April 4, 2012 5 Comments
A few weeks ago, I received a Motorola MOTOACTV GPS Fitness Tracker and Music Player in the mail. I had no idea Motorola was entering the sports industry, but they somehow decided that I was a person of influence amongst the endurance community and they sent me the product to demo and review. I’ve made it a point to keep this blog strictly limited to race recaps only, but I felt compelled to reward their generosity by upholding my end of the “bargain” and reviewing their new device.
Since I’ve never run with music, this would be a big change to my training. Literally, the only time in which I have ever run with music was back in college when I ran with an old iPod around the track at the gym. After two songs, the shaking made the device turn itself off and that was the end of it. Headphones that stayed put were also difficult to find and after three years of running without music, I had convinced myself that I was a purist at heart.
Is that such a crazy thing to say? Every time I go to the gym or hit the running path, I notice that I’m in a very small minority of runners. Even in large races, it looks like the vast majority of athletes are plugged into a music player of some sort. When I’m out training on the path or racing through city streets, I’m in tune with the sounds of my breathing, spectators, the wind, hundreds of car engines on Lake Shore Drive and whatever song is playing in my head, usually coordinated to match my stride. These sounds change depending on the season, area, and time of day. The sounds of racers struggling on a trail uphill have a completely different character than what you’ll hear on a straightaway in the Chicago Marathon.
I always thought listening to music during all of this would rob you of a very unique experience. You’re no longer listening to the collective grunts of a massive, living, breathing thing, brought together by the single visceral drive to move forward relentlessly. Instead, you’re listening to Sum 41, watching others listen to their own playlists.
“I feel like you listen to music to distract yourself while you get the exercise over with,” a coworker of mine said to me recently. It made sense. Most people run as an obligation, not as something they enjoy or look forward to. In fact, I know several people who would not go out for a run if their mp3 player suddenly broke or were out of juice.
But I decided to put aside this overblown philosophy and run with this shiny new device anyway. I already own a Garmin Forerunner 405, so I wasn’t looking for how many bells and whistles the MOTOACTV had or whether it could sand my floors. I was instead out to see if this watch could do everything my Garmin could do and if so, whether it’d be a suitable replacement.
The device itself is pretty small and sleek. It would attract a few glances if you wore it around the office as a regular watch, but it’s no bigger than most gaudy watches out there anyway. However, a Garmin Forerunner 405 is still, I believe, the more fashionable of the two (Garmin +1). Setting it up was simple, though not as idiot-proof as iPods or iPhones are. After downloading the proper software and installing the most recent drivers, it was simply a matter of plugging it into my computer via USB and setting up my preferences. The Garmin syncs up wirelessly (Garmin +1). The MOTOACTV comes with a clip so you can use it like an iPod nano or strap it onto the sports wristband and use it like a watch. However, if you do the latter, you still have to plug in the headphones to your wrist, which seems weird until you’re running and you realize it doesn’t get in the way. The Garmin doesn’t have a built-in mp3 player so you’d have to double-up with a nano or a GPS-enabled smartphone (MOTO +1).
Acquiring satellites was quick and easy.
The MOTOACTV’s interface is backlit and very bright. I’m not sure how long this would last in a marathon or a long run, but I took it out for a two hour run with GPS and music enabled and the battery was still over 70% when I finished. Tinkering with the settings isn’t the most intuitive task. It has a touch screen, but the way you access menus (which involves swiping left and right) isn’t immediately apparent. I’m not one to use instruction manuals and tend to rely on my intuition with electronics to figure things out. After a few minutes messing around with it, I got a feel for how it worked. However, I have yet to find out how to set up an Interval run or turn off the autolap feature to hit manual splits, which was painfully simple on the Forerunner (Garmin +1). That said, I’m sure the function exists, so I can’t fault the product for my intransigence.
So far, it seems like the only thing the MOTOACTV has going for it is the built-in mp3 player, right? Not exactly.
What really sells this product, I think, is the web-based interface where you manage your workouts and profile. It gives you all the information that Garmin does (mapped route, splits, time, speed, elevation, pace, etc.) with many extra goodies, the coolest of which is a distance and pace breakdown by song. It’s a really neat idea that one could exploit after many uses because it basically tells you, in minutes and seconds, which songs pump you up the most. I learned, for example, that whenever Rhapsody kicks in, my pace increases noticeably. Let’s be honest, it’s impossible to not run at a 5:00 pace while singing “For the King, for the Land, for the Mountains, for the green valleys where Dragons fly!”
It’s a great concept that you can later summon to improve your results. If you know you have a particularly intense speed workout that you want to nail, you can arm yourself with the songs that have proven to motivate you. However, the interface could take this even further. There’s a “Music” tab that tallies individual songs and how many times you have listened to them (it also tabulates how many miles you have run on them). It’s a fun stat to see, but I think it would be even more beneficial to show you the average pace that you have run historically for each of those songs. That way you could see across months of logging workouts, which songs are your top 5 fastest songs. As it stands now, it will just tell you which songs you’ve played the most (or, in my case, which songs are the longest).
The website also has “Competitions,” some sponsored by Motorola, others created by users. These can range from covering a certain distance in the least amount of time to burning a certain amount of calories to actual races. Each one comes with a leaderboard and members’ progress. If you’re not feeling like joining a large challenge, you can challenge just a friend. It’s a pretty neat concept.
However, there are a few areas where it could use improvement. For starters, there’s no calendar view where you can easily see all of your logged workouts. Additionally, I couldn’t find an easy way to simply share my workout’s URL without sharing it on my Facebook status (Garmin +1). I wanted to show a friend of mine how cool MOTOACTV’s stats breakdown was but couldn’t find a quick way to show him my profile or workouts. I’m pretty sure he would have to join and “friend” me to do so, which isn’t ideal. I’m one of those people that hates having to create an account and a profile for everything on the internet, so this was a bit frustrating.
But the oddest complaint that I have is that it somehow added a song to my device’s library, “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” by Brooks and Dunn, and played it mid workout. I don’t have that song on my computer and yet it showed up on my device after a particularly brutal Dragonforce cut. I would never listen to that song on my own, let alone draw upon it during a speed workout. So how (and why) did it make its way to my mix? I demand an explanation.
But when all is said and done, the MOTOACTV seems like a worthy challenger to Garmin. As someone who never leaves the house without a sports watch, that’s a high compliment. If I can find out how to create a custom interval run and control my split times manually, then that would be it for my Forerunner. Not only does the MOTOACTV match it on performance, but it provides a much more sleek and social interface. Now that I’ve seen the crazy potential in MOTOACTV’s website, I’m almost shocked that Garmin’s website is what it is. If Motorola’s product takes off and gathers some momentum in the industry, then the ball would be in Garmin’s court to improve their product. It doesn’t have to have a built-in mp3 player to win me over. But revamping their website to vary its functionality and diversity would be a great place to start.
At a price point of $249, it’s competitively priced. Garmin’s most recent running-specific sports watch, the Forerunner 610, has a suggested retail price of $349.99 (the 910XT is $399.99, but is recommended for triathletes). With all this in mind, I would definitely recommend this product to anyone looking for a new, exciting device to add to their running getup. Not only will it give you reliable information as you rack up the miles, but it puts it all together with a colorful, dynamic interface. Finally, with enough use, it will ultimately allow you to target which songs give you that bee sting motivation to charge forward at manic speed.