Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Garmin 910XT Review

The highly anticipated Garmin 910XT has made its way to my wrist. I've read about it for months and finally brought one home with me in mid-January when they became available in stores. Firstly, please note that this is a User Review and not a Product Review. My review is based on real-life use in the field and in the pool. I will not fill your time with techy specs that are not easily translated without a PhD in robotics. I also want to make it clear that I am not sponsored by Garmin in any way, not that I haven’t tried. I’ve been a long time user of Garmin multisport products. I used the 305 for years and more recently the 310XT. Before becoming serious with racing Tri’s I had used Timex and Polar products but switched to Garmin in 2007 before the first time I raced Ironman Coeur d’Alene.

Garmin 910XT
 I’m assuming that most people reading this post are already familiar with the 310XT or at least other Garmin products so I won’t go into details of what it does compared to the competition; only the new features that the 310XT doesn’t offer. If you want to look at the specs you can go to Garmin.com or I’ve provided a link to compare the 310XT and 910XT here.

Garmin 310XT

Don’t be fooled by the size, the 910XT is not any smaller than the 310XT and even slightly longer according to Garmin…longer by like 0.2” but I think the completely new design helps it fit better on my small wrist. The 910XT does sport a slightly thinner profile which I’m hoping to be beneficial when stripping my wetsuit in T1. Aside from slight measurement differences these 2 watches are very similar in things like weight, battery life, display size, screen resolution, blah, blah, blah…yep there are only a handful of improvements technology-wise that make this stand apart from the 310XT and the competition.

Firstly, the 910XT has a gismo called a barometric altimeter. Why a barometric altimeter? Let’s clarify first that an altimeter is an instrument to measure altitude. But the 310XT did this too, right? It did but it relies completely on GPS signals which mean if you combine that technology with a barometric altimeter then the elevation gain/loss data from your workout is more accurate. For you techies, here’s what Garmin says "Combining both GPS and barometric altimeters, Garmin GPS units are able to provide the most accurate altitude readings of any handheld device. Absolute location is provided originally by the satellite to help auto-calibrate the barometric altimeter, then the barometric altimeter is used to provide a more stable elevation change. The barometric altimeter also allows us to provide elevation readings even when GPS signal is not available." I compared the data from rides with my 310XT on the same course, 6 days apart and there was a difference … but I don’t lay awake at night because my total ascent was 2,786 instead of 2,843. For me, I haven’t found a real-life experience where this is going to make that much difference for me…yet.

Next, Virtual Racer ™…this is pretty cool. The 310XT has a Virtual Pacer that I used almost every workout and especially for 40k TT rides or a swing pace on my run. So what’s the difference? With Virtual Pacer you manually configure a static pace and the "computer runner" just sticks to it. Virtual Racer is different in the aspect that you can upload what you or someone else did on a previous run or ride on the same course and your “computer runner” replicates it. So theoretically you can upload something like Chris Lieto’s crushing ride or Miranda Carfrae’s smoking marathon at Kona last year and be able to compare yourself to how they were doing at that exact same place on the course; even taking hills into account. I don’t know for sure whether either of these workouts are on the Gamin database, I haven’t played with it that much. The coolness factor of this feature rates pretty high for me and will help me as judge my fitness throughout the season.

The next feature on the 910XT that the 310XT doesn’t offer is the Training Effect (TE). According to Garmin, “Training Effect measures the impact of an activity on your aerobic fitness, which essentially helps you train more efficiently. Your Training Effect is calculated based on your user profile, your heart rate and the difficulty of the activity.” I’m a huge advocate of training smarter, not harder and this feature will help you determine whether your workout is maintaining your current fitness level or improving it. For those of you familiar with CompuTrainer or have a power meter, it’s similar to TSS. For those not familiar with TSS, Garmin will rate your activity with a TE scale of 1-5. 1 – Minor; 2 – Maintaining; 3 – Improving; 4 – Highly Improving; 5 – Overreaching. Every workout starts at 1 and then progress throughout the workout to determine your final TE. I’ve enjoyed a similar feature for cycling and it’s nice to see that I can put it to use for running as well. Since this is calculated by your heart rate, you cannot get a TE for swim workouts and Garmin says "the Training Effect value may seem high at first until the device gets to know you and your workout patterns". Can you do without this? Sure. I’ve trained for years without it but you need to make sure you know how your heart rate zones work and what workouts you should be training in which zones and for how long. There’s a lot more to this than getting a number after every workout that says you’re improving your fitness because there are times when you shouldn’t be doing more than a TE of 1. Read more on Training Effects at FIRSTBEAT .

The last feature new to the 910XT is the Swim Metrics function that automatically captures your stroke type and stroke count along with your distance. I’ll admit that the swim is my weakest discipline and I feel as natural in the water as a cat. Two seasons ago I discovered that at Ironman Worlds I put myself at a deficit coming out of the water because I swam 2.6 miles instead of 2.4 miles like everyone else. I don’t recall whether I was following a school of fish or a sting ray but I didn’t do myself any favors tacking on the additional time. This led me to work on sighting during my open water swims last season which helped considerably, as long as I made it out of the underwater boxing match unscathed. One of the first things I realized when testing out this feature in the pool is that I don’t know how to count; my 1,000 meters is apparently 50 meters longer. I’m not sure how it figures out the stroke type but it does. The only flaw I have found with this is function is I can’t figure out how to capture kick sets. Obviously my arms aren’t moving so it captures the time as a rest period. This throws off my SWOLF (the time in seconds plus the strokes it takes you to complete one pool length. For example 30 seconds plus 25 strokes equals a SWOLF score of 55).

Overall, the Garmin 910XT makes it into my must-have list of tech tools simply because of the added swim features but is debatable whether it’s a tool that everyone shouldn’t live without. At certain levels of competition you can do just fine with the 310XT and be successful at racing. The 910XT certainly adds some nice-to-have features and will help every athletes train and race efficiently. Anything that can help me train smarter to minimize the amount of time I spend on each discipline during the race will make it into my must-have list. If you’re on a tight budget, you can save some cash and go with the 310XT and do just fine but I won’t be giving up my 910XT any time soon.