My journey with personal fitness technology

Upgrading My Tech

Fitbit Products

So, one November night in 2013, I decided to change pretty much everything. I purchased three items – a Fitbit One, a Fitbit Aria scale, and the most important bit – a Suunto Ambit 2S in a very flashy yellow colour. That’s when the technology game was advanced at a tremendous clip. I loved this setup for a long time, and there were many reasons why.

Fitbit One

To start with, at the time I was purchasing these items, there wasn’t really anything that was both a running watch (as they were called) and a step counter. Perhaps step counters weren’t considered an “athlete’s thing” or something, but suffice to say I bought three things because I wanted to track many things, but they were kind of contained in “silos”. Starting with the Fitbit One, it was remarkable – it held a charge for weeks, and counted steps and floors climbed, and if you put it in a special wristband at night, it would sort of track your sleep. This was 2013, and this was pretty advanced. I really liked that little pebble of a device, and when you saw other people with one it was a real conversation starter. This was the last non-watch tracker that Fitbit made, having to start keeping up with other contenders, including the eventually released Apple Watch. (If you didn’t know, by the way, Fitbit has recently been bought by Google.) The One held the data until it got close to your computer, where it synced via a small USB token that you plugged into your PC. Have a spare port? It just worked immediately, no WiFi required. It was great.

So, with the Fitbit one, I splurged. I decided I wanted to get rid of my analog scale (the one that I had tracked my big weight loss on, by the way), and replace it with something digital, WiFi, and advanced enough that it records my weight. I was going into the Fitbit ecosystem (more on ecosystems later), so it only made sense to get their scale at the time. Sign me up. This scale was easy to set up, especially if you had an iPhone or an Android phone (at the time, I didn’t – I was either using a Blackberry or a Windows Phone, and I talk about my affliction next),. but even setting up via WiFi was simple. I guess technically, my Aria became my first WiFi capable fitness widget.

Fitbit Aria Scale

Then I somewhat forcibly went away from the Fitbit world. I really liked the Fitbit One, and it did what I wanted it to do – count steps and count stairs. I used the sleep function at the start, but to be honest it was a novelty. It was too much work. Then, one day after years of faithful service, the inevitable happened – the One made a trip in the washer. It was never replaced.

The other part of the Fitbit ecosystem was the Aria scale. I had pooh-poohed WiFi scales for a long time, until I bought one. It was neat. It basically took my weight and put it on the Fitbit site (in a way only I could see it, thank goodness). Yippee. I had a record of my weight. Hey look, I was recording my weight as it was increasing. Then it started to go as wonky as a $5 Wal-Mart scale. I could adjust my weight up or down simply by moving it a few inches on my bathroom floor. That made me happy – nudge the thing and I would drop 10 pounds. Perfect! So, shortly after the One’s trip to washing machine-induced heaven, the scale was soon consigned to the dustbin.

Suunto Ambit 2S

The fitness watch, though – that was something that was a much more researched and nuanced purchase. And it comes with the following admission: I have a habit of analysing and backing what I think is the best technology. That never ends up being a winner (see the last paragraph on my choice of mobile phones). I can give example after example, but rest assured: if I backed it, it eventually ended up in the dustbin somewhere – no matter that it was amazingly advanced for the time. I did a lot of deliberation over the watch, and much of that was informed by the website Ray is an amazing fellow, a former uber-nerd at Mircosoft, and a triathlete. He has fully committed himself to blogging about fitness and technology, and if you have any interest in these things at all, you should follow his blog.

Suunto Ambit 2 S with HR strap

Back to the Suunto, I really did like this watch. For the time, 8 years ago, it was incredible. It was just under the capabilities of something like the Garmin Fenix which had just been released as well, and was packed with a bunch of great things. The Ambit 2S was a sweet spot for me – it would allow me to track all sorts of sports, and could do most of what the higher-model could do; the exception there was the barometric altimeter and some other options (sapphire glass). The two things this generation of watches didn’t do: wrist-based heart rate (which wasn’t very good at the time), so it came with a heart rate strap; and notifications from your phone. The latter was, in fact, very attractive to me at the time. I really didn’t want those notifications on my wrist, and it was starting to be as prevalent – and annoying – as people who looked at their phone every time the thing went ping. Plus I had heard of Suunto (not that I hadn’t heard of Garmin). Every cub-scout has, as they’ve made those cub-scout level compasses – the rectangular one, with the circular compass mounted on the top – forever. I had also used some Suunto guages when I was diving, so if I trusted my life to them when 80 feet underwater, then I was ok trusting them as a GPS watch manufacturer.

