Review: Forerunner 935, a sports watch that packs a lot of punch into a slim body

Garmin Forerunner 935

Garmin Forerunner 935
8.5

Design

9/10

    Ease of use

    8/10

      Use of information

      9/10

        Motivation

        9/10

          Pros

          • Lightweight, slim, attractive design
          • Advanced performance metrics
          • Great battery life
          • Multi-sport support

          Cons

          • Price on the high side
          • No touch-screen
          • Extra running metrics require running pod

          Garmin is back again with the Forerunner 935, a fully featured running and triathlon GPS sports watch. The company’s latest multisport wearable is its most exciting for a while, a device crammed with performance monitoring tools and a host of sensors.

          Essential reading: Top GPS watches for running and training 

          The Forerunner 935 is a marriage of style and functionality. A slightly beefed up version of the 735, it offers a smaller form-factor than the Fenix 5 series while not compromising on features.

          I’ve been taking the tracking powerhouse through its paces for a while now. Is the Forerunner 935 really worth its hefty price-tag? Read on to find out.

          Design
          Activity tracking and Garmin Connect
          Sports and performance tracking
          Overview

          View technical specs


          Design

          Aimed at triathletes or for that matter anyone with a running addiction, the Forerunner 935 is essentially a Fenix 5 in a more compact plastic casing. In fact, it has the exact same user interface and functionality but because of the material it comes in at a slightly cheaper price.

          Measuring just 13.9mm thick and coming in at 49 grams, the watch is incredibly comfortable to wear 24/7. After a day or two, you will forget its sitting on your wrist. With 50 metre water resistance I showered with it without giving it a second thought.

          This is a wearable that can easily replace your standard watch to become your every-day companion. Its undeniably sporty looking, but the 935 would not be out of place in a formal setting such as an office or an evening out. While not as sleek as the Fenix 5, Garmin has definitely raised the stakes in the looks department. Gone are the days of chunky sports watches for fitness geeks.

          The base unit is black and sports a linear edging and 1.2-inch, 240 x 240 pixel 64 colour display. The customizable watch face is a nice size which makes the numbers large, something you appreciate if your eyesights is not a good as it once was… It’s also easy to read in the sunlight, thanks to the watch’s transflective display.

          The 935 does not have a touch-screen so you will need to adjust to using the five metallic buttons on the sides. On the left you’ll find a button that switches on the back-light, along with an up and down button to scroll through the menus. On the right you’ll find a start/stop button and a back button. The watch I normally wear is a touch-screen so it came as a surprise that it didn’t take too long to adjust to the button style navigation.

          There’s also the addition of QuickFit silicone bands meaning you can swap out straps to suit your style. By default, it comes with a black one or a yellow one but there is a range to choose from.

          The best features are, however, under the hood. Quite a bit of stuff has been crammed into such a small space!

          You’ll find the usual Elevate wrist-based heart rate, barometric altimeter, compass, gyroscope, accelerometer, and thermometer. Crucially, the optical heart rate sensor doesn’t protrude as much from the back as it does with some other Garmin watches. In terms of connectivity, the 935 has built-in GPS and GLONASS coverage, Bluetooth, ANT+ and unlike its predecessors even WiFi. There is also an optional Running Dynamics Pod. Sold separately, it will provide you with additional performance metrics.

          Around the back is where the charging pins sit, right next to the optical heart rate sensor. The device really shines in the battery department. With GPS switched on it will keep going up to 24 hours or 60 hours in UltraTrac battery saver mode. If you’re just using it just as a standard activity tracker, it can go an impressive to two weeks without charging. I would typically use it for a week, and then just plug it in for an hour or so to top-up.


          Activity tracking and Garmin Connect

          In the box, you get the Forerunner 935, a proprietary USB charging cable and some reading material. Unlike other Bluetooth devices that are paired from the settings on your smartphone, your device must be paired directly through the Garmin Connect Mobile app.

          You will be walked through the setup wizard. If you already have a Garmin Connect account the app will download your profile to the device, if not you will need to register for an account by answering a series of questions. Alternatively, you can choose to set up the device on your computer using the Garmin Express application.

          Once the setup process is out of the way, you are ready to either fully charge the watch, or strap it to your wrist and start tracking your daily activities. All in all, the setup is a fairly seemless process.

