Saturday, November 5, 2011

Full Review: Soleus GPS Watch

The Soleus GPS watch first came onto my radar when a local race promoter, Team Ortho, was giving away one of Soleus' higher-end offerings. It was a cool-looking watch, and I was on the market for a good non-GPS watch/HRM for the days that I didn't want to live and die by my pace and distance. I was intrigued by the high-end Soleus enough to see what else they were selling and saw that they were getting into the GPS market, undercutting the competition with an eyebrow-raising $99 offering.

They definitely had my attention.

This being said, I already had a nice GPS watch, the Garmin Forerunner 110. It was going to be hard for me to justify getting a watch that, from its description, sounded a lot like the watch I already had. I was intrigued, however, by one of the features in its terse description: "high sensitivity GPS receiver." In recent months, my focus in running has tilted heavily toward trails, and I've found myself frustrated by the Garmin's reception in heavy wood cover.

The Soleus (in "Time Mode")

The Garmin

A Non-GPS Timex

Comparing Widths (The Soleus is much fatter)

Fortunately for me (and you, my curious reader), the stars (satellites?) aligned a few days after Soleus released the GPS watch to the public. I was trolling the internet to see if there was any way I could find a discounted watch to placate my curiosity. Luck was on my side: an internet reseller had the watch priced at a staggering $73, for what must have only been a few minutes. I didn't give it a second thought and placed my order immediately. This was a wise move because the price had been adjusted back to the MSRP of $99 before even an hour had passed.

The watch showed up 4 days later, arriving at my house while I was running a trail ultra. I had secretly hoped to put the watch through its paces during this race, but it ended up serving as a great motivator to get out and running again after a few days of rest. Anyhow, without further ado, here's my take on the Soleus.

Features

The Soleus offers a pair of modes to track your workouts. I would guess that most runners would opt for "Run" mode. Run mode provides the distance of your workout as well as metrics like calories burned, speed and pace. My Garmin, by comparison, only shows pace per lap and distance for the workout. On both watches, run data can be viewed after a workout to access average pace, start time and a few other goodies.

Run Mode
In my workouts, I've used the Run mode and toggled to the view that displays total elapsed time, total distance and current pace. The documentation that comes with the watch was not very helpful, merely outlining what's on the screens in the fashion of a bad Powerpoint presentation. I had to get in touch with Soleus to get the scoop on what "pace" actually meant. It turns out that it's current pace, which is presumably just an extrapolation of whatever your current speed is. The resolution of this pace has been a little bit flaky for me. Nonetheless, it can be a useful metric, but I'd assumed that there was a way to track average pace for the run based upon the way the watch was advertised. You can only get to it after the fact on the "Run Data" screen -- the same way you would on the Garmin. For trail running, "current pace" isn't exactly a helpful metric. When you're climbing or descending, your pace at that time is going to look a lot different than your split. In this case, I think the Garmin's projected split time is a little bit more useful. You can get to something similar on the Soleus, in the mode I'll describe after a brief exploration of the views:

This is what "Run Mode" looks like (Chrono/Dist/Clock)

Chrono Mode

There is also "Chrono" mode, which is really just another facet of "Run Mode" that displays which lap you're on (1, 2, 3, etc), how far you've run, and the elapsed time of your workout. Clicking the view button only reiterates that you've got the one option (Lap/Distance/Chrono). As mentioned previously, this might be a suitable replacement for Garmin's one-size-fits all mode, as you can extrapolate how your current split is shaping up, though I've found the lap number information to be redundant, as most runners will take advantage of the default 1-mile auto split.

Run Data Mode
The data view is one of the watch's strengths. In addition to the individual split times, there is a plethora of data to be viewed here. You can view your average pace and speed for the workout, when you started running, when you stopped, how many calories you burned, and really about anything else you could ask for. I haven't done enough workouts yet to see what happens when it runs out of slots (it's got a smallish capacity). It does, however, offer the ability to delete all workouts in one fell swoop. You can also blow away individual runs, if need be.


A quick overview of the "Run Data" mode

Set Mode
The "Set" screen is where you get the watch tuned up and ready to go. It also highlights some of the weaknesses of this watch as it compares to its competition. For imperial unit-loving Americans like me, it was a little bit annoying to have to calculate my height in centimeters and weight in kilograms. Mile people, don't despair. You can set the unit to miles here, but it doesn't seem to realize that mile people also talk in terms of feet, inches and pounds.

I ended up opting to set the clock time manually (using "T1" for daylight time and "T2" for standard time), as there seemed to be an issue with the timezone offsets. Another huge frustration is the "tone" setup. You can toggle "Key Tone" (misspelled as "Hey Tone" on one screen), but if you opt to use it, the watch will also beep every hour on the hour. As a guy that enjoys my peace and quiet, I found myself annoyed by this hourly beep coming from my drawer and ended up turning the key tone off. This is unfortunate because it's unclear to me sometimes whether I've hit the Start/Stop buttons hard enough without a reassuring "beep."

