'Matter'

MATTER: Garmin Forerunner 235 – KISS

Keep. It. Simple. Stupid.

The Forerunner 235 was one less thing to worry about at Pan-American Cyclocross Championships.

Ok, to be fair, it might be ridiculous to refer to a GPS watch as ‘simple.’ But in truth, nothing is simple. The Forerunner 235, however, assumes the air of a relatively unassuming, simple watch, yet delivers a slew of useful, reliable and user-friendly functions that continue to impress me.

The cold-weather set-up. No issues with watch freezing so far!

At the time of this writing I’ve worn the 235 for about 10 months. Garmin was kind enough to send me a sample for review when I enquired with them about their most suitable watch for cyclocross and similar cycling. Following years of Garmin head-unit GPS use, which involved a few issues but overall dependable performance, I was annoyed by a bunch of aspects of the tech. I think I’d become accustomed to these annoyances as ‘normal,’ and wasn’t really able to see them until I started doing bike changes in cyclocross, which renders bar-mounted computers somewhat pointless. I didn’t need to see data while racing CX, so I started putting my computer into my back pocket for races. The lump was irritating. This got me thinking about what I really needed in a GPS device for the majority of the riding I do. What might the best solution be 90% of the time I spend on the bike?

Rain or shine or snow, this is cyclocross! Photo: Peter Kraiker

I left stem-mounts behind years ago, as they place the computer in an awkward position both visually and aesthetically; I had no interest in revisiting that position. While ripping around on my CX bikes it seemed I’d inevitably smash my out-front computer into a tree. That’s just how singletrack riding goes: sometimes you ride into trees. What’s gonna give when you do? Your plastic computer; ping.

Cue Garmin 500 taped to the mount for months….

Battery life…. There’s nothing like making a prayer that your GPS computer will last the entirety of your 6 hour adventure, during which you’ll rely on the computer’s bread-crumb trail for navigation. Then it dies at 5 hours, leaving you wondering whether your file saved (PLEASE GOD, THIS RIDE HAS BEEN EPIC!) and whether you should whip out your phone and try to use it the rest of the way, or just tempt fate, navigate by memory, and forego the remainder of the day’s data capture (rending that leg immaterial, obviously)?

I can’t tell you the number of times I had my 500s die mid-ride. It sucked every time.

There’s no need to look at a device in cyclocross!

Uploading data via computer….yep, that sucked too. ‘Hey, did anyone bring a lap-top?’ Ugh. While many of the new head-units connect to smart phones for connectivity, the classic Garmins many of us have don’t, so they require physical connection to computers to move files around. When there’s a better way, this feels pretty lame.

A HOT day on Mount Immitos, outside Athens, Greece.

These were the things rattling around in my head as I spoke with Garmin. I was looking for a solution that met the following criteria:

  • Affordable price compared to head-units
  • Durable
  • Easy to use
  • Accurate enough GPS function
  • Long battery life
  • Wireless connectivity for file transfer
  • Connectivity with other devices (heartrate strap)
  • Unobtrusive aesthetics, suitable for wearing at work (i.e., all the time)
  • A constant companion in adventure!
The quiet and simplicity of the countryside: majestic.

My contact at Garmin was extremely helpful, knowledgeable about the product, and pleasant to deal with. She recommended the Forerunner 235, based on our conversation about what I was trying to accomplish with a watch. The 235 would become my constant companion for the next 10 months, which included an incredible trip to Europe with my family. While the watch isn’t without its idiosyncrasies, I’ve been extremely happy with it, and have and will continue to recommend it highly. Read on to find out why.

My typical #dropbarbraap setup, nothing mounted on the bars, no navigation tools required.

Specifications and First Impressions

The 235 is marketed as a running watch, which I think must have something to do with its light weight. At 42 grams (claimed), it can only be considered light AF, which I really appreciate (more on why this matters for riding below).