          While the watch is intended for serious sports enthusiasts, Garmin has not held back on standard 24/7 activity tracking features. During the day, the 935 automatically tracks the standard gamut of activities including steps, distance, calories, floors and intensity minutes. This means no buttons to push, just strap it on and it will quietly go about collecting activity data.

          At night, it will keep tabs on total sleep time, deep sleep, light sleep, movement and awake time. While the info is fairly basic, it is enough to give you an idea of your sleep trends.

          The device will also monitor your ticker every few seconds, and it will do so around the clock. You’ll get info on your resting heart rate in the morning, perhaps the best indicator of a person’s overall health and fitness.

          Garmin has recently moved on to version 2.0 of its Elevate heart rate technology. Although the quality of information has improved, this very much depends on how snug the device fits around your wrist. All in all, I found the heart rate data to be surprisingly accurate. Once you get into higher intensity activities, such as for example indoor rowing or interval training, you’ll find that the quality may deteriorate slightly at peak effort.

          Essential reading: Best heart rate training chest straps

          Nevertheless, the accuracy of heart rate data would probably suffice for the vast majority of users. It is only those that are very serious about heart rate zone training who may opt to suppliment the device with an external heart rate monitor for certain activities.

          Most of the stats are visible right there on your wrist. Swiping down or up on the display lets you cycle through the various screens or widgets as Garmin likes to call them. By default, these include daily steps, heart rate, intensity minutes, training status, the weather and notifications. Clicking on any one of these will take you into further menus and additional, more detailed screens. All this is, of course, customisable from the watch settings.

          You can also view altimeter, barometer and compass data. The built-in altimeter provides real-time elevation information, while the barometer can predict weather changes by showing short-term trends in air pressure. The compass ensures you never get lost. If you are not happy with these, there are hundreds of other widgets and watch faces you can add from Garmin’s Connect IQ store.

          Furthermore, just like any self-respecting smartwatch, the 935 will display notifications from smartphones. This includes incoming texts, emails, calendar reminders and social media alerts and more. To read them in full, in most cases you will need to head over to your smartphone. I’ve also used the Forerunner to answer my phone while it was sitting tucked away in my backpack.

          The watch doesn’t have storage for onboard music, so if you enjoy tunes while you exercise you’ll still need to bring your phone along with you. You can control the music from your watch though. Other functions worth mentioning include a find my phone feature, a calendar screen and the ability to save your current location.

          The last one is useful, for example if you park your car somewhere. Save the location and get directons from the watch when its time to find it. You can also upload routes and there’s is even an option to download maps.

          Garmin has been developing its fitness app and Garmin Connect website for a while now and those that like delving into lots of statistics will feel right at home. The software is the same across all its devices. While not always easy to find,  look hard enough and you will probably find the piece of information you are looking for – whether its in the app, on the website or on the watch itself.

          There is also a social aspect, and you can join various online groups via the smartphone app or Garmin Connect website to compete in different sports or challenges. Or you can choose to create your own group to promote some healthy competition amongst friends and family.

          Finally, the app will also provide you with virtual rewards to celebrate milestones. More recently Garmin has introduced ‘Insights’, which provide interesting bits of information on trends related to your activity. All in all, a comprehensive set of features if you need that extra kick to motivate you.


          Sports and performance tracking

          But this is a watch intended for serious sports enthusiasts and the 935 is designed to track virtually everything under the sun. You can rely on auto-recognition for running, swimming and cycling or opt to transition between sports by pressing a button. Additional built-in activities include hiking, trail running, skiing, paddle sports, golf and more. The device is also compatible with the full line of Varia cycling awareness accessories for the cycling buff.

          As mentioned, The Forerunner 935 is both GPS and GLONASS enabled. You do need to wait, however, for the watch to get a satellite fix before embarking on your activity. Much of the time, it took a little longer than I expected which surprised me since I live in central London. But ultimately, after 2-3 minutes it would connect each time. Its worth the wait because the GPS on the watch is highly accurate.

          Once synced with Garmin Connect, you can review your full day of activity. There is no way to add workouts retrospectively through the app, so make sure you use the device as much as possible.

