Running with the Apple Watch: Yes, you can leave your iPhone behind

Matthew has now spent a week with his Apple Watch and is very impressed with Apple's work on some fitness aspects of this new wearable.

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Five bands ready to run
Garmin released its Vivoactive, see my full review, at the same time that Apple started offering the Apple Watch. Without GPS I didn't think the Apple Watch was a viable running watch for me so I purchased the Vivoactive.

As I explained on Wednesday, I ended up also purchasing an Apple Watch Sport. To evaluate the fitness functionality of the Apple Watch, I went running with the Apple Watch, Garmin Vivoactive, Fitbit Surge, Microsoft Band, and Sony SmartWatch 3 all strapped to my wrists. The next day I left the Fitbit Surge and SmartWatch 3 behind to perform further testing.

It turns out that the Apple Watch may indeed be just fine for recreational runners like me, even on those days you decide to leave the iPhone behind. Let's take a closer look at my testing and the performance results.

Day 1 with five bands

I strapped all five of my bands to my arms for my first test run. I planned to run between five and six miles up and down the Custis Trail in Arlington, Virginia. The weather was great with sunny conditions and a temperature in the mid to upper 50s.

The Apple Watch took the prime spot on my left wrist with the Sony SmartWatch 3 placed above it up my arm. The Microsoft Band was secured low on my right wrist with the Fitbit Surge in the prime spot and the Garmin Vivoactive higher up. The Sony SmartWatch 3 and the Garmin Vivoactive do not have integrated heart rate monitors so they were placed higher out of the range of where you typically want to place such a wearable.

I connected the Apple Watch via Bluetooth to my iPhone 6 Plus, mounted in an arm band on my left arm, while using the RunKeeper app on the Apple Watch. Make sure to launch the RunKeeper app on your Apple Watch and not on your iPhone. I conducted a short test before going on my run and when I launched RunKeeper on my iPhone it did launch on my Apple Watch, but then kept pausing the run when I lowered my wrist and the screen went off. It ran flawlessly when initiated from the Apple Watch.

I also launched the Apple Workout app on the Apple Watch to see what data was captured through that program. Music was also streaming via Bluetooth from my iPhone 6 Plus to my BlueAnt Pump HD Bluetooth headphones.

One important thing to remember if you are going to use your Apple Watch to workout is to select to resume to the last used app and not the clock face. This way while you are running your selected running app appears when you raise your wrist up and you won't have to fumble around with the UI.

The Sony SmartWatch 3 kept sliding down and rubbing the left side of my Apple Watch making me concerned about scratches or marks on the side. Thankfully, the left side looks as good as new so the brushed aluminim may indeed be more scratch resistant than the stainless steel one. I've read several reports of easy scratching on the casing of the stainless steel model.

With three devices on my right arm and placement of the buttons, the Fitbit Surge kept hitting the Microsoft Band buttons and that device ended up paused at times, recording a shorter run than the other devices.

The Fitbit Surge appeared to work well and I saw my heart rate being actively recorded. When the run was done the summary screen showed up and looked great. However, the only data that synced over to my iPhone Fitbit app was the total time. No other data was present and I couldn't figure out any way to recover or find it.

The Sony SmartWatch 3 performed terribly and appeared to never even obtain a GPS signal as it only recored the time of my run. I have not had good luck with Android Wear and running, even with the integrated GPS receiver on the SmartWatch 3. GhostRacer and RunKeeper are both available for Android Wear, but I can't say they are reliable enough to count on every time.

The Garmin Vivoactive performed well, but was missing about 8/10ths of a mile. The Vivoactive UI, in particular the proper buttons to press for pause/resume, are not always immediately responsive and I ended up missing that it wasn't resumed at the halfway point.

Day 1 with five bands

Band Elapsed time Distance Avg Pace Calories Avg HR
Apple Watch (GPS through iPhone) 52:31 5.66 miles 9:16 min/mile 1,110 N/R
Garmin Vivoactive 43:37 4.79 miles 9:06 min/mile 968 N/R
Microsoft Band 44:14 4.50 miles 9:48 min/mile 1,122 154 BPM
Fitbit Surge 54:23 N/R N/R N/R N/R
Sony SmartWatch 3 53:05 N/R N/R N/R N/R

Day 2 with three bands

Given that the Sony SmartWatch 3 didn't capture anything and the Fitbit Surge appeared to have lost my data, I left them behind on day two.

For this test I placed the Apple Watch on my left wrist and put it into airplane mode. Without GPS and in airplane mode, RunKeeper is not available. I decided to just use the integrated Apple Workout app and see how well the Apple Watch could work as a glorified pedometer.

