Nike+ SportWatch GPS Is Promising, But Suffers From Teething Trouble [Review]


Nike Plus SportWatch GPS - Photo Graham Bower

Photo: Graham Bower

The new SportWatch GPS offers Nike+ functionality without the need for an iPod or iPhone. There’s lots to like about Nike’s latest toy, but early teething trouble combined with poor GPS accuracy are currently letting it down.

Nike’s new SportWatch is an important step in the evolution of Nike+, the runners’ tracking system that started life as a joint venture with Apple. In the beginning Nike+ enabled an iPod nano to communicate with a sensor in a Nike running shoe to track your distance, pace and calories as you run, listening to music. Today, Nike+ has multiplied into a rich and varied ecosystem, offering many new features, including GPS mapping and a heart rate monitor. The Nike+ SportWatch is the first product to consolidate these into a single solution. In fact there are just two things are missing from the SportWatch: music and Apple.

Nike Plus Feature Compatibility

The only trace of involvement from Apple in this product is their logo on the shoe sensor. Otherwise, it is all the work of Nike, and their new GPS partners, TomTom. It’s not the first time Nike have chosen to part company with Cupertino. The Nike+ SportBand and the Nike+ GPS iPhone app* were also developed without Apple. A fact that prompted me to speculate about an Apple/Nike fallout in a previous post.

So how does this new addition to the Nike+ ecosystem measure up?

Normally, I prefer to run with an iPod, but there are occasions like club runs and races where I don’t want to listen to music and for these situations, it’s handy to have a Nike+ device without headphones. In the past, I’ve used the SportBand, but this has a few shortcomings.

The SportWatch offers many significant advances over the SportBand, as you would expect, given that it is three time the price. The display is large and clear, with bright backlighting and controls that are robust and well located. The on-screen design is stylish, clean, well laid out with big text that is ideal for glancing at when you’re bounding along. Overall, it’s much easier to use than the fiddly SportBand (and indeed the buttonless new iPod nano).

Curiously, you’re expected to “tap” (which in practice appears to mean slap) the watch in order to activate the display lighting. As strange as this may seem, slapping your wrist in this way turns out to be convenient and intuitive. It is also a welcome addition that you can now use these slaps to record intervals.

The design of the watch itself is excellent. In fact, it’s the only GPS running device I’ve ever seen that anyone might seriously consider wearing as a regular watch. It’s perhaps a little on the large size, but far smaller than most competitor products; it has a nice solid build quality and the USB connector is cleverly concealed in the strap.

As a watch replacement, it is fairly basic. The feature I miss most is a stopwatch. Most runners (pro and amateur alike) will need to time more than just their own runs. For example, I like to use a stopwatch to time my rest intervals at the gym, (yes, I know that’s geeky). Hopefully this is an omission that Nike can correct in a future software update.

A unique feature of the SportWatch is the way in which it combines data from both the Nike+ shoe sensor and GPS satellite data. This combination could potentially offer the best of both worlds. The shoe sensor is great for indoors, treadmills or any time you can’t get a GPS satellite connection, while the GPS should offer greater accuracy over long distances, and provide mapping data. Nike even claims that the GPS data is used to auto-calibrate the shoe sensor – a very clever innovation for anyone who is unwilling or unable to do their own calibration at their local running track. That’s the theory, anyway. Reality, however, is disappointingly rather different.

I’ve been using the SportWatch for a couple of months now. In that time, I’ve covered about 300 miles, in a variety of locations, distances and conditions. Over that time, it has proved to be very unreliable in measuring distances – especially when GPS is enabled.

The GPS problem is best illustrated by this screengrab, which shows a recent run at my local athletics track, in which I did six laps – you’ll see there’s significant drift from one lap to the next, and most laps are shown at least a quarter mile away from the actual track, which you can see in the satellite image. It appears that most of the mapping is handled using some kind of relative positioning, presumably measuring motion and speed via the accelerometer rather than GPS – perhaps to save power. As a consequence, if the watch does not get an accurate reading at the start of the run, this error can become progressively compounded as the run continues.

