Read on to find out why.
To get a GPS running watch at this price, Garmin has pared back a lot. At its heart, this is a stripped-down version of the Garmin Forerunner 35, and it loses a lot of nice things including interval mode, run/walk mode, virtual pacer and a lot of the customisation. Worse – for some people – the focus is running, and running only. From the watch itself, you can only start runs – though you can re-categorise activities in the Garmin Connect app later, if you want to label something as a walk or cycle.
Still, what you’re left with remains pretty compelling and covers all the basics: GPS, heart rate and one of the most fully-featured running apps around. And then there’s the price...
Design and specification
As you might expect from a stripped-down version of the Forerunner 35, the Forerunner 30 looks identical to the more fully-featured model; pretty nondescript, in other words. That may initially sound like a bad thing, but given how many ugly running watches there are out there (naming no names), nondescript is a really strong selling point.
It’s a black rectangle with rounded corners and just four buttons in total. I don’t want to overstate its appeal – it’s still a bit too chunky for evening wear, unless you want everyone to know you run – but it’s definitely on the more understated end of the fitness wearable spectrum. The screen is a basic 128x128-resolution monochrome affair which leads to a comfortable week’s usage on a single charge, provided you don’t push the GPS too hard.
That simple design is matched by the simplicity of use, too. The two buttons on the left hand side scroll up and down, while the buttons on the right are ‘go’ and ‘back’. That’s pretty much everything you could possibly need, and the watch rightly eschews touchscreen controls, which are way too fiddly – especially if you happen to like running in the rain or tend to sweat while running.
The streamlining is great. From stepping outside, you can press go and wait for the GPS to lock on in around five to 20 seconds. Once locked, press go again and head out into the world. Simple.
Well, not quite that simple. If you’re anything like me, you’ll want to customise your watch to take in the key stats you care about: in my case, average pace, current pace and time.
I’m happy to report that the Garmin Forerunner 30 is extremely customisable, allowing the 0.93in display to show any three metrics you want. In fact, the choice is a bit daunting. There’s a dizzying array of options: time, distance, pace, average speed, ground left to cover or heart rate are just some of the main ones on offer. If you want more than three, you can create a second screen, which can be switched over mid run by pressing the navigation buttons.
Once the run is done, press ‘go’ again, scroll to save and that’s it. Done. The watch will sync with the phone as soon as it’s in Bluetooth range (or instantly if you choose to run with it), and your performance is ready to view on Garmin Connect. Here the data is even more phenomenal: average pace, average moving pace, best pace, average speed, average moving speed, maximum speed, total time, moving time, elapsed time, average heart rate, max heart rate, average cadence, maximum cadence, average stride length, elevation gain, elevation loss, minimum elevation, maximum elevation, and calories burned.
That’s great and all, but pretty useless if the watch is inaccurate, but I found that not to be the case at all. In fact, I found it more accurate than the Garmin Forerunner 235 which goes for £120 more. Every 5km parkrun race I did was accurate to within 0.05km – far better than other watches, including the Samsung Gear Fit2 I was wearing on my opposite wrist, which was consistently 0.2km off the pace.
Heart rate tracking, however, seemed a little iffy. Averages ranged between 125bpm and 170bpm between runs of fairly similar pace and effort – though it’s possible this is down to how tightly I was wearing the watch each time.
Still, so far, so good. Now, let’s talk about what’s missing. The first casualty of the cheaper price is ANT+ support, meaning you can’t connect to other sensors. Most people won’t care, and those that do will likely spend a lot more on their watch, so that’s fair enough.
Less forgivable is the option to track anything but running from the watch. It has Move IQ built in, so it can theoretically detect other exercise types, but it doesn’t, and any different activities you do will have to be manually edited in the app itself. This feels like quite a mean-spirited omission to be honest, designed to make the Forerunner 35 look more appealing than to allow any kind of cost saving, but there we are. What’s really odd about this, though, is the watch is rated 5ATM, meaning you can swim to 50 metres with it… but you can’t track it if you do. That’s a real opportunity to save on production costs that Garmin has completely ignored. Strange.
These omissions may have already made you rethink the Forerunner 30. As someone for whom running is the only form of exercise, I can’t say I’m too bothered. For me the cuts are made in all the right places, leading to a device that’s laser focused on tracking the metrics I care about, without costing a fortune.
Plus, as I touched upon earlier, the app is simply fantastic. As well as tracking more running metrics than you could shake a stick at, it becomes a useful fitness hub in itself, allowing you to keep track of sleep, heart rate and an estimation of your VO2 Max, which is a useful proxy for your general fitness level. There’s space for you to log weight and calorie consumption, and it keeps your personal bests for different distances to look admiringly at. There’s even space to add running gear from a dropdown, so that you know when it’s time to replace those shoes that are practically falling off your feet.
To be super picky, it doesn’t connect with that many other apps, being limited to just Strava, MyFitnessPal and – weirdly – Office 365. Still, the first two are the big essentials, and with an app as thorough as this, it’s hard to see why you would need anything else.
I have a huge amount of time for the Garmin Forerunner 30. It’s attractively priced, easy to use and pretty accurate at tracking the things I care about.
However, there are two legitimate drawbacks you could fairly highlight. The first is that although it’s a positive glamour model in the world of wearables, that’s still pretty faint praise for timepieces in general. This isn’t a watch that’s great looking for everyday use, but again the Venn diagram of running watches that perform well while also looking good is virtually non-existent.
The second point is harder to counter: if you’re not a runner – or you are, but also enjoy cycling and swimming too – then this isn’t the watch for you; it’s better to spend a bit more on a TomTom Spark 3 or Polar M430.
If running is your life and you’re on a tight budget, however, the Garmin Forerunner 30 has your back all the way. You won’t want to hit the trail without it.