Whenever writing about anything in technology, my opening worry is how quickly it will date. Yet, I also noted that I’ve been using the Apple Watch and WHOOP for about five years, with no notable leaps in innovation. Going back in time, my first wearable was a very basic Fitbit which looked like an ugly plastic money clip. After a few iterations of that, I stepped up to the sexy Nike Fuel Band, with its lo-fi LED ticker display and USB-A connector that doubled as the band clasp. So cool.
As an early adopter and quantified-self dork, I often get asked what I currently use and why. As of now, it’s the Garmin Forerunner 965. Friends were a bit shocked that I retired both my Apple Watch and WHOOP to don this device, so I’ll start with why I broke up with my exes.
Apple Watch: Without spending too much time on this, I’ll sum it up by saying that the device lives on the charging puck. Yes, it charges quickly (Series 7 and newer), has a beautiful display, and does everything you’d want a smartwatch to do. But if you like having a watch at night (I do for sleep analytics and alarms), then you will need to take it off at least once a day and put it on the charger. Device age exacerbates this issue, and using it for fitness tracking and a real-time health monitor (all the sensors enabled) could mean multiple daily charges. It’s often been reported that its GPS isn’t as accurate as Garmin blah, blah, but for me, it comes down to being tethered to a USB cable.
WHOOP: This was a tougher breakup for me than the Apple Watch because I admire its simplicity, and I enjoyed the long battery life and insights it provided. It’s a helluva device for what it does — packing in many sensors and sophisticated software to provide you with a recovery score. No frills, no display, just a wristband with sensors that requires you to open the app to see your data. And the external battery that piggybacks onto the internal battery to charge it so you don’t have to take the device off? Amazing. After five years of use, here are the things I didn’t love:
- The Subscription: If Apple had a subscription where I got the new iPhone every year, and I just paid a monthly fee, I’d be all in. But WHOOP hardware is on a much longer release cadence (I’ve had one upgrade in the last three years), and their user-facing software features aren’t very frequent either. But you’re locked into that $30/month regardless. Also to note, at some point, they did some sneaky transition to annual plans (I’m sure it was in the terms and conditions or random email I didn’t bother to read).
- Support: It was stellar — now it’s abysmal. Sparing all the gory details, I recently had a simple issue that took three weeks to resolve across 16 support agents. No exaggeration. The same ticket got bounced around, closed, and reopened 16 times. The in-app support chat is history and now goes straight to an email addy. Like the point above, I believe this also has to do with the company’s cash flow issues and taking on loads of venture money at a valuation that was way off the company’s fundamental economics.
- Accuracy: I would Airplay my phone to a display while working out and witness my HR go all over the place. It’s a common issue with wrist-HR devices, but their support tried to pin it on a user error such as band tightness. None of that mattered. In terms of recovery, there were so many days that I felt fine but was “in the red” and others where I felt overtrained and crappy but in the green. This didn’t happen occasionally, but very often. However, the device health monitor did pick up my fever and dismal respiratory rate during bouts with COVID.
- Phone Dependency: Every action requiring me to open another app is starting to annoy this old man. I know this device is far from something like an Apple Watch, but an ecosystem that doesn’t require a separate device with a display has its perks.
Onto the Garmin Forerunner 965:
- Battery: The battery is rated for 23 days. Apple Watch users: just let that sink in for a minute. 23 days. Of course, it depends on exactly how often the display is on, which satellite system you are using for GPS, and a myriad of other variables. But honestly, they would have had me at just a week off of the USB cable. To charge it from zero takes about as much time as the Apple Watch. This means you can bring a charged watch on a two-week vacation and don’t need to pack a charger. Imagine that.
- Insights: Oh, so much data. Like the WHOOP and Apple Watch, it’s getting my heart rate, heart rate variability, sleep analytics, blood O2sat, temperature, EKG, and movement. But instead of just recovery, it’s giving me a Body Battery (my energy level in a 24-hour window), my training readiness, a recommended workout, a stress score (WHOOP recently added this as well), intensity minutes, steps, floors, pulse ox and altitude/weather acclimation, respiration, my functional threshold of power, and estimated V02 max.
