Review: Garmin Forerunner 935
Three years with a Forerunner 935: how's it going?

February 2021 is not proving to be a fruitful month for blogging.

The central conceit of this blog is that I will run interesting routes in interesting places, and share them with the world. Interspersed with these routes will be reviews: shoes, clothes, gear.

The pandemic was already limiting my ability to run in interesting places, and the broken ankle has killed my running altogether. We have now gone the full 28 days of February with no running - no new gear, no new routes, no new shoes, no nothing.

While I'm excited about March's arrival tomorrow - I kick things off with a trip to the hospital in a bid to be allowed to start weight bearing on my injured leg - I feel the need to get one more February entry in.

And, it turns out, I bought my Garmin in February of 2018. So here we go: three years of the Forerunner 935.

Flashback: February 2018

Welcome to the start.

Not the start of my running, but the start of my running trail on the internet.

One mile, in 10:48. Running home from the gym.

This is the first run on Strava, because it's the first run I recorded with my Garmin, and so the furthest back into my history that Strava captured.

We are ten months removed from my first marathon, and three months away from hanging up my fencing kit for the final(?) time. My travel schedule was hectic, and my FitBit was biting the dust - the touchscreen and battery were both pretty much shot.

That crazy travel schedule was a key piece of the what drove me to get a multi-sport watch. Any given day I might be going to fencing practice, lifting or riding the exercise bike at the gym, or going for a run. I was looking for something that would handle this variety more reliably.

Why this watch?

Something I'm discovering while I write this: it is very difficult to review a running watch. They're expensive, and they last years. If you - like me - buy your own, you probably won't own two at a time. And if you do, they won't be the same generation ... there's an argument to upgrade for the next generation in technology or new features, but no argument to buy two competing watches.

So with a lack of points of comparison, I try to cast my mind back three years, and remember why I got this watch.

The first thing that happened was that I ruled out the FitBit. My FitBit (I believe it was the Blaze?) had become a constant source of frustration, and I had grown to hate it. I don't believe I had always hated it, but I remember it ageing quickly and poorly.

So that left me with ... a lot of options. So many I don't remember them all.

I quickly discovered what I wanted from a fitness watch, which was mostly a hangover from the FitBit:

  • Multi-sport. I was a runner, sure, but at the time this was secondary to fencing. I was also a regular at the gym. I didn't want to just track my running. The moment I saw that I could add my own sport to certain Garmin models, my world narrowed dramatically.
  • No touchscreen. My main memory of my touchscreen-enabled FitBit was training for the London Marathon in the rain. I would get wet, something wet would touch the FitBit screen and ... pause my run. It was the most frustrating thing, breaking my rhythm repeatedly. No touchscreens.
  • On-board GPS. My FitBit did not have a built-in GPS chip, which meant I always had to run with my phone. I still usually run with my phone, but I wanted my watch to be able to track me on its own.
  • Maps. As soon as I saw the ability to map out routes and have them on your watch screen, I wanted it. The ability to not have to memorise routes, not have to pull out your phone because you're lost, not always run the same routes because you know them ... the world of possibility opened up.

I'm not sure what the market looks like today - it's been three years since I did much research - but I found myself very quickly narrowing down the options to two options from Garmin: the Forerunner 935 and Fenix.

In the Fenix's favour:

  • Looks. The Fenix uses metal, and is simply sexier
  • The ability to have FULL maps - the 935 only shows breadcrumb maps.

In the 935's favour:

  • Price
  • Weight

Ultimately, the weight was the deciding factor. I wanted to run fast, and lighter = better for running.

Three Years Later

I don't want to bore you with alleged "first impressions".

They're three years old, so won't be genuine. Also, I was coming from an inferior product - the Blaze was being discontinued around this time, and I was hugely frustrated with it. Everything about the new watch was a wonder(ful thing).

But how are we doing after three years?

Amazingly well.

I bought a FitBit Blaze in early 2016, and by January 2017 I was frustrated with it. In February 2018 I replaced it.

By contrast, after three years and a few days, while there are a few desirable features on newer models that I don't have, I'm still hugely impressed - I continue to get a huge amount of value out of this watch.

