A Run for the Money

I recently had the opportunity to give the Apple Watch a test run at the Big Nerd Ranch office. While researching its functionality and interface guidelines for a project, I decided to see how it performs doing my favorite activity — running.

I’ve become set in my running ways after many years. I have a favorite shoe brand, prefer a certain meal the night before a big race, and use my Garmin Watch to record my activity. I’ve been using a Garmin watch with a heart rate monitor for almost 5 years. I approached the Apple Watch with a lot of hope and doubt.

Off to the Races

I decided to hit the ground running with the native Workout App. The interface is beautiful and easy to read and has a ton of options. However, its functionality is a little lacking. When running in a city that features many encounters with traffic, I frequently have to stop and restart my watch at crosswalks. With my Garmin, it is as easy as pushing a physical button on the side of the watch. I don’t have to take my eyes off my surroundings. I can simply do it by feel. With the Apple Watch, I have to force touch on the screen, then choose between ending the run or pausing. That’s too many steps, and too much looking at the screen.

Native Workout App

The component missing from the Watch that I truly need as a runner is GPS. When I go out for a run, especially a long one, I try to minimize the items that I take with me. I usually bring my key, water bottle, and my watch. With the Apple Watch, if I want to track where I run, I have to bring my iPhone. I haven’t carried any kind of music player or phone on a run in over 4 years. This sudden change in running habit didn’t sit well with me.

Garmin vs Apple Watch

It is possible to use the Workout App on the Apple Watch without your phone. However, the results are wildly inconsistent. During my first test run, it was myself, the Watch, and a water bottle. I ran to a mile marker on the Atlanata Beltline that I have completed many times in the past. After completing the 1.5 miles, I looked at the watch to find it .4 miles off the expected distance. On the way back home, it was .35 miles off.

The following day, I ran the same route without my iPhone and water bottle. The results were definitely better. The distance was only .04 miles off. Without an iPhone, it appears that the Watch measures distance using arm locomotion. Carrying a water bottle definitely seems throw off that measurement and movement. Based on those test runs with the native app, my Garmin was still the best bet.

Third Party Apps

There are several running apps available for the iPhone that currently have Watch apps. I took a couple of them out for some short mileage to see how they compare to the native Apple Workout app.

Not every running app has a watch app. And the apps that have Watch apps don’t always have a Glance. Those apps that make their way to the Watch need the iPhone to work (until WatchOS2 hits).

In the past, I have used the Strava iOS app and website for tracking my runs and bike rides. I could either use their app directly, or I could have my Garmin sync the data to the Strava site. I was happy to see that they had extended their app to the Watch. The biggest drawback is that I had to carry my phone with me for the app to work.

Strava Watch App

Switching back and forth between running and biking requires a force touch much like the native Workout app. The response time for this interaction to begin is a bit sluggish. Hopefully this will change in newer versions. Starting a run is a simple touch of the screen. So simple that I accidentally started a run before I was ready to go. The layout of the information was very similar to the simple LCD screen I am accustomed to on my Garmin. Pausing the run requires a Force Touch, similar to the Workout app. However, in Strava, it doesn’t have an extra screen that requires me to tap to pause.

As with Strava, the Runkeeper app requires the iPhone for the Watch app to function. The UI is very simple, and I found it an easy experience to use. It’s UI for the actual running was the simplest of the apps I tried. It was also the closest to the visual and functional layout of my Garmin Watch. Unlike the Force Touch method used by other apps, a user could simply tap pause on the screen to stop the app. When you want to restart your run, you simply tap the screen again to resume.

Runkeeper Watch App

Nike+ Running
The Nike+ Running app feels and looks like a blend of the native Workout app and the Strava app. It was the most feature rich app that I tested. It brings a lot of the functionality from the existing iPhone app to the Watch. Running, Leader Boards, Social Activity, and more can be found here. Apple suggests that activity on the watch should only take seconds to browse. On the watch, the main focus should be on the activity of running, while leaving the other features to be viewed on the phone.

Unlike the other apps, the Nike+ Running app has a paginated menu in the app allows me to start run, view leaderboard, or check out my previous activities. Starting a run is a very simple tap of the run button. The interface is big and bold, and easy to see even on the 39mm version. For the moment, the Force Touch is the only way to pause or end a run, just like the Native app. This is certainly not the best user experience while running. I am hoping more apps go the way of Runkeeper or Strava to pause a run.

Nike Running+ App

Staying on Course
I ran into a couple issues while using the third party apps. When running with the Workout App, the app view would stay persistent throughout the entire run. However, when using a third party app, after a few minutes, the screen returns to the clock face instead of the app you were using. It was very cumbersome to get back to your app. First, you had to touch the digital crown, then try to find the tiny icon of the app you wanted. All of this while running at the same time.

Walk, Don’t Run

I think there is a lot of promise with the Apple Watch. Hopefully, the next generation Watch will include some of the missing components to make it a fully stacked running necessity. Recently at WWDC 15, Apple previewed WatchOS 2, a new SDK that will allow apps to actually run on the watch. This should make response times faster, and increase functionality within the app.

Strava is already planning to use the heart rate sensor to gather and display data during workouts. I can see other apps taking advantage of the Taptic Engine to create custom alerts for users. Also, developers will have access to the Digital Crown. Using this input method, a user might be able to choose from a set of workout types, or set time limits. I wonder if I will be able to pause a workout or run using the Digital Crown. And hopefully, gaining access to the accelerometer will increase accuracy for those choosing to run without their phone.

Until the Apple Watch picks up the pace, I’ll be sticking with my Garmin. Also, Siri, make me faster.