By Annapolis Triathlon Club member Michael Ryan
I’ll admit it; I’m a junkie, a tech-junkie. I love technology, especially when it comes to sports. I’ve been mountain biking or road cycling for about 15 years and for a good portion of that, I’ve been using a Garmin Edge 500 to track my rides. Last year I jumped into multi-sport, and instantly fell in love. Since then, I’ve been looking for a single device that I can use to track my progress through all three disciplines. One unit, that can keep track of my swim, map my rides, and log my runs, one gadget recording all my stats. To me that sounded logical, but I guess it was something that has been difficult to produce, until now.
Last fall Garmin announced their newest entry, the Garmin Forerunner 910XT, one device that is specifically geared to multi-sport. It promised to record your swim data and with the push of a button, migrate over to bike-mode and record your bike ride. One final click and now it’s recording your run. Wow, that’s a lot to promise, but does it deliver? Let’s find out.
The 910XT comes with a bunch of accessories, which might help justify the $449.95 price tag. You get the watch, a nice ANT+ heart rate monitor, a USB charging cord, a USB wall adapter for wall charging (along with two international plug adapters) and a USB ANT+ stick for your computer. Oh, I almost forgot, you get a 910XT Quick Start Manual in English and 11 other languages. This was odd since you don’t get any version of the 51 page 910XT User’s Manual which goes into all the gritty details of how to use the device. I went online and it appeared that I was not alone. The User’s Manual was missing from the box. I was able to download the PDF version, but it would have been nice if Garmin had included a hard copy in the box.
Charging the 910XT
Charging the 910XT is very easy. You get a wall charger with a USB jack, or you can plug the charger directly into a USB port on your Windows or Mac computer. Having been a long time Garmin customer, I am accustomed to the USB charging style for their devices. I have not timed a complete charge, but I have noticed that if I plug the Garmin 910XT into my computer overnight, it is fully charged in the morning.
Garmin claims a 20-hour battery life based on usage. My 910XT seems to go through a charge a little more frequently than estimated, probably because I leave the back-light on all the time for better viewing (more on this later). Also, the USB charger is nice because you can purchase a standard USB charger for your car accessory outlet and charge the 910XT while in route to your event or outing.
On the 910XT side of the charging cable is a charging clip that has two charging posts. These two points align with two contact points located on the back of the watch. Simply hook the charging clip to the watch and you are ready to go.
The 910XT is extremely versatile, almost to the point of information overload. Those who have used other Garmin products such as the Edge bike computer or other Forerunners will find the interface very familiar.
The first time you turn on the device, you will be guided through the Initial Setup, which allows you to configure the 910XT‘s basic functions. You can select your language, time format, units of measure (Statute or Metric), and your personal statistics such as gender, age, weight and height. The initial set up will also allow you to tell the 910XT if you have other ANT+ devices to pair up.
The screen layout is standard Garmin. The 910XT‘s screen can hold a maximum of 4 data fields on any one screen. Initially, I configured each mode, swim, bike, and run, to display the four most important fields that I needed for each event. I quickly found out that while it was nice to have all the data on one screen, sometimes it was difficult to see the data, especially when I was in the pool with my wet, blurry goggles, or out on a run with a bouncing wrist. Since the 910XT allows for up to four screens of data for each sport, I ended up using more screens and having less data on each screen. There are two buttons on the top-right of the watch, which allow you to page-up and page-down through the various screens of data. For me, someone who wears glasses all the time, I found this format to be much easier on my eyes.
Another quirk I noticed was that if the backlight is turned off (which is the default), it was even more difficult to read the black numbers on the grey-green background of the screen. Granted you can double-tap the screen to turn the backlight on, but this only works in run mode. I opted to have the back-light on all the time which makes it much easier to read the display, especially in the pool and out on the bike/run when I wear polarized prescription sunglasses. The downside is that it will degrade the battery life.
