≪ Go to our review of GPS Sports Watches
Hands-on Gear Review
Garmin Forerunner 35 Review
Cons: Limited features, short battery life
Bottom line: Entry-level data collection by casual trainees.
Larger devices like the Suunto Ambit family or the Garmin Fenix 5 have more features and battery life, but the Forerunner 35 has exactly what most runners need. It is similar in features and functionality to the FitBit Surge but offers a different and superior data management style. Essentially, the Garmin is great for numbers-driven folks, while the FitBit will appeal to those interested in comparing to a community of other users. Garmin makes GPS devices, and basically only GPS devices. Their technology is reliable and their post-event data management is comprehensive and efficient. We also granted a Best Buy award to the TomTom Runner which is the absolute least expensive we tested and is remarkably accurate, but it has fewer useful features than the Garmin.
RELATED REVIEW: Best GPS Watches of 2017 for Running & Training
Our Analysis and Hands-on Test Results
The Garmin Forerunner family was the first watch to bring GPS functionality to a device with "normal" dimensions. The 35 updates include additional heart rate data captured on the device and smart phone syncing. The compact stature, combined with Garmin's solid experience in the field and their robust data management options, all at a reasonable price point, makes this device an easy choice for our Best Buy award. If you are looking for an entry-level GPS watch for basic data collection while out and about, you'll do no better than the Forerunner 35.
Ease of Use
Among tested GPS watches, the 35 was among those the easiest to use. The Forerunner 35 seems to strike a perfect balance between simple on-device data display and management, and comprehensive post-event information review. On the device you monitor pace, distance, heart rate, and time. After a workout, once the data is uploaded to your computer, you can see much more data. You can see information on individual laps, averages, and create graphs of exertion and pace. For the casual trainee or first-time GPS watch user, this is how you want it to be. You want your watch to be really easy to use while on the go, but be collecting information for review post-event.
The interface is a little less intuitive than our Top Pick Apple Watch Nike+, but the simple feature set makes it easy enough to navigate. As compared to its cousin, the Garmin Fenix, the Forerunner has a similar "feel", but far fewer features and fields to navigate through. Similar to the Fenix however, is Garmin's extensive data management experience and development. Garmin has been in this business longer than any other manufacturer. Their suite of technically sound software and online data management has something for everyone. Whether you use the Connect App Garmin Training Center on your PC, or Garmin Connect through a web browser, you'll find a data management strategy to suit your tastes. In either case, you can view statistics on your latest run as well as a summary of recent and past workouts. With Garmin Connect, kind of like with the FitBit Surge, you can compare efforts to other Garmin users.
In evaluating the features of GPS watches, we look over a fairly long list of functions. GPS watches can be equipped with sensors and software for time keeping, GPS distance and speed, GPS data recording, GPS navigation, step count, sleep tracking, built-in heart rate, compatibility with external sensors, barometric altimeter, thermometer, and smart watch functions. Of these, all we tested have time keeping, GPS distance and speed and GPS data recording. The Forerunner adds in built-in heart rate, compatibility with external sensors, and basic smart watch functions. This feature set is exactly what you need, plus a few niceties, for running.
The only device that "checks all the boxes" on our potential feature list is the Editors' Choice Garmin Fenix 5. That the Fenix has all these features, is fairly reliable, with good battery life and a reasonable size made it an easy choice for our highest honor. On top of all that, the Garmin Fenix records your information into their excellent suite of record keeping and data management programs. With the Forerunner you get just what you need for running, at a fraction of the cost, and you also get the excellent Garmin data management. The feature set of the Garmin VivoActive is slightly different. It does not have the heart rate sensor but adds daily step count and sleep tracking. The VivoActive is better for day-to-day use while the Forerunner is better for dedicated training sessions.
With an especially tiny GPS antenna and no motion-sensor "double-check" feature, the Garmin Forerunner does surprisingly well with accuracy. Over multiple tests, on a course of known length (half a mile), the Forerunner varied by just 4%. We would expect that the greatest accuracy would come in devices with larger antennae and, because of the inherent margin for error in GPS technology, some sort of motion-sensor oversight.
Devices like the Suunto Ambit3 and the Garmin Fenix use an accelerometer to sense and count movement. If the GPS data doesn't seem to "make sense" as compared to the step count from the motion sensor, the device can recalculate and essentially omit bad GPS data. The price-point 35 doesn't have this attribute included but does pretty well considering. It was, for instance, more accurate than the Nixon Mission. Incidentally, the Mission has an accelerometer that could be employed to verify and support the GPS data.
Ease of Set-Up
Aside from the FitBit Surge and Apple Watch, there wasn't a device easier to setup. Simply download the app, plug the Forerunner in (to charge) and wait an hour or so. Once charged, walk outside and let the on-screen prompts direct you. You'll be asked to enter some basic personal data, and the time and date will set automatically with GPS signal and/or smart phone sync. You can then begin to run or walk. You need not plug it into a computer or even enter the time manually. Because the feature set is so simple, you can do all of your configuration on the app itself.
Because of its small size, the Forerunner has nowhere near the battery life of the larger devices. It compares similarly to the Polar M400, FitBit Surge, and TomTom Runner but has far less battery time than the Ambit device or the Garmin Fenix. The battery lasts better than the Apple Nike+.
The Forerunner 35's most significant attribute is its compact stature. This is a svelte, readily wearable device. As compared to the rest of its bulky brethren in our test, it virtually disappears on your wrist.
The Top Pick Apple Watch is smaller, but the rest are larger. The Garmin VivoActive is the next largest, while the Polar, FitBit, and TomTom are all about the same medium size. The Garmin Fenix, Suunto, and Nixon are all much, much larger.
This is an excellent tool for the entry-level, numbers-driven athlete. In its most basic form, it is the best value device we tested and will collect data that will be useful for years to come. Additionally, it is the device we can recommend most highly to anyone with especially small wrists.
This is the best value in our test. For a relatively low price, you get a device that is compact, reliable, and interfaces smoothly with some of the best data-management technology in the business. This latter attribute, the options you have for data management, is the greatest advantage. Whether you use the PC-based Garmin Training Center, cloud-based Garmin Connect, or smartphone Connect app, you can count on a good product and ongoing customer service. Garmin has been at this a long time, and we have no reason to believe they will not continue to support their products, athletes, and community. This longevity adds a great deal of value to an already valuable product.
Our testing team uniformly appreciated the small form-factor, the easy set-up, and reliable data collection. Our testing team and the entire fitness community has shown support and approval of Garmin's data management support.
— Jediah Porter
You Might Also Like
Best GPS Watches of 2017 for Running & TrainingNarrowing a dizzying field of GPS tracking watches to first 50 for consideration, and then further to 9 for actual...
OutdoorGearLab Member Reviews
Most recent review: June 21, 2017
Where's the Best Price?
*You help support OutdoorGearLab's product testing and reviews by purchasing from our retail partners.
Table of Contents
Other Gear by Garmin