I recently reviewed the Garmin ForeRunner 10, and have been thrilled with it as a simple, entry-level running GPS-watch. But what if you want to use a heart-rate monitor, ride a bike, go into the water and so on? At that point you need a new device – something like the Magellan Switch series. Magellan is very explicit that the Switch is designed as a multi-sport device, and was kind enough to send along a review sample of the Switch for me to check out (UPDATE: Magellan recently sent me a pre-release update for the Switch, and I will comment where it made a noticeable difference). Let’s see how it did!
Switch is a crossover GPS watch designed primarily for running but expandable to cycling, swimming and other outdoor activities.
Switch tracks position precisely with GPS satellite data and records time, distance, speed/pace, elevation and more. High-sensitivity GPS allows Switch to acquire satellites quickly and track movement in many tough environments – near tall buildings, on mountainous terrain or under heavy tree cover. By using ANT+TM wireless technology, the Switch easily connects to a Magellan heart rate monitor or any ANT+ compatible heart rate monitor, foot pod, bike speed/cadence sensor and power meter.
Boasting a high-resolution display, Switch provides superior readability in varying light conditions – especially bright light. With 8 hours of battery life from a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, Switch has enough gas in the tank to capture most activities. And for endurance athletes, Magellan offers an optional Battery Extender Pack that provides 16 hours of additional battery life, for a total of 24 hours.
Switch is water-resistant to 50 meters, so it can be worn for an extended period in water to track swimming activities and other high intensity water and snow activities. The slim design and flexible wristband mean Switch can be used in a variety of conditions.
Switch breaks away from the pack by introducing a new training concept for GPS watches – Activity Pacer. Once a desired distance, time and speed/pace have been set, Activity Pacer not only shows the targeted progress, but more importantly, provides specific targets to attain or maintain the original goal.
Additionally, Switch includes fitness and training features such as customizable activity screens with over 80 data fields to choose from, 9 activity profiles to save device configurations based on activity type, auto lap, auto pause, backtrack navigation, marking locations, activity history, and more.
For those looking to analyze and share their activities, Magellan makes it easy for customers to upload, view and store activities at Magellan Active as well as other leading fitness sites, including MapMyFitness, TrainingPeaks, Strava and more.
As I mentioned with the Garmin, there are really only a few things that matter to me: that the GPS works, is repeatable, is accurate, and that the watch is comfortable. Let’s dig through all of them one at a time.
Size & Comfort
The first GPS watch I even tried on was my brother’s Garmin 305 … the beast! That thing should come with a quick-release, because it is heavy enough to be used as a wrist weight!
After several months using the Nike+ GPS Watch and then checking out the small and ultralight Garmin, the Switch was much bigger and heavier than the Garmin and a bit heavier than the Nike+. It was also larger, but that was deceptive because the smooth lines of the Nike+ make it appear smaller than it actually is. The Switch is built to accommodate the change between running and biking, and therefore it is a fairly boxy design.
When I first put the switch on my wrist, aside from noting how large it felt, I also noticed how solid it was. The band is thick and wide, and the metal latch is wide so the closure feels robust and secure. It also feels like it will last a very long time.
The same is true for all of the buttons – everything is sealed to be water-tight, but also feels very well made. It takes significant pressure to activate the buttons, which means you don’t have to worry about the ‘trigger happy’ effect some find with the Garmin. Using the buttons while wearing my running gloves is more of a pain, but at least it is consistent.
Not Really a Watch
The reason I call this a ‘wrist GPS’ is that because when not in use the screen is blank … there is NO watch! This might seem like a moot complaint, as the main focus is to track performance, and no one would wear something as large as this as an everyday watch. That said, when you are at a race or even meeting up for a group run, chances are you check the time … frequently. OK, so there IS a time function, but no easy way to get it to simply display the time like a ‘normal watch’.
Let me be blunt – I consider digging through menus or having to use a secondary timepiece unacceptable when I just strapped something on my wrist with a built-in timing mechanism.
How do you build a device that works for running, swimming and biking? Since each has its own terminology and sets of monitors, it means adding extra parameters, making icons and screens more generic, and building in support for just about everything. A simple example is speed – in biking I care about speed in terms of miles per hour, whereas for running I want my pace in minutes per mile. This means having menu items that allow you to deal with both.
In terms of wireless device support, fortunately the ANT+ technology is standard across sports, so your wireless monitor will likely work with the Switch. You can use footpods, heart rate monitors, cadence meters, and pretty much anything else related to running, biking or swimming.
The final cost is flexibility IS flexibility: as mentioned, since you need to take the Switch to a variety of sports it needs to be flexible. Nowhere is this more demanding than biking. For running you strap the Switch to your wrist. For biking it gets hard-mounted to the bike. The Switch-Up has a quick-release plate to ease these transitions, something I would strongly recommend if you are a triathlete.
