The Garmin Forerunner 30 is a watch for the run curious, you know, those folk who’ve made fitness one of their New Year goals but don’t want to spend a fortune on something they fear could wind up gathering dust.
Don’t get us wrong, that’s not a criticism of this Forerunner or those who buy it. Any decision to start working out — in whatever way and at any point in the year — deserves praise… and is more likely to succeed with a gadget to motivate you, or make you feel guilty. Ignore the marketing hype, you don’t need a R12,000 Fenix 5 for that.
The Forerunner 30 is a running wristable that’s been simplified about as much as the stats-loving Garmin team can bear. It’s still got more on offer than a Fitbit Flex, but it’s also far less daunting than anything in the Fenix range.
If you plans on hitting the gym often between pavement sessions, the broader feature sets of the TomTom Spark 3 or Garmin’s own Forerunner 35 are probably more sensible buys. However, if running’s all you plan to do, the Forerunner 30 is a great, affordable option… how affordable? A mere R2,600. Which by fitness-tracker standards is a downright bargain.
Design: Do ‘ya think I’m a square?
A beauty contest winner the Garmin Forerunner 30 isn’t, even with the curious splashes of colour we can only assume are designed to distract from its plainness. From the face swap to the icons, it’s a designer’s nightmare, but the turquoise strap really does succeed in distracting somewhat from a watch that looks like it should be stashed out of sight in a pocket rather than displayed on a wrist.
Don’t like the turquoise? There are grey and purple strap options, too, and with the strap coming right up to the glass face of the Forerunner 30 it helps make it appear slimmer than it is in real life.
On the plus side, the Forerunner 30 doesn’t look like a serious running watch — it’s too casual and friendly for that, which makes sense given its target market.
Interface and screen: Less is more?
It looks simple, and it is simple. There’s no touchscreen on offer, just four unmissable buttons, two to a side, which make the Forerunner 30 very easy to use. The left-hand side’s buttons let you scroll through the main screens that display heart rate, notifications, total steps, calories burned, active minutes and your last activity’s stats.
If you only use these the Forerunner 30 feels like a basic fitness tracker, and if you like you can simplify things even further by removing the screens you don’t need with the Garmin Connect app. There are only two faces to choose from, one digital and one analogue (though, as it’s on screen it’s kinda digital, too), but at least they’re both easily readable even in bright daylight.
That readability is at least in part thanks to Garmin’s use of a transflective memory-in-pixel screen. What does that mean? It means it’s always on and get more legible, not less, in bright light. After dark a button press lights things up.
Fitness tracking: Casual does it
There’s no need to select the kind of activity because the Forerunner 30 uses its Move IQ software to judge what we you were doing. In our experience, it had no trouble separating walks from runs.
Move IQ finds its limits when you head to the gym rather than staying outside. Run on a treadmill and your activity may just be listed as “cardio”. A less simplified tracker will often let you pick from a range of indoor activities, but this one is really made for the outdoors. That said, it does switch to using accelerometer data for distance when there’s no signal or you’re not moving.
The Forerunner 30 is smarter than it may initially appear. You get 24×7 heart rate tracking, although unlike some of the latest models the sensor doesn’t actually run all the time.
It also struggles a bit with high-intensity training. At times when it should have read 170-odd bpm, the Forerunner 30 happily displayed 150-something — way off. There’s no way to connect a separate heart rate sensor wirelessly either. If you demand great HR accuracy, think twice, although it might be possible to get better results by wearing the watch even tighter.
Out on the street, the watch’s GPS offers solid tracking, and the app shows your route in map form. There’s some smoothing-off of your route, but it’s easily good enough to satisfy most casual runners.
Smarts and battery life: You win some, you lose some
To start with, the Forerunner 30 didn’t receive notifications at all. After a couple of days of fiddling around we reset the watch and re-paired. It worked, sort of, but the Forerunner 30 now only receives basic notifications, and hangs when you scroll through them.
Garmin Connect makes it look as though you can get all kinds of notifications on the Forerunner 30, but Garmin’s own website only mentions “basic” ones (SMS, calls). Either way, notifications have problems.
This may have affected our read on battery life a little, but Garmin’s claim of five days of general use seems about right. If you use GPS for short stints, perhaps 20-30 minute runs, you’ll still get the better part of a week’s use between charges.
It’ll last for up to eight hours of full GPS tracking, which is on-par with Garmin’s other small trackers. The TomTom Spark 3 lasts for up to 11 hours, though, or three weeks of life as a watch and step tracker, so it doesn’t lead the field here.
Garmin Forerunner 30: The final verdict
Should you buy the Garmin Forerunner 30? That really depends on whether you’ll miss the bits chopped out of the Forerunner 35 – namely ANT+ for hooking up external heart-rate sensors, and the ability to track sports other than running.
If you use the gym rather than just run outside, you probably will. If you want to use a chest strap HR sensor, you definitely will. The HR sensor struggles a little with high intensity exercise and the notifications need work too.
But despite all of this, the Forerunner 30 remains a great buy if you mostly stick to outdoor running. It’s a stripped down Garmin watch for casual pavement pounders, and for that it’s a great option at the pretty low price of R2,600.