TomTom Spark Cardio + Music review: The best GPS watch for music motivated runners

There are many folks who enjoy listening to music when they run and who also don't want to carry a phone. TomTom stepped up to release the best music-focused GPS sport watch.

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(Image: TomTom)

While some runners eschew music, I find my performance is better when I am blasting classic rock from the days of my youth or meditating with praise and worship tunes.

I've spent that last couple of years on a quest to find a modern successor to the MOTOACTV and thought the Moto 360 Sport might have been the one. It makes sense that Motorola would simply take the fantastic MOTOACTV, put in some of the latest tech, slim it up, and release a device desired by many runners. Unfortunately, the Moto 360 Sport failed at playing music so my quest continued.

After almost three weeks of running in the streets of London and on the roads of Washington State, I'm prepared to declare that TomTom has succeeded in providing the best GPS sport watch for music lovers. The TomTom Spark Cardio + Music has actually exceeded my expectations while coming in at a lower price than many other GPS sport watches that don't even have music support.

I constantly see runners on the roads and trails running with wired earbuds connected to phones so I know there are others who would appreciate a solid GPS sport watch with music capability. Frankly, I'm a bit surprised that the likes of Garmin, Polar, and Suunto have yet to release a GPS sport watch with this functionality.

My Apple Watch is fantastic for music playback and heart rate tracking, but there is no GPS receiver so it's not ready to serve as a GPS sport watch. I actually thought my Samsung Gear S2 3G was the one. While it's close, the locked in nature of the ecosystem and limited running applications holds it back from being the best.

Specifications

  • Display: 144 x 168 pixels resolution, 22x25 mm, monochrome display
  • Storage: 3GB internal
  • Water resistance: Up to 40 meters (5 ATM)
  • Radio: Bluetooth
  • Sensors: Accelerometer, gyroscope, optical heart rate, compass, GPS
  • Battery life: 3 weeks for activity tracking, 11 hours with GPS, 5 hours with GPS + heart rate + music playback
  • Dimensions: 0.54 inches thick and 1.76 ounces

Hardware

A couple of years ago I took the TomTom Multi-Sport watch for a spin and used that device for about a year. The new TomTom Spark Cardio + Music has a very similar form factor to that 2013 Multi-Sport device with a module that detaches from the band for charging and syncing.

The new TomTom Spark Cardio has a longer, narrower display and is slightly thicker to accommodate the heart rate monitor. There is a four way directional button area below the display, but the TomTom Spark is more flush and doesn't have the raised dots that I liked on the Multi-Sport unit.

The display is easy to see when running outside with a night mode option that shows a well lit display when running in the dark. It's not a color display and it's not a touch screen, but I personally prefer to use buttons to navigate when I am out running in the rain.

The band is very lightweight and at first I thought it felt a bit cheap. It definitely is not a high quality, luxury band, but it serves the purpose for running and working out. There are three securing points in the band; one at the end of the band and two at the opening and closing area of the band opening. The band is very comfortable and stays in place.

TomTom Bluetooth headphones

I didn't realize there was a bundle package that includes a set of Bluetooth headphones so was surprised when one showed up in the evaluation package. I made sure to tell my MoTR podcast co-host Kevin Tofel about this so he was able to cancel his first order and pick up this bundle. The bundle price is about half the cost of the headphones alone and to make sure you end up with a flawless music experience, or if you don't yet own a pair of Bluetooth headphones, then you may want to consider ordering these.

The headphones are all black and have a very simple over-the-ear cable routing design. I found them to be very comfortable and light while also staying in my ears quite well. I did have to use a different sized ear tip for one ear, which is not uncommon for me.

Thankfully, these headphones charge up via a standard microUSB port, located on the back side of the remote module. There is a play/pause button and two volume buttons on the remote that are well spaces to make it easy to find and control while running. There is a small indicator light next to the play/pause button that is also used to turn the headphones on and off.

Music was loud and clear through the headphones. Battery life is stated at four hours while the headset is IPX4 sweat and weather resistant.

TomTom Spark software

The user interface on the TomTom Spark itself is similar to the software seen on other TomTom sport watches. There is a lot of scrolling up, down, right, and left to get everything setup exactly how you want it, but after you have things ready it is quick and easy to get started and hit the road. I would love to see something like Polar's system where you setup the watch online and then sync that setup to the watch through a cable connection.

The first new software element I found was the left movement from the watch face. Pressing the left side of the direction button once shows you your steps for the day with another left press showing you steps for the week. Move up to see sleep for the week and then back right to see sleep for the night. Moving down shows you calories, distance, and active minutes for the day and week.