Ease of Use
The core marketing of the Garmin was around ‘one button’ operation and ‘just start running’ as a mantra. Most GPS watches require a bit more understanding and up-front work, possibly even reading the manual. The Switch definitely falls into that category. Whereas the Nike+ and Garmin are running watches exclusively and use those standards, the Switch has a very different set of icons and standards, and doesn’t feel immediately obvious in terms of operation.
The great example is getting started – there is a power button that starts the GPS, but that has nothing to do with recording a workout. THAT button is on the middle of the opposite side with an icon that looks more like ‘stop’ than anything else. But the power button DOES activate the backlight, something not apparent on the Switch itself. Just take a look at the couple of images of the buttons – they really don’t seem to suggest anything particularly helpful.
As for the screen layout and information display … I will get to that shortly.
Let’s Go For a Run
So once I figured out how to start and stop data collection, and that the GPS starts hunting as soon as you power on, I was ready for a run. I headed outdoors, stretched while waiting for the ‘beep’, started ‘activity recording’ and headed out. So far, so good.
As you proceed you get pace, distance and elapsed time on the main screen. You can customize the information display, but those were my choices. By default you get a beep every mile as an auto-lap, similar to what Garmin does (Nike+ doesn’t default to auto-lap). If you push the menu button you toggle what is displayed, and like everywhere else there is tremendous depth that will benefit some and hinder others.
At the end of a run press the start button again to stop recording, and then hold it for a few seconds to bring up the save menu. Unlike many other devices, your data isn’t saved until you explicitly choose to ‘save and erase’ the data. It was a bit disconcerting at first to do this, since you were erasing the system before you knew it saved properly. UPDATE: Magellan has changed the terminology in a pre-release update they sent to me … THANK YOU!
Pacing, Elapsed Time and More!
Remember I was mentioning the depth of the Switch? Interactivity is where it shines. If you want to maintain a specific pace to hit a certain marathon time, you can program that into the watch. It will tell you if you are on target currently and overall with visuals to help know where you are compared to target.
Similarly, if you are swimming or biking and are looking for an estimated arrival time on a course, you can program that in as well. Since there is a timing function, you will get an accurate ETA based on your pace and the course.
Again, there is a tremendous amount of depth beyond what the normal runner will ever use, but if you are a triathlete would be indispensable.
The Curse of the ‘Under 40 Font’
As mentioned, there are three lines of information displayed when the Switch is active – you can customize it to display just two lines, but with three lines there can be as many as SIX items of information on-screen at once! This makes it a challenge to glance at data as simply as on many GPS watches, but as you seen in the image I too at arm’s length, it isn’t too bad. The viewability of activity data is acceptable, owing to a higher resolution screen than just about any other GPS watch.
The problem is that the Switch also pops up dialog boxes with information. The second time I used the Switch, I heard a beep and assumed that meant that the GPS had locked, but the text was too small for me to quickly see and I just pressed the ‘start recording button’. Turns out the GPS did NOT lock, and whereas I had data from my Garmin, Nike+ and Samsung Galaxy SIII (RunKeeper), I had only an elapsed time from the Switch.
This ‘invisible font’ issue becomes more problematic when you try to actively use the watch when running (or biking or swimming). The screens look like they were viewed on a projector in a conference room and seemed fine, but never really checked out for real-world use. This isn’t always the case, but there were too many times when the lettering was too small for an active display.
My reference to the ‘Under 40 Font’ goes back to a Visual C++ conference I attended in the 90s when an older programmer spoke about the dangers of young programmers with huge monitors writing stuff that looks fine to them but that folks with 15″ screens and aging vision will not be able to read. My vision, fortunately, remains excellent … but there are limits.
The Switch is rated for 8 hours of active use, and that seems to hold up pretty well to what I experienced. I did a few two-hour long runs before uploading my data to test storage (I worried about the ‘erase’ thing) and that pretty much ran down the battery. In standby mode the battery seems to last forever – I had a two-week gap between uses, and the battery was still at 85%!
One cool thing Magellan offers for the Switch Up watch is an external battery pack. This clips on where the USB cradle would attach and provides 16 more hours of charge, for a full 24 hours of recording!
While on the subject of the Switch Up, aside from the ability to quick-change from run to bike, you also get sensors for temperature and a barometric altimeter – which is theoretically more accurate than the GPS altimeter.
Precision & Accuracy
This is the most problematic and contentious item in the review – because quite honestly while I might seem to be nitpicking the Switch so far, there isn’t a single thing that would defer me from recommending it aside from an inability to determine the distance I am running accurately and precisely.
Precision is getting the same answer (right or wrong) repeatably; accuracy is getting the correct answer. So naturally precision is an easier metric since most of us don’t have the means to truly estimate GPS distance accuracy directly. My answer there was ‘triangulation’ – use a trusted source, then measure as many devices together in a repeated fashion as possible.