Connecting to GPS can also be a problem. Sometimes I’ve had to wait for several minutes before a run to acquire a GPS signal, (the watch refers to this as “linking”). Nike appears to be aware of this problem, because they offer a “Quick Start” feature, allowing you to begin your run without GPS. They claim that GPS mapping will commence later, once the GPS link is established. But in my experience, this never happened – when I used Quick Start, I never got any subsequent GPS data.

London Marathon Route

These problems are intermittent – as you can see, this image of my London Marathon run last month is pretty accurate. Nike+ reported 43km (a marathon is 42km), but this is only 2% out, which isn’t bad at all.

When I returned my first SportWatch because of these intermittent problems, the guy in NikeTown told me that they had sold over 600 watches and I was the first to return one for accuracy problems. I’m very surprised by this, because the replacement watch had almost identical problems with GPS.

When I recently tweeted about these accuracy problems, @nikeplus responded saying “we’ll be fine-tuning the accuracy soon through software and firmware updates”. They later added that the promised updates would be coming “in the next week or two”.

The shoe sensor data is sadly also not perfect. My first watch was extremely inaccurate, routinely under-reporting distance by as much as 20%, even when GPS was disabled. The replacement watch was much better, but even with this one, on shoe sensor-only runs, I’ve noticed that after about five miles, the sensor starts sporadically cutting out, resulting in erratic pace reporting.

My final gripe is with the calorie counter, which works fine on shorter runs. But every time I’ve run further than around 12 miles, something goes wrong and it starts to underestimate calories burned. Hopefully this will also be corrected in a future software update.

If, like me, you simply must have the latest Nike+ gadget, then you’ve probably already gone out and bought one. For everyone else, my advice would be to wait a while, and see if Nike are able to resolve these issues. If they do, the Nike+ SportWatch GPS promises to be an excellent running companion – even if it doesn’t have an Apple logo on it.

* N.B. not to be confused with the Apple-developed Nike+ app that comes bundled with every iPhone but does not include GPS tracking

  • jdremington

     What a piece of shit. Disappointing. I guess I’ll just be buying a smaller iPod to run with.

  • Shoebobs

    I’ve used it for about 6 runs ranging from 3-6 miles in multiple locations and GPS has been spot on.  The track you ran at may have just been a bad location for GPS; there are many factors that affect GPS on any watch/device.  Overall I love the watch.

  • Justin de Lange

     First time I heard of this. Shoebobs might be right here. A strong GPS signal is the core business of TomTom. For instance, they also sell carkits to enhance the GPS signal of an iPhone. So I can’t believe they put a weak GPS transmitter in the watch. That would be very dumb to say the least. 

  • grahambower

     Hi Justin. Agreed, I think it probably is to do with reception in different locations. Trouble is, the poor results from the running track I’ve replicated in many other locations around London, UK. In those same locations, iPhone is consistently more accurate – so the reception of the SportWatch (at least the two units I tested) does not appear to be as good as the iPhone’s GPS reception… But I’m still hoping for a software fix, because in every other respect, I think the SportWatch is great.

  • Shoebobs

    From what I’ve read, Nike is constantly updating the GPS data, so hopefully with time the signal will work better for London, UK.  I’ve been doing my runs in Minneapolis, MN, USA.  Perhaps the GPS data for Minneapolis is just more reliable at this point.  Every time I connect the watch to my Mac, it takes a minute or so as it is “Updating GPS Satellite Data.”

    Do you know what firmware version was on the first watch you bought?  I’ve also seen a few reviews say that GPS data got more accurate with a firmware update. 

    When it gets a clear signal (away from large buildings, trees, clouds), it seems to be pretty accurate.  When you ran your marathon and saw a 2% distance difference, that could just be that you tended to run more on the outside track of the course.  Over 26.2 miles (or 42km), that can definitely add a little extra distance.

    This is my first GPS watch, so I’ve never used Garmin, but I hear those watches suffer some of the same issues in terms of taking a few minutes to find the GPS signal.  What I like about this watch is the added foot pod that can be used as a fail-over if signal is lost all of a sudden (e.g. part of your run is in the middle of large buildings).  So far I’ve only had one run where I couldn’t acquire a signal (dark clouds and heavy rain).  For all other runs, it connected after a couple of minutes and never lost signal.