Here are the main reasons I chose it: it looked to be a better fitness watch and better value than the competition at the time (it was), it was round (I REALLY hate square watches, and I think the Apple Watch is particularly ugly), and it was a fantastic yellow colour. Look at that. That thing was awesome, to me. I regularly wore that watch as my daily driver. It had no WiFi, and no Bluetooth. But it had a myriad of functions, and when you wanted the GPS to work, it locked on fast. Many watches of the time would have to be started for a “run”, then put on the windowsill while you changed into your gear and put on your shoes, then it might be ready. I once saw a cartoon of the starting line of a marathon, and all the participants had their right arm in the air with their hands forward like a goose head, trying to get a GPS signal to their watch (I wish I could find it – it’s funny). The Suunto locked on immediately, every time, partly because it had a huge GPS “puck” molded into the front lug, and partly because it would cache the satellite locations while it was plugged in and charging on your computer. Fancy-shcmancy for the time, for sure, but it meant it just worked fast. And the one I chose came with an Ant+ heart rate strap – something you strapped around your chest for exercise. I wore that thing every time I used the watch, whatever I was doing. That’s how you got accurate HR data in those days (and, in some ways, better HR data than you get now).

I ran with that watch, a lot. I ran with it in at least 5 provinces, ran with it in the US, and ran with it in Ireland. I skied with it (that was great), I walked the dog with it (it did what you expected), I recorded bicycle rides with it – heck, I even used it to track my badminton games as a general workout with the HR strap. I used it a lot, and one of the great things about the watch is that the battery lasted forever. Battery life is important, as anyone with an Apple watch that needs care and feeding of electricity every night or two will tell you. It’s great to have something track your sleep – you just need to actually be able to wear it, with some battery in it, in order for it to do so. The battery on the Suunto was incredible for the time, and I remember having to charge it every 2-4 days or so, depending on how much I did with it. It could take a full day of skiing with no issue, as an example, but would have to be charged that night – and that was with a high GPS sampling rate.

I used that watch in a somewhat successful bid to help some co-workers train for the Run for the Cure in 2016; there was a Couch to 5K app that did the variable timing for the walk/run portions. I used it myself to try and kick-start my running a couple of times. And I still wore it pretty often, and still loved that yellow colour.

Then things started to change. There were changes to their Moveslink software, the software app that uploaded all your data to the computer, and to the web (again, no Wifi on this watch at the time). Then there were changes to Movescount, and funny enough changes to Facebook, that sort of broke things. I’ll discuss that more below. There was a fiddly connection “clamp” for charging and data upload, and I ended up buying a couple of those at an exorbitant price. I mostly stopped using it because, well, I stopped running, and wearing it almost made me feel guilty. Plus, I got frustrated with the fractured software environment. Between a disappointment with the watch, a desire to upgrade, and a frustration with their software, I decided to explore my options.

I did look at the Ambit’s direct replacements, and I looked at their direct competitors. I looked at a lot of different aspects, and then found a deal on a good watch, with good reviews, and a great mix of features.

It should be noted that I had a feeling, in 2018, that Suunto didn’t have a real direct replacement to the watch I had. They were changing platforms, moving to WearOS (which doesn’t thrill me either), and I wasn’t as enamoured with their options. And then I found a great deal on a Garmin. Stuff it, much as I liked the Suunto, it had a lot of quirks that I was just not willing to deal with anymore.

Garmin Fenix 3HR (Sapphire)

I then started a new job – my current one – and I was pretty pleased about it. So pleased that I thought I would get myself a present. I was going to walk to the Skytrain every day (from my house, steeply downhill, and the reverse on the way home), which would be a good 40-45 minutes of walking every day. It will be good for me, and I want to track that. Also my needs had changed slightly, to the point where I was more interested in some of the backwoods features of the various offerings as I was starting to venture into adventure motorcycling. I wanted to channel my own inner Ewan MacGregor or Charlie Boorman; to this day, my brother and I keep plotting and scheming for a ride to Alaska. (This will be covered in future posts, for sure, but the plot has been put off now for a year or two.) This is, by far, not an original idea by the way.

Adventure motorcycling: bravely riding to where other people live.

Attribution unknown, presumed to be a denizen of ADVRider.
Commercial/Broadway, March 5, 2018
Image by Martin Moran

So, I bought myself a Garmin 3 HR, because I found a spectacular deal for it right after Garmin announced the Fenix 5. I really like the Garmin watches, and their ecosystem feels less clunky. In the intervening several years since I bought my Suunto, they had overcome the limitations of the GPS taking a long time to track, and their own app / programming ecosystem had taken off (again, more below). It was a great looking watch with a classy metal band, and I could change the watch face to put a classy one on at work, etc. This had the notifications trick through Bluetooth LE, as well, a feature that I have grown to tolerate, and have taken to heart to reduce the number of notifications I receive. I received my watch in February of 2018.

The watch was great, and I wore it daily for a long while, and then rotated it through with some Casio G-Shocks and a couple of other watches that I have. (I love my G-Shock watches, and that might be the subject of a different post). I did like that it tracked all the fitness stuff of my Suunto, plus did heart rate right on the watch, and did daily steps, etc., on the watch as well.

