TomTom Spark Cardio: The activity tracker/sports watch that has grown on me

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You can’t change the TomTom Spark Cardio’s watch face but the numbers are large and easy to read.

I didn’t intend on buying a TomTom Cardio spark activity/sports tracker when I found I had some credit card reward points to spend. I was planning on buying a different brand.

I spent days looking at devices mainly Garmin’s Vivoactive sportswatch and I was convinced I was going to buy one. I went to a local sports chain store, looked at the Garmin, spoke to the sales person about it but when asked about the heart rate monitor was told he didn’t know much about it so would get another assistant.

It was then that I was told the TomTom Spark Cardio had the better HRM and for some reason I decided on the that rather than the Garmin. I went to the cashier, swiped my bank rewards points cards and walked out with the Spark Cardio.

As I walked out of the store, and bought some sushi for lunch from a mall next door, I was happy enough.

Two days later, though, I was seriously contemplating taking it back to the store I bought it from and replacing it with something else. It just wasn’t doing it for me, for some reason.

I’d known TomTom’s was a powerhouse in the in-car GPS systems but I didn’t know anything about its sports/activity trackers so it’s a surprise to me that I bought it blindly without really knowing anything about it. That was out of character for me, but I decided to stick with it.

I used to have a FitBit Surge activity tracker but somehow my teenage swimmer son had commandeered it and I have an LG G Watch R smartwatch but ever since its battery died – and I couldn’t be arsed getting it replaced – I’ve had nothing that tracks my fitness activity: cycling, walking, the odd jog, apart from my phone – and I hate taking my phone with me all the time. I wanted an activity tracker so now I had a TomTom Spark Cardio.

The company’s Spark range comes in a variety of flavours – one without a HRM, one that can play music – but I picked the Cardio, which has a multisports mode (including indoor workouts), GPS tracking and a built-in heart rate monitor with five training zones.

It wasn’t particularly cheap: I paid $270 (well, I used $280 of reward points) but it was on special at the time so it’ll likely set you back $310 or so if you bought it when it’s not on sale from a bricks-and-mortar retailer.

Build quality.visual appeal

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A close up of the four-way rocker pad.

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The strap on my Spark Cardio has dozens of holes and three pairs of pins, meaning you’ll always get a snug fit.

I’d be lying if the Spark Cardio was a looker. It’s not. It looks like a sports/activity tracker and it looks like a black plastic strap with an LCD monochrome screen. Designwise, it’s uninspiring, but TomTom have thought outside the box a little with it in that the main body can actually be detached from the rubber strap (it doesn’t have standard watch strap fittings like other sports/smart watches) and a new strap “wrapped” around it. Additional straps come in a variety of colours and designs.

TomTom has also “old-schooled” it in the interface, too: The Spark Cardio doesn’t have a touch screen as is the feature du jour at the moment: It has a four-way rocker that you use to scroll through the menus. I actually like the rocker and as those of us who have exercised then tried to swipe on a touch screen using a sweaty finger will know, a touch screen doesn’t always work.

The TomTom’s design is functional without being stunning. It also has a monochrome LCD display, which, again, I don’t have a problem with. It means the Spark Cardio has great battery life. The strap, too, is a little unconventional in that instead of having a buckle like a traditional watch the strap has dozens of holes punched into it and there are three pairs of pins that you push into the strap holes. It actually gives a remarkably good fit and is pretty comfortable.

One thing that I’m not that taken with is the charge cable: It’s a proprietary design and you have to actually pop the watch body out of the strap a little to clip the charge cable in. It’s clunky and I would have preferred a standard mini-USB port on the watch’s back.

The interface and the using watch itself

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The Spark Cardio will count the total number of steps you’ve done in a week.

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The Spark Cardio’s cycling activity screen. The GPS strength is in the top left, the heart rate monitor activity is the heart shape. To activate the activity, you press right on the rocker pad.

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The Spark Cardio’s display for freestyle activity (walking, I’m guessing) show speed, total time and distanced covered.

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The Spark Cardio’s activity selection screen. I’ve used mine mostly for cycling and walking.

The Spark Cardio sports an LCD monochrome screen, which means that you’ll get good battery life out of it. TomTom says you’ll get about five days between charges using the GPS mode & xx days when not. I was getting about a week between charges, which was pretty good.

The Spark Cardio doesn’t have a touch screen so you use the four-way rocker to scroll between the various menus. The main screen shows the time in large numbers, which might be off-putting for some people, but I kind of like it. It also displays the date but it’s squeezed vertically in the right hand corner. It seems strange at first but you get used to it.

