Sunday, July 19, 2020

Timex Ironman R300 Review: You Get What You Pay For... and Then Some!

By Michael Ellenberger
Timex Ironman R300 ($129)

Michael is a patent attorney and 2019 graduate of Northwestern University Law School in Chicago. Prior to law school, he competed collegiately at Washington University in St. Louis (10,000m PR of 30:21). He recently finished 2nd at the Chicago Half-Marathon in a PR of 67:43, and was the top Illinois finisher in the 2017 Boston Marathon (2:33:03, 82nd overall). He recently secured a 2:31 marathon PR at the Austin Marathon. 

This product was provided by Timex for review, but Timex does not have any input in this review.

Price: $129
Availability: Now
The Quick Review
  • Pros: Price (!); feature-laden; battery life; lightweight and “cool”; app experience; GPS and HR performance
  • Cons: No dedicated backlight button; slightly large; lack of minute customizability for sport profiles; software quirks; lack of third-party (Stryd, apps) support
Introduction

Timex has been making GPS watches for a few years now, but with spotty software and often high prices, they haven’t been well situated to make a major push into the Garmin-driven market of running wearables. The Timex Ironman R300 (“R300”) seeks to change that; at $129, it’s one of the cheapest modern wearables and, with weeks-long battery life, onboard GPS and GLONASS, smart notifications via Bluetooth, Strava sync, a revised app platform for Android and iOS, and that classic Timex look, the R300 is here to make a major push. 

The $129 MSRP is undoubtedly low, and should draw in new runners and those who need the bare bones. But the R300 is not alone in this price category - the Apple Watch Series 3, while not a dedicated running watch (and now nearing 3 years old) is routinely sub-$170, the Garmin Forerunner 45 has an MSRP at $200 but is frequently available at $150, the Polar M200 has an MSRP at $150, and the outgoing Garmin Forerunner 35 is often $100. That’s to speak nothing of the onslaught of less known Asian brand watches, including the Amazfit Bip ($60), Amazfit T-Rex ($150), or even the Letsfit smart watch which, despite the price, has onboard GPS, SPO2 monitoring, and a full color touchscreen. 

That’s not to say all of these rival Timex directly - a brand new, 2020 offering will likely be more stable than an older generation product and, in the case of the Amazon-marketed ultra-cheap wearables, the customer service and platform updates are likely to be more reliable. But it is to say that $129 is not the “insta-buy” it once was - even when a watch like the Fenix 6X Pro Solar reaches $1200 before tax (see my upcoming 2020 GPS Watch Compendium for more). 
I’ve tested (by my count) at least 12 Garmin, 2 Polar, 2 Coros, 1 Nike, 1 Soleus, 5 Apple, and 1 previous Timex entry, so I enter this review with an appreciation of what is available… and an excitement! Something new is always fun, and damn if I don’t love running technology. Let’s get moving.


The Hardware 

Let’s chat hardware. The Timex Ironman R300 packs the vast majority of the features that a runner will use - most notably, onboard GPS, continuous heart rate monitoring, physical buttons for tactile usage (touchscreen-only watches - “cool” factor aside - can be frustrating at best in the sweaty summer months), smartphone notifications via Bluetooth, and more. Of course, the R300 even has a touchscreen, which Timex thankfully lets you disable during workouts - and, to Timex’s credit, requires a first-pass button engagement to activate, to help mitigate accidental presses (why Polar couldn’t get this right on the Vantage V, I don’t know!). 
On the wrist, the Timex is… a Timex. It feels slightly big for my wrist, even though a 41mm case size is usually not - though the relatively thin 11mm profile and the rectangular shape may help that. The significant bezels and shortened lugs give it a distinct old-school (and chunky) appearance. Visually, I do wish it was 2mm smaller, but I kind of dig the look of it, to be honest - maybe it’s the nerdiness of a patent attorney, but I sort of dig the chunky, classic Timex aesthetic. Despite its frame, the very light weight (31g) and short strap lugs help it sit nicely on the wrist, and I had no trouble getting consistent heart rate readings, even at a couple different band hole intervals.

Speaking of which - the band is longer than I’d like (I have about 6.75” wrists and I’m on the 3rd to smallest hole), but it’s readily replaceable with an industry standard 24mm "quick-release" connection, should you want something else. You’ll lose the Ironman insignia that way, sure, but for runners with wrists daintier than mine, at least it’s a nice option to have. The R300 is quite light, though, and I genuinely forget I’m wearing it (unlike, say a Fenix 5 or 6!). 

Fortunately, the four buttons here are very clicky and responsive, and the touchscreen more than adequate for my use cases. After a couple days of reviewing it, I turned off the touchscreen entirely - not out of bugginess (the screen lock ensures you won’t have accidental swipes), but simply out of lack of use. Still, some will love it, and it’s great to have the option.

