One of the first images tech geeks saw at Apple’s WWDC presentation this week was a swimmer decked out in a cap and an Apple Watch, a bold announcement that the Watch was moving from “splash-resistant” in its first iteration to fully water-resistant in its second, dubbed “Series 2” by the company.
A few minutes later, they announced the Nike+ edition, advancing a long-time partnership with arguably the world’s largest running company. Athletes and hobbyists now have access to an Apple Watch that’s safe to take running or biking in the rain, that will track your strokes in the pool, and that finally has a built-in GPS to track your distances accurately. But how does it stack up against the current kings of the wearable fitness-tracker market, Fitbit and Garmin?
Let’s start with my wearable of choice, and the one I’m most familiar with: Garmin. I’ve worn Garmin sport watches almost since I began running; at first only during my runs, but since I switched to the Fenix HR I wear mine almost all the time.
Like the Apple Watch, the Fenix HR (and the Fenix 3, which is almost identical without the built-in heart rate monitor) communicates with your iPhone to show you alerts and notifications. Unlike the Apple Watch it does not allow you to respond directly from your wrist; for that you have to actually touch your phone. However, the Fenix (and other Garmin devices) appear to offer many features Apple has omitted.
Presenting at WWDC, Trevor Edwards from Nike explained, “We know runners – and we know many are looking for a device that gives them an easy, fun way to start running. The market is full of complex, hard-to-read devices that focus on your data. This focuses on your life. It’s a powerful device with a simple solution – your perfect running partner.”
What this means, roughly, is that the Apple Watch doesn’t show you much about your run–just your distance and pace, and apparently a map of your run after you’ve finished, much the way the Nike+ app has always done. Also, the Watch will prompt you to run with messages like “ARE WE RUNNING TODAY?” that you may find cute or naggy, depending on your perspective–my Fenix buzzes when I sit for too long, which is helpful some days and annoying on others.
This might make for a fun, friendly device for new or casual runners, but I couldn’t disagree with Mr. Edwards more about what runners want. Just for example, I have no less than five different data screens that I use during a run, which I show me different stats depending on what kind of run I’m doing. Distance, time, and pace are plenty for a training run, but for a race I want my average pace along with my current-mile pace, and for a track workout I need to see my lap pace AND my current pace; if I’m running Yasso 800s, I want to see my lap pace, current lap time, and previous lap time. Garmin can do all of these things, as well as guide you through an interval workout. Apple, not so much. And this says nothing of my custom screens for bicycling, hiking, and other activities.
It’s worth pointing out here that the Fenix HR is a top-of-the-line model from Garmin, but almost any Garmin GPS watch can do the things listed above; the Fenix includes some other features, like golf shot measurement and score keeping and navigation, that I won’t fault Apple for excluding. My guess, however, is that many people who buy an Apple Watch to get them into running are going to find themselves eyeing a Garmin (or similar full-featured GPS watch) before long.
So what about Fitbit? I admit I’m somewhat less familiar with their current offerings, but this may be the market Apple is really targeting with the Watch Series 2. Fitbit is the current king of the wearables market, and unlike Garmin their products tend to aim more for simple and friendly than robust and detailed. Fitbit has recently introduced the Surge and Blaze, which integrate GPS and HR monitors and (in the case of the Blaze) smart watch features; however it’s clear even from aesthetics that this is an attempt to emulate Apple, not to stay ahead of them. Fitbit’s key market remains their simple wearables, which lack many of the Apple Watch’s more appealing features, but come with a significantly lower price tag.
The verdict, in my opinion? Fitbit might be in trouble. If you’re a current Fitbit user who has a hankering for that shiny new Apple Watch, I don’t see many reasons (other than price, and perhaps battery life) that you’d resist.
On the other hand, if you’re an athlete with a particular interest in your data–and let’s face it, that’s most of us–I think you’ll still be much happier with a Garmin, or a similarly full-featured GPS sports watch. iPhones (and other smartphones) have certainly cut hard into Garmin’s navigation business, but I don’t think Apple is ready yet to take them on for the fitness market.