Before diving into the data results below, let me just say I was blown away by the Apple Watch performance and available data screens without GPS. You can view pace, elapsed time, distance, and calories by swiping left and right. The time of day appears in the upper left of the Workout screen.

The furthest screen to the left offers large buttons to play/pause and end your run. Again the UI is very responsive and easy to manipulate on your run.

I had the Microsoft Band and Garmin Vivoactive on my right wrist. With ample spacing, both performed flawlessly as well. To perform a heart rate measurement comparison, I also connected the Vivoactive to my ANT+ chest strap with the Microsoft Band capturing heart rate data on my wrist.

Day 2 with three bands

Band Elapsed time Distance Avg Pace Calories Avg HR
Apple Watch (Airplane mode) 50:21 5.47 miles 9:11 min/mile 790 153 BPM
Garmin Vivoactive 48:35 5.3 miles 9:10 min/mile 856 149 BPM via chest strap
Microsoft Band 50:52 5.24 miles 9:41 min/mile 1,010 147 BPM

As you can see the Apple Watch did well during these two limited tests. My buddy Rene Ritchie from iMore told me that Apple worked hard to translate sensor data into accurate measurements. I understand Apple wants you to run with your iPhone the first few times to calibrate your Apple Watch with GPS. I learned this after my test and after just a single day with GPS Apple looks to have gotten the calibration algorithms spot on.

Compare the Apple Watch to the Garmin Vivoactive in day two, noting that the Apple Watch was in airplane mode without GPS enabled, and you can see the time, distance, pace, calories, and average heart rate were all pretty close. If you are a serious athlete, then the Garmin Vivoactive is a better sport watch. However, if you are more of a recreation runner like me then the Apple Watch may be perfectly acceptable.

I saw about 10 other runners during my morning run with every person, but two, running with their phones in their hands or strapped to their arms. I prefer to run with my phone for a couple of reasons; I enjoy capturing photos on my routes since I often run when I travel around the world and I want a means to call my wife or 911 in case of an emergency.

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In my experiences, many recreational runners tend to run with their phones so I better understand Apple's move to not put in a GPS receiver. Given the solid performance of the Apple Workout app without GPS, I have no problem leaving the phone behind every now and then. The only thing missing is the map data. You could even run with the Apple Watch and stream music from it to your Bluetooth headset.

To be tested

Other running apps: I want to test out some other Apple Watch running apps, such as Strava, Runtastic, and Map My Run. RunKeeper is my go-to running app, but I am curious how well others work too.

Music playing directly from Apple Watch: My prime means of music listening is Amazon Music streaming from my phone. I need to download music and place it into the Apple Watch memory so I can run without my iPhone while enjoying music playing right on the Apple Watch. I'm curious to see how this impacts battery life.

More runs without the iPhone: If Apple uses GPS connections to calibrate data then I'm going to run often with my iPhone and then test the Apple Watch in airplane mode again to see if the Apple Workout results get even better than they were after a single GPS-connected experience.

Cycling performance: I recently started biking again as a way to mix up my fitness regime. I'm testing some waterproof iPhone 6 Plus cases to mount and take on the bike so I plan to test out Apple Watch in connected and disconnected modes.

Other exercises: The Apple Workout app also supports outdoor walking, indoor walking, indoor running, indoor cycling, elliptical machines, rowers, stair steppers, and other. I would like to test out some of these, but am primarily focused on outdoor running and cycling so it may be a while until I get to all of them.

Is there anything else related to fitness that you want me to test out on the Apple Watch?

Plans for the five bands

Since I never swim and am not training for the Olympics or anything, I am likely going to return the Garmin Vivoactive. It is a fantastic GPS sport watch with a long battery life, exhaustive amount of collected data, always-on viewable display, and lightweight comfortable form factor. Golfers will appreciate the golf computer functionality, but since I only golf once or twice a year, this isn't something useful to me. I've wanted such a Garmin device for some time and am very pleased with it, but won't be wearing it with the Apple Watch on hand.

The Sony SmartWatch 3 is likely to stick around for Android Wear testing, but I doubt I will take it on a run again. The Microsoft Band is a solid performing cross-platform device, but the battery life is short when running or cycling, giving you about two hours of run time. It will sit around in a drawer and come out from time-to-time for testing.

The Fitbit Surge is an evaluation device and I am not planning to purchase one. It's a solid device, but it's a bit bulky and the mono display is not impressive with other options available at the same price, such as the Vivoactive with its more powerful sport watch performance and better design.

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