The battery spec is spectacular - nearly matching Timex's promised 25 days in smartwatch mode, and 20 hours GPS. I’ve been using about 5-7% of the battery per day including a one hour GPS (with constant HR recording) session. Largely I did not test with notification enabled, since I just don't need to know I got another email, but when I did have them on, I did not notice a significant change in battery performance.  

Charge times are slower than I expected; a full charge took me nearly 3 hours (from dead, as it arrived), but I. I don’t know that trend will continue the entire life of the product (or even of this battery cycle), but it’s not so far off of Timex’s suggestion of a 2-hour charge for a 25-day battery life (without GPS). I think the drain from GPS activities is probably slightly worse than Coros’s platform, but the standby is slightly better - it’s almost like a Kindle, it just does not drain battery when not engaged with.

Smaller notes - the backlight is actually quite even (on the case on many Garmin devices I’ve owned, especially in the 230/5 generation), and is adjustable to a number of levels, which is impressive. Upping the backlight will likely drain the battery to some degree, but I (besides purely for testing purposes) kept it on the second-from-bottom level and had no issues viewing in dark conditions. In bright light, the transflective display is easily readable - though I admit, the default stock face (red on black) is an odd choice; some of the alternatives, including yellow and blue, make the smaller figures on the screen much easier to make out. You can toggle button press haptics and sounds individually, which is also a nice surprise. 


The Software (Besides Running)

The R300 has both a button- and touchscreen- (swipe-) based interface, though it certainly relies more heavily on the buttons. And generally, I had no issues here - button presses are solid and reliable, and essentially do what you expect - the first press unlocks the touchscreen (unless recently used), then beyond that, the up key brings up quick settings, middle key takes you to menus, and down key to notifications (see below for a mild rant on that). Curiously, the left key doesn’t do anything by default (it can be programmed) besides toggle the backlight (which is what I want while running!), but a quick double-press of it brings up the weather. Nice! Holding it down also enables a Power/Restart menu. I would say this is all relatively intuitive and quick to learn.
One frustration here is lack of customizability of the central buttons; I wish I could tap the down button to go to Settings, for example, instead of incessantly be met with a sharp “buzz” and have it read “No Notifications” - which, I know, because I tend to leave those off (except for testing). Non-engagale notifications (basically on any watch beyond the Apple Watch for iOS users like me) aren’t worth anything to me, I know I get 6,000 emails a day and I don’t want to deal with that right now! I will say, again to Timex’s credit, there is quite a granular distribution of which notifications you want; you can choose to get only text messages, or only from the Slack app, or whatever. Again, I tend to turn them all off because they can’t be responded to on-watch, but for those who just want to use their watch as a reference for what’s happening, at least take heart in knowing you can choose which buzzes come through.

The Software (When Running)

The R300 packs several sport profiles including outdoor running and treadmill (along with indoor/outdoor cycling and a general cardio profile with GPS on or off at your command).

Beginning a Run
Beginning a run on the R300 is relatively easy; you use the middle button to select “Workouts” and again to “Outdoor Run” (or a customizable long press of the middle button, though the 5-second wait time is not necessarily faster than a quick double-press). Once more on the middle button and you’re waiting for GPS; like most modern watches, Timex caches satellite data onboard to speed this process up and I found the connection times to the GPS+GLONASS systems to be on par with most watches (it does use the same Sony GPS chipset, after all). It also monitors every second, which I have found to lead to a more consistent track (especially around corners) compared to the "Smart" sensing on a Garmin device. My first pass help-desk response to anyone struggling with GPS performance is whether they're using 1-second recording; luckily Timex has that nailed down here.
Oh, I should also say this - I talk about running because I’m a runner and this is a running website but, to be clear (and despite the “Ironman” name), there’s no swim tracking on here. It’s waterproof, to be sure, and it can track cycling as a separate activity, but it’s not going to work if you’re training for Kona. Sorry. 
During a Run
The controls will be largely familiar to most runners here; I know I (who has bounced around across several platforms recently trying to make my Compendium) was pretty comfortable with the layout immediately. The top right key marks a lap (and - for those used to long track sessions - displays a small numeral in the top right to mark what lap number you’re on - smart!); the middle key serves as start and stop (thank you, Timex, for making this the same button), and the bottom key toggles between the only changeable field with distance and elapsed time fixed, the bottom most data field (see compilation photo, below). 
The swappable fields are BPM, Pace, Calories, and Cadence - there is no lap pace available. I found the "instantaneous pace" readout to be very accurate - but not exactly instantaneous. Once it caught up (after 5-10 seconds), I found it true to pace without any weird fluctuations.