When the watch isn’t being used to track an activity (more on that later), pressing the left side of the rocker shows you steps for the day; pressing it again shows you steps for the week. A nice feature is pressing up on the rocker -pad from the weekly step count screen shows you how many hours of sleep you’ve managed this week (at the time of writing this, which was a Wednesday, I’d managed 21 hours of sleep).

Pressing right from the home screen takes you to the activity screen  where you can select the activity you want to track. The TomTom has: Running, cycling, swimming, treadmill running, gym, indoor cycling, freestyle (which I think means walking or anything like that) and a stopwatch.

Once you’ve selected an activity, you press the rocker pad one more time to the right, giving you a screen that shows your heart rate, details about your activity (distance, time, speed) and the GPS lock, which is in the left hand corner.

The TomTom was pretty good at picking up the available GPS satellites, meaning I was generally up and running within a few seconds (the watch will vibrate when it has locked onto a signal). Sometimes, though, it seemed to take ages to find satellites, especially if I was mountain biking where there was a lot of trees. Overall, though, I was pleased with how quickly the Spark Cardio locked on to satellites.

I was interested to see how the Spark Cardio went with cycling, both road and mountain bike. I was pleased to see that I could upload my training data to Strava, a training data site that I use on my smart phone. You can also upload data from the Spark to a few training data portals like Endomondo, Nike+, Jawbone and MapMyFitness.

The Spark Cardio’s Heart Rate Monitor isn’t always on so you won’t be able to get your resting heart rate while you sitting on the couch. It’s only active when you’re doing an activity and it tracks your heart rate over the duration of your training session so you can analyse it later using TomTom’s MySports software (which is functional at best) or Strava’s own web portal. Personally, I checked all my data via Strava: It’s much better than TomTom’s MySports portal.

TomTom's MySports web portal is functional but lets you breakdown your activity.

TomTom’s MySports web portal is functional but lets you breakdown your activity.

The Spark Cardio maps your activity using mapping software, which you can look through later. In the case of cycling, it showed me where my heart rate was its highest and what my speed was at particular points around a course.

The Spark Cardio’s display is bright and clear, with large numbers that are easy to read while on the go and while it didn’t display my heart rate on the screen it was recording it in the background, letting me view the data at the end of the ride. It has an ingenious way to activate the backlight at night: You just have to hold your hand over the screen and the back light comes on.

Things that bug me about the TomTom Spark Cardio

The more I’ve used the Spark Cardio the more I’m liking it. I like the easy to read display (especially as my eyesight seems to be getting worse the older I get), but it has a couple of niggles that annoy me.

For starters, the activity tracker doesn’t have an auto-pause. OK, not having auto-pause isn’t a deal breaker but the function is nice to have, especially if I’m, say, on a road bike ride and get stuck at traffic lights for a while. I’m hoping TomTom’s developers will bring this function at some point but it seems if comments from posters on the company’s support site are anything to go by, users have been waiting for a couple of years for the feature and don’t hold much hope of it becoming available.

It would also be nice if you didn’t have to scroll through so many screen when you’ve finished a workout. To reach the home screen from the activity tracking screen you have to press left on the rocker pad three times. Three times. That is quite a few. Picky? Yeah, maybe but not so many button presses would be nice.

Another gripe is that the watch body itself doesn’t always feel that secure housed in the strap, especially when you press on the rocker pad. Some times when I pressed left or right on the rocker pad I could feel the watch body move slightly. Nothing that was an issue but it was noticeable and annoying at times.

Overall, though, the TomTom Spark Cardio is really finding a place in my fitness schedule. In the space of a month, I’ve gone from not sure whether I wanted to keep it to finding it’s an invaluable part of my training programme.

Here’s hoping that TomTom support it and listen to its users.

 

Huawei Smartwatch: A classy and stylish piece of wearable tech

Since getting a Huawei smartwatch, my usual watch, an LG G Watch R, has been sitting unused and idle, gathering dust. Well, that’s not true: My teenage son has decided to flit between the LG and my FitBit surge.

I’ve hardly taken the Huawei watch off my wrist in the past two weeks. In fact, the only time I’ve taken it off is when I have a shower and when it needs charging. I really grown to love the watch, which makes my LG seem, frankly, bulky and unwieldy.

The Huawei makes a class impression from the moment you open the rather large box it comes in. The matte black stainless steel version that I had (it also comes in a stainless steel and gold versions) was nestled on a faux leather liner in the box, with the watch placed strategically in the middle. It oozed class and style.

An email notification appears on the Huawei's AMOLED screen. Swipe to the left to close it, swipe up to dismiss the program.