I was never overly thrilled with the precision of my Nike+ watch, as I found it could deviate ~0.2 miles over the 8-10 mile runs I was doing every day training for the marathon. When running the 5 – 8k road races, I also found it a bit out of sync (i.e. accuracy) with the ‘Garmin beep chorus’ and total distance at the finish line … but again only by a couple of tenths.
As a contrast, my Garmin has demonstrated what I call ‘street width precision’. I have four different courses I run on a regular basis, and each has me crossing a mile marker at an intersection at least once. And after running these course more than 25 times each over the last three months, I have come to expect to hear the ‘beep’ within a few steps of the exact same location each time. As for accuracy, the Garmin mapped the 26.2 miles of the Wineglass Marathon (which is measured and marked to international standards) within ~0.1 mile.
From the very first day I used the Switch – which was a ~3 mile recovery run after the Marathon – I found it to be ‘off’. Specifically I found it to over-report my distance, and therefore also my pace (since time was dead-on). For the first run the offset was only ~0.1 miles (which is 3%), and for a nice 12 mile killer double-hill loop the difference was 0.45 miles. These values are compared to the average of the Nike+, Garmin and RunKeeper.
But since my entire marathon training was based on a watch with dodgy accuracy and precision, why does that matter? Well, the big thing was the order of magnitude: with the Nike+ I was within a couple of tenths, and even though early on in my training that bothered my, by the time I was doing 50+ miles per week it was just a minor annoyance. My bigger concern was precision – so I decided to test out the set of four GPS devices!
The graph shows the results – the Garmin was all within <0.1 mile, the Runkeeper slightly worse (I did switch to the Galaxy Note II during the test), the Nike+ had ~0.2mile range … and the Magellan was the most variable. The Magellan also had the most variable GPS lock times, a couple of times being nearly instantaneous, and a couple of times taking a very long time.
I had reported the issue to Magellan a while back, and more recently I got a software update. I ran with the Switch only a few times after applying the patch, and while it seemed that the distances were much more precise (7.04, 7.05, 7.08mi on three tests) the accuracy was still off (6.88 was the average of other devices).
I have read comparisons of up to SEVEN devices at once, and to be honest the 0.4mi difference is fairly small compared to some of those comparisons. However, compared to other devices I tested it was a concern for me.
UPDATE: With the software update I was REALLY hoping for an improvement here, and in a way there was: I did three runs late last week on the same course and all were within 0.1 mile. There was still an offset, but it was ~0.2mi for a 7.75 mile course, so it seems like there was marked improvement from the update.
I stated in my Garmin review that I felt spoiled by the Nike software, as it auto-starts when the watch is attached to USB, records everything and then opens the results in a web browser. Using Garmin Connect felt like a step down, as I needed to manually open the website and upload my workouts from the watch.
The Magellan Active site is more like the Garmin experience. You login using credentials from the Magellan site, and once you’ve installed a browser plugin the site will find your watch and upload the data. You get all of the pace, terrain, GPS and other useful information displayed in a quick-to-glance format. You can export the data to a variety of other sites and share it on Facebook.
When uploading data, you can also opt to have GPS data downloaded to the Switch, which will help with sync-up time in the future. While Nike+ and Garmin do sync GPS data for better prediction, this actually tells the Switch about GPS positioning for the next week. In my usage, I only noticed any difference in GPS location time based on this once or two – and am not sure it helped, but it is a cool feature.
My only issue with the software was that there were two separate occasions when I could login to the Magellan site but not the ‘Active’ portal to upload workouts.
From the start I called the Magellan Switch both feature-packed and flawed … and that is something of a problem. The Switch brings a level of interaction, multi-sport, pacing details, customization and more that is simply unheard of in the industry. Yet it suffers from issues with readability of fonts, lack of a decent watch functionality, clunky design aesthetic compromises, and some concerns around precision and accuracy.
Do I recommend it? That depends on the usage: for runners or other single-sport athletes: NO. Period. You can get a better specific device for less money. For runners both my low-end Garmin and comparable Nike+ performed better and felt better to wear for a long run.
But if you are a triathlete, it is hard to match the Switch (particularly the Switch Up) offering: multi-sport capabilities, great ANT+ functionality, extended battery option and more. And with the update delivering better text readability and context, and some much-needed GPS accuracy and precision improvements, Magellan might well be on the way to having a top-notch GPS watch. Or … non-watch.
So there it is: single sport, move along; multi-sport, check this out! But my final caveat is this: the Magellan Switch is a deep GPS system, but all of that depth of functionality and customization comes at a price.
Here is my hands-on video of the Magellan Switch:
Review: Magellan Switch
Where to Buy: Magellan.com or Amazon.com
Price: $229.95 ($217.66 at Amazon.com)
What I Like: Amazing functionality; tremendous depth; excellent and useful customization; ANT+ compatibility; extendable battery; usable across multiple sports
What Needs Improvement: Issues with GPS accuracy and precision; basic ‘watch mode’ lacking; ‘do it all’ functionality makes doing the basics more difficult.
Source: Manufacturer provided review sample