TomTom Spark review

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The TomTom Spark does nothing revolutionary, but bringing music to your wrist is liberating. Yes it’s limited to old-school MP3s and not Spotify, but the feeling of smartphone freedom for music-loving runners is tangible. We also loved being able to hook up Strava and RunKeeper to our workouts, and it’s easily the most accurate heart rate system we’ve tested. The slightly underwhelming ecosystem does is a slight downside, but the TomTom Spark but still comes heartily recommended.

Hit
  • Play MP3s without a phone
  • Top notch heart rate tech
  • Lots of training modes from the watch
  • Plugs into RunKeeper and Strava
Miss
  • Ecosystem lacks training plans
  • Tough to choose music mid-run
  • Impossible to read in dark
  • Hardly high fashion

The TomTom Spark GPS sports watch was unveiled at IFA in Berlin back in September. With GPS, heart rate monitoring and built-in music playback all in one watch, it’s aimed at runners, cyclists and gym-goers fed up with taking their smartphones along for the ride.

It’s not a new idea – the Adidas MiCoach Smart Run does much the same. But that doesn’t mean wrist-based music and GPS run tracking combos are commonplace. There are a just a handful of capable devices out there, which gives TomTom’s blending of fairly commonplace tech a chance of success.

At $249.99 for the TomTom Spark GPS + Cardio reviewed here, it represents a good deal against Garmin’s new Forerunner 235 that features an optical HR sensor but no music playback. You can also grab versions without heart rate and even devoid of GPS if you want.

But can the Spark set a running watch PB? We strapped up to find out.

Design

First impressions count for nothing – which is fortunate as the TomTom Spark hardly blows you away out of the box. It’s a chunky old piece of black plastic, with an LCD monochrome screen that’s nearly impossible to read in the dark.

The strap is another hunk of black rubber that lacks the finesse of silicon, which has come into vogue this year, but features a loop with two poppers that click into holes in the band for an extremely secure fit.

Impressions deteriorate further when you come to charge the Spark. You have to pull it out of its strap to reveal the charging points which you click into a the USB cable. It’s a proprietary cable, as ever, and it all feels a little agricultural.

As we’ll come onto shortly TomTom has added activity tracking smarts to the Spark to count steps, active minutes and calories through your day. That means wearing it all day. Some we know people wear sports watches such as the Polar V800 all day and it’s a matter of personal – but for our money the Spark isn’t something we’d ever make part of our daily attire.

The Spark isn’t touchscreen and all control is done by a four-way button under the screen. It’s an extra bulge that does nothing for the aesthetics, but we have to say it’s an absolute success in terms of usability. The menu system is really well designed so browsing is logical and easy, and when you’re out on a run the big buttons are easy to manage with sweaty hands, making it easy to find the information you want on the big screen.

In fact, the UI is superbly well designed in all aspects of the watch. It’s easy to show the desired metric while running by tapping up or down, and you can flick into the music you want to listen to and even change elements of your workout just using forward and back to slide effortlessly through the menus.

Activity tracking

The TomTom Spark will track your daily activity as well as sports training sessions, which is an increasing feature on GPS watches to cover off the impending threat from Fitbit and Jawbone.

So long as the Spark is on your wrist it will monitor the amount of steps, the distance you walk (estimated by arm movement, not GPS) and calories burned will be logged. You can check them on the watch by tapping the left button, or sync with your smartphone.

The data is accurate, by and large, and the step counting as in-line with the Jawbone – give or take a few hundred steps in the day.

TomTom also does a good job of presenting the data. You can see daily and weekly totals by hitting left on the watch’s control pad and then down through the different metrics, and the also makes it easy to group daily, weekly, monthly and annual totals of steps, runs, or other sports.

It will also track sleep time, although you can do that by noting the time on the clock when you wake up. There’s nothing in the way of deep sleep graphs or advanced metrics.

Sports tracking

The activity tracking is a neat sideshow to the main event, which is the sports tracking. The TomTom will track running and cycling, as well as swimming, treadmill, gym workouts, indoor cycling (with a cadence sensor) and open training.

We’re focusing on running here as without a cadence sensor most training sessions feature the same metrics: heart rate, GPS tracked distance and time. We will update for cycling focused metrics when we get the right sensors.

You swipe right to access the list of sports and right again to start a session. The Spark is one of the quickest watches we’ve tested in terms of getting a satellite lock, which sounds minor but isn’t when you’re stood in the cold waiting to start your run.

All the usual metrics are present (distance, pace, heart rate and time) are all displayed on the watch, and you can press the left and right buttons to swap between views mid-run. You can then press down to get advanced analytics on those, too.

The really impressive part of the Spark is the amount of training options accessible from the watch itself. Start a run and tap down to access options and you can start an interval session (more of a watch-based bleep test than a carefully managed training programme), choose a pace to run within and even a heart rate zone. The watch will then alert you if you’re running outside of those zones.

Another awesome feature is the ability to race against any previous run. If you do a regular route – which let’s face it we all do – you can select to race against it from the watch. It will then tell you how far behind or ahead you are against yourself.

