Garmin Forerunner 15 review: sports watch first, fitness tracker second

As the reviews editor for this tech blog, I often get asked which fitness tracker I own. And I tell people: I don't need one, silly; I run marathons. Maybe that sounds snotty, but it's true: During training season, at least, I'm probably more active than most people buying a fitness band. And besides, I already own a running watch to track my time, distance and pace. That doesn't mean I can't use a little extra motivation, though. My activity slowed to a crawl this winter, precisely because I was burned out from all those long training runs. (The frigid weather didn't help either.) At one point, I didn't exercise for nearly two weeks. I gained back the weight I lost last year, and my muscle mass shrank. It now hurts to do squats. Even so, asking me to wear another device is a tough sell -- especially when it means my stats are getting spread across different services.

For people like me, there's the Garmin Forerunner 15, a sports watch that doubles as a fitness tracker. Like other running watches, including those made by Garmin, the Forerunner 15 tracks your distance, pace and time. It's offered with an optional heart rate monitor, and has a handy run-walk setting. But it also tracks your activity between workouts, telling you how many steps you've taken and how many calories you've burned. It issues not-so-subtle reminders to move, lest you spend too much time in your cubicle. At the same time, it doesn't do everything a standalone fitness tracker would: It doesn't automatically monitor your sleep habits, and you can't log your food intake directly from the app. Priced at $170 ($200 with the heart rate monitor), it costs more than your typical fitness tracker, but it's cheap for a running watch. So is it a good deal? That all depends on your priorities.

Garmin Forerunner 15 review

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Garmin

Forerunner 15

Pros

  • Long battery life
  • Fair price, considering the feature set
  • Includes step tracking, allowing it to double as a basic fitness tracker
  • Compatible with heart rate monitors 
  • Waterproof

Cons

  • No wireless syncing
  • Doesn't automatically track sleep
  • App doesn't offer much motivation
  • Because it's more of a running watch than fitness tracker, you won't necessarily want to wear it every day
Summary

For about the same price as an entry-level running watch, the Forerunner offers all the usual running features, plus step tracking so you can monitor your activity between workouts. It's a good buy for runners who need a sports watch, and would prefer not to wear a second device for fitness tracking. 

Hardware

Compared to other fitness trackers on the market -- models from Jawbone, Fitbit and Nike -- the Forerunner 15 is bulky, especially sporty-looking. Remember, though, that this is a running watch we're talking about, not so much a fitness tracker. And compared to other sports watches, it's actually pretty lightweight. Like many of you, I'm upgrading from an older model, a much-clunkier watch called the Forerunner 110. And let me tell you: The weight difference is noticeable. The first time I put this on, I kept glancing back at my wrist as I ran up the block, as if I had forgotten something at home. Nope, that's just what it feels like to take a load off.

For the purposes of this review, Garmin loaned me a black watch with electric-green accents. Not the color scheme I would have picked, but real-life shoppers will at least get a choice. In addition to the green-and-black one, you can order it in black with blue accents, red with black accents, teal with white or violet with white. Regardless, it's not going to blend in with your everyday outfits the way a Jawbone Up24 would, especially in these summer months when covering it with long sleeves isn't really an option. Most days, I stuck it out, even if the watch didn't go with my dress, but there were a few days when I sacrificed fitness for style and decided to leave the band at home.

As it happens, the size and design are identical to the Forerunner 10, a cheaper, $130 watch from Garmin that doesn't include features like continuous step counting, heart rate tracking and interval training. Like the Forerunner 10, it has a plastic band with lots of sizing holes; and a 55 x 32-pixel display that shows two lines of text and is easy to read outdoors. It's also waterproof up to 50 meters, meaning you can shower with the thing, or even go swimming with it if you're so inclined (note: Garmin warns against wearing this for high-speed water sports like jet skiing, as a wipeout could still break the watch).

In the box, you'll also find a proprietary cradle that plugs into your computer's USB port -- you'll use that for charging and syncing the device. If I'm honest, I would have preferred a standard micro-USB charger, but at least the cradle is sturdier than on the 110. With the 110, I would sometimes wake up for a run to find that my watch wasn't actually charged. On the Forerunner 15, the cradle snaps in, so you never have to wonder if the charging points are properly aligned. Also, proprietary cable or no, the setup here is quite simple: I've just been leaving the cradle plugged into my laptop, which means I typically charge the watch long before I need to. Speaking of which, the Forerunner 15 is rated for five weeks in watch mode and eight hours of running, so your mileage will vary depending on your exercise regimen. That said, I recently completed a two-hour run and still had three out of four bars of battery life, which means Garmin's claims are probably pretty accurate.

