Sunday, April 21, 2019

COROS Apex GPS Multi-Sport Watch Long Term Test Review: Value and Performance

Article by Sam Winebaum

COROS Apex Premium GPS Multi-Sport Watch ($350)
Introduction
In December 2017 December at CES I noticed the Coros booth, featuring in bright lights their initial product, a hands free, ears open audio enabled bike element with automatic notification to loved ones of an impact.  Not as prominently, Coros was starting to show their Pace GPS watch. I was immediately struck and also somewhat skeptical of its very strong 25 hour GPS and wrist heart rate battery life  and very low price. I tested an initial release and low and behold it was a fine watch.
Roll forward to this fall and Coros introduced the Apex with up to 35 hours of battery life, a sapphire screen and even a titanium alloy bezel on my 46mm version all at a very reasonable 55 g weight, . There is a lighter smaller 42mm version (above left) with a ceramic bezel and still very respectable 25 hour battery life. Note that the "comparable" at least as far as hardware and size Garmin Forerunner 935 at a slightly lighter 49 g has a lower 24 hour battery life and has no durable bezel or sapphire screen cover and a $500 price tag, $150 more than the Apex.

Apex is assembled by a Chinese company specialized in GPS software so they are for sure and have proven in my testing very well qualified to achieve long battery life and accurate GPS. Coros sent us a sample Apex and I began testing in Decembe. I  now have many hundreds of miles of indoor and outdoor running and nordic skiing in 123 workouts through the winter with the watch. I did not test swim or bike modes.

Why you might ask not a review sooner? Well, while the battery life and GPS accuracy have proven outstanding, the optical wrist heart rate and screen visibility were not so good... I saw extended mid run periods of heart rate readings about 20 beats above actual and the thin digits peering through the dark dim screen largely unreadable in any kind of bright sun and especially with sunglasses on. One is now able to have dark digits on a light background which has helped.

I was also told Coros in their first big update would introduce navigation. With any new technology we often see not  quite "finished" firmware at release and bugs can emerge. So I waited for the first major update to finalize this review
About a month ago Coros released that first major update. It included the promised breadcrumb navigation features, and while not called out in the release notes,  I believe clearly improvements to the accuracy of the wrist heart rate sensing. This said most of my running is at moderate paces on flatter terrain. Hills and hard pounding impacts on downhills along with cold dry air temperatures which reduce blood flow to the extremities seemed in part a cause of the earlier heart rate monitoring issues. I have run in cold enough temperatures that previously may have caused the issue without similar inaccurate readings since the update so can conclude wrist based heart rate sensing is much improved for my uses.

The Bottom Line:
The Apex is an accurate long, long battery life GPS with wrist optical heart rate training watch with premium features such as a sapphire crystal and a titanium alloy bezel most often seen in watches costing hundreds of dollars more. I say training watch but in this day and age one can't call it a full "smartwatch" as while it includes phone notifications there are no apps,  no music control, or contactless payments. And Coros does not plan to be everything to everyone saying they are focused on the focused performance athlete, accuracy and quality at a fair price and not the "social" elements of fitness. The data exports easily to Strava and other platforms.

Pros
-Amazingly long training and everyday use battery life, up to 35 hours tested with GPS and oHR running and many days in everyday use. This is truly a watch you just don't have to worry about charging, a huge plus.
-Very accurate GPS tracking
-Very solid basic navigation features and route following as long as you go off prompts and do not have to stop squint at the actual mapping
-Very rapid GPS acquisition and post workout synching.
Cons
-Dim, not very trans reflective screen. or maybe the sapphire reflects too much light with overly narrow digits even with few fields in view. Difficult to see in any kind of bright light, with sunglasses on, ...or with old eyes. In those conditions I have difficulty seeing more than 2 fields plus the standard fixed  configurable lower field.
-Digital crown is high profile and with light tension and so can inadvertently spin out of position to another choice unintended before pressing for an action prior to start during workout pauses.
-Decent app but no web view and currently only limited shorter term training progress analysis.
-Only ANT+ external sensors only can be paired, strangely given very rapid BT synch capability

