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iPhone App RunKeeper Pro vs. Garmin 405

Reader Review: $10 RunKeeper Pro vs. $315 Garmin Forerunner 405

Check out FitSugar reader spacekatgal's very thorough review and comparison of two running gadgets from the community group RunningSugar.

Running is generally a cheap sport — good shoes and good music are generally all you need. However, like most other sports, the deeper you get into it the more you start eying professional gear. For runners, that means heart rate monitors and GPS devices. They help you quantify data about your speed, your heart rate, and your distance. When used properly, they can help push your runs to the next level.

RunKeeper Pro is a $10 download for iPhone, and one of the highest rated running apps available. It tracks your distance and time with your iPhone’s GPS chip. The $315 Garmin Forerunner 405 is a top-of-the-line GPS watch. It uses the same technology to track your runs, and has an optional heart rate monitor. Can a $10 iPhone app compete with one of best reviewed pieces of running equipment available? Find out when you read more.

For intermediate runners out there, RunKeeper Pro will do just fine. The interface is actually superior to the Garmin Forerunner. Tap the green button, and it starts tracking your run, end of story. If you’ve downloaded music to your iPhone, you can specify a playlist to listen to while you’re working out.There are several problems with RunKeeper Pro. First of all, it doesn’t track your position or speed with a great deal of accuracy. You can watch it estimate your speed, and it will fluctuate between much slower and much faster than you’re actually going. The second problem is the deal breaker — if you try to turn the screen off to save battery power while running, it sometimes accidentally ends your run! Eventually, I learned to just leave the screen on the whole time and it helped — but then I ended up with a half-drained battery for the rest of the day.

Looking at your runs afterward is really fun with RunKeeper Pro! You just swipe over and you get an interactive map of where you’ve been. I really preferred having this information on my iPhone instead of on my home computer like my Garmin.

The $315 Garmin Forerunner 405 is a great piece of gear, but has a lot of problems. The interface just sucks. The idea is that the metallic bezel of the watch acts like the scroll wheel of an iPod, but it doesn’t work in practice — it’s not very sensitive. The watch is a non-intuitive mess of menus and sub-menus. A glaring mistake is that you can’t easily lock the watch in heart rate monitor mode for running on a treadmill.

Secondly, the watch is massive for a woman. I have very thin arms — but the Garmin is almost as thick as my wrist! It’s the smallest one they make, and it’s surprising to me that including a GPS chip is an afterthought in an iPhone, yet has to be this big in the Garmin. I also found installing this watch on the Mac to be a total pain. It syncs wirelessly with an ANT transmitter that goes in your USB port. Once you get it set up it works fine, but I found the process to be clunky and very un-Mac-like. When you do have it set up, you can review your heart rate, elevation, and speed data after a run — which is extremely helpful. But I wasn’t thrilled at having my single USB port blocked since I use a Macbook Air.

All its problems melt away when you take the Garmin for a spin outside. Given the problems, I was doubtful — but the experience is excellent. It tracks your speed much more accurately than RunKeeper Pro. It was very helpful in telling me to speed up and slow down. The accuracy of the GPS is far superior to RunKeeper. Looking at the map after a run, it was even able to tell which side of the sidewalk I was running on! There is no doubt that when you get it working, the Garmin is a more accurate piece of gear. I’m a lot more likely to run off and explore a new part of Boston when I know my mileage will be tracked accurately.

But is it $305 better than RunKeeper Pro?
The RunKeeper does its job impressively for just $10. On top of that it’s easier to use, though it’s less accurate and prone to ending your runs prematurely. Also, as a woman, I would really prefer to always carry my cell phone with me for emergencies. Sexual violence is not an imaginary threat.

But if you’re a serious runner, I would say the Garmin is worth stepping up to. Most runners hit a wall in their development at some point. The Garmin has been very useful in helping me determine when I am in the aerobic and anaerobic thresholds. You don’t feel as guilty about slowing down when you can justify it with heart rate data.

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