Setup

Similar to other fitness trackers, you'll need to first walk through a short setup on the watch itself. In particular, you'll be asked to divulge a few specifics about yourself, including weight, height, gender and birth year. You can also set a max heart rate -- a sort of redline, if you will -- though that's, of course, optional, especially if you didn't bother to buy the available heart rate monitor. Once you do that, you're ready to start moving.

All told, the learning curve should be pretty slight. The Forerunner 15 has four buttons along the sides, which you'll use to find your way through the settings. These include: an "enter" key on the upper right; a button on the upper left to light up the screen; one on the lower left to navigate backward; and one on the lower right to cycle through menu options. With so few buttons, then, figuring out which to press basically comes down to a process of elimination.

As I said earlier, the display has room for two lines' worth of information and by default, the time always sits on top. As for slot number two? You could see the date, your step count for the day, your calorie burn or your daily step goal. To cycle through these, just press the button on the lower-left side of the device. You'll hear a beep every time you press a button and believe me, that can get a little annoying, since some menus are several layers deep. Fortunately, though, you can silence key tones from the settings if they start to annoy you.

In use

Even if you never log a run, you'll be getting use out of the Forerunner 15: Start walking around and it logs your steps. Stay still for too long, and it'll beep, with the word "Move!" showing up on-screen. And it'll stay there, right in your face, until you get up and walk around for at least two minutes. It's more or less the same approach Garmin takes with its higher-end Vivofit tracker, except in that case, it's a red line, not the word "move." Either way, it's highly effective: A competing band might vibrate once when you're in the middle of a meeting, at which point you can pretend the reminder never happened. Here, the reminders are discreet -- and persistent.

As on the Vivofit, too, your daily step goal automatically changes from day to day depending on how active you've been recently. So, if you exceed your goal, your daily target will keep inching up. If you miss your goal, you might see it dip slightly the following day. What's especially convenient is that either way, your step target will change gradually. So, if I go on an 11-mile run, it won't drastically skew my daily step goal unless I consistently travel such long distances.

As a running watch, the Forerunner 15's built-in GPS radio located my coordinates reasonably quickly, especially if I was in a spot where I'd been before (the front of my apartment building, for instance, where I begin most of my workouts). The watch is also good at holding onto that signal, especially compared to my older Forerunner 110, which sometimes lost track of where I was, even after it established my starting location. The distance tracking is also spot-on -- it accurately pegged the distance around Brooklyn's Prospect Park, for instance, basically matching the distance posted online.

Though the watch is designed so that you can use it out of the box with barely any setup, there are still a couple things you might want to tweak before going on your first run. By default, the watch shows your distance and elapsed time as you're running. That's fine for me personally, but if you like, you can instead have the watch show time and pace, time and calories burned, pace and distance, pace and calories, or distance and calories. Ideally, of course, you could view your pace, distance and time all at once, but that's just not possible with this watch; you'd have to instead upgrade to a higher-end model like the Forerunner 220. Unfortunately, too, the watch doesn't automatically cycle through these various screens -- the 220 does, but not the Forerunner 15. No, you'll have to press a button if you want to see your other stats.

Like the lower-priced Forerunner 10, the 15 allows you to set up timed intervals. (No distance intervals, though.) This is great for speed work -- say, running five minutes at tempo pace and resting for 30 seconds in between. In my case, timed intervals allow me to alternate between running and walking, which is actually all I do these days; ever since coming back from an injury two years ago, I've been sticking with three minutes on and one minute off.

So, to recap: Timed intervals are a useful feature, and one I'd recommend you try. My only issue is that the speakers on either side of the device aren't very loud, and the volume isn't adjustable either, which means I sometimes fail to hear the "walk" beeps over the sound of my headphones. To be fair, weak speakers are a problem with running watches in general -- that's why many of the walk-runners I know opt for a standalone Gymboss timer instead. If you go for something like the Forerunner 220, you can also opt for a vibration alert, which is impossible to ignore, but that's simply not an option here.

Other features include Auto Lap, which tells you your time for each mile, and Auto Pause, which automatically freezes the clock when it detects you've stopped (super handy if you get held up at a traffic light and don't want to worry about manually un-pausing the timer). Meanwhile, Garmin's "Virtual Pacer" feature compares your current pace to your target one. Finally, the watch is compatible with foot pods, allowing you to record your distance indoors. (Note: Even without a foot pod, you can log your time running indoors.)