          The watch offers a huge amount of features for runners. To start a workout choose run, wait for the watch to pick up on the GPS signal and away you go. You can cycle through the various screens during your run by pressing the up and down button. Everything is logically laid out and clearly visible. But all this is also endlessly customisable.

          I found the heart rate zone screen particularly useful as it splits the watch face into clearly laid out training zones. A dial on the watch shows where you are currently, while your heart rate is displayed in large writing in the middle of the screen.

          After your run, you’ll get a summary of your performance. You’ll also be told if you set any personal bests, and if you managed to bump up your VO2. Rather usefully, while you are running the watch will also display your real-time performance condition. A new metric, it tells you whether you are in a position to set a new personal best, or if you are not feeling great on the day.

          And this is where the watch stands out most – in its detailed analysis of performance thanks to Firstbeat technology. For example, the Forerunner 935 aggregates past training results and then uses that data to evaluate the amount of effort you’ve used in your fitness sessions, i.e. if you are slacking off or overdoing it. It does this through two new additional metrics, Training Load and Training Status. While it can take a few weeks for Firstbeat data to fully kick in, its definitely worth the wait.

          Training load looks at your exercise activity over the last seven days and compares it to the optimal range for your level of fitness and recent training history. Training status does the same thing with a more short-term view, and lets you know if you’re training productively, peaking or overreaching. Additionally, the training effect metric tracks and reviews the aerobic and anaerobic benefit of a training session.

          A short while after I started using the watch, feelings of guilt would start to creep in if my Training Status was only in the ‘maintaining’ stage, or if my Training Load dropped below the optimal level. Rather than meaningless data, the watch provides you with actionable information.

          There is also a Recovery Advisor. Essentially a count-down clock that taps into the above metrics to let you know how long you should wait before engaging in your next run, swim or cycle. And you’ll find race predictor’ times for 5K, 10K, half and marathon. This is based on your VO2 max and performance data. In my experience, I found that Garmin was a bit generous when estimating my potential marathon running time. But who knows, I might be wrong…

          For a more detailed explanation of all these metrics, head over to the Firstbeat website.

          Forerunner 935 also carries over performance metrics from previous generation devices. So you’ll find FTP, VO2 max, cadence, stride length, ground contact time and balance, vertical oscillation, vertical ratio and more. Some of these are only available when the watch is paired with Garmin’s new Running Dynamics Pod, which clips right onto your waistband.

          For swimming I only tested the watch in pool mode. There is an open-swim option as well which uses GPS to track distance. The pool version relies on you defining the size of the pool length, and then taps into accelerometer readings to measure your distance.

          In terms of swim-specific metrics, you get everything you would expect including stroke count, pace, distance, SWOLF and personal bests. There is no heart rate data as the wrist-based optical sensor technology is still not up to the task. Of course, you could always opt for Garmin’s HRM swim strap for heart rate data.

          All these great features also extend to cycling. For your rides, you can choose between bike, bike indoor and mountain bike. The device will track a variety of metrics such as power zones, time differences between seated and standing positions, FTP (Functional Threshold Power) and more. Attaching it to a power meter will make a difference to those interested in their pedal power.


          Overview

          Summary

          With this watch Garmin has got so many things right, its difficult to write this review and not come across as if I’m looking for a job in their marketing department. I am not. And yes, it really is that good!

          The Forerunner 935 is essentially a cheaper version of the Fenix 5, that comes in a slimmer plastic body and with silicone straps. You’ll find everything you could ever hope for in terms of connectivity, training features and performance metrics.

          With its long battery life and comfortable design, the Forerunner 935 also makes an excellent everyday activity tracker. However most people who decide to buy it, will primarily be concerned with its advanced performance metrics rather than just its step or calorie count.

          Garmin Forerunner 935
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          On the negative side, the device undeniably carries a fairly hefty price tag. But it can’t be cheap to make something this advanced. And its not likely to be replaced with anything much better anytime soon.

          While it may be a bit of overkill for someone interested only fitness tracker type data, for dedicated or budding athletes, the 935 might be the best sports watch on the market right now. If, however, looks are important and a bit of extra weight and size does not bother you, throw in an additional $100 and opt for the Fenix 5 instead.

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