Thursday, November 12, 2020

TicWatch Pro 3 GPS Review: All the Technology You Want, with Most of the Running Prowess

Article by Michael Ellenberger

 TicWatch Pro 3 GPS ($300)


Introduction

TicWatch is from Mobvi a brand I’ve long had my eye on - back in 2015, the brand launched its original smartwatch offering, the TicWatch, including an innovative “Tickle Strip” for UI navigation (an alternative to Apple’s Digital Crown). In the years since, TicWatch has come under new ownership (Mobvoi, the same group who brought us the terrific Timex Ironman R300, is now overseeing TicWatch).


Indeed, after 5 consecutive years of buying and trying the Apple Watch, and consistently finding it not quite thereI decided to go a different direction this year, and compare one of Mobvoi’s flagship offerings - the TicWatch Pro 3 GPS - to my daily driver, the Garmin Forerunner 245, along with the aforementioned Timex Ironman R300 and Polar Vantage V. 


The Pro 3 GPS has a ton of top shelf features (as detailed further below), including a new Snapdragon Wear 4100 chip, which powers a ton of under-the-hood features and enables the Pro 3 GPS to absolutely fly for day-to-day smartwatch activities like checking and responding to notifications, queuing Google Assistant, and referencing bite-size information on the go. 

Undoubtedly, the Pro 3 GPS is the most advanced (technologically-speaking) Android/Wear OS smartwatch I’ve tested - on-par, spec-wise, with the Apple Watch and markedly better than, say, the Garmin Forerunner line. 



Still, fast chips and high-res screens do not a good running watch make, and I tested this (with the help from my programmer brother, who has great experience in Android and Google wearables!) to see if it can be an adequate all-day watch for a distance runner! The battery is strong here - especially with the lower-power “second” screen (which is a bit of a miss - to be discussed later), which gently sips the battery, compared to the main screen’s steady slurp.



The Specs

  • Availability: Available now, $300

  • Size: 45mm x 12mm

  • Weight: 41.9g

  • Smartwatch Features: Snapdragon Wear 4100 Platform, 1G RAM, 8G ROM, 1.4-inch AMOLED Screen (454 x 454), Built-in speaker and microphone, NFC

  • Running/Activity Features: GPS, barometer, 24-hour heart rate monitoring, Sleep Tracking, Stress Monitoring, Noise Detection.

  • Google Wear OS operating system including Google Pay


Pros and Cons

  • Battery life is strong, even by running watch standards

  • Aesthetics are on point; this blends sport with technology well

  • Running performance is adequate for many users, especially with app offerings


  • Second (dimmed) screen is near-useless

  • In a paradox of choice, there is no perfect running app - fragmentation is frustrating

  • Size is slightly large for most wrists (and some will need a strap replacement)

  • Applicability with iPhone is markedly decreased compared to with Android devices


Smartwatch Capabilities

Let’s get straight to it - Mobvoi and TicWatch have absolutely loaded up the Pro 3 GPS, with top-end specs. It starts with the Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 4100; the TicWatch is the first Wear OS device to pack that chipset, and it absolutely hums along. I can’t claim to be overly well-versed in Android/Wear OS devices, but my brother Jack took the Pro 3 GPS for a spin, as well, and found it faster than previous offerings like the Moto 360, Fossil Gen 5 family, and Skagen Falster.


I won’t cover all that Wear OS can do here - this is a running review after all, not a tech review - but know that Google’s smartwatch platform is quite fulsome in 2020, with the ability to conduct countless operations right from your wrist. While the Pro 3 GPS doesn’t have LTE or other cellular connectivity (though TicWatch has made watches with such technology in the past), the absence was not an issue for me - cellular connectivity on the Apple Watch is expensive and battery-draining, and especially during the 2020 quarantines, the times I’m away from my phone are few and far between. I prefer TicWatch’s improved battery and slightly smaller frame to a cellular-enabled alternative.


The most important feature to any smartwatch is, I think, the screen - and TicWatch has done that well here, too, with an extremely bright and crisp 454 x 454 panel. Touch response is extremely good, and I noticed no lag when going through UI elements - a testament to both the display and the processor behind it. The buttons...

Unfortunately, what I thought would be a standout feature on the Pro 3 GPS - the low power display - is a bit of a misfire. As seen in the photograph below, the TicWatch includes a secondary, lower-powered, black-and-white display layered on top of the super-bright AMOLED. The technology is unquestionably cool, but its utility is, unfortunately, limited - I found the dimmer secondary display difficult to read in nearly all settings, including indoors. The benefit - extended battery - is welcomed, but TicWatch needs to increase the contrast on the low power display to make it truly worthwhile. As it stands now, I often needed to turn my wrist (“raise to wake”) to check even the time of day.  