An email notification appears on the Huawei’s AMOLED screen. Swipe to the right to close the email,  swipe up to dismiss the program. Easy.

With a 1.4-inch AMOLED screen (with a resolution of 400×400) and 4.2mm in diameter, the Huawei watch will suit smaller wrists and won’t look out-of-place on your wrist, like I feel that my LG does at times, and I liked that the watch’s strap was a standard 18mm strap, meaning you can replace it easily. It comes with all the features you’d expect  a wearable to have, including a surprisingly accurate heart rate monitor. The only button on the watch is one set at the 2 O’Clock position. On the back is a heart rate sensor.

I’ve had my LG smartwatch for a few months now so I’m no stranger to Google’s Android Wear smartwatch software, so using the Huawei felt intuitive and familiar. With a smartwatch your preaching to the converted and I can’t actually imagine not having one these days. I used the Huawei’s inbuilt alarm to wake me in the morning and track my steps throughout the day.

The Huawei Smartwatch's sporty green watch face. That green circle? That fills up the more active you are.

The Huawei Smartwatch’s sporty green watch face. That green circle? That fills up the more active you are.

 

The screen is fantastic on the Huawei watch: Colours are bright and vivid and everything just looks much clearer than on my LG, even with my ageing eyesight. The display really is superb.

Navigating through the Huawei’s mentions are as you’d expect with an Android smartwatch: You swipe left and right through the screens, up and down to find the app you want and then tap the icon. It’s easy, to be honest.

You can change watch faces either by touching and holding the watch face itself then scrolling left and right to the face you want or through the Android Wear software on your phone. The Huawei had a good selection of watch faces that suit a variety of situations and you can buy new ones for a handful of dollars. My personal favourite watch face was green sporty, which shows your activity during the day through a green circle that progressive moves around the watch face the more steps/activity you do throughout out the day.

The Huawei uses a magnetic docking station (it attaches via some gold contact pins on the underside of the charger) and battery life was what I expect from a piece of wearable tech: I got roughly a day to a day and a half, depending on how many notifications I got throughout the day, before it needed recharging. Charging was quick, too, and I’d usually plonk the watch on the docking station when I was getting ready for work in the morning and it would be close to fully charged by the time I was ready to go.

The underside of the Huawei Smartwatch. The gold pins magnetically clip to the charging port.

The underside of the Huawei Smartwatch. The gold pins magnetically clip to the charging port.

The big question is: Is a smart watch essential? Well, no, it’s not but for me, as I said earlier, I don’t think I could live without one. Wearing one has made my life a whole lot easier and the Huawei looks classy enough to wear everyday.

Wearing a smart watch is part of my daily routine. And since wearing a smart watch, I don’t look at my phone nearly as frequently as I used to: The smart watch lessens the number of times I pull my phone out of my pocket to check that message, that email, that social media comment. If I get a notification (be it email, social media or email), all I do is check my watch and if it’s urgent, I’ll get my phone and reply. If it’s not, I’ll just leave it till I’ve time to answer.

If there was any negative to Huawei’s watch it’s the price: The black stainless steel watch (with matching black leather strap) will set you back around $750, while the gold-plated version is close to $1000, which makes the Huawei considerably more expensive than some other Android smart watches on the market. As a comparison, my LG G Watch R was about $479 when it first came out.

Make no mistake, Huawei’s smart watch is a premium piece of hardware with an absolutely stunning and vivid screen that makes it one of the best Android smart watches around right now, but it’s going to face stiff competition in the coming months as manufacturers bring new hardware to the market, one of those being Samsung and its new Gear S2 [Look out for a review of Samsung’s smart watch soon]

It’s going to be an interesting few months for fans of wearable tech.

FitBit Surge review: Part two

OK, in the first part of my review of FitBit’s Surge (Super Fitness Watch) I covered some basics about the watch itself. Today, I’m looking at how it actually functions during exercise (I mean, that’s what it’s primarily for, right?)

FitBit's smart phone app tracks all your exercise so that it's easy to go through.

FitBit’s smart phone app tracks all your exercise so that it’s easy to go through.

Over the past two weeks I’ve used the Surge during bike rides, walks with the dog and walks/runs during the week. The exercise function is accessed by pressing the button on the watch’s left side, which gives you the option to record runs or exercise.

The exercise option is broken down into several options:  Currently I have Hike, Workouts, Weights, Spinning, Biker and Walk but the watch will let you customise up to seven options ranging from Kickboxing and Yoga to Stair climbing and Golf.

