Garmin Forerunner 235 First Impressions

It used to be that Garmin made the advanced fitness devices to track your workouts, and Fitbit covered the daily steps. But there’s no need to wear two devices anymore as the latest generation of Garmin Forerunner watches bring both together in a really tight package.

I picked up a Garmin Forerunner 235 the other day to replace both a Fitbit Flex and a Garmin Forerunner 620. The Fitbit died recently and while this particular one lasted me over a year, a dead Fitbit will be nothing new to the average Fitbit owner who has most likely had one or more of their devices fail early.

The Forerunner 620 on the other hand was bulletproof and continues to work like it did the day I bought it a couple of years ago. It’ll be handed down to Lindsey who is looking forward to having a GPS watch of her own with an easy to use interface and nice form factor, even for smaller wrists.

Familiar form factor

Speaking of the form factor, the 235 is pretty much the exactly same size and thickness as my older 620 and feels similar on my arm. The screen is a significant upgrade in size over the 620 with a smaller bezel on the newer 235. The screen is still a bit on the dim side indoors – this is not an Apple Watch screen by any stretch – but outdoors in daylight it’s plenty readable. Indoors the backlight seems a bit weak to me, but I’ll trade that for over a week of battery life every time.

Bigger screen in the same size package.

Bigger screen in the same size package.

The touchscreen of the Forerunner 620 is gone on the 235 in favour of up/down nav buttons on the left side. The adjustment from the tapping on the screen of the 620 took me a bit to get used to, but I’m finding the user interface on the 235 to be quite good. The software is instantly familiar to Garmin users and I got very comfortable with it within a few hours.

Long presses of the up button brings up menu options for the screen you are on (for example, changing the clock face). And getting to the main menu is as easy as clicking the activity button on the upper right side, then the down button.

Heart rate on the wrist plus more

Did I mention the Forerunner 235 has an optical heart rate monitor (HRM) built in? Similar to the tech used on the Mio Link and Apple Watch, this uses green LEDs an a small camera sensor on the back side of the watch to read your heart rate without the need for an uncomfortable chest strap. I’ve used a Mio Link wrist strap in the past and found it very accurate and the 235’s HRM is no different showing heart rate throughout the day and on the run. Runners looking to save a bit of money can opt for the Forerunner 230 which is the exact same watch minus the optical HRM.

Also inside the small package are high-fidelity GPS and GLONASS receivers, plus an accelerometer for indoor run tracking and Bluetooth. The watch connects with your smartphone (iOS or Android) to show smart notifications on your wrist, and to auto-upload runs and activity through your phone’s Internet connection. There’s no need to connect via USB to upload to Garmin Connect or Strava anymore…it’s all handled automatically by the watch and your smartphone’s Internet connection.

First run

I took the Forerunner 235 out on 34km run on Sunday morning to see how it worked. GPS lockup took seconds and starting the run was a matter of tapping the activity start button twice. Once running, the Forerunner 235 allows for a few different screens with up to four different data fields each. I opted for time, distance, average pace and heart rate on the first screen, and swapped out average pace for current pace on the second screen. With dozens of data fields available including ones downloadable from Garmin’s Connect IQ store (for free), customization is nearly limitless.

Built-in optical heart rate monitor.

Built-in optical heart rate monitor.

The screen is black digits on a white background during activities and in bright sunshine it’s super readable which is one upside of the LCD technology that Garmin utilizes in their watches (the other being better battery life).

The Forerunner 235 also brings a nifty race finish predictor function. You tell it the distance you are running (including the usual race distances, and a custom setting that lets you set any distance you want), and it constantly updates with an estimate of your finish time. I’m looking forward to using this in my upcoming marathon so I know exactly how I’m doing against my goal and PB times.

Battery life was excellent as it is with all the Garmin watches I’ve owned. Garmin promises 9 days of battery life for activity tracking (with HRM and notifications active) and 11 hours with the GPS enabled when tracking a run. That’s plenty of time for me, and my 3.5 hour run on Sunday with GPS and HRM active throughout left me with an exceptional 75% battery left at the end. Try that with your Apple Watch.

Activity tracking features

I’ve also been wearing the watch for a few days now to track my steps and sleep and it has been excellent in that regard as well. The Fitbit I wore for the last two years was fine, but the Garmin feels like a huge step up. The screen on the watch is easy to access with just a click of the down button. And the metrics graphs and data in the Garmin Connect app and online at the Connect website are really well done.

A few badges have already for meeting various goals and Garmin Connect also includes challenges and a friends leaderboard for those with a competitive streak. While the Fitbit is more popular with the general public meaning I had a good list of friends to compare myself to, the Garmin seems to be aimed more at the serious athlete. That said, I’ve got five runner friends to go up against and that’s fine by me.

The Activity Dashboard in Garmin Connect.

The Activity Dashboard in Garmin Connect.

Wrap up

In short, the Garmin Forerunner 235 is a fantastic watch for the avid runner who is also looking for daily activity and sleep tracking that feel far more advanced than what Fitbit offers. It has the right amount of smartwatch features with notifications and music controls to satisfy those who might have been considering an Apple Watch.

As you’d expect from Garmin, the Forerunner 235 is a GPS watch first, an activity tracker second and a smartwatch third. For the runner, that’s the right order.

Here’s Garmin’s promotional video for the Forerunner 235.

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