"Hey" Tone

Auto light
This is something that I love about this watch. It illuminates itself automatically at each split when it calculates (via the time) that it's dark out. Living in the frigid north, I'm usually running at these times of the day. I'm always reaching for the "Light" button on the Garmin, so this is a nice consideration.

Interface
The Soleus has a lot more buttons than the Garmin (6 in total). I'll provide a brief description of each of them:

View
This is sort of like a "right click" for the individual modes. During the run, it allows you to toggle between screens (Chrono/Distance/Pace, Chrono/Distance/Calories, etc). It also lets you toggle between Time 1 and Time 2 as I did when Daylight Savings ended.


GPS
This button allows you to manually control the GPS. As a "green" guy that likes to minimize charge-ups, I find this handy. Merely hold the button down for a few seconds and it will shut the GPS receiver off. This has proven handy when I've accidentally hit "start," which apparently defaults to entering run mode (annoying). My Garmin, on the other hand, is pretty miserly, with an auto shutdown after a few minutes of inactivity, but I like being able to take the direct approach with the Soleus.

Mode
Shuttles you between the modes. Time/Run/Chrono/Run Data/etc.

Start/Lap/+
Starts the timer and allows you to manually split when it's running. As I mentioned above, it also seems to be a shortcut to enter run mode (at which point the watch automatically tries to acquire GPS). This button is also used to scroll up on screens with many options (like the run data view).

Stop/Save/-
Stops the workout timer. I've generally used this as a 1-2 punch. Stop the timer when I'm done, then hold the button down to save the workout. It defaults to the next available slot and saves automatically. This button is also used to scroll down on screens with many options.

Enter/Light
You'll mainly use this to illuminate the face of the watch. "Enter" will take you into a mode, but it seems like just waiting a few seconds has the same effect. It doesn't do anything on a lot of screens where I'd expect it to.

What it doesn't have
Something that a lot of people will miss is the ability to do anything with your workouts other than review them on the watch itself. Garmin offers its "connect" web experience to anybody that cares to use it. I rarely capitalize on this, as it requires plugging the watch into the computer and waiting for activity to upload. I'm not the type of guy that shares my workouts on Facebook, so I've generally only uploaded my activity when I wanted to see what kind of elevation I gained, or to gauge how accurately the Garmin tracked my run (I look for glitches on the breadcrumb trail).

The Soleus also doesn't have a means of upgrading firmware. I've gained some features on the Forerunner since I purchased it. This is a pretty nice thing to have.

Performance

GPS

After a week of running with the Soleus, I'm impressed with the performance of its GPS receiver. This is further bolstered by the signal strength indicator. Where the Garmin merely starts to provide wacky readings when satellite contact fades and occasionally just quits with a "Lost Satellite" error, the Soleus has stayed strong and provided consistent readings. I ran familiar road routes and found that the Soleus was dead on with the Garmin.

On the trail, the Soleus is simply superior. The Garmin would frequently tell me that I was on my way to a 12 minute mile when I knew that I was several minutes faster than that. I took the Soleus to a place where the the Garmin frequently had issues acquiring signal to see how it would respond. It also struggled to get a signal, but wouldn't give me any data until it had fully zeroed in on a satellite. The Garmin would often tell me I was running a 2-3 minute mile while I was standing still as it presumably struggled to complete triangulation. I never saw this sort of behavior on the Soleus.

The accuracy and consistency of the Soleus seems to come at a price, however. It takes the Soleus a lot longer to get a signal most of the time. The Garmin makes me wait a while on occasion, but I can usually get around this by forcing it to reacquire its signal. Bottom line: it's consistently faster to get hooked up to a satellite than the Soleus. My solution for this is to get the Soleus searching a few minutes before I plan on running. One morning, however, it took so long that I had no choice but to start my run. It was a half mile before it had a suitable signal.

Screen
The screen is the biggest weakness of the Soleus, and I'm guessing that it's the reason they were able to keep the price so low. The technology is your standard old-school LCD, not unlike those old Tiger games in the '80s. If you look at the watch in the right light, it gives a glimpse at some apparently planned enhancements (more on this later). The issue I've had with the screen is that it's hard to get an idea of how you're doing at a quick glance. The Garmin has a matrix-type setup that allows for some flexibility in the display, and keeps elapsed time as a large, blocky number. Total distance and pace are separated by plenty of real estate, so your eyes know just where to glance. A quick look through sweat-blinded, distance-addled eyes can give you what you need. The Soleus has 3 compact rows of numbers, which can have a tendency to bleed together as fatigue sets in. Most irksome are the total distance and pace rows being stacked in "Run" mode. When your pace and distance are a similar number (say 8 total miles at an 8 minute pace), you can start to get confused. I am, however, pleased to report that I'm getting more and more accustomed to the data view. Anybody that runs without their glasses or contacts might have some problems with the smallish size of the numbers.

Battery
I'd say the Soleus is roughly comparable to the Garmin in terms of battery use, if not slightly superior. After a 40-mile week, I had run it down to about 30%. It takes about the same amount of time to charge up. Bear in mind, however, that it doesn't come with any means of plugging it into the wall -- it comes with nothing but a naked USB cable. You'll either need to plug it into your computer or use whatever USB-to-wall-plug accessory you have. In the age of smartphones, I'd imagine that just about everybody's got one of these laying around. I was able to use my Garmin's wall plug, for example.