Meanwhile, the key on the left side of the watch (as worn) takes you back to the main menu, so you can run another operation (i.e. a stopwatch or timer) during your GPS activity. Subject to the below rant about the backlight, I do wish this key could be reprogrammed to be a backlight key, with a long press functioning to go back to the main screen.
A major frustration I had was a lack of a dedicated backlight button when running; yes, pushing any of the buttons illuminates the backlight, but it also necessarily does something else, including taking a split or changing a data field. I wish at the very least Timex would let you disable the touchscreen but press it to turn on the backlight; that way, you could see the data fields when running at night or in the early morning without messing with the rest of your setup. Alternatively, having the left-side button be a light when pressed and a back button when held would solve the issue. Of course, Timex does have an option for wrist-turn to illuminate the backlight as well, but that requires either always being on (even when sleeping), or scheduling… which means you likely would not schedule it for a time when it’s dark (see: the sleeping point) and thus wouldn’t need it while running.



Another issue? The Timex defaults to a 1-mile autolap (like most watches, and adjustable for those who don’t want it), and the tone and vibration are readily audible and… feelable? No problems there, but my qualm is with what’s displayed on the screen itself: about ¾ of the screen is “LAP 1” and only on the bottom ¼ of the screen is there your lap split… and it only lasts about 3 seconds (literally) at that. In a 7 mile run, I think I only was able to read 2 of my 7 mile splits. Yikes. I would love Timex to change up the display so that it devotes significantly less room to the number of the lap you’re on (who forgets what mile they’re on?) and significantly more to the readout of the split itself. Such a move would increase functionality drastically! 

Both of these frustrations fall under the blanket of "software quirks," and as such aren't such a huge deal - neither is (theoretically) permanent, and if enough users express frustration over the backlight button or small text, I'm sure Timex can correct course... but these may also only frustrate me, and runners will need to weigh how much they care about these minor niggles before purchasing.

Fortunately, when it isn’t dark or a mile marker, the R300 is largely visible, with a transflective display (similar to that on most Garmin and Polar watches, for example) and relatively large data fields. It’s frustrating, to some degree, that there aren’t multiple pages of data available here (I tend to have one page for time/pace/distance and one for secondary metrics like HRM/Lap/Power), but it’s not the end of the world, especially at this price point. The ability to scroll at least the bottom most field does alleviate some of the sting. 


Oh, and I should mention - a Power metric? Impossible here; my beloved Stryd footpod has no way to interface with Timex. I don’t know if that’s a Stryd issue or a Timex one, but it’s disappointing to say the least, and will become even more of an issue in the winter when I’m on the treadmill more, as that’s the most accurate way to get distance. Fortunately, Stryd has offline sync - but at least partial compatibility, ala the Garmin Venu, would be appreciated.



Watch Performance


Heart Rate Tracking
Part of how Timex promises such significant battery life (I assume) is by auto-disabling the HRM (compared to, for example, Garmin’s all-day sensor). Fortunately, this is readily customizable and, more fortunately, it doesn’t constitute a massive battery hit, even when enabled to record every minute. During an activity, the R300 constantly records.
 
During a run, I consistently found the HR tracking more than adequate, with no weird spikes or stutters. In the run below, I started solo with some faster miles (simultaneously testing the Adidas Adizero Pro) and then looped back to meet people, which is why my heart rate decreases (and at one point, takes a pause) mid run. In no instances dd I experience cadence lock or blatantly faulty HR feedback (though Timex's default HR zones think I'm working in Zone 4 on basically every run).


GPS Tracking
As previously mentioned, the Timex uses Sony's GPS chipset (the same as in nearly all 2019-2020 Garmin devices) and works off both GPS and GLONASS systems. 

[MPE Edit: I spoke with an engineer at Timex for some updated information on the barometric altimeter, updated as follows]. Elevation data on the R300 comes from the onboard barometric altimeter, which should be a major selling point for many runners, especially those in mountainous terrain - even Garmin's twice-the-price Forerunner 245 offering does not have an onboard altimeter! The hole for the sensor is under the upper strap pivot point - a move the engineering team had to make to avoid adverse condensation in the "usual" caseback position for the sensor.

On the run, I found the GPS to be very accurate. It's been reported that the Sony chipset is less accurate that some of the previous offerings at the added benefit of increased battery life, but I had no issues, even when running in relatively dense urban areas. Timex's antenna design, always key to accuracy must be quite good; I found the R300 to have superior performance even compared to the more expensive Polar Vantage V and last generation's Forerunner 230 (with the "better" older GPS chipset). There are a number of factors that influence the GPS performance, as I understand it, but whatever combination Timex has come up with here, it does indeed punch above its cost (err, weight).


Of course, as previously mentioned, lack of compatibility with Stryd complicates things for "true" urban runners; when I'm planning a route through Chicago's downtown Loop, for example, I always try to ensure pace and distance data come from the Stryd footpod to avoid the GPS weirdness (and often truly awful tracks) that come from trying to ping satelliates around buildings. I have even seen a friend steal your segment on Strava due to a 3:00 downtown mile! Yes, GPS performance with skyscrapers can be really, really rough (why Strava doesn't auto-flag 3:00 miles is a totally separate issue - don't get me started!).

