A Garmin 45S displaying “Heart Rate 255”
Heart Rate, 255. Meaningly characters, on LCD

Garmin, its over between us

If you’ve been physically near me (or much of my social media) in the past two months, you’ve likely heard me moan about my dissatisfaction with my first foray into running/GPS watches. For this — I apologize. Let me assure you, this piece represents the catharsis of this foray. I’m sure we’re all ready to have my monotone complaints that never go anywhere, exchanged for ringing endorsements of product satisfaction.

Ma, I’m getting a running watch!

In early August I made the decision to buy a running watch to improve my running. Specifically, I was enticed by having better GPS tracking (than my phone), heart rate monitoring, and workout customization. I was eager to level up my running from “whatevs, I just love running whatever speed” to “I should at least know what Z3 means to me”. I entered the research phase for a running watch.

I am not a deep researcher, someone that combs reviews for weeks and weeks before making a strategic purchase on sale of the perfect item — my purchase strategy for big-ish items is to read a few reviews online, ask any expert friends I have, and then make a purchase that I’ll have in my hands as quickly as possible (with every effort to support local shops). With a running watch it felt a bit different due to the requirements I had in my head, and my impossibly high standards for any product that is loosely technical. It is of utmost importance to me to me when I’m investing in a company that does software, that they are tech savvy — i.e. their app, web interface, frequency of updates, support process, social media, etc., needs to feel like it's moving quickly and they’re staying on top of things. To this end I had downloaded a variety of the brands’ apps for a pre-review (Suunto, Polar, Garmin) as well as asking my friends what they felt about the app experiences they’ve had with the products.

The reaction overall, was meh — most people said the Garmin app was “the worst”, but it functioned with a bit of elbow grease. The Suunto app was reportedly quite good, but their watches were still behind in hardware. Apple’s device and software worked seamlessly and intuitively, but it's not a purpose built running watch which is what I really wanted. I didn’t go any deeper on any of the other brands as the reviews and formats I discovered just didn’t resonate with me (but I’ve recently caught wind of Coros, which I will be digging in to shortly).

Full disclosure, I had already purchased my first Garmin product earlier in the year — the inReach Mini. Hence, I already had some experience with Garmin’s hardware and software… and to avoid rambling forever, I’d summarize the lingering result of the inReach Mini purchase as rather underwhelmed, leaving me little confidence in their software teams.

After all this, including much polling of my friends, and reading many reviews online, I still settled on Garmin as the company. They seemed to be the clear leader in running watches, and have great longevity and brand recognition. I wanted the simplest, but most modern hardware base they had, with wrist heart rate, ideally focused just on running. I settled on the Garmin 45S, retailing at $279.99 from MEC, and picked one up from the store shortly thereafter.

It is really hard to summarize my experience with the watch(s) over these past 2 months. I started a written log shortly after I acquired the watch cataloging my experience. I’ll do my best to highlight my general thoughts and the two most pronounced issues, and then carry on with my general conclusions.

My experience with the 45S

For the most part, the watch functioned as I would expect. The display was nice, told the time, the GPS accuracy was bang on, the heart rate functionality worked most of the time, and other than some setup issues I could attribute to user error, it never lost a single activity.

The most serious issue I had with the watch was poor resiliency syncing the watch to the app, and pulling the activities from the watch. It worked smoothly about 50% of the time. The rest of the time, I’d have to power cycle either the watch or my phone. Bluetooth would indicate it was connected, yet the app couldn’t see the watch. When the connection was established, run activities would take what I was told was an unreasonably long time to sync, sometimes over 10 minutes depending on the length of my run (while others would have them easily in less than a minute). The final nail in the sync coffin for me was when I ran a 42km run and it was not able to successfully sync between the phone and watch after trying for about 8 hours (it finally did sync after I plugged the watch into my Mac).

The other issue that nagged at me was the “Heart Rate 255” display. This occurred during heart rate training, when I would fall out of the target heart rate zone. This seemed to me like a pretty clear UI bug, or at least an area that could benefit from improved clarity. It had been reported on forums, and was causing confusion and speculation with others. One support interaction I had suggested this issue did not exist in Garmin’s internal support systems. Another indicated the need for me to take a video of the issue and send it in, which I did. The running commentary in my brain for this issue goes something like (disclaimer, I’ve tried to bottle all ranty tone into this blurb, so it might be a little dense and petty, please feel free to skip)…