Official Specs

Display Size46mm: 1.2 in. 240 x 240 (64 colors)
42mm: 1.1 in. 218 x 218 (64 colors)
Display TypeMemory LCD
Screen MaterialSapphire Glass
Bezel Material46mm: Titanium Alloy
42mm: Ceramic
Strap MaterialSilicone
Quick Release Bands46mm: 22mm
42mm: 20mm
Physical Size46mm: 48.50 x 48.50 x 13.75 mm
42mm: 45.00 x 45.00 x 14.45 mm
Weight46mm: 55.3 g
42mm: 50.8 g 
Wireless ConnectionBT4.2 BLE for smartphone only, ANT+ for accessories 
NavigationGPS, GLONASS, BDS
SensorsOptical Heart Rate Monitor
Barometric Altimeter
Accelerometer
Gyroscope
Compass
Water Resistance10ATM (100 Meters/328 Feet)
Working Temperature14°F to 140°F (-10°C to 60°C)
Storage Temperature-4°F to 158°F (-20°C to 70°C)
Charging TimeLess than 2 Hours
Battery Life (46mm/42mm)Up to 100/80 Hours in UltraMax GPS Mode
Up to 35/25 Hours in Full GPS Mode
Up to 30/24 Days for Regular Use
Features
What will the combination of watch and Coros app (there is no web page version of the app) track?
Workout metrics for the following sports: 
  • Indoor and outdoor run modes
  • Indoor and outdoor biking
  • Pool and open water swimming
  • Triathlons
  • Interval training, aerobic and anaerobic workouts for run and bike
The data fields for each type of activity are configured in the app, the interval training workouts are configured on the watch. There are a vast array of data fields to chose from including cadence and stride length both also used to improve distance accuracy. 

During the day the watch can display you stats for Active Energy, Exercise Time, Calories, Stairs Cimbed, Steps, Heart Rate range, 2 flavors of compass, the barometric altimeter, temperature ranges and messages notifications. Spin the dial off of the watch face and where available press the digital crown to see more.
The Apex will estimate your percentage of recovery in the AI Trainer area of the watch, and during workouts, your remaining "Stamina". During and at the conclusion of the workout in addition  to all the usual stats it will display remaining Stamina and scores for both aerobic and anaerobic Training Effect.
I havcn't found Stamina useful as of yet but do follow the recovery indications,
The app will  show you last night's sleep ( found to be very accurate and comparable to Garmin and Polar), the last week's training load and finally your Fitness Index and Fitness Level.
It will estimate your VO2 Max ( I found underestimated at least compared to Garmin's flavor), Lactate Threshold (low and conservative based on my actual race experiences), Threshold Pace is very optimistic as I am 62 and stiff so something to work on.

Watch Faces, Standard Screens, Size, and Operation
Top: Left Full Size, Others scaled down in selection screen
Five watch faces can be loaded to the watch at a time from the 17 available in the app. They are non configurable beyond selection. There are 7 fairly subtle theme colors which can be applied to each.
Available Watch Faces


The Apex has a single wide lower right button and a "digital crown" similar but somewhat higher in profile than the Apple Watch's. All functions are controlled by these two "buttons". There is no touch screen.

In addition to your selected watch face, by spinning the crown you can access additional screens. On each screen press crown for related screens. Spin to move to the next category of data, press the long button to return to main watch face. The screens available currently include:

Today's Data: training time, stairs climbed. Press crown for calories and steps. Spin to move to the next screen, long button to return to main watch face.
Heart Rate: Current heart rate (displayed after 20 seconds or so as the Apex does not continuously monitor heart rate) and where in your zones the reading sits. Press for a graph of the last 6 hours heart rate including minimum and maximum. 

Barometric Altimeter: 
View 6 hour barometric data, Press for elevation data. Press again for 6 hour temperature data.

Update: I recently extensively tested the barometric altimeter on a 13 day trek across Switzerland. It was quite consistently 40 meters below actual. Swiss trails have regular and accurate altitude indication on trail signs. A Polar Vantage V on my other wrist tended to be about 5-10 meters low.
Below is the elevation plot of a 9 hour hike day where the difference between the two was considerably more. I did no pre calibration to a known altitude for either.
DC Rainmaker Analyzer: (Blue Apex, Purple Vantage V)

Compass: 
View compass. Press again to access a second compass with exact heading and time. 

Phone notifications: (messages and calls)
Scroll down to see as many as you want to see, so a somewhat different user interface than the other screens. Press crown to delete. Press bottom right button to return to watch face. 

On the Run
On the run once satellites and heart rate are acquired, and they generally are within a few seconds, press the crown in to start. Spin the crown to move between screens of data.
Press the long lower right button to mark a lap.
Press the crown to pause where you will be presented the choice of Resume, Finish, or Lap Details.

