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Garmin Forerunner 15 review: A great watch for the casual runner

A GPS running watch combined with an activity tracker, but with one major flaw.

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Dan Graziano
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Dan Graziano

Associate Editor / How To

Dan Graziano is an associate editor for CNET. His work has appeared on BGR, Fox News, Fox Business, and Yahoo News, among other publications. When he isn't tinkering with the latest gadgets and gizmos, he can be found enjoying the sights and sounds of New York City.

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9 min read

What would happen if you combined a GPS running watch with an activity tracker? You would get the Forerunner 15, the newest running watch from Garmin. The Forerunner 15 combines the features found in Garmin's budget-friendly Forerunner 10 GPS running watch with its Vivofit activity tracker.

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7.6

Garmin Forerunner 15

The Good

The Forerunner 15 has both a GPS and a pedometer. It also includes an always-on display with a backlight, long battery life, a waterproof design, and is compatible with wireless heart-rate monitors.

The Bad

The lack of Bluetooth makes syncing to your computer and mobile device a real nightmare. The design isn't all that fashionable and may be a bit bulky for some work environments.

The Bottom Line

Its lack of Bluetooth notwithstanding, the affordable Garmin Forerunner 15 is otherwise a great health tracking wristwatch for runners.

The Forerunner 15 is available in a variety of color combinations and two sizes. Technically the sizes are for a large wrist and a smaller one, but the color scheme alludes to different models for males and females. The large color options are black with blue accent or red with black, while the smaller color options are teal with white accents, violet with white, or black with green.

After choosing the size and color you would like, you must then decide on the packaging. The Forerunner 15 is available either with a heart-rate monitor ($200, £170, AU$250) or without one ($170, £140, AU$189). Both packages include the same watch, meaning you can purchase the heart-rate monitor at a later time or use an existing one (as long as it supports ANT+ technology).

With the Forerunner 15, you don't have to settle for just an activity tracker. The watch tracks your steps taken, distance traveled, and calories burned. Where it exceeds is with Garmin's GPS technology, which allows for accurate tracking of distance and pace when running. In addition to being waterproof up to 50 meters (meaning you can shower with it or go swimming), the Forerunner 15 includes an estimated 5 weeks of battery life in activity tracking mode or 8 hours with active GPS.

Garmin Forerunner 15: A GPS running watch that can also track your steps

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Design

While it's prettier than some of Garmin's earlier watches, the Forerunner 15 isn't going to win you any fashion awards. It resembles a traditional sports watch that is somewhat bloated. I will gladly take added thickness, however, for the improved battery life and additional features. The large model weighs 43g, compared to 36g for the smaller one.

Four buttons -- two on the right and two on the left -- let you navigate through the different settings and options. The blue button with a running figurine at the top right-hand side of the watch is used to activate the GPS and begin running mode. The bottom right button lets you scroll through the different menus to see your pace, distance, workout time, running history, and to access the watch settings. The Forerunner will store the past seven activities on your device before deleting the oldest one for a more recent session, but we'll go more into detail about that later.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The top left button can be pressed once to turn on the backlight and again to disable it, a feature that nighttime runners will love, while a long press on the same button will power the watch down. The bottom left button is used as the back key, and in activity mode can be used to scroll through your steps, goals, distance, and the date.

A small but noteworthy feature of the Forerunner 15 is its strap. Unlike most modern activity trackers, the Forerunner 15 uses a normal watch strap with a secondary clip to stay securely on your wrist. The watch never once fell off, not even when putting on a cuffed shirt or a jacket, which seemed to be daily occurrences with the Fitbit and Jawbones. Despite the big and clunky body, the Forerunner 15 is one of my favorites devices in terms of build and design -- largely because of the traditional watch band.

Features

The Forerunner 15 is one of the most feature-packed activity trackers available today. It does have one major flaw, however. Despite being able to track your runs via GPS and your daily steps, the watch doesn't include Bluetooth. This makes syncing to the Garmin Connect software, which is required to view detailed information about your workouts, a real hassle.

In a world where Bluetooth is found in forks and toothbrushes , it baffles me that Garmin decided not to include it in the Forerunner 15. Instead, the company forces users to connect the watch to their computer each time they want to upload their workouts.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Four pins on the back of the watch connect to a special dock that in turn connects to your computer. You will be required to download a special program, known as Garmin Express, on your Mac or PC to sync your data to the Garmin Connect website and mobile app (available on iOS and Android), and to also check for any firmware updates.

With a lot of activity trackers lasting only a few days, battery life on the Forerunner 15 is quite good. As mentioned above, the watch will last a whopping five weeks when using it solely as an activity tracker. The Forerunner 15 will last 8 hours with the GPS enabled, which is long enough for most people to finish a marathon. A small battery indicator on the left side of the display lets you know how much juice is left in the watch.

I found with a mix of light running (about 30 minutes a couple of times a week) and normal activity tracking, I was required to charge the Forerunner 15 roughly every two weeks. I occasionally charged it more frequently because the watch was already resting in the charging dock for syncing purposes.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

As a rule of thumb, I tried to sync the watch with my computer at least once a week. Runs and daily step counts are stored on the Forerunner 15 for up to seven days, at which point the oldest workout will be replaced with a newer one. The watch also stores personal records, such as fastest mile, fastest 5K, longest run, etc., and will notify you after you set a new record.