Another nice feature of the 910XT is the auto-scroll feature. When this feature is enabled, you can configure it to scroll through the various data screens at a slow, medium, or fast interval. This is really nice as it frees you up to focus on your event and the watch will display different information every few seconds.
From a data-field perspective, the 910XT has nearly 100 different data elements it monitors and records. A few examples would be run cadence, bike cadence, distance, heart rate as bpm’s, average, and zones, swim pace, swim interval time, stroke-per-length, etc.
The 910XT can operate in a wide variety of modes. It can be set up to run in swim mode, bike mode or run mode, but it can also be set up to run in multi-sport mode, including triathlon mode. When set up in each individual mode, the 910XT will record data for that individual sport, but when set up in multi-sport mode, you can have it record brick data by instantly changing from your bike to your run.
Changing modes is very straightforward on the 910XT. Press and hold the Mode button located on the lower-left side of the watch, then use the up- down arrows on the top-right side of the watch to select the sport. Once the sport has been selected, press the Enter button on the lower-right side of the watch and the sport will engage.
It seems that everyone around who has been an early adopter of the 910XT has wanted it for the swim metrics, and I’m in that camp. Being relatively new to swimming, I was looking for a way to monitor my swim metrics automatically so that I could focus on my mechanics and technique. I have found that the 910XT does a fairly good job of automatically tracking data indoors in a 25yd pool (I have not had an opportunity to use this outdoors yet). The basic premise is that you can hop in the pool, set the watch to Swim mode -> Indoor Swim -> and then start swimming. The accelerometer in the watch determines your stroke type and based on the length of the pool, can figure out when you have turned at the other end of the pool and will then perform an auto-lap change for you.
The stroke-type feature seems fairly accurate, although there have been occasions where it does get a bit confused and will stick an incorrect stroke into the mix. I have found that any irregularities in your swim stroke will confuse the watch and it might not be able to figure out your stroke, or where you are in the length of the pool. This will be very interesting to see what happens during the ‘combat-swim’ of a sprint or short course Tri. A bit of disclosure here; I’m not very advanced when it comes to swimming, I do all open turns and I’m not always consistent with which arm touches the wall first, so sometimes I turn to the left, other times to the right. Also, when coming off the wall I will sometimes lead with my left arm (I’m left handed) and sometimes I will lead with my right arm. Trial and error has shown that this method confuses the watch and leads to inconsistent data recordings. Sometimes I’ll finish a 500y and the watch will show 425y, but the time intervals will show a bunch of :25-:28 second lengths and then a :55 second length, so the 910XT accurately recorded the time, but it somehow became confused when I turned and didn’t record the distance properly. I did some research and found this to be an issue with the 910, which is fairly easy to correct. Garmin recommends being very consistent in your turns and also be sure to have the watch on the arm that you do not lead with. Since I usually lead with my left arm coming off the wall, I now have the watch on my right arm. The benefit is that it gives the watch an additional 1-2 seconds to stabilize and realize that you have just turned. This subtle change helped the accuracy of the lap feature greatly.
Overall: Indoor swim mode is good. If you try to be very consistent with your stroke and turns, you will get accurate information from the 910XT. Based on the vast number of metrics that the unit records in swim mode, this is a very good way to measure statistics and progress.
Pros: It’s automatic. You don’t have to manually stop at each wall and press the lap button. The display is nice, especially with the backlight, and allows you to easily and quickly see your lap time. Vibrate Mode is good because it helps to know when you have turned the timer on and off. The sheer volume of statistics that it records is great.
Cons: It’s not always accurate; but this forces you to be more consistent with your swim. No heart rate information is available in swim mode.
I’ve used a Garmin Edge 500 for many years now as my primary bike computer. I have the heart rate monitor and the cadence add-on for my bike, so it was really nice to turn on my 910XT, set it to Bike Mode, and have it find my ANT+ devices immediately. The bike mode is set up to auto-detect your wheel size so just hopping on the bike and taking a short two-mile ride outside resulted in the cadence, wheel and GPS all syncing up and I was ready to go. The 910XT also works with ANT+ power meters such as those from CycleOps and Quarq. At the time of this writing, my Quarq power meter is on backorder, so hopefully I can givea review of the power features at the end of the season.
