TomTom Spark Cardio+Music Review

TL;DR

The TomTom Spark Cardio+Music is one of the few GPS watches with both optical HR and Bluetooth music streaming (as of fall 2015). It’s very easy to use but has limited customization. The GPS accuracy is very good and the HR accuracy is ok. It’s hampered by some usability flaws, especially during a workout. It’s suited to an athlete who wants something easy to use and wants both built-in HR and music and doesn’t care too much about tweaking and configurability. The mobile app and website have limited functionality, but this can be mitigated with the Strava or MapMyRun integration. It’s important to match it with BT headphones that are on TomT1-_DSC8415om’s compatibility list. The price is extremely competitive at $249 USD/$299 CAD.

Its main competitors are:

  • Adidas Smartrun (HR+music)
  • Sony Smartwatch 3 Timex Ironman One GPS+(Music, no HR)
  • Garmin FR225 and FR235, Fitbit Surge, and Casio 810 (HR, no music)

Intro

The smartphone has combined a telephone computer, digital music player, camera and GPS navigation into a single device. We are starting to see a similar convergence trend with GPS fitness watches. The new TomTom Spark combines a GPS fitness watch with an activity and sleep tracker, with options for a digital music player and optical heart rate sensor. The version I’m reviewing is the fully featured version with all of the above mentioned options, named the Spark Cardio+Music.

Despite the fact that most of the current GPS watches have bluetooth radios for phone syncing, very few of them support BT music streaming. At the time of this writing, the only other GPS watches that support this are the Sony Smartwatch 3, Adidas SmartRun, Timex Ironman One GPS+ and MotoActv. None of the watches from the big players (Garmin, Polar, Suunto) have this feature.

Somewhat more common is an integrated optical heart rate sensor on the back of the watch. Optical HR uses a camera and LED lights to image the blood moving under the skin to determine heart rate. The main advantage is these can be wrist or arm mounted and are more comfortable than chest strap HR monitors. I’ve been using a Mio Velo alongside my Garmin FR620 and have given up the chest strap entirely. The convenience and comfort of wrist-based HR is good enough for me to give up the running dynamics features provided by the Garmin HRM-Run chest strap.

Having these two features built into the watch would allow me to ditch the iPod and second wrist strap for HR, in addition to getting rid of the headphone cable. Despite being a long-time Garmin user with three Garmin watches over the last ten years, I was eager to try out the TomTom Spark. Garmin had announced their fall 2015 watches and none of them combined both optical HR and BT music playback.

I won’t list too much on the specs, as that can be found elsewhere on the internet. I will be focusing on GPS and HR accuracy, design and usability.

General Design

The overall design is similar to TomTom’s previous watches. The electronics live in a discrete module that snaps into the wristband. The most unique physical design feature is the GPS electronics are positioned below the watch face and wrap around, following the contour of the wrist. This better positions the GPS antenna to face the sky,1-_DSC8435 when your arms are swinging during the running gait. The lower section also houses the primary controls, a 4-way button similar to a gamepad D-pad. There are no buttons on the side, unlike most other watches. There is no touchscreen per se, except for a feature where you can trigger the backlight or advance the lap by covering the entire screen with your palm for a few seconds. Overall, the Spark is smaller than the previous TomTom Runner watch. Most of the size difference is in the slimmed down band, and not the electronics module itself. I tested the large band version and it fits my smallish male wrist fairly well. There is also a small size band available and both sizes come in a variety of colours. The electronics module is common and will fit interchangeably into either size band.

The display itself is a bright, reflective LCD. It is very readable in sunlight, even though it has that annoying reverse field of white text on a black background. Given the nature of LCD screens, I think it would be much more readable with black text on white background. There is no option to change this.

The menus are fairly intuitive to navigate, especially with the 4-way controller. However, I keep pushing down on the middle section where the GPS antenna bulges out. I intuitively feel there should be a middle “select” button, as with most other 4-way control setups. There is a slight tactile feedback when the buttons are pressed, but nowhere near a solid, tactile click, that I expect from physical controls.

Heart Rate4-_DSC8442

The optical HR turns on automatically during applicable workout modes – running, cycling, etc. It records with the workout and there’s no messing around with settings. There’s really not much more to say – it works well from a usability perspective. As for accuracy, see below…

Music

Once set up, the music plays through a paired bluetooth wireless headset. Sound quality seems decent, although I’m no audiophile. I question the need for high fidelity in a workout situation anyway, especially in a noisy street environment. The watch itself does not carry most of the playback controls you’ll need. Volume and track changes are via the headphone controls. It’s possible to change the playlist from the watch, but only when the workout is paused or stopped.