Here's how it's changed:

  • The wrist-based heart rate monitoring has got less accurate over time. Probably a product of wear and tear over the sensor, but I moved to a chest HRM during a base building phase last year, so this makes no real difference to me
  • The battery life has declined. This is normal, and it's also hard to gauge - I went from being a part-time recreational runner to a 40-50 mpw runner, to a 70-80 mpw runner while having this watch. So how much of the decline is due to extra GPS usage? In any case, the decline has been minimal - I was recharging approximately twice a week before my injury

And ... that's it.

This watch has been a workhorse: on my wrist every day, thousands of miles tracked, all over the world.

Would I buy it again?

Well, let's start by saying that the Forerunner 935 was announced by Garmin in March 2017, so it's a four-year-old model that has since been updated to the 945, and might be updated to the 955 by the time I'm replacing it.

So, let's split this into two questions: would I make the same decision again, knowing what I know now? And what would I do if I were buying a new watch today?

For the first question, the answer is "absolutely, yes".

My big concern on buying it was that I would hate it within a year, like I did with the FitBit: would I regret not going all out on the Fenix? Would I only wear it when running, and regret going for anything beyond the basic GPS tracking for my runs?

Turns out neither of these things were true - I've worn it (nearly) every day, Garmin support has been incredible the two times I've needed them, and I really wouldn't change a thing.

But ... what would I buy today?

I'm too much of a technology lover to scour eBay for discarded 935s. I'd be going for a new watch with the latest bells and whistles. But here's what I would be doing:

Garmin isn't a guarantee, but it's got a lead

I'm in the Garmin ecosystem - my routes and data are in Garmin Connect, I have an Edge for my bicycle and a Garmin HRM-run that collects a bunch of (mostly useless) data that adds to the overall picture.

And Garmin has given me a lot to trust - not only a piece of technology that I don't want to replace after three years, but great quality support when I've needed it.

So anybody else - Coros? Suunto? - would need to be seriously impressive to take me away from the Garmin ecosystem. Without doing full-on research, I won't know, but here's how my view has changed in the last three years:

  • Multi-sport means nothing. A key factor previously, it's pretty much gone. Now, I run. I want to track my running.
    • OK. I also cycle a bit, but I have a bike computer and a heart rate strap, my watch doesn't factor there.
    • Yes. And there's yoga and much-too-infrequent strength training. But who cares about these? I can manually add the activity; the watch adds nothing.
  • I know what metrics and features I value. The last time around, I knew I wanted GPS. Compass? Altimeter? Cadence detection? Everything else was "more is better, but none of it is important". Now I care a lot about tracking my elevation and little about tracking my cadence - this refinement is important.
  • Better than breadcrumbs. Three years ago, I decided that the extra weight of the Fenix wasn't worth the better maps. The more I explore, the more I find that breadcrumbs aren't enough. My next watch will have full-on maps. You never know when you'll find yourself alone on poorly marked trails on a mountain in Japan (true story)
  • Music and payments. Neither of these are deal-breakers, but they were both new features in 2018 that weren't on all watches ... I'd expect music on a watch today, and just think that Garmin Pay (and its competitor versions) sounds like a great convenience.

If you read between the lines, you'll see that I think that the Forerunner 935 doesn't have my ideal feature set. It's a triathlon watch, not a running watch. This means I've paid for features I don't care about and rarely (if ever) use.

There are also features that have come to top-end watches since 2017, and are now trickling down to decidedly-not-top-end watches by 2021.

If I had to guess - and it is a guess - I wouldn't be buying the successor to the 935 today, but instead going for the most fully-functioned single-sport Forerunner ... but not before looking around.

Toppy Recommends

Overall, this is a hearty recommendation of Garmin and the Forerunner range - my watch has been a workhorse, and is still running strong despite being a three-year-old device with four-year-old technology.

But it is also a "do your research carefully" warning: when you read reviews of shoes, for example, you can be relatively comfortable that your reviewer has worn many types of shoes. Many miles. Many runs. I ran over 2500 miles last year, which means I could put 100 miles into 25 different pairs of shoes. (I didn't, but I could have.) Lots of informed opinions can be made.

Those 2500 miles were run with one watch. (And three watch bands.) I've had two running watches in my life, one with in-built GPS, and only one since 2018.

That's not a lot of comparisons to be made.

Most of your social media influencers and not-technology-specific reviewers won't have much to compare it against. Like me.

So do your research, and be careful of what voices you listen to out there ...

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