In bike mode, the 910XT operates flawlessly. It accurately records all of the data, even inside on the trainer. Note: when you first fire up the 910XT in bike mode, it’s good to take it outside and go for a ride in order that the GPS can calibrate the unit to determine the proper wheel size. Once calibrated, you can use the 910XT inside on a trainer for accurate statistics. The watch will even ask you, “Are you inside now?” so that it can ignore the GPS settings.
One glaring difference I noticed is that although the 910XT and my Edge 500 share the same screen size, the 910XT only displays 4 data fields, and only in landscape mode. My Edge 500 runs in portrait mode and displays 8 data fields so I’m very accustomed to seeing 8 fields of data while on my bike. This was a fairly easy fix as I used two screens on the 910XT to display the same information as my Edge 500. Setting
the 910XT in auto-scroll mode allowed me to toggle through the two screens and see the data.
Another good feature of the Garmin is the ability to configure multiple bike set-ups. I can set up my Tri bike, my road bike and my mountain bike and save them as different profiles. When I go mountain biking, I set my watch to use the mountain bike profile for my 29’er, then I can switch back to my road bike setting for touring.
It’s winter here in Maryland, meaning that riding outside usually means gloves and something long on your arms. Since the 910XT is a tad bit on the larger side, it’s a bit bulky when you have it up against a set of thick gloves and possibly a jacket or long sleeved shirt. This wasn’t a huge deal, but it’s probably not going to replace my bike computer in the winter.
Overall: It works flawlessly on the bike. The HRM and cadence kicked right in, the GPS synchronization worked excellent, and the stats are very consistent. I used it alongside of my Edge and the data, as expected, was identical.
Pros: It worked perfectly after calibration; and calibration was very easy and automatic. It finds other ANT+ devices quickly and effortlessly.
Cons: Four data fields on a screen took some getting used to as I had become accustom to eight data fields for the past few years. The screen is difficult to read if the backlight is off. This is especially true if you are outside on a sunny day and happen to be wearing polarized sunglasses. It’s a bit bulky on your wrist during cold weather riding, but it wasn’t too bad.
The first accessory I purchased for the 910XT was the foot pod. I wanted to make sure that I was getting as much data as possible during a run and that the data was accurate. I decided to calibrate everything so I took a little 10-minute walkabout to synchronize everything. After calibration, I took a 5K run with both my Edge 500 (purely GPS driven) and my 910XT with foot pod to see how things compared. In my non-scientific test I noticed that the there was a slight speed difference with the foot pod vs. the GPS with the foot pod showing up about 0.10 mph slower than the GPS. I’ve noticed this to be consistent while running indoors on two different trainers, so my hunch is that my foot pod is reading just a bit slower than it should be reading. I plan to re-calibrate the run mode using a regulation running track to see if my results change.
In run mode, the 910XT works like a champ. I’m able to easily change laps for my different intervals and it does a really nice job of recording my split times. While outside, I had to enable the backlight again so that the screen was easier to read, and I ended up switching to three data fields on one screen rather than four data fields. With three fields, I was able to clearly see my lap time, my pace, and my HR zone on a single screen.
One thing I did notice was that it seems to feel a bit heavy on the wrist. On a few runs I didn’t have the strap on tight enough and you can feel the watch pulling downward. Tightening the strap did fix this, but then it was really tight on my wrist.
Overall: The 910XT is awesome on a run. I don’t have a 300 series Forerunner to compare it with, but I’ve spoken with others who do have a 300 series and it sounds like the two units are comparable, with the distinction that the 910XT is smaller.
Pros: It works great. It pairs well with other ANT+ accessories. It calibrated quickly and easily. It records a vast array of information.