Starting back on the watch face, moving up launches the active Bluetooth search for your headphones. I used the included TomTom Bluetooth headphones as well as my favorite BlueAnt Pump HD Sportbuds (only about $30 on Amazon). I had to wear the TomTom Spark on the left wrist for the TomTom headphones and on the right for my BlueAnt Pump HD ones. Music then played flawlessly, even though the BlueAnt model is not an official tested model on TomTom's website. If you are having playback issues, you may need to switch the watch to your other wrist. I can't believe my body creates that much interference, but it does have an effect.

Once you have a headset connected, music from the playlist you have selected will start. There are no music controls on the TomTom Spark itself, other than skipping forward or back, so you need to use the button on your Bluetooth headset to play/pause and control volume. I'll discuss getting music on the Spark in the desktop section below.

Moving down from the watch face takes you to the settings area where you can custom several options. This is also where you go to sync to your smartphone.

Moving right from the watch face, hopefully you now understand the watch face is the home position, takes you to the various sports you can track. Sport functions include running, cycling, swimming, treadmill, weight lifting, stationary cycling, freestyle, and stopwatch. I only used the Spark for running so will walk through that experience for you.

After you find the sport you want to track, move right one more time. All of the sensors you setup will now engage, including heart rate (internal or external), GPS, and bike sensors. In a few seconds the watch will vibrate and the word Go will appear on the center of the display. Move right one more time and then start your activity.

Prior to the final move to the right to start your activity, you can move down to customize the training, metrics, and playlists for that specific activity. This includes choosing what will appear on the display while you exercise and what standard you are using (could be racing your previous results on a repeated route, holding your pace to a specific heart rate, and more).

While you are exercising you can move the directional controller up and down to scroll through different views of your data and monitor your progress. If you are racing, then a large arrow will appear showing if you are ahead or behind the set pace.

To pause your activity tracking, move left once. If you move left again then your activity will be stopped and saved.

Desktop utility

There is a small utility application that can be installed on your computer to control the sync of your data and also help you get music onto your TomTom Spark Cardio + Music. There are three tabs in this utility; watch, music, and upload & export.

The watch tab lets you name the Spark, control firmware updates, sync the time and date to your computer, and initiate a factory reset.

The music tab is used to sync music to your Spark. This actually proved to be a bit difficult for me to start since you must have your music in playlists to sync it to the Spark. You cannot simply drag and drop MP3 and AAC songs onto the Spark.

In my case, I had a newer version of iTunes installed on my Surface Pro 3 and thus I had to follow the direction on this Apple support page to get my music in a compatible playlist format. It was fairly simple and only had to be completed once. After this, I clicked the scan button and then the plus sign to add playlists and music to the Spark.

BTW, I highly recommend viewing these TomTom tutorial videos that help explain things in more detail. You may also want to check out the heart rate training page to see how to use your integrated heart rate monitor to its fullest.

The upload & export tab is where you go to setup which services you want your data synced with. TomTom MySports Activity is selected by default and will save your data to your computer. In addition, you can choose from MapMyFitness, RunKeeper, Strava, Endomondo, Taiwan MySports, MyFitnessPal, Nike+, Jawbone UP, and Training Peaks services. You need to select and then login to each site to establish the connection. You can also choose to save the following formatted data to your computer; KML, CSV, GPS, FIT, and TCX.

Having all of this native upload & export support out of the box makes the TomTom Spark Cardio + Music an extremely compelling device for those who value the GPS data they work hard for and collect. This one function is a major reason I am planning to buy a Spark for myself after my testing is complete. I do wish that I could export step and sleep data to Jawbone UP, but for now that connection is only for dedicated fitness activities.

Smartphone software

There are applications for Android and iOS, called TomTom MySports. The software at first appears to be very basic, but all the data visible via the web browser is actually hidden within the smartphone application. The focus is really on your dedicated workout sessions and these are actually quite extensive on the phone. If you tap a previous run or cycling event, then you can view the summary, map of the route, splits/laps, and various charts.

To view activity and sleep data, tap on either the today or this week circles at the top of the home screen. You will then see a graph icon that you can tap and select time periods and activity types to dive into the data details. Below the data plot you will find summary buttons for various types of data. Swipe these buttons right and left to see sleep, energy, steps, distance, duration, and more. If you then tap on one of these, sleep for example, the chart above will change to show you that data. You can then go back and filter the time. Tapping on data bars in the chart will also take you to more detailed areas of the data.

The TomTom Spark is not in a constant paired condition so when you first launch the phone application you then need to initiate a move of the Spark's directional pad to initiate a sync to your phone. You will find a Spark icon in the upper right of the smartphone applicatin that has an x through it when an active sync is not in progress.