Though it's not entirely easy to see through Timex's colored line presentation, the GPS performance on a relatively clear, short run (down the middle of a semi-closed street) is superior from the R300 (top) compared to a Garmin Forerunner 230 (bottom). This mirrors the performance I was experiencing all week. Lots of factors go into this, too, but I made sure both devices had a strong GPS lock before beginning. And yes, you can overlay your map with the mile markers on the Timex app as well - I just removed them for clarity.



Smartphone Platform
Timex wields its “Timex Smart” platform (available on iOS and Android; I only tested on iOS) to manage the R300 and, in the grand scheme of GPS watch-smartphone platforms, I would say it’s better than most. 


Sleep Tracking
Like many smartwatches or sport watches, the R300 has onboard sleep tracking. I was most recently testing this functionality with the Polar Vantage V (a watch about 4x the R300’s price) and having some mixed results; while Polar’s layout is nice (there are certainly enough boring metrics to help you fall asleep), I found viewing the data on the watch slightly cumbersome. Timex has alleviated this, to an extent, by routing it all through the Timex Smart app. It works reasonably well in my testing, with accurate sleep and wake times and a fair representation of how I felt.

Something clearly missing from the sleep data is a corresponding heart rate reading; I’m not sure if that’s coming in future updates, but it would be nice to see.


Watch Customization
The Timex Smart app also allows for customization of the R300 (which is then carried over with a sync), including choosing new watch faces, adjusting the touchscreen settings, messing with which “apps” are displayed onboard (I removed “Coaching” and “Music” (for music controls), for example). 

You can also use the app to “Find my Watch” if you take it off to take photos and forget where you put it. Ask me how I know.

Conclusion
So is it worth it? At $129, it’s hard to say no, but I’m also appreciative of the fact that a lot of runners keep their devices for a looooong time. So let me try and hit the runners who are most likely to be tempted: if you’re running with a Forerunner 10, 15, 25, 35, 230, 235, a TomTom anything, a Nike anything, a Soleus anything… and, most relevantly, you’re looking for something that’s mostly familiar, but with a rejuvenated battery and an easy Strava sync, then the R300 is perfect. Middle or high school runner? The R300 is perfect. Do you want a watch to keep in your travel bag in case you forget your "fancy" GPS running watch at home? The R300 is perfect. There are a ton of use cases that make sense for this thing, and I think Timex should sell a bunch of them for that reason alone. 

You’re obviously going to find watches that do more. And, to complicate things, there are watches that do more for not that much more money (consider, i.e., the $299 Coros Apex or nearly-generation-old frequently-sub-$250 Garmin Forerunner 645 without music). Those watches have considerably more features, slightly nicer builds, and aren't hyper expensive (yes, I realize $299 is more than twice of what we're dealing with here - bear with me). But here's who should really look closely at this: if you were a runner who was perfectly happy with your Forerunner 10, 15, 25 … (I won’t relist them all here), then you’ll be thrilled with the Timex R300. Off the shelf right now, it's an immensely solid watch, and it’s a few software tweaks away from being really, really competitive. Yes, I wish it had Stryd compatibility or was a little smaller, but even being "really competitive" is an achievement at this price point, and should be celebrated. The R300 is a no-brainer for a whole lot of runners, and I strongly recommend it.


Ironman R300 is Available at Timex HERE

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5 comments:

Vaad said...

Why wouldn't this track movement of the Swim? Can you turn Off Notifications to extend GPS mode battery? What would you say is the best all around w/music <$300?
Thank you

Michael said...

Hi Vaad - No swim tracking as configured. I suppose it's possible in a future update, but I haven't heard anything about that! Notifications are configurable (even to a really granular level - you could get only notifications from a specific app, for example) and turning them off does indeed save some battery! I didn't find it to make a huge difference, but probably worth doing if battery is your primary concern.

I'm assuming you mean "without" music (though this has music controls via Bluetooth) to which I would say yes... though I frequently see relatively recent Forerunner 245 without music slip under $275, which case it may be worth splurging for more serious runners. I think this is a slightly more competent watch than the Forerunner 45 (at least, the battery and accuracy make it competitive) so at sub-$200, I think this is the one to have.

Pman said...

WOW great start from Timex. Good to see the ironman brand actually getting into the mix in this category but it can't be considered a serious runners watch without lap pace..i mean, how can you possibly do interval training which is something all serious runners do. Come on Timex. I'm rooting for you because I am a big ironman fan but you gotta up the game slightly on the next iteration of this. Your on the right track though, keep going.

Michael said...

Pman - Hopefully something that can be tweaked with software. I’ll try and update the post if I learn anything more!

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