The setup is more trouble than it should be. You need to put the headphones into pairing mode, each time you use it. Most other BT devices, after power up, will automatically connect with previously paired devices. Not this thing. Further, you have to remember to pair the headset before you start your workout, as there is no way of doing this without stopping and saving the workout, thereby resetting your stats.

That leads me to one of the major usability gripes. Once you’re in a workout, forget about accessing the options or pairing the headphones. You have limited access to options when the watch is paused, but nothing while your workout is in progress. This is incredibly annoying when in mid-run, if you need to tweak the backlight settings or reconnect the headphones. You need to stop the workout and start from scratch.

Interestingly, not all headphones are fully compatible, due to the various BT implementations out there. One major constraint is that if the BT receiver on the headphones is on the opposite side that you would normally wear the watch, there can be interference or connection problems. TomTom has a list on their website of compatible headphones and which wrist the watch should be worn on, for each model. While I appreciate that BT implementations can be different, the watch should be designed so it can work on either arm with all headphones. I, for one, want to wear watches on my left arm. On the right, it just feels really weird.

Usability

The workout functions are easy to use. Pick your activity and wait for the go signal. For outdoor runs and cycling, it means you need a GPS signal lock. It’s somewhat annoying not be able to start without a lock, but in my testing in downtown Toronto, it’s taken only a few seconds to get a position lock.

Once in the workout, it’s pretty straightforward to use. Scroll up-down for the different metrics and right for cardio training info. Scroll left to pause and save. The screens themselves are very legible, with the primary metric in giant font and two secondary metrics in smaller type. You can customize the secondary metrics, but once selected, they are the same on each screen. You can’t change the order or skip the pri2-_DSC8421mary metrics. The label on the primary metric is quite small, so it can be hard to tell which metric you’re looking at. There is a label for the secondary metric, but it only appears briefly when you change screens. You can’t set auto-scroll of screens.

By its nature, sports where you are moving through your environment, limit the amount of attention you have for fiddling around with gadgets. You need the essential info presented in the right way. Superfluous information just gets in the way. For instance, I want heart rate, but I could care less about HR zone, to the nearest decimal place. The unit scrolls through metrics I’ve set on the secondary fields, which results in redundant info on the screen. If you’re used to fully customizing your screens, you will find this watch a bit frustrating. It’s also a waste to have the same secondary fields on every screen. On the Garmin units, I can fully customize 9-12 fields on 3 screens, which I can scroll through with 2 button presses. On the TomTom, I would need 6-9 presses to see the same thing. What is annoying is that it turns out TomTom users have been asking for this feature for years and the company hasn’t addressed it. Yet, it’s strictly a software fix and not limited by any hardware.

It’s also missing a few features I expect from a running watch in 2015. Among these, auto start-stop, run-walk timers and audible alarms (although it does have vibrations and will play some audio cues via the BT headphones). These are often asked features and hopefully, the development team can deliver some of these via firmware updates in the coming months.

ConnectivityTTMySports

The watch can upload workouts via USB or through the smartphone app by way of bluetooth. The app and website has fairly basic functionality, compared to Garmin. It does have integration with third parties, such as Strava and MapMyRun, which mitigates this concern, in my eyes.

 

Sensor Testing

Whereas the previous TomTom watch used the well-proven Mio optical HR sensor, the Spark uses a new sensor made by LifeQ. The first question most people ask – is this as accurate as a chest-strap EKG style sensor, or the Mio based systems? Also, as my first non-Garmin watch, I was interested in the GPS accuracy as well. So, I did some testing.

I ran three workouts3-_DSC8432 with the Spark and a combination of Garmin FR620, FR220, FR405cx, paired with the Garmin HRM-Run chest strap and Mio Velo optical HR wrist strap. I wanted to compare the Spark against proven chest strap and wrist optical sensors.

I live in downtown Toronto, which has a high number of tall buildings, which makes life difficult for GPS receivers. Aside from blocking satellites entirely, the GPS signals bounce around, making spurious signals commonplace. Getting a position lock can sometimes take minutes with an older GPS watch. In theory, the TomTom should have an advantage, because it supports both GPS and Glonass, the Russian GPS-equivalent. Having another constellation of satellites to lock onto should be a huge advantage in obscured conditions.