The Garmin InReach Mini

My walk to transit plan took a significant hit in March, 2018, when I hit a wall of humanity while changing trains to get to work. Nevermind that I had never ever had a seat on the train, or that I could not understand how Skytrain only has 2 cars on a train for a route as busy as Commercial to Downtown at rush hour. I grew up in Toronto. Standard load-out for TTC Subways was either 6 or 8 cars, all the time. Skytrain just made it cramped for the sake of it, I think. Won’t it be interesting to see how many cars, and how much space, will be on transit as we start going back to work after our COVID-19 lockdown…

I never really ran much with the Fenix 3HR, but it was great. Don’t get me wrong, I did a couple of aborted Couch to 5k restarts with it over the last two years, especially one in 2019. It even helped me walk/run to finish the Vancouver Sun Run in 2019, but nothing stuck until January 2020. I ran with this watch for most of the program this year, but it was starting to show it’s age. It was being updated on maintenance mode – bug fixes only, and the new features were coming in the new units One of these new functions I was keen to get – interoperability with another Garmin device, my InReach Mini. I hemmed, I hawed, and in May of 2020 I decided to upgrade.

Garmin Fenix 6

My watch of choice was the Garmin Fenix 6 Sapphire (the 3 was a Sapphire, and the upgrade gave me all of the Fenix 6 Pro goodies). This means that it has a sapphire crystal face, which is unbelievably hard, and includes a DLC (“diamond like coating”) on the metal portions of the watch. Side by side the two are remarkably similar, although the 6 does have a much larger screen.

This watch I love. It holds music, so I don’t run with a phone anymore. It tracks a zany amount of stats and fitness throckmortons that I have no real clue about. It does charts and graphs and overlays and has maps built in. It has golf courses built in and can automatically count your score. It’s the bomb and probably does more than I need, but I loved my Fenix 3HR so much that it only made sense to stay in the Fenix world. It wasn’t cheap, but it was fantastic.

One of the things that people note about it is that it isn’t a touch screen neither were my previous two watches. I believe that’s by design. I know that the new Suunto watches are Android Wear based, and therefore will be touchscreen. Google’s Fitbit are all touchscreen. The Apple watch is, of course, touch screen. All of which is problematic I have found out from several users – wear long sleeves and the activity can be stopped, or alternately you wear it OVER your long sleeve but don’t get the benefit of the heart rate monitor. I like that it isn’t a touch screen. It has a really simple interface, and the apps that are available are all much more fitness focused, which I appreciate. If I want apps, I’ll use my phone. Then again, go back to what I said about about the keyboard on the Blackberry – I kind of didn’t want a touchscreen then either. I’m not against them – I love the one on my PC – but I think there are use cases.

I have really loved all three of the watches that I used. I liked the limited data I got from the Blackberry, frankly. The hardware has never been an issue for me – so let’s look at the software.

Hardware duds

Before it sounds like a total love-fest for every bit of tech I’ve bought – it isn’t. There have been a few duds over the years.

The Nike Sensor

The first has got to be the Nike+ sensor. This was the biggest piece of overpriced tech garbage that I bought for running. I had bought a pair of Nike shoes, and embedded in the shoe, underneath one of the insoles, was an oval shape hole where you could ensconce this little money-grabber. The sensor promised all sorts of amazing stuff, but really, it was just a cadence sensor. Paired with an iPhone, it measured your cadence (something my watch does now, and something my phone could do). Only I could run with my iPod (I was still on a Blackberry at this point), and I had a brand new iPod touch. Well, the thing is useless, data wise, with an iPod touch, as that gem of hardware didn’t come with a GPS. This was a total waste of money, which I have never fully used. Good riddance to proprietary stuff – which is something Apple seems to love, and always has. Partnering with Nike on this essentially was just a way to promote the global Apple brand. I eventually bought a clip-on Suunto (universal) foot pod that worked very well with my Ambit 2S.

JVC Sport Headphones

The next is headphones. Runners go through headphones – or at least I hope they do, because I do – like they are going out of style. I’ve tried dozens over the years I’ve been running. I had found a pair that I loved and bought repeatedly when they died – the JVC Sport Headphones. They were inexpensive, they hooked over your ear and stayed in place, had great sound, and none of those stupid rubber insert things. They even came in a bunch of colours. Sorted. Until JVC seemed to stop making them (they have since restarted, or at least you can still buy them, it seems – although they’ve now added a removeable rubber tip thing). Anyway, they were great – until I got my iPhone 8. I will say this about Apple’s “courage” (their words) on the removal of the 1/8″ phono jack from their phones: 1) their “courage” moved from a standard that has been around for decades, and 2) happened shortly after Apple acquired Beats Electronics, so it’s more than a little self-serving, and not courageous at all.

Back to the JVCs and others that have since replaced them, as they were a jack-only deal, I had to find new headphones. I was in Costco one day, and came across a set of Monster iSport Victory headphones, and these were great. Until one day this spring, when they weren’t – they just wouldn’t turn on. Dead. Ok, a second purchase, and these kept cutting out at the end of my runs (sweat, perhaps), and they died a few short weeks after they arrived. I’m seriously disappointed in that. These have now (just this week) been replaced with Skullcandy Indy earbuds, which seem to be working well. They have two fiddly rubber bits. We’ll see how they work.

So, duds? Apple/Nike foot pod. Monster Victory headphones. Probably a bunch of other small things that never worked correctly.

Insurance is my profession, and one of my passions. Motorcyclist, runner, skier, photography newbie. Nerdy tech geek, craft beer enthusiast. Thoughts are my own. Snark is omni-present.

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