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Archive for August, 2005

Garmin Forerunner 201 Review

Friday, August 26th, 2005

I got a Garmin Forerunner 201 a few months back to keep track of my runs and to possibly use on my bike. I have been using my Garmin eTrex when mountain biking for a couple years and it’s been great and I was excited at the possibility of using a GPS for running as well. Unfortunately the Forerunner did not live up to my expectations.

First off, let me just say it is great to have a GPS device that is small enough and convenient enough to run with. I saw a GPS wrist watch a couple years back so I knew it was possible to put GPS electronics into a small device but I didn’t know how much data I could really get from a tiny watch LCD screen. Anyway, the Forerunner actually seems kinda big for a “wrist device” and I found it nearly impossible to wear on my wrist while biking as it made it difficult to bend my wrist. For runs, however, it doesn’t seem to be overly cumbersome.

The data you can watch during your run is great as you can see your pace, time, and distance traveled on one screen. You can even create custom screens to watch things like the grade you’re running, the time of day, altitude, and more. You can also view data on your past runs, see maps of where you’ve been, and even back track on a run to estimate your time to completion. The controls are quite good and pretty easy to manage while running. The screen is large too so you don’t have to squint just to see what’s happening on screen.

Garmin pitches this as a device you can use for running or cycling and they even make a bike mount bracket so you don’t have to wear the Forerunner on your wrist while you tear up the trails or the road. But one notable omission from the data you can track: speed. The Forerunner is set up great for running where pace is everything but to a cyclist, there is a need for speed. The antenna in the Forerunner seems to be pretty weak too as it loses satellite signals fairly often on my trail runs and even on densely forested neighborhood streets. I’ve found the best way to keep a good signal is to run in the absolute middle of whatever path I take (including running in the middle of the street in my neighborhood when I get the chance!). I’ve also found the strength of satellite signals changes throughout the day due to the positions of the satellites themselves; some runs work get great data in the morning but not so great data in the evening. It will take some experimenting to find the optimal time and path for each of your runs.

The accuracy of the Forerunner is also suspect. I’ve heard from some people who assume the Forerunner overestimates distances since the navigation accuracy can be off by up to 50 feet or more at any given time. These slight inaccuracies add up over the course of your run and can lead to an overestimate of your total run distance. I tend to argue that these inaccuracies can also be underestimates and in the end perhaps they cancel each other out. The other thing that affects accuracy, and in my opinion, has a much greater effect, is the built in error correction. When my eTrex loses a satellite fix, it typically treats the distance you travel without a signal as not having been traveled at all. That is, say you are at mile 1.5 and the unit loses the satellite signal. You ride (or run) for about half a mile with no signal and then pick up the signal again at exactly the 2 mile mark. The eTrex will say your distance traveled is 1.5 miles while the Forerunner will attempt to guess (it might say you’ve been 1.87 miles). As far as I can tell the Forerunner makes it’s guess by drawing a straight line from the point where it lost the satellite signal to the point where it reacquired the signal. So if you’re running in a perfectly straight line, this estimate should be right on. But if you’re moving around a curvy trail, the Forerunnner will miss the real distance you covered by making all those turns. You’ll even be able to see this on your map as an odd looking straight line section. Because of this I often add up to 10% to the distances the Forerunner reports, depending on the availability of the satellite signal and the direction of the trail. The error correction that the Forerunner uses is, in my opinion, still much better than the eTrex since the Forerunner at least TRIES to guess where you were when the signal cut out. I just wish there was more documentation about how the unit works.

Finally, I find the software the Forerunner uses to be mildly helpful but with tons of room for improvement. Like many electronic devices today, computer interfaces seem to be an afterthought to product development. I understand there may be some third party applications and websites that make good use of the Forerunner data but I haven’t used them myself. The most annoying thing I’ve found is that when you attempt to export the data from your Forerunner Logbook application you have to export your entire log to a single file. Fortunately Garmin has chosen to use XML to store the data (although not quite GPX compatible) but it is still tough to work with a single file that holds hundreds of miles of data.

The Forerunner 201 is a good start to a GPS enabled running/training device but it still has a ways to go. Perhaps Garmin could actually hire some runners or bikers with experience using these types of devices to work out some of the obvious limitations. The Forerunner is great at taking some of the guesswork out of gauging distances and pace and is a great way to take advantage of the latest in technology.