Review: Garmin Forerunner 910XT is a great gadget for beginners
At a Glance
There is no lack of tech training tools to help athletes (or aspiring athletes) keep tabs on their activities. A myriad of apps, trackers, and devices are available to record a variety of body metrics, so it can be a challenge to find one that is best suited to your needs. Standing out among the crowd isn't easy for a piece of fitness technology, but Garmin's flagship Forerunner 910XT plants a big flag in the ground and dares anyone to challenge its space. Designed for those who participate in more than one endurance sport, the 910XT includes a dizzying array of features to comprehensively track your swim, bike, or run.
In other words: This is not a watch with an identity crisis. This is a high-performance device intended for hard-core athletes.
While the 910XT is best for people who consider themselves athletes and participate in at least the occasional race, because of the great wealth of data it collects, it may actually be more useful for those with less experience who want to take their training to the next level.
Swim, bike, and run — pick any two. The 910XT laser-targets the multisport athlete, and especially the triathlete. It includes nearly every feature you see in single-sport devices, then blends them together with multisport modes, open water swimming support, and a 20 hour battery life.
Design and features
The Garmin Forerunner 910XT consists of a black rectangular GPS watch with a relatively slim profile (considering all the technology stuffed inside). However, unless you are a super villian armed with a bag of crazy spy gadgets, the odds are you will never wear this as a day-to-day timepiece. Triathletes will appreciate the smooth lines for slipping in and out of wetsuits, and the rectangular screen is well suited for displaying multiple fields of big text.
The face is easy to read in bright sunlight and displays up to four fields of data that are clear and sharp enough to read while racing. If you've ever struggled to read the small text common on many fitness watches, you'll appreciate the extra screen real estate. Likewise, the backlight on the display is bright and even and will automatically light up on laps or when it's time to start your next interval—a nice touch.
The 910XT's display fields can be customized and combined to show the data you find most useful. It's a nice feature, especially once you start pairing external accessories. To define the fields, first pick the sport, then how many fields to show (up to four pages), then select what data to show in each field. It's actually a pretty quick and easy process; much simpler than other comparable devices I've used (namely the Polar RS800CX). Nearly any metric you can think of is available, from standard distance and pacing, to advanced metrics like Total Stress Score, Intensity Factor, and left/right power balance.
Startup is fast, and assuming you've used it recently near your current location the GPS will acquire your position within a 2-3 minute timeframe at most. The 910XT includes four modes (swim, bike, run, and "other") that are selected by holding the Mode button and picking from a popup menu. The GPS seems very accurate, but there are online reports of inaccuracies with the instant pacing feature. I noticed that instant pace struggles when I don't have a clear sky, but is otherwise very accurate (unless I'm under a tree canopy).
While the device includes an optional on-screen map (disabled by default), it's really little more than a breadcrumb. It doesn't show any details, just your path or (if you're using a defined course) where you should go, which means if you need a map, you should probably also bring your phone.
The 910XT supports the industry-standard ANT+ wireless protocol for connecting additional sensors (Garmin, Suunto, and most fitness manufacturers except Polar use ANT+), including foot pods for running indoors, cycling power meters, heart rate straps, cycling speed/cadence sensors, ANT+ scales (yes, they exist), and certain gym equipment (mostly spinning bikes). For the record, these are easily a good way to reduce your disposable income as well as to help with fitness goals.
All functions are accessible directly on the watch (without requiring a computer), but you can perform far deeper analysis by uploading files to Garmin Connect or an independent site like TrainingPeaks. With an ANT+ USB dongle plugged into your computer and the Garmin agent running, it will automatically transfer and upload files anytime the 910XT is in wireless range. You can also use Garmin Connect to define workouts and courses to send to the 910XT, which is faster than defining them on the device.
Workouts and training
Workouts are highly configurable with fully customizable warm ups, intervals, rests, and cool downs with defined times, heart rate, speed/pace objectives, distances objectives, and even cycling power goals. Any workout I could think of, could be programmed into the 910XT
One issue I noticed is that the pace seems to use a lagging average, not an instant pace, which causes the out of range alarm to go off until the average catches up (which can be annoying on short intervals). On the upside, the 910XT does an excellent job of indicating interval changes and uses ascending or descending tones to tell you to speed up or slow down, instead of a straight beep. Workouts are simply a pleasure; once you hit start, the Garmin seamlessly steps you through the different phases, with clear text showing you goals and summaries.
One of the best features for budding athletes is the Virtual Racer. Many devices have a virtual pacer that "runs" a consistent pace for the duration of your activity and displays a screen showing how far ahead or behind you are. The 910XT has that, but also allows you to pick a previous activity (or download someone else's) and race that exact course. Instead of maintaining a steady pace, the little racer adjusts based on how fast you actually ran at that point in time in the race.
Swimming and racing
It is the swim tracking that puts the 910XT in a category all its own. (Literally, no other GPS watch on the market supports this function.) When you select swim mode, you choose the pool length. The motion sensor then tracks your strokes and turns (open or flip) to count laps and measure stroke efficiency. It can even tell the difference between the major swimming strokes, although it seemed unimpressed with my attempts at the butterfly. As did the lifeguard.
I don't swim so much as I narrowly avoid drowning in a forward direction, so the 910XT struggles to accurately count my strokes and turns. What's fascinating is the direct correlation with the quality of my strokes and the accuracy of the tracker and its calculated efficiency score (called SWOLF). Basically, the better a swimmer you are, the more accurate the device.
While motion sensor swim tracking appears in other products like the Finnis Swimsense, the 910XT is the only device to also support open water swims with the GPS. Position isn't completely accurate since GPS signals don't travel through even shallow water, so the Garmin has to acquire position during the short time your arm is out of the water. It's good enough for general tracking, but you'll definitely notice some glitches. The 910XT also supports a multisport mode where you pre-define an order for activities and transitions. In a race you can hit the lap button to automatically switch modes to the next phase of the race.
The combination of ease of use, excellent display, custom workouts, and swim metrics makes the 910XT far more useful for less experienced athletes than I expected. I'll admit to being a bit nervous about dropping well over $400 for a GPS watch (and accessories) but I haven't regretted the purchase.
The workout and Virtual Racer modes are extremely valuable in helping guide you through workouts and making those essential incremental improvements. The swim tracking isn't a replacement for a swim coach, but does help you to focus on good stroke mechanics and how they affect swimming efficiency. This is also one of the easiest training devices I've used, as I never find myself spending any significant time playing with settings and menus. Commands and controls were simply and intuitively laid out.
Some advanced athletes might prefer single-sport devices (especially if they want bike mapping), and if you don't swim you might be better off with a cheaper device that supports bike sensors. But even beginner multisport athletes will have a hard time finding a better technology option than the 910XT.