None of this stuff is pioneering. The Adidas already has these features. But the ease in which these modes can be initiated from the watch is impressive, and it helped us warm to the TomTom Spark.

Our only complaint about the Spark is when you finish your run. It just dumps you back to the home screen without a summary of your run stats, which is a bit of a kicker when you just busted a gut going for a PB. You can access it – but it took us a while to find. You need to essentially start a new run and then press the up button to find a list of recent activities where you can view your efforts.

Finally, a word on battery life. You’ll get around 5 hours of GPS tracking from the TomTom Spark, and it’s been designed to ensure marathon runners won’t get caught short in a race – and that was borne out in our own training sessions. In terms of daily tracking, you’d easily get a week’s battery if you didn’t turn on the GPS.

Heart rate training

We don’t expect much from wrist-based heart rate trackers, especially after our own in-depth comparison of straps vs optical HRMs showed wild disparity – and our hearts initially sank when TomTom announced that it had ditched Mio tech from the Spark. Instead, it’s using a sensor supplied by LifeQ, a new company that’s making its debut on the Spark.

However, we needn’t have worried.

Our testing showed the TomTom Spark to be the most accurate optical heart rate tracker that’s been put through Wareable’s tests. As you can see from the data below, not only did the average heart rate data match up exactly to Garmin’s chest strap, it was never more than 1bpm out. A highly impressive performance.

You can also use on-watch modes to train within heart rate zones, which is great for those who like to train via bpm rather than pace. An even neater touch is that you can tweak your bands on the web portal so they match your personal physiology. If you need help finding those bands, perhaps our guide to heart rate training will help.

The zone based training itself is good, and you get a voice to confirm you’re on track. A nice touch is that it doesn’t bother you relentlessly if your heart rate soars out of the desired zone, and you can clearly tell from the graph whether you need to up your pace or drop off. That way you can get on with your training in peace.

Music playback

The TomTom Spark’s headline feature is its ability to play music via a pair of wireless headphones, negating the need for runners to strap up a phone just to play some beats.

We got excited during the announcement that a Spotify friendly watch was on the cards, but alas, the Spark just plays MP3s. The only streaming friendly device so far is the Apple Watch, which hooks up nicely to Apple Music.

You add MP3s via TomTom’s software TomTom MySports Connect, which is available for Mac and PC. It’s more fiddly than it needs to be, and when using a Mac you’re forced to upload iTunes Playlists which is really frustrating. We don’t use iTunes for good reason – it’s rubbish – so having to a) download MP3s and b) add them in iTunes to get them onto the watch was a real throwback to 2006.

PC users don’t even get an easier ride. Again, you have to use the supplied software as dragging and dropping MP3s doesn’t work, despite the watch appearing as a drive.

Once you’re ready to run you start a session and then hit the settings menu to choose the music. Each playlist appears individually, from where you can play the tunes in order or shuffle them. You can’t choose individual tracks. We tended to use hour long mixes to run with as they’re readily available online for free, so ended up just setting one mix per playlist. If you have a bunch of songs in a playlist it’s unlikely you will want to choose specific ones.

It’s not hugely easy to switch music mid-run, so make sure you get your playlist to the right length before you head out.

Pairing headphones is really easy, and TomTom has put the option front-and-centre. Just press the up button to scan for headphones and put your buds in pairing mode. We did find that when we paused a run that the connected dropped which was super annoying.

The music features on the TomTom Spark are a real triumph. It was liberating to listen to music and run without a phone – we loved it. The adding and playing of tracks is a little laborious, as is the lack of controls when running. But all is forgiven when you’re listening to your music out on the trail, unencumbered.

App

There are two elements to the TomTom Spark ecosystem. The first is the web app, which is connected to the app when you connect to your PC and Mac, and fire up the TomTom MySports Connect app. This is very similar to the way Garmin Connect works.

The second element is a phone app that you can pair with the watch directly.

The TomTom MySports web app is the nicest way of looking at your post workout data, and you get a full breakdown of all the metrics you’d expect: distance, duration, pace, calories, heart rate and cadence are all listed, and you get a graph on which you can plot different elements. You also get a map of your route as well.

However, it’s all a bit limited. Compared to Garmin Connect where you can download training plans, get social, plot running routes and really dive into your data the TomTom web app feels a little underwhelming. It’s a good review of your last workout, but there’s nothing to get you outside again tomorrow.

The phone app offers much the same, albeit in a less luxuriously large format. The syncing here is also a tad tiresome, and it takes a while for phone and watch to pair. There’s actually no process to do it, just hold them nearby and wait for them to get connected.

The only saving grace of the TomTom MySports ecosystem – and it’s a biggie – is that you don’t actually need to use it at all. When you set up your Spark you can opt to connect your account with a number of apps including RunKeeper and Strava. As long-time users of both apps it’s brilliant to have runs seamlessly uploaded to those services, so you keep your run history without requiring your phone. It’s particularly great for Strava users, who can still see their Segments.

(wareable.com)

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