Cons: It’s a bit bulky on your wrist during cold weather, the calibration seemed to be off just slightly, and the screen was a bit difficult to see outdoors unless the backlight was enabled.
The 910XT has a multi-sport mode. I have not yet had an opportunity to try out this mode but the documentation seems to indicate that it’s good for brick workouts. You can set the watch up for your first discipline, do your workout, and then quickly switch over to a second sport. The 910XT will reset its numbers back to zero and begin recording the second half of the workout.
The other mode that I’m eager to use is their triathlon mode. In Tri mode you can start the watch at the start of the swim and when you leave the water, hit ‘lap’ which tells the watch you are entering T1. When leaving T1, hit ‘lap’ again and the watch knows you are now on the bike. ‘Lap’ and you are in T2, etc. This mode sounds really awesome so I cannot wait for an opportunity to use it once the season kicks off here in the mid-Atlantic.
Without getting too geeky, ANT+ is a method that devices use to communicate and transfer data. You can think of it as Bluetooth or Wi-Fi for sports equipment. If you have a watch that can understand ANT+, then it can pair up, or work with, other devices that speak ANT+. The foot pod in my shoe talks ANT+ and therefore can be heard by my Garmin 910XT. ANT+ adoption is growing and it is nice to know that the 910XT can collect data from these devices. There are even weight scales that are ANT+. Although I don’t (yet) have one, the user’s guide indicates that it will pair up with an ANT+ scale such as the Tanita brand scale/body composition monitor giving you the ability to record your weight and body fat percentages and integrate those too into Garmin Connect for analysis. I have an older Tanita scale and really like it, so I can see upgrading to the newer ANT+ version in the near future.
One of the nicest things about the Garmin products is their data analysis website, Garmin Connect. On GC, you can sign up for a free account, download a plug-in to your computer, and then start uploading/offloading data from your 910XT and have it stored online for reference.
Using the supplied ANT+ USB stick, data is transferred wirelessly The ANT Agent application is also used to wirelessly from the 910XT to your PC and immediately sent to the Garmin upgrade the firmware. Connect to the website for analysis.
Garmin Connect is a great location to run reports that allow you to compare your swim intervals over the past 12 months. You can also check to see how you have performed on the same training loop for the past ten rides. Since the 910XT records GPS information, the data uploaded to GC is also integrated with Google Maps and you can see your workout with an overlay of the terrain location. Even more amazing is that you can export this data and download it back to your computer.
For bike rides, you can download the data into GPX or TCX formatted files and import that data into VR bike trainers. I have a RealAxiom VR bike trainer that allows me to ride any course, record the data with my Garmin, and then import that ride into my trainer. As I re-ride the course on my trainer, my trainer is able to automatically alter the resistance level based on the grade of the ride producing a very life-like experience. Garmin Connect also has an iPhone application which allows me to review my data that’s been uploaded to their website.
Here are some samples of some recent workouts with the Garmin Forerunner 910XT
I’m a person who likes things simple. I like to have one gadget that does it all; one source for all of my information, and most of all, only one thing that I have to keep track of. The Garmin 910XT promises this, and it delivers.
There is a very nice consistency with the way it operates, records, and reports information across multiple disciplines. I really like the way that it is able to organize the data and store it online for reference.
In the pool, I did have some initial quirks with accuracy, but once I figured out how the watch ‘thinks’, I was better able to clean up my mechanics to help get accurate data. On the bike and on the run, this watch truly delivers. The accurate pace, distance, grade, and even temperature information allow me to record and analyze my performance to help progression.
Some may think that the price, $449, is a bit steep, but considering that it is three pieces of equipment and not one, it’s a very good investment for anyone who is serious about their sport, or sports. The 910XT feels solid, is easy to operate and simply does what it says it will do; record your data accurately and with fine detail to help you become better at your sport.
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Reviewed by Michael Ryan Annapolis Triathlon Club February, 2012