Test 1

I planned this 6k route with a variety of GPS conditions, from clear skies along King, Front and Dundas Streets, and tall buildings along Wellington St and University Ave. I ran a few mild intervals to try and get some heart rate variability. That was bit problematic, as I ran the NYC marathon a few days prior.

Test1

 

One thing with running in the city – the maps give a good indication of where the GPS track is supposed to be – along the street itself. The TomTom track (red) was very good, with the exception of a wild swing along Wellington. The Garmin tracks (blue, green) did worse overall, but a bit better on Wellington. Interestingly, both took a similar wide swing reading at the corner of University and Wellington, at the lower left section of the route.

For heart rate, the HRM-Run and Mio agreed almost perfectly (blue, green), practically overlapping on the chart. The TomTom (red) agreed for the most part, with an exception of some high readings in the first 10 min. It was at this point, I stopped and switched arms between the Mio and TomTom. I continued with the run with the TomTom on my left wrist, and the track looks very consistent with the other monitors from that point.

Test 2

This was Sunday group run of just over 13k. The route started in the downtown core, with tall buildings along Bay St. It then went into a valley with mid-density foliage along Rosedale Valley Road. The rest of the route had open skies. As this was a long run, I was pretty much running a consistent pace and effort throughout, with a few fartlek intervals to position myself for some good pictures of the group running by.

Test 2

The Spark had a very solid track along Bay St (red), with the FR620 (blue) getting some backtracked readings along the way (as a result, the total distance read about 1.5 km long). I also had a FR405cx, but it did not get a position fix until after Bay St (green). Once it did get a fix in clear skies, the GPS track was similar to the other watches, which is to say – perfectly good. None of the watches had trouble in the valley, foliage or open-sky sections.

The HR chart is less consistent. The TomTom seemed to be generally aligned with the HRM-Run, but there are many inconsistencies and abnormal readings along the way. The Mio (paired with the 405cx) generally matched the HRM-Run.

Test 3

This was an 8k group run at night, in moderate rain. Tall buildings along Wellington and College Streets, with open skies elsewhere. The pace was even for the first half, followed by some hard efforts to catch other runners ahead.

Test3

Same GPS story here – the Spark (red) was pretty decent and the Garmins (blue, green) had some trouble in the buildings. It didn’t look like that rain affects the GPS positioning at all.

The HR readings were very consistent between all three monitors. Interestingly, it was the HRM-Run chest strap (blue) that dropped the reading a few times.

General Testing Comments

Older GPS watches can take several minutes to get a position lock in the downtown core. Sometimes, it required actually moving into clear sky conditions to get a position fix (as was seen with the 405cx in test 2). Newer watches with satellite position precaching, tend to do much better. My FR620 can consistently get a fix within 10 seconds downtown. The Spark beat the FR620 on position lock on all three tests, taking only a few seconds to get a fix. It looks like the combine of satellite precaching and Glonass really does improve things.

HR accuracy with the LifeQ sensor is generally accurate, but there are times where the charts show it is inconsistent. It may be more sensitive to arm position than the Mio, which for me at least, tends to work anywhere, all the time. During the testing, I left each watch on the HR display and various spot checks had all the watches within 1-2 bpm. This probably requires further testing to reach more definitive conclusions. At this point, I would be comfortable with the readings for general analysis and gauging effort. For hill reps and speed work, I want to do more testing first.

Conclusions

The TomTom Spark is a well-designed GPS watch that’s generally easy to use. Its key differentiating feature is the combination of music and optical HR. The GPS is very good and the optical HR is ok. The hardware is solid; it’s hampered by some usability issues that could be fixed via firmware upgrades.

Good for athletes who:

  • Want to stop carrying around their iPod and want to stop messing around with wires.
  • Want HR data, but not wear a chest strap.
  • Prefer a watch that is simple to use and does not need customization.
  • Are ok with the basic info on TomTom’s website, or use Strava or MapMyRun.

Move on if you:

  • Need super-accurate HR readings.
  • Are a data geek and need to see everything on-screen and want full customization.
  • Invested in another manufacturer’s ecosystem (e.g. Garmin Connect) and don’t want to move to Strava or MapMyRun.

This review was written based on purchased retail unit. No consideration was given by TomTom or any other company.

 

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