“What is the best triathlon watch for the coming year: 2017?” you ask.
2017 is going to be a year of new triathlon watches. January 2017 has seen three already. There WILL be more. Some of them SOON (May/June).
This post WILL BE UPDATED THROUGHOUT 2017 as new models emerge and are reviewed. This post was originally based on 2016 MODELS. Garmin’s 935 and Suunto’s SPARTAN Sport WHR & TRAINER are not properly included yet in this review as the watches are under review/testing. Although some summary views on those products ARE included.
AVAILABILITY: As of May 2017 Garmin 935 and Fenix 5 are available in the US at Powermetercity.com.
What do YOU mean by BEST? Most often it is taken as ‘most features’. Going into 2017 the summer announced Garmin 935 wins on the ‘most features’ front. But do YOU really need to know what your Vertical Oscillation Ratio is when you run? Do YOU really need to know what a Connect IQ data field can estimate your W’bal to be during those hard hill reps?…thought not!
ESSENTIAL READING: Top Running Watches for 2017
So if you count the best-BUT-ACTUALLY-USEFUL features ON A WATCH YOU CAN CURRENTLY BUY AND USE then these Suunto, Polar and Garmins from pre-2017 and the Garmin 935/Fenix 5 from 2017 are broadly on par with each other:
So what is best for YOU depends on your needs and budget. You’re an individual, not a number. Right?
All I would say, regarding whatever you end up buying, is: make sure that what you buy has Heart Rate and GPS recording abilities – simple ! The point of saying this is to exclude smartphone apps and basic watches as realistic alternatives.
Even when those uber-basic points are addressed you may go on to further complicate matters for yourself by including a list of features you will like – such as smartphone notification display, 24×7 activity tracking and 3rd party positional tracking of you. Maybe you want outdoorsy-features or mapping-features? Or to support sports other than triathlon? Adding some of those non-core, non-tri features to your wish list will probably help you narrow down your list.
I have chatted to a few elite triathletes and lots of very good ones. You’ll be very disappointed to learn that many don’t wear any of the watches you’ll be thinking of buying unless doing photo shoots or appeasing sponsors. Most of them don’t have as much money as you to spend on kit! You’ll also be disappointed to find that when you go swimming with your tri/masters club that there is almost an inverse correlation between cost of sports watch worn by the swimmer and the speed of swimmer! Think about it.
But that didn’t stop me spending lots of money on gadgets either 🙂 I’m just saying that it doesn’t REALLY matter that much what you buy.
ESSENTIAL READING: Top Running Watches At Christmas 2016
Garmin – the elephant in the room
If you’ve already got a lower-end Garmin and have invested money in ANT+ gadgets and invested time in building up your Garmin Connect data then you might as well go-Garmin when you upgrade, especially if you have an ANT+-only power meter.
The almost-discontinued Garmin 310XT is more than fine as a tri watch and an old-but-perfect duathlon watch. If you’re a beginner swimmer it’s all you will need to count laps. The 910XT is a very competent tri watch and will also do the job; you might go for the 920XT, 735XT or 935 if you are a gadget nut and/or excellent swimmer.
IF you loved the Fenix 3 and wore it outside of sport then you can now get your hands on one of the many Fenix 5 variants (5, 5s, 5x and 935 are the variants). But really there is not too much to upgrade for going from the Fenix 3 to the Fenix 5 unless you want the maps of the Fenix 5X or the smaller size of the Fenix 5S.
If you like circular watchfaces and you like Garmin. Then, instead of the 735XT, there is now the Forerunner 935 (which is a lightweight, aka plastic, version of the Fenix 5). The 935 has near-identical features to the Fenix 5.
There’s also a more expensive, optical HR version of the Fenix 3 with the same features as the Fenix 3 but ALSO optical HR – called the Fenix 3HR. You might well consider the Fenix 3 to be a great choice over the Fenix 5…it is cheaper and has similar functionality.
The Garmin CHRONOS is a VERY expensive Fenix 3-cum-5. It’s really a dress watch with multi-sport features.
The 735XT is also round and pretty; it’s been built to be a lightweight populist run-cum-tri-watch but lacks a few professionally competitive features eg lack of bike mount. Great for small wrists though.
Is it as round and pretty as the Suunto Spartan SPORT (below)? Probably not.
If you take offence at spending hundreds of pounds/dollars on an ugly watch then you will avoid the 310xt and 920xt (I have both).
If you still want to go-Garmin why not get a running watch and a cycling computer? THIS IS becoming an increasing popular choice.
After all you don’t look at a watch much at all when swimming and a cycling computer is potentially a LOT better for, ahem, cycling than a tri watch.