    Overall, great review.  I think you nailed a lot of the pros/cons of the watch, but I just wanted to chime in with my GPS experience.  I too would like to see some better stuff done with calorie measurements.  I haven’t seen the issue you are seeing (haven’t done a 12+ mile run since getting the watch), but I think they could get more accurate by adding elevation into the equation, as running up a hill is going to burn more calories (I’m assuming elevation data is available through GPS). 

    Finally, as a tip to others, there is a known issue with the watch not communicating properly with the new 2011 MBPs.  If anybody reading this is having that issue, until Nike releases the fix, as a workaround you can boot into 32-bit mode (hold 3 & 2 on bootup) and it should connect properly.  You have to open the Nike+ app manually though, it still won’t automatically load when you connect the watch to your Mac if it has the issue.

  • Mikescotland

    It took Garmin years to get their running gps units and software to where they are now and I remember their early Forerunners suffering from similar criticisms/problems.

  • grahambower

     Thanks for the feedback Shoebobs. My original watch came with 1.0 firmware I think, and in the end it was upgrade to Firmware 1.0.3 with GPS Patch 3.1. This update resulted in it almost never establishing a satellite link, but didn’t increase accuracy. Same with the replacement – it installed the 1.0.3 Firmware the first time I plugged it into my Mac. It regularly updates GPS data, but so far, no improvement.

  • cheesy11

    you would to be pretty much a genius to use that watch, i guess they are over complicating it and people will buy in to it because of the novelty of having a watch that can do a billion things

  • samwinebaum

     I have generally been pleased with this “1.0” effort by Nike and TomTom. The lack of average pace is a big negative and I hope they will update as I heard unofficially from Nike at the Boston Marathon expo they will by July. The GPS accuracy on the Boston Marathon course was 99.05% about 0.25 miles over. I think much of the difference was in tangents not run and loss of good track around taller buildings near the finish. See my blog post for details:
    As well a complete review here
    The heart rate monitor the special Polar Wearlink+ works great, after the first 6-10 minutes of a run where it is very spiky.
    The foot sensor which supposedly is calibrated by the GPS has over time gotten increasingly inaccurate. Not sure why and haven’t found a manual way to recalibrate.
    I really like the ease of upload to the Nike site and the stats on the new hard to find beta GPS site which does away with the slow Flash.
    All of this is quite critical of what for me is proving to be a far more practical, use every day device when compared to my older Garmin 205. I say give them some time to update the firmware. In the meantime for the runner seeking an easy to use, reasonably priced sports trainer system the Nike+SportsWatch GPS is worth a close look.

  • Mrples

     graham, thanks for the nice review. i’m based in munich, germany, and got my watch yesterday, although non US/UK citizens are not supposed to have it. anyway, took it for a run today, together with my Nike+ GPS app on iPhone4. while the phone is shows 10.61km, the watch is convinced i ran 11.18km.
    interestingly, a friend ran with me using iPhone 3GS and had a very spotty GPS reception, which in turn resulted in a distance recorded almost identical to the watch. 
     i have a feeling, that the iPhone4 is most accurate. a 5% deviation is a bit much though, i think. 

  • Rodrigo Fujiwara

     I was very disappointed with this gadget too.. I also bought at London Niketown and I ran the Paris Marathon. It was very accurate, but the delay to find signal is very annoying… I don’t believe that the battery would last 9 hours as they say. When I finished my marathon in 3:56 the battery was almost dead… Too bad that I live in Brazil… I didn’t have the chance to return it…
    As a regular watch it is pretty cool, but for performance I should have bought the Garmin… 
    Nice post man! 

  • Owen

    Hey Graham. I’m a newbie to running. And the watch looks enticing – something to help motivate and challenge me. I do not need advanced features at this point – just pace & distance for the most part. Do you think the inaccuracy would be a big let down for someone running only 4-6 miles at a time? Have their been any improvements since your post?


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  • barry

    Its a big scam Nike’s support is horrible and they blame their system for being down as user error. They had the same watch since 2011 and its so outdated.