A lot has been made of the Sony Smartwatch 3’s standalone GPS sensor. For runners/tech nerds like me, it was enough to pull the trigger and attempt to replace my Garmin Forerunner. I found a lot of reviews online lacking in content on this feature, probably because most were written by non-runners before the latest app updates.

Is this a viable replacement for your running GPS watch? Probably!

Hardware

Most smartwatch reviews focus on fashion-y stuff, like how the look of this watch compares to the other smart watches. I admit, the Asus Zenwatch and Moto 360 are pretty as pie, but think about running with a fashion oriented watch...

From a runner’s standpoint, Sony hit it out of the park. The other Android Wear watches would fail miserably for a runner’s set of requirements.

The Great GPS Dropout Issue and How to Beat It (Added 8/24/2015)

A major design flaw has been uncovered in certain Smartwatch 3 units in the months after release. Certain units suffer from a moisture based GPS loss (you know, like sweat).

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Mine, unfortunately was affected and I’ve taken steps to beat it. Simply creating a barrier between your sweat and the watch is enough to address the issue. I can attest that a simple sweatband works perfectly. No getting around it, the need for this workaround sucks, but at least it’s repeatable and able to be addressed without returning a device that works well otherwise.

Since implementing the sweatband for my runs, I’ve had zero dropout issues, despite taking it on serious, long runs (~17 miles) in the humid DC heat. (photo credit: Per-Ø Pettersen on the Ghostracer Beta plus page)


Running-With-Watch Dealbreakers (that are avoided by the Sony Smartwatch 3)

  1. Leather band? Nope!
  2. Metal band? Nope! (Update 1/5/2015: Unless you want one.)
  3. Crappy battery? Nope! (comparatively)
  4. Too big/bulky? Nope!

This is pretty. But I would not run with it...

The Best Running App (so far)

Ghostracer

Ghostracer is a bike and run route tracking app that now supports offline GPS from the SmartWatch 3. It offers the ability to run or bike ‘against yourself’ like something out of Gran Turismo. While that is neat, I will focus on the basics of the functionality and how well it does things that the apps mentioned above do not.

Features:

  • Offline GPS support that defaults to your watch’s GPS signal. RunKeeper will default your phone if not in offline mode.
  • GPS strength indication prior to start!
  • Post activity sync back to phone/internet is more reliable than RunKeeper and the ability to re-send runs that failed for whatever reason.
  • Easy to read, customizable screen data, including average pace, current pace, time, distance, etc in the units you choose.
  • Extensive run import/export support, including Strava, a favorite activity tracking service.

The feature for the watch is currently in beta, so a few small steps are required: 1. Install app, 2. Join beta google plus community, 3. Update app on phone, 4. It will sync to your watch.

The Rest of the Apps

Other running apps that have Android Wear support at the time of writing are:

RunKeeper (Added 12/29/2014, Updated 1/5/2015)

This app recently updated with the ability to use the GPS off the phone tether. I tested it out today and it works really well has some issues to address. The GPS seemed more accurate than My Tracks (below). It displays your preference of pace/speed. The only item I’m not sure about is how/when the GPS is connected and accurate enough to start. I believe the app starts locating your position as soon as you launch it, before you hit the ‘Start’ button, but am not sure (update: sounds like this is not the case). I let it sit for about a minute at that screen before starting and my distance seemed right on. I would appreciate some indication that the GPS data is stable and I’m sure not to have junk data for the first mile or so.

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(update 1/5/2015: After using RunKeeper on my smartwatch for a few days, I’ve found that the activity sync between the watch and the phone app to be finicky at best and broken at worst. The app on the watch itself is great. It keeps great track of pace and distance when in offline mode. When the watch reconnects and attempts to sync the activity, I’ve found it does not always work and sometimes it works halfway and then stops. I can grab the statistics from the watch and manually input into RunKeeper before dismissing. I’ve opened a request with RunKeeper to address this, however, at the time of this writing, it’s a big, big bummer and I feel like I’m back to having no good option for keeping track of my runs. )

iFit (Added 1/5/2015)

Supports offline GPS mode run tracking. Haven’t tested.

My Tracks by Google

The original option for phoneless running with your GPS. Before RunKeeper and Ghostracer, there was only My Tracks. There are three main issues with the app, as it stands now:

  • As with the phone app, I’ve found My Tracks to lack an accurate GPS tracking algorithm. The distance variation between of the Smartwatch 3 to my wife’s Garmin watch on a recent 5 mile run was 0.15 miles; enough to throw pace calculations off a bit. This might be able to be fixed with the setting options in the phone app, however using the default, suggested settings and it seems just a bit liberal when it comes to distance calculation.
  • GPS locking display. The app doesn’t appear to offer any indication on the GPS locking status. While it’s really annoying (more so in the winter) to wait for the GPS to lock on your watch before starting a run, it’s also incredibly important if you want good run data. On a recent run, this lead to 0.2 miles that weren’t tracked at the start of the run. I’m hoping this is just my oversight and I missed this ability to see that the GPS is ready to go.
  • Lack of a proper stats display. My Tracks offers 2 stats: Time and distance. These are the spartan basics that, if absent, it would not be anything. What would be nice, which I hope apps that enter the ring soon include, would be the inclusion of pace, laps, and lap pace calculations. The time/pace also ‘minimize’ constantly while running, but that’s due to Android Wear’s system of notification management. I don’t think any app can remain full screen if the screen is turned off.

The Rest: Strava, Endomodo, Runtastic

These venerable apps have been around a while on the Android and supports Android Wear via remote controls/display, but require your phone to be with you to track GPS. Since the draw of the Sony Smartwatch 3 is the on-board GPS, these apps all fall short.

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That said, for those of you that run with your phone in a sleeve, pack, or pocket, these apps are probably insanely useful. I see you people out there! A lot of people seem to like those sleeve thingies. I have, in the distant past, abandoned an arm sleeve on the side of the road due to the constant removal/replacement of the phone into the sheath and my puny biceps not being sufficient to keep the sleeve from sliding up an down my arm. For the segment of the population with bulkier arms, these apps would probably be great. Plus the watch would be able to control your phone’s music/podcast player. Bonus!

Verdict

You might think that buyers remorse would have set in by now given the laundry list of quibbles in the software section above. I like new and shiny things and Android Wear is something that I really am happy with so far as a watch and notification checking device. While it is not (yet) ideal for running, I doubt that it will stay that way for long.