- Plays well with others: A little cycling-specific, but it will factor in data taken from my Garmin cycling computer (with a configurable prioritization hierarchy) and connected power meter: literally the watts I’m outputting and how it affects my nutrition and recovery. The Garmin Connect app is also pulling in entries from my My Fitness Pal account, so I can see the remaining target calories at a glance.
- Data access from the device: I can view all of the above right from the watch menus or the smartphone app. Even better — from a desktop web app where I have all the screen real estate in the world to pour over data and do exports into other programs. But as mentioned, I love just seeing it all on the watch, where I have one less reason to take my phone out.
- Smartwatch functions: There’s not a whole lot I miss from my Apple Watch. This watch will answer/deny calls, display text messages and phone notifications, store credit cards for wireless payments, and control my music (and even store hundreds of songs on the watch itself). I do miss the occasional need for a mic and speaker, but not that much.
- Buttons: Until you have them, you don’t realize how awesome they are. The five configurable physical buttons are so much better than sweaty fingers on a touch screen for starting/pausing workouts, editing inputs, and controlling music. A dedicated button for wireless pay is also super handy. That said, even though it’s not the elegant design of an Apple user interface, the AMOLED touchscreen is just as pretty and responsive hardware perspective.
- Multisport: Like Apple and WHOOP, you’d be hard-pressed to find a sport that isn’t covered for tracking. But here’s the game-changer; you can download or build your own custom workouts in the mobile app or web app, load them onto your watch, and have a coach on your wrist. I’ve done this for strength training and Tabata workouts, and it’s fantastic. There are even on-screen animations for many weight-training movements in their library. You can adjust your reps and weights right from your wrist, and your rest/work periods are on display to keep you on track and moving the session along. You can even share your custom training plans with other Garmin users. This is what I have been wanting. WHOOP recently released a very stripped-down version of a strength training workflow that was hardly usable with a sparse library of movements. There is also an extensive developer ecosystem, so I even loaded up a tracker for cold plunging.
- The Morning Report: It’s one of my favorite features. When I look at my watch after the configurable sleep window has expired, the display asks if I’d like my morning report. It steps me through my recovery, sleep analytics, body batter, the weather, calendar, and recommended training for the day. All without having to take my phone out. It’s so cool.
Why the 965? Unlike Apple and WHOOP, there are a lot of choices. You might say too many choices, from smartwatch-centric to ultra-marathon to aviation and golf. I almost don’t care how much it costs when it comes to something I will use every day. I simply want it to be the best match for my needs. I bought a handful of models to test, and here’s why I ended up keeping the 965 on my wrist:
- Compared to the old display technology, such as that on the current Fenix models, the AMOLED is just so much more crisp and easy to read. If you have your eyes on the Fenix, do yourself a favor and never put on a model with the AMOLED display first.
- The metal case Garmin models (the 965 is plastic with a metal bezel) all felt super heavy and bulky to me. The 965 comes in about 10g less than the Apple Watch Ultra, and it is very comfortable. For reference, my wrist is ~6.5”, and the display size fit is a good match.
- For me, this was the sweet spot between size, weight, and battery life. It’s worth noting that I also wore the Forerunner 265 for three weeks and loved it. It’s just a tad smaller and lighter but has no metal bezel, no graphical maps for the GPS (it just displays a waypoint and trail markers), and the battery life is 13 days vs. the 23 of the 965. I thought, “I’ll never need detailed maps on a watch,” right before almost getting lost on a long hike with no cell service. It’s a $150 upgrade, but also something I’m using every single day. I’d still highly recommend the less expensive 265 just as much, and if I were optimizing for comfort, it’s slightly lighter, and lower profile stance is a smidge stealthier than the 965. If you want a much deeper dive, DC Rainmaker does this for a living, he’s reviewed every single model, and his content helped me navigate my initial choices.