Software

Unlike other fitness trackers, the Forerunner 15 doesn't have wireless syncing, which means you'll have to do it the old-fashioned way: by plugging your watch into your computer using the included cable. Keep in mind that when you connect the device for the first time, you won't see any sort of prompt to download the corresponding software; you need to do that yourself. Heck, even once the software is installed, your watch won't sync automatically, either. Sort of annoying, that.

To be clear, there are actually two pieces of software: a Mac/PC client for syncing your data and updating the watch's firmware; and an Android/iOS app where you can view your data. In either case, you'll need to create a Garmin account, or log in using some other popular service (Facebook, Twitter, G+, Microsoft, Yahoo or even LinkedIn). It's worth noting that there's a Garmin Connect website too, though I generally prefer the apps: They have a touch-friendly layout that makes it easy to tap the various "cards" for more detail. With the website, clicking on the cards doesn't do anything; you have to press a specific button to show them at full-screen, which quickly grows tiresome. Either way, it's a straightforward, if crude, experience, but I do appreciate how customizable it is: Being able to remove cards you don't need helps keep things simple.

Garmin Connect screenshots

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As I found, the app is what you make of it: You might choose to add friends ("connections"), but Garmin doesn't make this easy. Surprisingly, there's no intuitive way to find contacts who are already using the service. On a similar note, you can sign up for challenges, like who among your contacts can take the most steps in a day. Again, though, this kind of friendly competition seems less enticing when you don't know any of your opponents in real life. You could also manually put the watch into sleep mode, as well as manually enter the times you went to bed and woke up. Still, the watch can't automatically detect when you were sleep, though Garmin says this feature is coming in a future update. There's also an option to track calorie intake, but you can't do that from the app itself, as you can with Fitbit's or Jawbone's fitness trackers. Instead, Garmin allows you to link up your MyFitnessPal account, and port over your food log from there.

If nothing else, you'll want to use the app to track your activity. As a warning, the watch itself only has enough memory to store seven days' worth of data, so make sure to sync at least once a week. Inside the app, you'll see a dial of sorts indicating how far along you are toward meeting that day's step goal. Likewise, if you're looking at a previous day, you'll see at a glance if you made your quota. Additionally, those charts are color-coded, with green for days you met or exceeded your goal, and blue for days you didn't. From there, you can drill down by day, week, month or year. Finally, there are graphs at the bottom showing when your activity peaked or slumped. If you're like me, you ran five miles before work and then settled into your cubicle all day.

All things considered, I could do without the app; just compete against a daily step goal, time my runs and not worry about my data history. Because here's the thing: Not only is the app limited in what it can do, but it also doesn't offer much in the way of encouragement. What if you exceed your daily step goal by three-fold? No celebration for you. And what if you run 10 miles before 9AM? You'll later get the same command to "Move!" as you would if you had spent the morning on your couch. To Garmin's credit, it tracks personal records in running -- things like longest distance, et cetera. But as a daily fitness band, the Forerunner 15 never felt like my cheerleader. And let's be honest, the person who buys this product is probably more interested in their running stats anyway. Even so, when someone decides to wear a fitness tracker, it's probably because they crave a little extra motivation.

Wrap-up

I'll admit, after testing the Forerunner 15, I was tempted to return the pricier Forerunner 220 I recently purchased and get this instead. If you're like me -- a runner who also wants to track activity between workouts -- the 15 is a compelling choice. It offers a surprisingly robust feature set, one that's nearly on par with the 220 (plus fitness tracking, of course). All told, too, what it does, it does well: accurate GPS tracking, combined with long battery life and timely reminders to get up and walk around. True, it doesn't bother with automatic sleep tracking, but with a design this bulky, I can't say I'd want to wear it to bed anyway.

There are other compromises as well. Because this is a running watch first and a fitness tracker second, it looks like, well, a running watch, which means you probably won't want to wear it all the time. There's sadly no wireless syncing, and thus no seamless way to get all your data on your phone. Also, considering people are getting this watch because they want a little extra motivation throughout the day, it would be nice if the watch and accompanying app did a little more to celebrate your achievements -- exceeding your daily step goal, for example. All that said, the Forerunner 15 covers most of the fitness-tracking basics, and costs about the same as a basic runner's watch. I say that's a good deal. You know, so long as you're reasonably serious about running.

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Garmin Forerunner 15 review: sports watch first, fitness tracker second