By and large this system works well on the run. However there is one significant flaw, likely due to a combination of the prominence of the digital crown itself and the light pressure to turn it.
More than a few times, including at the start of the Boston Marathon,  the crown due to a sleeve or its sensitivity in my nervous anticipation touching it spun to a position other than where I wanted it to be to press in on the crown. And who is squinting at a screen at the start of a race! So instead of Start on screen and press, I was on another choice on the dial and then pressed by mistake. Several times when I manually paused the watch (there is of course also Auto Pause) when I thought I was pressing Resume the dial had moved to Finish. So look and spin before you jump to conclusions and press.

Interval Training
Interval training is configured on the watch and includes the ability to say yes or no to a warm up and cool down with no time specified, as many repeats and rest periods as you wish based on time or distance but not heart rate. 

Fit
The Apex has a soft, quite thin, well aerated silicone band.
 It is comfortable to wear and when tightened for training not overly constrictive
LEFT to RIGHT: Garmin Forerunner 935, COROS Apex, Polar Vantage V
It is easy to sleep with, not always the case with awkward band and case designs  or heavier watches.  Its hinge is less bulky than the Garmin Forerunner 935's sitting a touch higher off the wrists. It does not have the curved wrap of the Vantage V 
It is comparable in size and weight (lightest to heaviest left to right below) to : Garmin Forerunner 935  (49 g) , Coros Apex (55 g), and Polar Vantage V (55g).

Battery Life
Battery life has proven totally consistent with the spec of 35 hours for training mode.  In its 75 hour Ultra Max mode 30% of the track is generated by GPS and 70% by motion sensing.

Update: We tested Ultra Max during our 13 day trek across Switzerland and assuming the activity is started at 100% battery we hit the 75 hour spec. by extrapolating from a 9 hour hike. Total distance was very close at less than a 0.05 km compared to a Polar Vantage V run in highest sampling mode. Wrist oHR was also captured during the test.

Charging is via a proprietary USB cable with connector on the rear case, very similar in appearance to current Garmin charging connections but not cross compatible.

Optical Heart Rate
First some caveats about wrist based oHR. Heavier watches on thinner wrists and colder dry temperatures are a prescription for inaccuracy, most often seen as higher readings when the sensing confuses cadence for heart rate when blood flow is low. It is a good idea to wear an oHR sensing watch on your dominant wrist and especially when the weather is cold and to warm up before starting taking care to wear gloves, etc..

The oHR sensing is made up of two LED lights and a single center sensor.
The Garmin Forerunner has a very similar array with an additional LED light while the Polar Vantage V has a whopping 9 LED lights including an orange one. Does the Apex keep up with the others?

The mark of a "smart" optical heart rate sensing watch is one that realizes such inaccuracies are creeping in and adjusts rapidly. The first months with the Apex were very frustrating. I had long periods on an indoor track and outdoors in all winter temperatures where the reading was 20 beats per minute higher than reality as measured by another watch on my non dominant wrist or a chest strap. Strangely these high readings were not usual approximately 165-170 beats per minute corresponding to my approximate cadence but somewhat lower having me think the Apex knew, put a tamper on the high reading. They did not in fact settle back to reality for long periods. Below an example. Reality was in the 130's or so bpm, the purple Polar Vantage V track, and not extended periods above 150, the blur track Coros Apex although the Vantage also had many lower spikes

Well, with their last update and potentially as factor more temperate spring weather this issue has for all intents disappeared. One could say it is due to weather changes and increased humidity but my testing indicates a true fix.

Below a plot of the Coros Apex (blue) on my dominant right wrist vs a Polar H10 chest strap (purple) at the Boston Marathon.
Plot: DC Analyser
Note how much more consistent the Apex was with only minimal spikes. And chest straps are supposedly the gold standard in heart rate monitoring...

Below a plot from a recent trail run in humid 65 F conditions with Apex and Polar Vantage V (using its wrist sensor). The Coros was on my dominant more reliable wrist but note that when I started at very moderate pace up a steep hill at about 14 minutes (left) how the Polar jumped up and stayed high. The deep drops are at various points where I stopped.

My conclusion is that oHR is significantly improved with the last updates and while not perfect the convenience of not having a chest strap along with the added benefits of monitoring lowest sleep and day heart rate make the Apex more than adequate for most more steady pace running scenarios.