I was particularly interested to see how the Surge worked with bike rides and while I don’t ride my bike as much as I used to, I still like to pedal the tarmac a couple of times a week. I was particularly interested in having an active heart rate monitor that didn’t require me to wear a cumbersome chest strap.

Not long before I got the Surge, Strava, a bike recording app, had announced it was compatible with the Surge so rides would be saved to the Strava app, which is great because I use that app on my LG smart watch to record bike rides as well as a Magellan Cyclo 100 cycle computer. I was also interested to see out of the Surge & the Magellan which was most accurate.

Starting the Surge to record activity only requires a couple of button presses and I found that it generally found GPS satellites quickly (there is an option to do a quick start which starts recording your activity and will vibrate when it’s located satellites).

I found that the Surge found satellites much quicker than my Magellan cycle computer, which I was most pleased with. During one ride, the Magellan didn’t lock onto a GPS signal until about 2 minutes after I’d actually started my ride, meaning it was already behind recording my activity.

The Surge will track overall distance using GoogleMaps and its inbuilt GPS.

The Surge will track overall distance using GoogleMaps and its inbuilt GPS.

The bike setting recorded all the stats that I needed: Average speed, distance covered and heart rate and I noticed that when I put in a really hard effort, such as sprints or climbing, the heart rate would pop onto the display. Uploading the details to my PC broke down the information even further, telling me how long my HR had been in the peak, cardio and fat burning zones.

My heat rate broken down by the FitBit Surge into peak, cardio and fat burning periods.

My heart rate broken down by the FitBit Surge into peak, cardio and fat burning periods.

Looking at the information in more depth, graphs for speed, calories burnt and HR actually have sliders which can show you exactly what speed you were doing at each point during your ride, how many calories you were burning a minute and what your heart rate got up to.

For example, when I was averaging 30km/h, my HR was peaking at 158bpm (beats per minute) and I was burning 7.6 calories a minute. That’s quite mind-blowing.

Overall, I was impressed with FitBit’s Surge, given that it’s a good all-rounder for a variety of exercise options. I like it so much that it’s knocked my LG Smart Watch off my wrist and it’s making me keep active during the day.

While it might not be cycling-specific (if you’re the kind of person who wants a cycling-specific monitor then you’ll probably want to look at something from Garmin, perhaps), the Surge ticked all the boxes for me as someone who likes to do a variety of activities.

The Surge gets two thumbs up from me.

LG G Watch R review: The future on my wrist

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Two weeks on and sending a text to someone by talking into my phone hasn’t got tired.

I still get a kick out of it, actually, and it’s something that I love about my LG G Watch R smart watch. It’s something that impresses people, too, which is a nice bonus.

I wasn’t planning on buying a smart watch: It was something that was on my “It would be nice to have” lists but wasn’t a necessity. I had other things that were more important. But when I saw a near-new LG Smart Watch come up for sale on TradeMe then a Buy Me price appear, I just had to have it, despite internally debating with myself on whether I should buy it or not.

A few clicks later and it was mine.

I can’t say I’ve regretted it, either. I feel like I’m living in the future being able to do things like send texts and emails, start up external apps on my phone like Strava and search for directions.

The design

Why did I pick an LG G Watch R? (I’m still not sure about the name, though). Well, I wanted a smart watch that looked like a normal watch and not some techno-gadget from the future.

And LG’s latest smart watch looks like a normal watch, and I like that about it. I also don’t mind the size of it, either. I’ve read complaints about its large bezel and size but as someone who has worn Casio G-Shock watches since  I don’t  know when I find the size perfect for my wrists – and I don’t have massive wrists.

I like the fact that the glass itself is recessed below the bezel, too: It offers protection from some knocks, although I wear it to my part-time job which is physical and I did wonder whether I could damage it. People at work that have seen it have mentioned that it looks like a watch and not a piece of tech. That’s something  that I wanted from a smart watch: Something that does the things a smart watch does but looks like a standard timepiece. It helps that it has a leather strap not a plastic strap.

Heart rate: The heart rate sensor is in the middle of the backplate. The five brass charging pins are to the left.

Heart rate: The heart rate sensor is in the middle of the backplate. The five brass charging pins are to the left.

This watch looks classy and expensive, so LG have nailed the design perfectly. Interestingly, there is a heart rate monitor sensor on the underside of the watch and you can use your voice to get the watch to take your heart rate. It’s a cool feature after exercise but I found that it works better with the sensor up against the underside of your wrist.

The watch came with a cradle that you put it into to charge it (there are five pins on the underside) that match the pins on the charger. Like my smart phone, I tended to charge it every night – it’s just a routine that I’ve got into – but I could probably get away with charging it every two days.

