Whether you're a serious athlete with several Ironman competitions under your belt or a weekend jogger who sweats a 10-minute mile, the Garmin Forerunner 201 will give you a leg up on your training. This lightweight GPS device comes with an ambitious roster of features for monitoring your pace and tracking mileage. There's a lot we like about the 201, but performance inconsistencies keep us from awarding it the gold.
At 3.3 by 1.7 by 0.7 inches, the Garmin Forerunner 201 looks chunkier than your average sports watch but weighs a mere 2.8 ounces. Using an expandable Velcro band, you can strap the 201 on your wrist or around your arm. The 201's 1.4-by-0.9-inch, 100x64 monochrome LCD is very readable in bright light and at night with its backlight. Its plastic-alloy case is waterproof up to 1 meter, so you can take it out on the slopes or for a run through puddles without worry.
The Forerunner does everything your pedometer can and more. Advanced runners will find plenty of good stuff in the Training Assistant under the Menu mode. You can set up it up to beep if you go below a certain pace, automatically pause the timer if you trail a given speed (helpful if there are a lot of stoplights on your route), program training intervals, and deliver time and distance alerts. We relied on the alerts pretty heavily, but we wish the accompanying alarm were a little louder. The 201's Virtual Partner competes against you based on training parameters you set.
We really like the Garmin Forerunner 201's ability to store a detailed performance history. You automatically get summaries of your last run and a week's worth of info on mileage, calories burned, and total time spent running. You can also upload your run data to your PC and chart it using the included PC-only Logbook software. Oddly enough, the 201 connects via an old-fashioned serial port for downloading data instead of the faster and ubiquitous USB. And while the software is a nice addition, it's not very sophisticated.
We tested the Garmin in two very different locations: a beach in the northwestern part of Florida, and Riverside Park in New York City. In both cases, we kept losing the GPS signal. We realize that GPS connections are ephemeral, but a sturdy external antenna might help the situation somewhat. The pace reading was also off at times, especially when we were negotiating peaks and valleys. We were able to fix this somewhat by tweaking the pace-smoothing feature. The Forerunner comes with a rechargeable lithium-alloy battery that lasts around 14 hours per charge--adequate for most runners but a bit skimpy for some cyclists. We also wish the device had a heart-rate monitor.
Serious and competitive runners will probably be frustrated with the Forerunner 201's imprecise GPS location tracking, but for more casual use, it's close enough to be helpful. Big-city runners or those who train in places with a lot of tree cover may find Timex's Bodylink devices better equipped for their needs, but they'll pay a much higher price--the Bodylink personal trainer costs $100 more than the 201. Garmin also offers a cheaper, pared-down version of the Forerunner, the Forerunner 101, which lacks the 201's PC interface, runs on two AAA batteries, and is a bit bigger.