Navigation
Navigation came as a recent update to the Apex. Routes can be imported via any GPX file first to the app and then by synch to the watch. A total of 10 routes at a time can be stored on the watch. In run mode one spins the dial to Settings then selects the route in Navi Settings. You start your run from the selected route. Navigation does not appear to be available for the Bike mode. Once underway you get all the screens you have configured for Run plus two additional for navigation.
One shows your route profile (above), general indication of altitude, along with total elevation to covered and total for the route (10/410 so very early)  As you progress on the route, the barometric altimeter will measure your progress and you will see the amount of vertical done and the total vertical, but unlike some of the Garmin as of yet there is no Ciimbing Pro screen to show progress on your current climb.

Update: I tested route navigation during our recent 13 day Swiss trek, downloading the official GPX file for the day's trail from SwitzlerlandMobility an official Swiss GIS system and app with all 32,000 kim of hiking and biking routes over highly detailed topo maps also available for download as GPX files. While the breadcrumb screen is small and not very useful beyond alerting for off route, the elevation data and distance covered displayed was incredibly useful and highly accurate.

In the photo above we were supposed to climb 215 meters along the downloaded routet and that is exactly what it shows we climbed. Literally to the meter.
The official end point of the hike was literally at the church steps in the background and that is what the watch indicated, and this despite a few detours along the way which it is able to account for to keep distance to finish accurate.
As seen also above there is a map of your progress on the route. By pressing the digital crown then spinning one can zoom in or out from 1 mile (totally useless except for very general indications on the dark background screen) down to 50 feet.
The watch will buzz when you are approximately 0.03 miles off route, showing you based on how you are facing where to get back on route.  Here the zoom is at 0.1 miles. I found that setting the dial to 100 feet is most useful when off course to see actual direction more clearly.

I wish the screen was inverted with dark line on light back ground and included a couple configurable data fields as an overlay.
At the conclusion of my trail run, the watch indicated exactly the 410 feet of climbing planned had been covered but strangely the workout data in the Coros app indicated I had covered 354 feet of vertical...The Polar Vantage V on my other wrist, also with a barometric altimeter indicated 320 feet of ascent. I have run this route many times with Garmin watches, mainly the 935, and generally the vertical covered is shown as approximately 360-370 feet which can be influenced by the short side jaunts I often take,

GPS Accuracy
To improve accuracy the Apex samples GPS every second and less frequently in 75 hour Ultra Max mode filling in gaps due to the less frequent Ultra Max sampling and weak satellite signals otherwise, for example in cities with big buildings, by using the stride length and cadence sensing to fill in data. As trail running can involve different cadence and stride lengths than road running, a trail running mode is being planned.
Update: I extensively tested Ultra Max mode during our Swiss Trek. I discovered that if you are following a route downloaded to the watch Ultra Max mode can not be enabled.

As Ultra Max relies on stride length and cadence and there is no "hike" mode as of yet it took several days for the algorithms to adapt to walking vs. running but once they did...

On our next to last day we covered 36.19 km (converted from miles) per  COROS APEX in Ultra Max mode vs 36.24 km for Vantage V. We did not download a GPX file for either watch.

A sample of the comparative tracks shows some discrepancies for the Apex. Given its considerably less frequent sampling of satellite signals it seems to have temporarily missed the sharp turn at the center of image below but then recovered nicely.


The capper to all this and reason to use Ultra Max mode is extended battery life. The 9 hour and a few minutes hike used a measly 12% of the battery indicating a 75 hour as per spec run time. I did see lower battery run times on earlier hike segments.

Road Running Accuracy 
I have found the road GPS accuracy outstanding. The Apex had me at 26.22 miles for the Boston Marathon although I did start the watch about 0.1 miles into the race due to the dial issue described above  The Polar Vantage V had me at 26.64 miles for the marathon distance.

When the Apex is worn side by side with a Garmin 935 I find the mile splits buzz almost simultaneously although I do often see differences in the lap pace for the split.
During a trail run test the distance came to 5.46 miles with the Polar Vantage V which I generally find somewhat optimistic at 5.49 miles. The blue track is the Apex, the purple is the Vantage V. The base route I loaded was generated by the Strava app on an iPhone X  had it at 5.62 miles. I generally find iPhone run apps somewhat optimistic as to distance.
Indoor Running
As the Apex uses a combination of GPS , stride and cadence continuously to determine distance and pace, once auto calibrated indoor running accuracy proved excellent. The caveat is that your outdoor running and indoor running cadence and stride length need to be similar. Don't expect, as I found, that after several days of slogging steep trail running then jumping on an indoor track or treadmill you will see great results.