Battery life is also a relative strongpoint here - the TicWatch consistently lasted 3 days on a charge, even with 60+ minutes of daily GPS activity and all-day notifications and updates. It should be noted that the charger itself is a bit of a hassle here - Apple has a sleek dock that comfortably supports a charging Apple Watch… Mobvoi has bundled a magnetic clip here, too, but it’s hard to make a secure connection and certainly could not support the watch dangling out of a wall charger. Not a huge issue, by any means - but a more supportive cradle may be a nice future upgrade.

Battery drain indicates an 8-10 hour training battery life, not as long lasting as my Forerunner 245. Day-over-day, I see the TicWatch Pro 3 GPS love about 30-40% of battery per day - meaning it can last between 2 and 3 days comfortably, with a 30-60 min run per day. I tend to charge every night, or every other night, and frequently top off while I’m in the shower, so I’ll just say this - you don’t need to think about it!




And then there’s the size - at 45mm with a thickness of 12mm (similar to that of the Forerunner 245, at 12.2mm thick), the Pro 3 GPS is relatively chunky, meaning it’s not for all wrists. On my wrist, which wears the 245 well, and just barely handles the Vantage V, it was a bit large. The included strap - a neat blend of sporty and dressy, with faux stitching on a silicon band - was just about too big for my 6.75” wrist, and I ended needing to swap it for a backup that I pulled from an old Garmin. The TicWatch uses standard 22mm straps. 


Despite my dainty wrists, the watch does wear smaller than it may seem - I think more wrists can get away with this than the size would suggest, empirically - but I still wish it was a more moderate 42 mm to really expand its user base.


Running Watch Capabilities




Let’s talk about the most important capability (for my use, anyway) - the Pro 3 GPS’s performance as a running watch. Considering all I’ve said already about its prowess as a competitive smartwatch, I’m happy to report that the TicWatch is also a good running watch. Not great, mind you - there are a few shortcomings that keep this from being truly competitive in the running watch landscape - but good enough that many, many runners can use it.


Let’s start with the best parts of the Pro 3 GPS as a running watch. On the hardware front, I’m pleased to report the TicWatch packs not one but two buttons, which make starting, stopping, and manipulating data screens while running significantly easier. 


There is of course still need to mess with the touchscreen while running as you need it for checking incoming notifications, dismissing alerts, changing music or app selections, and more  - always an unfriendly experience, even on the Apple Watch - but at least having 2 buttons instead of one alleviates some of that frustration, and I’m glad for their inclusion.


The data fields provided are the “usual” - miles, heart rate, and pace, along with calories burned, elevation (via barometric altimeter) and instantaneous pace (which I found iffy, at best - but I rarely have good luck with it. Why watches can’t calculate a 10 second rolling average or the rolling lace mile of the Apple Watch, I’ll never know). 


How about GPS and heart rate performance? Fortunately, both are quite good. In the embedded maps, you can see general accurate GPS track, even in routes that go past consistently taller (3-10 story) buildings, and often on sidewalks that are only a few feet from said buildings. These routes are never that clean of GPS tracks, in my experience, but the Pro 3 GPS is no better or worse than your average GPS. What’s more, I found the GPS fix to be extremely fast - it was often ready to go within 30 seconds, as compared to a usual 60-90 seconds (and sometimes far longer) on my Forerunner 245.


Heart rate tracking was also good. I had issues with the stock band not being quite tight enough (which precluded perfect HRM readings), but it’s fortunately compatible with standard mm  quick-fit bands, so an alternative is not more than $10 away on Amazon or similar. When it did fit well, the heart rate tracking was accurate and consistent, and matched the output from my Garmin, Timex and Polar devices closely.



But - one downside to the Pro 3 GPS is lack of overall connectivity. Not all apps allow interfacing with external heart-rate monitors (some do, but you’ll need to check permissions, app-by-app), and there’s no Stryd pairing, which was a disappointment for me. Not all apps natively push to Strava, for those who use the platform, and it can be frustrating “shopping around” for the ideal running watch when the native app is lacking (something Apple Watch users are likely familiar with).


 




So, as noted above, the Pro 3 GPS automatically pushes runs to Strava (if you enable it with your credentials). 