Polar and Suunto offer MUCH prettier options, admittedly probably not in my blue colours shown a few images above. But hey! I like blue. No-one else does.
Polar, Suunto and Garmin will all allow you to get data out of their environment and sent ‘somewhere’ else. Don’t worry about that. If you haven’t bought a power meter yet then buy a multi-band one (BTLE+ANT+) when you can. If you already have a power meter then you are likely to be tech-savvy and you will know which manufacturers that limits your tri-watch choice to! If you have other accessories, like HRMs and footpods, don’t let those sway your choice of watch; minor accessory replacements are relatively cheap.
Considering the most useful features, the Polar V800 is essentially as good as Garmin’s 920XT and 735XT. The Suunto AMBIT3 Sport and Suunto Spartan ULTRA/SPORT have a several unique and peripherally innovative features (eg STRYD-profile support & EPOC); if you own Apple products then you’d probably buy the AMBIT 3 or the Suunto Spartan Ultra/Sport. I’m not sure why, just seems to be the way it is from what I’ve seen – quality of construction and the AMBIT’s general lack of bugs, perhaps?
The old Suunto AMBIT 2 is perfectly fine as is the old TomTom multisport. The Suunto AMBIT 2 has been replaced but the TomTom will NOT be replaced with a new multisport model.
The Garmin Vivoactive HR is fine for beginners when used for “consecutive single sports” NB: this is not quite multi-sports/triathlon, it’s great for those who want a fairly nice-looking watch/band. The Vivoactive HR is already announced and on sale it’s a bit big for a ‘band’ though.
Again, on the “consecutive single sports” point, you could also go for the new and highly competent TomTom Runner 3 / Spark 3 – But, yet again, watches like this are not really triathlon watches but do have some usefulness – there are many more of this type.
I’d probably NOT go for the Garmin Fenix 2, there’s better fish in the sea even if you get a good price.
The Timex IronMan watches seem to be worn by a select few people who are quite good but the watch is no big deal in itself. If you want to look like a pro, up until you start swimming, the Timex is the one to go for!!
Understatedness is king in Gadget-world!
For the one-off triathlon or duathlon you will also find that many running watches are waterproof enough for a race and have a rudimentary cycling mode eg Polar M400 for £100.
But by the same token if you’re in it to finish then surely all you need is a timer and/or basic speed/hr info? Your current watch may well be OK for that.
If you want the latest-greatest thing for pure triathlon pose-value then you may well need to wait until Spring 2017 for the 920XT REPLACEMENT…but will it be bug-free?
- Review: Polar V800 (replacement due, Polar V900 )
- Review: Garmin Fenix 3 or Garmin 920Xt (replacements due, Fenix 5, 5s & 5X & 935)
- Review: Suunto AMBIT3 (replacement: “AMBIT 4 SPORT” is the Spartan SPORT also in the WHR or optical HR version)
- Review: Garmin Forerunner 735XT
- Review: Suunto SPARTAN SPORT
- Review: Suunto SPARTAN ULTRA (on hold)
- Review: Suunto SPARTAN SPORT (wrist oHR, April 2017)
- Review: Garmin Forerunner 935 (April 2017)
- Review: Garmin Fenix 5X (April 2017)
Suunto have some unusual, usage-specific variants of the AMBIT 3, such as the KAILISH and VERTICAL models. They are not really triathlon watches, ignore those.
There is also a new and probably imminent SPARTAN-variant to the AMBIT3, called the SPARTAN TRAINER, with optical HR and SPARTAN firmware. As of 3/Oct, no-one is quite sure what it is. It’s NOT the planned optical version of the SPARTAN SPORT but it is called SPARTAN, it does have oHR and it is sporty cUS$270. Confused? Me too! It could be a good sensibly-priced oHR watch,
PIE IN THE SKY PRICES?
Let’s say this is all looking a little too expensive for you. There are some GREAT options for older models that are still being sold but which are otherwise, effectively, discontinued. The two best contenders are both from Garmin and are the 910XT and 310XT. I’d personally go for the former. I’ve used both and I used both the 910XT & 920XT for a couple of years each as my main workhorse. They are essentially bug free and as cheap as you will get. They are both SPECIFICALLY triathlon/duathlon watches.
The 310XT lacks a bit on swimming functionality but can be used in water. If you are just starting out in triathlon or just training for one particular event (which could be your last!) then the 910XT is great. The prices on both of these change quite a lot and you can get them for as low as $/£100 sans HR strap *IF* you are very lucky. For the lowest possible priced ‘triathlon’ watch you will need to go for a rather dated but functional TomTom Multisport CARDIO which has an early incarnation of optical HR.