The software

Like other Android-based smart watches, LG’s Watch R uses Android Wear to run apps. It needs some fine tuning but overall, the experience has been positive so far.

During the initial set up process you choose your language and connect it to your phone via bluetooth, meaning it has access to stored contacts.

There aren’t a lot of useful apps for the watch yet but I’m sure over time that will improve. Let’s face it: Smart watches aren’t a necessity so developers are probably still working out how popular they are and what to build for them.

I haven’t installed any third-party apps yet.  I’ve just stuck with what was pre-installed on the watch and I’ve mainly used my smart watch to send texts to friends and family and do things like find out what the weather’s like where I am, how far it is to somewhere I’m going and start up apps like third-party app Strava when I’m bike riding or going for a run.

These are all things that I could start with my phone but it’s just so much easier to talk to my watch and do it. Sending texts is as easy as saying “Ok, Google”then dictating your message. I found that if you pause too long between words the watch will thing you’ve finished and send the message to the recipient.

In the beginning I send quite a few half-written texts because I’d paused too long while thinking what to say. I’ve also learned that I have to say “fullstop”, “question mark” and “comma”if I want to insert those punctuation devices into a text. I have to say, though, I’m impressed with Google’s voice recognition software as many devices just can’t seem to pick up the New Zealand accents peculiarities.

As a test, I wanted to see how the watch would handle me sending a text message to my daughter Siobhan,  a name that has caused teachers consternation so I guessed it would do the same for a smart watch. I was wrong: I expected the watch to throw up all variations of her name when I dictated a message to her but no, it got her name right first time.

Every now and then, though, it would have trouble understanding what I’d said and I noted that when there was a lot of background noise it would take a while to respond to my commands, but overall, the voice recognition worked really well.

It had a few missteps, though: Once the voice recognition activated when I coughed while driving in the car.

Sapphire and world clock Two of the pre-installed watch faces on the LG G Watch R.

Sapphire and world clock Two of the pre-installed watch faces on the LG G Watch R.

IMAG0301The watch comes pre-loaded with quite a few watch faces, which you can change by pressing and holding the screen then scrolling through until you find the watch face you like. There’s a good selection of pre-installed ones including one with a world clock, a moon face, a hiking one with a compass and a classic watch face. You can download more faces from the Google Play Store (some are free, some cost a dollar or two).

Niggles

There isn’t a lot I dislike about the LG G Watch R but for some reason, every three days or so, the Watch R decides to loose the bluetooth connection with my phone and no matter how many times I tried to re-connect it, it refused to play ball. It meant that I had to reset my watch, meaning I had to go through the whole pairing/tutorial process again. That was frustrating to say the least.

Also, I quickly learned that to keep the phone connected to my phone I had to have it with me: A couple of times at the start I left my phone in, say, the kitchen then went to my bedroom, suddenly realising bluetooth doesn’t stretch that far.

What that means is that I’m still dependent on having my phone with me at all  times: Were not at the stage where I can leave my phone in the car, nip into the supermarket and still have connectivity through my watch.I still need to use my phone to respond to social media and the like.

The navigation using the watch isn’t that great: It misunderstood the street near my house several times so I gave up. I think if all you want is the nearest petrol station or restaurant then you’ll be fine but if you want the strangely spelt street near your house, you might be out of luck. It seems to be able to find directions to the nearest petrol station if you ask for directions to the nearest gas station.!

The price is also a little off putting. I wouldn’t have paid $479 (I think that’s what the LG G Watch R retails for in NZ) for it. I’m just lucky I found a cheap one ($200 does seem cheap) on an auction website. If I change anything, I might look at replacing the watch strap, but because it uses a standard watch size that should be easy. I hear LG does a sports model that is rubbery not leather.

The verdict

I’m loving my LG G Watch R and what it can do and I really think I’ve checked my phone a lot less since I’ve had it. Now, if I get a notification or an alert I just quickly glance at my watch and if it’s important I go to my phone but if it’s unimportant I disregard it.

It’s meant I spend less time looking at my phone and more time aware of what’s going on. Android Wear is a work-in-progress and I’m sure it’ll improve over time as will the number of must-have apps for the watch.

I have to say, though, the biggest thing I like is that  LG’s latest smart watch looks like, well, a smart timepiece not a futuristic wrist computer. I like that.

A smart watch isn’t a necessity – I know that – so I can’t recommend you rush out and buy one, but it is pretty cool having one where you can dictate messages to it and it’ll send them to people. I’m sure over time the functionality will improve, too.

But right now, I’ve got some Minority Report shit happening on my wrist.