Exporting files (GPX or otherwise) from the native TicWatch app is not possible, however, with the only options being “route” and “data” - each of which simply provides a .jpeg file for sharing on social media. To be frank, I don’t foresee this being a problem for many, as a Strava link-up and accurate mileage are enough to make it a feasible running watch - true data geeks will likely sidestep this one before making it this far in the review. Remember, this is a smart watch with running watch capabilities - not the other way around (like, say, a Garmin Forerunner).


Conclusion


If you’ll excuse the pun, the TicWatch Pro 3 GPS ticks a lot of boxes: it has strong under-the-hood performance, commendable battery life, and consistent and accurate GPS performance. On paper, it’s a near-perfect hybrid of smartwatch capability and running watch utility. In practice… it’s a little more mixed, but not enough to spoil the offering. Indeed, I think Mobvoi has done a great job preserving the “sport watch” elements in what is undoubtedly a smartwatch first. Yes, the processor is the standout feature. Yes, battery is lacking compared to a Forerunner 245 or Vantage V. And, yes, UI navigation is consistently easier with Garmin’s 5-button setup, compared to TicWatch’s 2 buttons-and-touchscreen array. 



Even so… I think the Pro 3 GPS gets the job done. I was impressed by how quickly it was able to pull GPS, and how accurate the tracks were. I was impressed by its stable HRM readings, and its battery life, even in some cold weather conditions. 


Dedicated runners will never stray too far from their Garmins, Polars, Timexes, or Coros offerings - I don’t think many smartwatch manufacturers are surprised by that. TicWatch doesn’t even push its sportswatch capabilities as hard as, say, Apple, which is now a fitness-first device. This is primarily a wrist-computer, ready with notifications and apps to get you through the day. But for runners, there’s an upside. The TicWatch Pro 3 GPS is a great option for those who want a nice hybrid between an all-day smartwatch and a dedicated running watch.


Comparisons


Garmin Forerunner 245  (RTR Review 245 945)

The 245 has been my daily driver watch for more than a year - it lacks some of the standout features of its peers (I don’t have a model with music, though it is available, and the 245 doesn’t have the multisport functionality of the 745, the weeks-long battery life of the 945, nor the trail-proven ruggedness of the Fenix 6) - but it’s a terrific watch for those of us who only run. The 245 is superior to the TicWatch 3 Pro GPS in battery life and ease-of-use (you can’t beat old school buttons!), but I found the TicWatch to acquire and hold GPS connection faster, and it certainly can do more, more quickly, than the Garmin outside of running. As I said above, many users won’t be swayed - and Garmin’s platform has been market-leading for years, for good reason - but those who want to move from Garmin Connect to a Wear OS smartwatch should have good luck with the TicWatch.

Left to Right: Polar Vantage V 1, TicWach, Forerunner 245


Polar Vantage V (RTR Review)

This was a comparison I thought would be a little more even, because I find Polar’s UI to be cumbersome and its platform to be less intuitive than Garmin’s. What’s more, the Vantage V packs a touchscreen display. The TicWatch is undoubtedly a more capable smartwatch, and using the Polar’s touchscreen after interacting with the Pro 3 GPS is an exercise in frustration - the TicWatch is just so much faster and smoother. Still, the Polar has other benefits - the battery life is exceptional, consistently lasting more than a week, and (despite having a touchscreen), the Polar is easier to operate on-the-go, owing to its 5-button layout. Considering the price, I think the TicWatch may be a better buy - but there’s also an updated Vantage V that Sam has tested (RTR Review) that should bring some improvements over my model.


Timex Ironman R300 (RTR Review)

The Timex was a surprise hit - at only $130, it checked nearly every box I needed. My biggest complaint was lack of connectivity (another issue here), as the Timex couldn’t interface with many HRM straps or the Stryd footpod. Of course, the TicWatch can do massively more than the Timex - its display is world’s better, and Wear OS is leaps-and-bounds better than Timex’s onboard and app-based platforms - but for those who just want a basic running watch with consistent GPS and HRM performance, I still think the Timex is one of the best bets.


Suunto 7 (RTR Review)

I did not review the Suunto 7 but it is another option in the Wear OS ecosystem. It’s defining features are high resolution maps on board along with routing and  many highly configurable data fields. It has the same screen resolution as the Tic. It is $200 more though and its everyday battery life (max 51 hours with no GPS activity) appears to lag the TicWatch's while it can push to 12 hours of tracking in its Good mode with Best mode 6-7 hours max.


Michael is a 2019 graduate of Northwestern University Law School in Chicago, with an interest in patent and intellectual property law. 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. 

 Read reviewers' full run bios here

The product reviewed was provided at no charge for testing. The opinions herein are the authors'.
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