The smartphone application needs a bit of work on the iPhone 6s Plus as landscape orientation is not yet supported.

Web-based dashboard

You can also login to the MySports website to see all of the same data that is present in the smartphone application. Functionality is the same as the smartphone application, but it's much easier to view on a big computer display.

Experiences and comparison with other GPS sport watches

In order to verify the accuracy of the TomTom Spark Cardio + Music, I wore a Polar V800 with H7 heart rate strap, Samsung Gear S2 3G, and Microsoft Band 2 during various runs. The Spark very closely matched the Polar V800 while the Band 2 was shown to be the least reliable and accurate. You can see some comparison screenshots from these different bands in my image gallery to compare for yourself.

The heart rate performance of the Spark also closely matched the chest strap and Band 2, which is more than what I need as a fairly basic heart rate trainer. Wrist-mounted heart rate monitors are not as precise as chest straps, but the Spark also supports such external straps so if you are concerned about the heart rate performance you can always use a chest strap instead.

Pricing and competition

The TomTom Spark Cardio + Music is not designed as a smartwatch so I won't compare it to the likes of my Gear S2 or Apple Watch. The competition for the TomTom Spark includes the Polar V800, Polar M400, Garmin Forerunner 235, Garmin Forerunner 630, Fitbit Surge, and Suunto Ambit3 Sport. None of these devices have support for music playback so if that is your primary feature, then nothing can match the TomTom Spark Cardio + Music.

If music is not your primary need, then you may want to also consider the other TomTom Spark models that will save you some money. Looking at the competition above, those watches are priced from $180 (Polar M400) to $399.99 (Garmin Forerunner 630). The TomTom Spark Cardio + Music is priced at $249.99 and comes in three available colors with small or large strap options.

You can also purchase a bundle that includes TomTom Bluetooth headphones. The headphone bundle is priced on Amazon at about $300 while the headphones are priced individually at $99.95.

Improvements for TomTom consideration

I find I am often the most critical of products that I am passionate about and know can be even better. While I think the TomTom Spark Cardio + Music is a winner and the GPS sport watch to buy if you want to enjoy music while running, there are a few things I would like to see improved upon. The good thing is that all of my recommendations may be addressed via software updates. In the past I have seen regular update from TomTom so am planning to pass these along to my PR contact for consideration.

  • Auto-pause: During my testing I always ran with multiple devices in order to validate the data collected by the TomTom Spark. I noticed a rather large disparity in average pace over the entire run after my first two runs and realized my other devices were pausing at traffic crossings. I learned to press the button to pause on the Spark, but would like to see an auto-pause option added in a future update.
  • Sleep details: I'm glad that the Spark captures sleep data, but very disappointed to see it only shows you total hours slept on the watch and start/stop times on the web dashboard. Sleep is not shown at all on the phone app. I want to see time to sleep, light sleep, deep sleep, and other data like I see on my other trackers.
  • Daily activity progress on the watch face: The watch face options are dull and simply show the time and date. You have to scroll through the UI to see step progress. I would simply like to see my step progress on the watch face. Battery status would also be helpful on the watch face.
  • Basic phone notifications: I'm not looking for a full blown smartwatch, but would like to see incoming call and text info that would let me decide I need to pull my phone out to respond or not.
  • Silent alarm: I would like to have the Spark provide a smart morning alarm during a light sleep phase, similar to how recent trackers work.
  • Apple Healthkit support: I would like to see TomTom appear as a source for data on my iPhone. While not vital, it would be fantastic to be able to have a complete central repository for all of my health data.

Contributor's rating and wrap-up

The TomTom Spark Cardio + Music is the best music playing GPS sport watch currently available and I award it an 9.6 rating.

Music plays flawlessly, GPS is quick to secure a fix and provides accurate tracking, heart rate data appears accurate throughout my runs, TomTom supports exporting run data to a number of services and raw data archiving, the watch is comfortable to wear, and battery life is solid.

The UI on the watch is a bit complicated, the smartphone app is very limited, and there are a few things I would like to see improved in the software.

While it is nice to see step counting and sleep measurements on the TomTom Spark, without the ability to share that data to an ecosystem like Jawbone UP or Fitbit I don't see too much value in these functions for myself. I like having leaderboards and social connections to motivate me for steps and there is none of that in the TomTom ecosystem. However, if you are self-motivated, then this data can be valuable and useful to help you improve your daily life.

Overall, it's a solid entry that you can pick up at a reasonable price. I prefer to run outside in all weather conditions so did not perform indoor testing with the TomTom Spark.

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