As I mentioned in a previous post just after Christmas last year, I bought a new Garmin watch. That's also the first GPS watch I've owned. Now I've been using it regularly for the best part of a year, I've got a much better idea of how I use it, and what I like about it.
And I like the Forerunner 15 a lot. Many of my favourite things focus on doing one or a small number of tasks well. It's why I use Rockbox on dedicated audio player hardware as opposed to some music player app on a phone, and why I tend to use a separate camera, not a phone, for taking photographs.
The FR15 is a slightly chunky digital watch, compared with the low profile, cheap and cheerful Casio I usually wear. But it's not bulky enough that I've ever noticed it as an extra weight on my wrist. It's easy to just forget that it's there altogether. The strap's also comfortable to wear. It's also waterproof to 50 metres, which means that your investment won't be ruined by using the watch in the rain, although it's not a swimming fitness watch. The battery life could be better, but I usually get several runs out of it from a full charge. And it should be capable of lasting for a marathon, even if I'm not yet.
Charging and data transfer are by USB only. There's no Bluetooth connectivity, but I prefer that there's no specific mobile or desktop application that I'm forced to use to get my data off the watch.
As I don't use them, I can't comment on Garmin's client software or their website where you can submit and view your data, as I copy the data off to a PC running Linux. But, I imagine they'd have most of the features you'd want, provided you're comfortable with Garmin storing your location history. Alternatively, it's simple to copy the data directly from the watch for your own processing, which is how I use it.
One thing you miss out on if you don't regularly use the official software is updates to the ephemeris Extended Prediction Orbit (EPO) data. This provides a cache of satellite locations for a short period of time and helps to speed up the initial location detection of the watch. It's also possible to download this data from Garmin without using their software; I've mentioned solutions, including my own, in the previous post I made on Garmin watches and Linux.
Without that data to hand, the time to get a location lock can occasionally be long enough that I've warmed up and just set off and waited for it to catch up ten minutes later. It does vary depending on where you are. That's not too common a problem fortunately, but if you're racing then having the EPO data and getting the FR15 ready well ahead of time is a good idea. Though you can prepare the watch this way for a run, you'll need to occasionally press a button to keep the FR15 awake before starting a run, otherwise the watch's power saving feature (which you can't disable) will turn it off. Not a huge deal, but not a perfect design either.
Why wear a GPS watch while running?
There's the slightly gimmicky thing of mapping runs and seeing how fast you were running. That said, having an archive of previous runs completed might be useful if you particularly enjoyed a route and want to file it away to revisit at a later date.
The data collection itself isn't really important for me. Having a live status of how far I've gone and my current pace is. That's useful both in training runs to see if I should be trying to push myself more, or in races to know how long I've got to go before I can finally stop. It's useful in races for pacing too. You can set a target pace and you get an audio alert when you're on pace, or go above or drop below it. And keeping good track of your progress can be a useful motivator too. In a 10 km race this year, I worked out that if I pushed for the last 1.5 km or so, I might just beat that time and tried to up my pace. In the very last minute, I worked out it was possible if I ran the last 200 metres very quickly, and that encouraged me to both try and go on to succeed.
Likewise, the watch keeping tabs on your recorded best times at various distances (e.g. 1 km, 1 mile, 5 km) is nice to have when you realise that you've improved on your previous best.
With all that in mind, even a low-end watch like this is more than capable. You do lose bundled features like heart rate monitor and GPS route navigation, but you get the most essential and useful features, at a price that's reasonable enough. At the same time, this means the watch is pared down to the essential features, implements them well and they are all easy to access through the simple menus.
For a first-time user of GPS watches, I'm pleased with how good a purchase the Forerunner 15 was, especially considering it was on sale at the time. I looked around for a good couple of hours at reviews and comments on watches, and concluded that you could spend a lot and still not be entirely satisfied. It seemed most sensible to buy something cheap and cheerful, and not be disappointed by its flaws: I'm more forgiving of a sub-£100 watch, than maybe one that's closer to £200.
Finally, if you are shopping for GPS watches, the best resource I found for looking at these watches is the comprehensive set of reviews by DC Rainmaker. When I say "comprehensive", that is not just in the number of devices covered, but in how rigorously they're evaluated too. Incidentally, he currently rates the TomTom Runner as a good budget watch for Winter 2016; looking around UK pricing, it's slightly cheaper than what the Forerunner 15 typically sells for, so may be another option to consider if you're buying right now.