ESSENTIAL READING: Detailed review of Garmin 910XT
ESSENTIAL READING: Detailed review of Garmin 310XT
Also have a look at
- Alternatives to Garmin (across other sports sectors, not just tri)
If you want lots and lots of features that you won’t use, it’s “Buy the most expensive Garmin you can afford” – which is a bit of a boring, expensive and rubbish recommendation IMO.
Go on, be different.
- Garmin Forerunner 935 / Fenix 5 (5s, 5X, 5) – They are basically the same. They have the most features. On that basis they are the ‘best’ tri watch. They do have proper triathlon features. The 935 has a quick-release kit and plastic shell.
- Garmin Forerunner 735XT – Very many features, not necessarily all useful! No quick release kit. Good aesthetics and great for small wrists.
- Garmin 920XT – Feature-full, not necessarily all useful! A bit ugly. No direct replacement – although it’s part-replaced by the 935.
- Polar V800 – All the relevant features. If priced less than the AMBIT3 – buy it. Good looking. Most accurate GPS, maybe. Probable replacement due 2017.
- Suunto AMBIT3/ AMBIT3 SPORT – Best value for money at the higher end at the moment. Accurate GPS. Replaced by SPARTAN ULTRA/SPORT.
- Garmin Fenix 3 – Best selling of these. Mainly for non-tri reasons and outdoorsy/adventure reasons. Replaced by fenix 5, which is not that different. The Fenix 5 will go on to be the best seller.
- Suunto Spartan SPORT/ULTRA – Clever holistically featured ecosystem around a beautiful watch. This continues to improve monthly. Buy for the looks now and for the features by Q3.2017. WARNING: I LIKE THIS WATCH BUT IF YOU BUY IT IN Q2.2017 YOU WILL BE INVESTING IN THE FUTURE DEVELOPMENT OF THE PLATFORM AND NOT CURRENT FEATURES.
- Garmin Fenix 5 collection – Expensive and feature-full. Interesting options that include mapping and versions for the smaller-wristed.
- Suunto SPARTAN Sport WHR (wrist optical HR)
- Polar V800 replacement (V900?) – A totally unknown quantity. Some thoughts on V900 functionality (here).
- Suunto SPARTAN TRAINER (SPARTAN-in-an-AMBIT-shell, otherwise details unknown, expected Q3.2017)
- Refurbished Garmin 310XT cheapest that I’d recommend
- Garmin 910XT the cheap option I’d personally go for if money WAS an issue
- ACCURACY – If you want accuracy then Polar and Suunto have the best GPS accuracy.
- ACCURACY – If you want accuracy then you will not buy an optical HR device.
Let’s turn it around:
- Most pro-tri solution: Garmin 935
- Most ugly: Garmin 920XT
- Prettiest: Suunto SPARTAN SPORT
- Great value techniness: Ambit 3 Sport and Polar V800
- For thin wrists: Garmin 735XT, Fenix 5s
- Old Model/Budget: Garmin 310XT and Garmin 910XT
- First Tri: Any old waterproof sports watch
- Biker turns tri: Garmin Edge 820 + a running watch!
- Runner turns tri: Garmin 935
- Best 2017 investment for the future: Suunto SPARTAN
- Best with maps: Fenix 5x
- Most accurate GPS: Polar V800, Suunto AMBIT3, Suunto SPARTAN SPORT
- ‘Budget’ tri-watch in a current model – TBC Probably SPARTAN TRAINER
If you want to know what I have then unfortunately my answer lies in the first image of this post – I have a Suunto A3, Garmin 920XT and a Polar V800…very 2015!! I borrow other devices from friends or PRs from time to time. On loan I currently have a Suunto Spartan ULTRA as well as a Spartan SPORT and a Suunto Spartan SPORT WHR. But 2017 will VERY likely see my preferred devices change. (Indeed I’m erring towards a good Garmin bike computer plus a Suunto Spartan Sport WHR for Swim+Run training but a Garmin 935 for racing in a duathlon/triathlon)
I will be buying the Fenix 5x and the Forerunner 935 in Q1.2017.
ESSENTIAL READING: Top Running Watches at Christmas 2017
Here are some more options and prices, I’d use any of them for racing/training. Get your timing right. As a guide you should really be paying <£250 for the 920xt. NOT £320. eesh! Most of them are linked in the shop, above right, to other countries’ Amazon sites if you’d like to support this blog. The SHOP LINKS ALWAYS link to the LOWEST Amazon prices – as do the links below
UK Buyers note: Forerunner 935 are NOT yet available for UK pre-orders through Amazon. Excuse the image for now, I will change that and the links once it gets listed 🙁
For other countries please click on the flags (top right) there will be links there to the Forerunner 935 soon.