What does 255 mean? Is my heart rate too high? Too low? Is my heart rate actually 255? No, I know this isn’t the case, this is the max integer you can store with 1 byte, it just seems too likely… are they using only 1 byte to store this? Why can’t they put more meaningful information here? Maybe they can but they’ve got bigger issues to fix? The forum article has existed for months, surely they would have fixed such an obvious UI bug by now, if they had a test for it…? Do they have a UX team? Do they know about this? Am I crazy? Should I understand what this message means? The UX for the app appears pretty modern (dark mode!), but i wonder if someone is designing the exact text for the edge cases on the device? Well wait a sec, they still have a thick client app on the Mac they suggest using to ‘speed things up’ for software updates. That seems kinda weird… why have two ways of doing things? Do they have lots of legacy stuff, ya likely. They don’t feel very agile. Their app has that standard ‘we make regular updates’ blurb that gives the illusion of progress, but also the incredible veil of secrecy and likely incoherency of what their teams are doing if they can’t report on what they are actually changing, and what is improved. But none of this really matters… this product has been out for a while, I must be the anomaly here. Am I using it incorrectly? Am I asking too much from this product? From software? From the world?

And so on. I realize I have very high standards for products. But I also feel an entitled calling to scout out technological icebergs for my friends and family. For example, I would not want my mom looking at this! She deserves better.

During my time with the watch, I exchanged it once (theoretically ruling out a hardware glitch in the watch), and also used 2 seperate phones (iPhone X, iPhone 11 Pro Max) ruling out a hardware glitch on the phone side. I was always on the latest firmware version and app version due to auto-update functionality that was working well on both sides. I tried, I feel I really tried.

Self Doubt, Conclusions

When I’d be running or hanging with running friends, I’d often complain about my experience with the watch. I’d tell them I was having sync issues, or the display was giving me erroneous information. Most people I talked to expressed that my experiences seemed rather extreme, and that while they had minor issues with their Garmins, they worked well for them for the most part.

But after a little probing they would tell me they often had to turn off and then turn on bluetooth for the sync to work. Or force shutdown the app before it would sync. Oh, and the interface on the app was really not to their liking (paraphrased).

I began to feel like, wow, I DO have impossibly high standards! Or… perhaps there is a general complacency out there for these devices? Apathy even? No… people generally were happy and passionate about their love for their watches. So it's probably just me. And I guess if I’ve written this much, I’ve enough self-assuredness to demand more from the products and companies I invest in, regardless if others are completely satisfied. I feel that troubleshooting a device for almost 2 months has led to a critical amount of frustration for me. I really want this to be great, but its not. It's just ok. And knowing their are alternatives, I’m going to try some of them, hoping they are indeed, great.

The watch has been returned again, for a final time. I have ended the email support conversation I was in and let them know I’m going to return the watch, as well as write this review. I’m going to invest in another company, and hope I have a better experience. My standards are going to remain high.

Support Teams Dos and Don’ts

While dealing with Garmin support, while everyone seemed very nice and genuinely did want to help, a few things nagged at me. These are far from specific to Garmin. Because I’ve seen these things so rarely as a consumer or professional I believe they are really hard to get right, but those that do get them right benefit from extreme loyalty and satisfaction amongst their customers. They might be useful for (any) support teams out there to help make me (and hopefully other high horse consumers like me) satisfied.

  • Don’t ask if people have updated to the latest version. Do understand their issue, and Do associate it with a fixed bug or specific area of improvement (platform specific), and only then Do recommend to upgrade to that specific version. Not following this general workflow usually indicates software teams that don’t publicize what they are fixing, because they likely don’t have sufficient testing in place to actually understand their software as a whole, or feel to do so will slow them down too much.
  • Don’t have troubleshooting steps that simply involve restarting devices, turning things on and off. Do have sufficient diagnostics built in that ensures all the common issues can be well understood via settings and capabilities in diagnostic menus. Do learn from support teams and customers what is missing from the menus and Do bake that in to those interfaces to avoid the not-helping-anyone restart to fix debacle.
  • Don’t ignore customers that indicate there is a defect with your product. Do let them know you have access to the product team, and Do forward the issue to the product team and have them address. A product team that doesn’t hear about defects reported by customers cannot function properly and is very unlikely to have a product that is excellent.

Phew, I’m tired! Going for a run!

Sometimes focused, sometimes scattered, my opinions about the world, people, tech, purpose, impact, and nonsense.

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Bob Durie

Bob Durie

Sometimes focused, sometimes scattered, my opinions about the world, people, tech, purpose, impact, and nonsense.

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