Audio/Beeping
Oddly enough, this might be my biggest complaint with the Soleus. One thing at which the Garmin really excels is getting your attention. There's the trademark arpeggiated "chirp" that you get every time it splits, as well as a recognizble "I'm starting" tone. When you ask it to do something that doesn't make sense, it emits a dull monotone "grunt."

The Soleus has one meek beep for everything. My non-GPS Timex, as a cheaper-watch comparison, has a handful of distinct, loud beeps. On the rare occasions that I run with headphones in, there's absolutely no way I'd know when the Soleus is splitting. Conversely, I can hear the Garmin's flourish no matter how loud I've got the music pumping. I find the Soleus' lack of loudness most troubling due to the lack of an average pace view in Run mode. Once you've missed that last split time, you can't get back to it without toggling out of the Run mode, which I haven't had the balls to try mid-run yet. This might make the "Chrono" mode better for some.


Light
Here's a comparison of the light on the Soleus and the light on a Garmin Forerunner 110. The Garmin doesn't seem that much brighter to my eyes, but it's definitely a higher-end illumination. The Soleus, nonetheless, has a cool, blue glow to it, and is easy to read in the dark.



The Future


I get the impression that Soleus is treating this first iteration of the GPS watch as a "test," and that they've got plans to roll this thing out in bigger and better flavors. This is evident if you take a close look at the screen in the right light. As I mentioned before, it's an old school LCD, so you're able to see ghosts of some things that shouldn't technically be on this watch. There's a little heart, for example, which leads me to believe that we'll see an HRM version of this watch soon (assuming it sells at a good clip). There are some other little things in there too, including a handful of what appear to be various beep modes.

Look closely in the upper right for the silhouette of a heart

The fact that it comes with a USB plug also has me wondering if they're planning on allowing some kind of a data manager. It doesn't appear as a flash drive on any of my computers, but I'm guessing that this wouldn't be very hard to accommodate. As mentioned above, I would really love to see the ability to fix up the firmware, addressing things like "HEY Tone" and my gripes with the beeps. But it all comes back to price -- for $99, can you really complain that much? I say no, especially at the price I paid.


Overall impressions/Summary

In short, I am impressed with the Soleus, given its low price and high performance. I paid over $200 for my Garmin, and the Soleus stacks up favorably against it, even besting it in some areas. It's not as flashy as the Garmin, and it has some annoying nuances, but it all comes back to the price. For miserly folks, or runners that are testing the waters to see if they have a future in this wonderful sport, this could be a nice place to start.

I'm going to keep using this watch for a few more weeks. As the winter sets in, I won't be able to run the trails anymore, so it might be relegated to the shelf. The performance on the street is a toss-up between the Garmin and the Soleus, and I solidly prefer the Garmin's display. For trail running, however, I can safely say that I prefer the Soleus with its better sensitivity and signal strength readout. At worst, the Soleus will be a great backup day-to-day.

This being said, you might want to hold off on your purchase decision for a few months to see if you can get HRM functionality for a few extra bucks. And who knows, maybe they've got the ability to display a running average pace somewhere in the circuitry.

Strengths:
  • Price, price, price!
  • High-sensitivity receiver functions as advertised
  • Good battery life
  • GPS signal strength indicator
  • "Night mode": lights up automatically at each split
  • Accurate readings, predictable behavior
  • Price!
Weaknesses:
  • Borderline inaudible beeps
  • Chintzy screen/interface
  • No ability to upload/share activity
  • Slow to acquire satellites
  • Lackluster user manual/documentation
Bottom Line:
I recommend this watch. If you need to share your activity on your favorite social media site, just do it the old fashioned way. Most people can't tell the difference between a 5 minute mile and a 9 minute mile at the end of the day. Better yet, turn off the computer/smart phone and get out on the road/trail!

7 comments:

  1. Out of curiosity, does it track total elevation as well?

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  2. There is no elevation data accessible on the Soleus, no.

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  3. I sweat a lot....any issues with that? What is the GPS powered by? Tom Tom?, etc...

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  4. Thanks for the info. I am glad you uploaded the instructions. They are a lot easier to read on a computer.

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  5. I jusat heard that the Soleus 2.0 and 3.0 are coming out in February and will have the download feature, which I am looking forward to. I was going to purchase the 1.0 but now I ma holding off to have the one ith the download feature as I love to share my info on FB :-)

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  6. I accidentally dropped my soleus gps 1.0 from about 2 1/2 feet, suddenly the GPS button is no longer working (although the GPS still works) and the other buttons are not responding as well as before. I'm not sure whether I got a defective product or this watch is just so fragile. Be careful with your soleus watches, hopefully this won't happen to you. Hoping that the warranty will cover this one, but I highly doubt it.

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  7. Not liking it at all. To delete all days is not user friendly and the video is not even close to helpful.

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