Conclusions
The Coros Apex is a very fine new training watch contenders and a very polished and complete first entry from a new player. Its key strengths are: outstanding never think about it battery life and accurate GPS tracking.  Bonuses at its very attractive price of $350 are its premium external durability features such as its sapphire crystal and titanium alloy bezel. Its weaknesses are a dim screen and layout in sunlight, lack of BT external sensor support, and no longer term training and cardiac analysis without exporting to other platforms. That's OK as there are plenty of them out there and Coros is sticking to its focus on the basics of training.

Comparisons

COROS Pace ($300) RTR Review soon
49 g, 25 hours training, 30 days everyday use
The Pace all the key features of the Apex except the Navigations and Stamina features. Its physical hardware differs in having a plastic bezel and strengthened glass crystal lens instead of titanium and a sapphire lens. Battery life remains impressive at 25 hours. If you have a particularly thin wrist the smaller lighter Pace may be slightly more comfortable and potentially offer slightly better optical heart rate results. Otherwise given the $50 difference it is a coin flip.

Garmin Vivoactive 3 ($250)
43 g, 13 hours training, 7 days everyday
Lighter the Vivoactive has clearly shorter battery life than the Apex and in day to day use with training you will notice the need to charge more frequently.  It does not have a navigation module but will track ascent and descent via its barometric altimeter. While a very capable training watch it is more every day and fitness focused with music storage and contactless payments.

Polar Vantage M ($280) RTR Review
45 g, 30 hours  training
With close to the battery life of the Apex the Vantage M has a much more complete built in training and cardiac progress monitoring system as well as a multitude of sports profiles which the Apex lacks, all tuned to more accurately measure activity load across multiple sports. We particularly liked the Polar's ability to save and display Sleep stats on wake up directly on the watch without synching to the app. It does not have a barometric altimeter relying on GPS for this data. It is a lighter more "plastic" watch than the Apex but a very attractive one.

Polar Vantage V ($500) RTR Review
Checking in at $150 more than the Apex the Vantage V somehow exceeds the Apex with a 40 hour training battery life. It shares a titanium bezel, albeit a very skinny one with the Apex and has  a Gorilla Glass crystal instead of the Apex's sapphire. It includes run power on the wrist and as with Vantage M and the same and even more host of training, recovery, and cardiac progress features than its lower cost M sibling. Now that the Apex is more consistently measuring heart rate the Vantage's more frequent spiking and inconsistencies, while averages end up similar, are a concern compared to the Apex. The Apex if you are focused on the basics of training is a better value.
Read reviewers' full run bios here
The product reviewed was provided at no cost. The opinions herein are entirely the authors'.
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4 comments:

Pug said...

Great review. I have the Coros Pace. On the Pace, do you know if there's a way to change the background to white with black numbering? Thanks!

Sam Winebaum said...

Thanks Pug!
On the Apex to change background to white: Press Run >> spin dial to Settings >>spin down to White Background and select. Should be same on Pace.
Sam, Editor
Thanks for reading Road Trail Run! See our page with links 100’s of in depth shoe and gear reviews HERE. You can also follow RoadTrailRun on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram where we publish interesting run related content more frequently as well as links to our latest reviews.
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Brian said...

Sam, you have recently reviewed the other watch that I am considering along with the Coros Apex, the Polar Vantage M. I am not one to pour over data. I mainly run, with a bit of swim and bike for the purpose of cross training. If massive data crunching is not your interest, which watch would you select?
Also: I am sorry to hear about the mishap with the digital knob at the Boston Marathon. Were inadvertent actions of the knob a common experience or a rare quirk?
I appreciate your insight and will not make a selection until I hear back, as well as consider your upcoming Coros Pace review. Thanks for all of your excellent reviews.

Patrick said...

Great review - I've had the watch for about 4 months and draw similar conclusions...it's a keeper based on weight, battery life and general altitude/distance tracking alone. I really wish it had more 'activity types' as my bc skiing and hiking/trekking are all funneled to 'run.' Also, I still find HR to be very inconsistent, especially when trail running. btw, I'm envious that you had so much deep sleep! (i can't seem to record more than a couple hours a night)...thanks.