There is a Run/Walk feature that can be used for interval training. You can set how long you would like to run and how long you would like to walk, and, when enabled, the watch will alert you for when it's time to switch between the two. This is useful feature for new runners that can't continuously run for long amounts of time. More experienced runners can also utilize the feature when doing interval workouts.

A Virtual Pacer feature allows you to set a specific pace you would like to keep during a run. When you are faster or slower than the designated pace by 5 or more seconds, the Forerunner 15 will alert you to either slow down or speed up. A similar feature, called HR Alert, will notify you when you are above or below your set heart rate.

Perhaps the most useful feature is the watch's Auto Pause and Auto Lap features. One of the pains of running in a city is having to deal with traffic lights. I find myself constantly having to stop my watch as I wait for the light to change and forgetting to resume it. The Auto Pause feature will automatically pause your workout when you stop running and will resume it when you start back up again. The Auto Lap feature will alert you when you reach a new mile and will include your average pace.

After tinkering with the watch for a few days I realized that you can also use it as a standard sports watch. You will have the option to disable GPS and simply use Timer Mode after clicking the down button when searching for a signal. This is helpful when you are having trouble acquiring a GPS signal, but are still interested in running. Without the GPS, the Forerunner 15 will be unable to track your pace and distance. That is unless you purchase a foot pod accessory that attaches to your shoe. This can be used for running on a treadmill, but you will be required to calibrate it by running outside before using it indoors.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Similar to the Vivofit, the Forerunner 15 reminds you when you are being lazy with a "Move" alert. The watch will beep ever-so-slightly when you haven't walked at least 200 steps in the past hour. It's a nice reminder to get up and live a little for those of us who like to relax on the couch all Sunday. For some reason, however, the watch will alert you to "Move!" even if you have exceeded your daily step goal.

Despite having vibrations and an alarm, the watch doesn't include a silent alarm feature like the one found in Fitbits.

Tracking

As an activity tracker, the Forerunner 15 is relatively straightforward. An accelerometer is used to detect how many steps you take, the relative distance you travel, and an estimate of the calories you burn. The Forerunner 15 also includes step goals that automatically adjust based on your previous days performance. All of this information is shown on the watch's 55x32-pixel display, along with the time and date.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Acquiring a GPS signal takes roughly 30 seconds depending on your location. When testing the Forerunner 15 in midtown Manhattan, it took a little longer (sometimes up to 3 minutes) to find my location, compared to when I used it in rural New Hampshire.

Once the signal is acquired you're ready to go. You can toggle through three different screens while in GPS mode: workout time and distance, pace and calories, or actual time and date. Unlike other Garmin models where the screens automatically rotate, you are forced to press the down button on the Forerunner 15 to cycle through. There are three options to choose from when ending a workout: resume the run, save it to the watch, or discard it.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Steps and distance tracking (sans the GPS) were relatively accurate. When walking on a treadmill for a mile, the Forerunner 15 was only off by 0.07 miles. With the GPS enabled, I compared the distance results to those on the website MapMyRun. As was the case with the finding my location, the watch performed better when I wasn't running in a city. The results were only off by 0.09 miles, however, which is pretty good as far as GPS running watches go.

For those who opt for the heart rate, it's the same model that Garmin has been using for years. It's accurate, straightforward, and just works. In fact, it's the same model that I use when testing other heart-rate monitors, such as those on the LifeTrak Zone C410 , Samsung Gear Fi t, and Galaxy S5 .

Garmin Connect

There are two pieces of software that are required to view your workout data from the Forerunner 15. The first is called Garmin Express, which, as I mentioned above, is used to check for firmware updates and sync your data to Garmin's website and mobile app. The Garmin Express software is available for free for both Windows and Mac users.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The next thing you will need is Garmin Connect, the company's cloud service for viewing, analyzing, and sharing your personal workout data. Garmin Connect can be accessed through either the free iOS or Android app, or through the company's website. From here you can view detailed information about your past activities, create training plans and running courses, change your device settings, view your achievements and personal records, and connect with other Garmin users, among other things. The Connect app can also be linked with MyFitnessPal to track the food you eat and the amount of calories you take in.

Oddly enough, there is an option in Garmin Connect to manually input the time you went to bed and the time you woke up. You will then be presented with a rather messy chart that shows your movements during the hours you inputted. It appears the Forerunner 15 supports some form of sleep tracking to an extent, but it's rather clumsy in its current form. Hopefully this is something Garmin will address in a future software update.

Conclusion

With GPS, activity tracking, a waterproof design, and support for more than 20 languages, the Forerunner 15 is one of the best watches for casual runners, or those interested in becoming a casual runner. The design isn't all that fashionable and it may be a bit bulky for some work environments. If GPS isn't an important feature for you, than the Forerunner 15 isn't for you. I would recommend checking out its cousin, the more stylish Garmin Vivofit .

Despite the lack of Bluetooth, the Forerunner 15 excels in almost everything you look for when buying an activity tracker or affordable running watch. It's accurate, it's waterproof, it supports heart-rate monitors, and it has very good battery life.

The Garmin Forerunner 15 is available now for $170 (£140 in the UK, AU$200 in Australia) without the heart-rate monitor or for $200 (£170, AU$250) with it.

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7.6

Garmin Forerunner 15

Score Breakdown

Style 7Features 8Ease of use 8