-in trainers. Actually, while we're on the subject, miCoach has an option to add the pair of sneakers you used for your run (no joke). It's just above the section that lists all the tracks you were listening to during the workout (still no joke).

There's still a lot more you can do on miCoach. The next main section that directly involves the Smart Run will be the training plans. Here you'll find an extensive library of training routines for all manner of sports and workout goals. In the unlikely event that nothing tickles your fancy, you can go ahead and create your own. They're all configurable (choose how many days a week you can train, your current ability, et cetera) and once you've tailored it, miCoach populates all the workout sessions into a calendar. This is where the Smart Run comes in. The next time it syncs, the routine will appear under the miCoach domain on the watch where you can see everything you need to know right there. If this involves weight exercises and stretches, you even get little animations to demonstrate the correct movement and form, complete with the number of reps and amount of weight to lift.

In use

The first time you switch the Smart Run on, it will ask you to hand over some information. The usual stuff: age, weight, height and so on. It will also want your miCoach credentials for syncing (so you'll need to register online if you didn't already). Adding this info is a bit of a challenge, with lots of swiping back and forth to find the right letter, then on to the next. But, once you're done, you won't need to do it ever again. I already had an account with miCoach, but with no data, so it was effectively a clean start. I headed over to the online training plans and decided it'd be fun to run a marathon. So, I chose Adidas' plan for this, and downloaded it to the Smart Run.

I went back to the watch and headed into the training settings, and there it was: today's run. It started things nice and easy with a 30-minute moderate trot out in the park (OK, it doesn't actually limit you to where you go). Next, I chose some suitably high-octane music, and then told the watch I was ready by pressing, "Get Ready." At that point two icons appeared: GPS and a heart. As mentioned above, it won't let you actually head off until it's locked onto a location, and found your pulse. The latter (reassuringly) appeared first, after about 20 seconds, with the GPS taking a little longer -- upwards of a minute. All told, that's about the same time as other GPS watches we've used. Similarly, it tended to be quicker the next time if you're in roughly the same location.

With both of those good to go, it's off and out the door. Seconds in, I felt a small panic at not having my usual MP3 player in my pocket, connected over headphones, or my HRM strap. This quickly passed, as the voice coaching kicked in and told me my first instruction: to run, but in my pre-defined "Blue" (i.e., slow) zone. Ten minutes in and the watch vibrated, letting me know I was entering the next stage, which was also confirmed by the virtual coach in my ears. The same voice pops up every now and again to remind you to slow down/speed up as appropriate if you drift out of the right zone, or to simply remind you you're doing just fine. For those who prefer visual cues, the screen displays your pace or heart rate with a colored background to show the zone you're in, and another colored band to show your desired one. If you're on form, these will be the same color.

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I had things set up so that I could see my distance covered, current pace, total time and heart rate all on one screen. Things get a little crowded on the display this way, but once you're clear on which number is which (and don't confuse your pulse with your distance), then you can grab the vital stats with a quick flick of the wrist. The touchscreen is also responsive, which is, of course, very helpful. If you've ever used a touchscreen running watch (like Garmin's Forerunner 610) that isn't as responsive, you'll know how distracting this can be while on the move.

The only niggles we found relate to music. First up, for my tastes at least, it wasn't nearly loud enough. Using the same headphones (a pair of excellent Sennheiser MM 450-Xs) with other media players, and the same song, made a significant difference. Secondly, on my first run with everything going (Bluetooth, heart-rate monitor, GPS, a training plan and voice coaching), the music broke up at times, particularly when the voice coach piped up. On later runs, it was less evident, and experiments with lower-bit rate MP3s (192 kbps) corrected the problem entirely. We mentioned this to our contacts at Adidas, who offered to take a look at our device, but we've been unable to reliably recreate the situation since.

What do all those sensors do to the battery? The short answer is that they clobber it. The 410mAh cell just about lasted through a day's worth of use. That meant using it as my primary watch (it's comfortable enough for that), and going on one-hour-long training sessions with all the sensors firing. So, if you work out every day, and use the Smart Run as a main watch, you'll have a daily hunt for a power outlet. If, however, you only use it for training, you could possibly get two or three sessions out of it.

Update (1/22/14): New firmware for the Smart Run has since been released that resolves both the volume issue, and any music playback issues. Likewise, the new software significantly improves battery life. Although you'll still need to top the power up regularly

But, as we found out, it's equally important to recharge your headphones. If music is a key part of your exercise routine, and you're used to wired cans, this might be something you initially overlook. As I found on my second run, when the tunes faded away just one mile in, a dead battery can be spirit-crushing. On the plus side, the Smart Run's battery charges from zero to full in about an hour, so even if it's dead, if you can hold off for 15 minutes, you can likely sneak in enough juice to see you through. Also, once you've crossed the 30 percent threshold, the watch gives you plenty of warning that it might be running out. Still, that's only helpful if you have the proprietary charging cradle it comes with. Take good care of it though, because should you lose it, you'll be stuffed.

The competition

At the top of this review we alluded to the Samsung Galaxy Gear ($299) and Sony SmartWatch 2 ($199). These are both Android watches, with some fitness features. The Galaxy Gear has a pedometer that can sync with S Health on a compatible Samsung phone, and one of the SmartWatch 2's flagship apps (it comes with it free) is Runtastic. Needless to say, though, in terms of raw features and functionality, the Smart Run leaves both in the dust -- and that's even for casual athletes.

What about the Nike FuelBand SE we mentioned earlier? Well, even Adidas (and especially Nike) would consider that an unfair comparison (we mentioned it because the two products came out around the same time). Nike's $149 fitness tracker is a different prospect, aimed at those who want to generally get moving a bit more. Meaning, it's not something meant to get you race-ready. Nike's $170 SportWatch is a lot closer, but like most others (the $400 Garmin Forerunner 620, the $200 TomTom Runner, et cetera) it makes a worthy GPS-tracking device, and has some training features, but no media player or visual and audio training aides. Usually this comes with a lower price tag (Nike, TomTom), but not always (we're looking at you, Garmin).

Wrap-up

With the Smart Run, Adidas has pulled off quite a feat. If you've been longing for an all-in-one sports watch, media device, training coach, GPS tracker and heart-rate monitor, then this is it. The training plans avoid being gimmicky by adding real value, and the audio feedback certainly adds something to the experience. The media player had a few hiccups at first, but that seems to have been beginner's bad luck. However the music player really needs to go a bit louder, and please, please let us export our running data.

Even more than that, it's the limited battery life that's most likely to turn off potential buyers. If you're used to charging your mobile devices every day, and can remember to charge one more, then you'll be fine. If the prospect of constantly feeding it turns you off, though, then you might want to consider one of the less power-intensive options mentioned in the "Competition" section above, or hold out in the hope a software update improves things. But, if you can live with the limited endurance, and are less concerned about the music and data, then the Smart Run really is a fantastic training companion.

Daniel Orren and Edgar Alvarez contributed to this review.