This light weight is down to mostly plastic construction, which is also a cost-saving move. While the watch’s buttons have a light feel to them, which I associate with ‘cheap’ watches, no functional downside has manifested. The chemically treated glass watchface is large enough to easily read while riding (I like to see the actual time of day while riding, and ride duration, mostly), including in bright sun, without being obtrusive in other contexts, such as office-work. Its silicone strap is well-proportioned for me, and would accommodate wrists much smaller than mine (which is not ‘big’) and easily more than an inch larger in diameter. The buckle is stainless steel, and perfectly sculpted to prevent snags on clothing.

Here I’m using the 235 for data recording, and my 500 head-unit for navigation. This way I won’t lose data when – not if – the 500 gives up the ghost. Tree impacts not a concern here.

The backside of the watch incorporates a protruding section of material that forms its Elevate™ optical heartrate sensor. As someone who’d not worn a watch in perhaps 20 years, this took some getting used to, but is now imperceptible. The protrusion is particularly relevant in the context of strap tension, which I’ve found I need to run relatively loose to avoid numbness (I have issues with this hand). I wear the watch loose enough to freely slide it up and down my wrist, which means it can shake around while riding. Despite its light weight, shaking of the watch while riding rough terrain irritated my wrist bone early on in my testing, even hurt at times. However, I was able to both refine my strap tension and become accustomed to the watch’s movement. When wearing long-sleeve jerseys it was easy to wear the watch overtop of the sleeve and this movement would not be a factor. By comparison, the Forerunner 935 and 645 Music use sensors the protrude less from the underside of the watch and are 49 and 42 grams (claimed) respectively.

Features

Everyone will hone in on a different set of features they’re looking for in a device, so instead of listing them all out here, I’ll refer you to the specification page on Garmin’s site for the 235. They are myriad. I’ll focus on the features I consider most important in the next section.

Riding and Results

Let’s begin with establishing what sort of activities I’ve used the watch for. Beyond normal day-to-day use, I’ve worn it for lots or road, gravel, cyclocross, snirt, and fatbike riding/racing, along with a bit of running and lots of gym sessions. I don’t use any specific functions for the gym, but I do like tracking steps daily and competing with my son ( he usually crushes me).

When it comes to format, a watch-based GPS is virtually essential if you wish to record data while racing cyclocross with two or more bikes. After a couple years racing with two bikes and only a Garmin head unit, I was pretty annoyed with losing data during bike changes, then carrying the unit in my back pocket. When I race CX I don’t need to see any metrics in front of me, aside from time, which I only check once or twice in a race, if at all. When considering the risk and frequency of smashing up-front-mounted GPS units into trees and breaking them while training, moving to a watch format is a no-brainer for me. If you only have one CX bike and you also hit trees, you might also like this option for that reason alone.

Riding in the region around Nice, France, is phenomenal. The richness and depth of the culture and architecture one lends a feeling of distinct embeddedness in history and the human condition. Bruno Bonjovi, who organizes Granfondo Nice Côte d’Azur, took this photo as we rode the fantastic Col de Braus and Col de Turini route.  Behind me sits the weight of history, a fortification of the Little Alpine Line, outside Sospel.

When riding in Europe and Iceland, I used a borrowed Hammerhead Karoo for navigation and tracking, with the 235 as a backup. Let me tell you, it’s nice having such a backup option, which spares phone battery should your main nav system die. I used the 235 for crit racing too, as I didn’t need to see metrics. Not having to search for and charge my Garmin head unit all the time was a huge plus of the 235 as my go-to. The only reason I have to use my old head unit is for navigation at this point, which is not exactly its strong suit. I did test a navigation app on the watch (dW Map), which proved to be ultra-minimalist, and thus relatively useless for me.

I experimented with all these watch faces, downloaded for free, early on in the test. I found the digital faces showed me too much data, with the exception of the upper right, and the analog faces were too hard to read while riding and didn’t show me enough data. I settled on the upper right face, Sixtop, showing time, battery level, and the date.

As a ‘smart watch’ of sorts, the 235 can be linked to a smart phone to tap into its full potential. This means automatic time synching, daylight savings and time zone synching, heartrate and sleep tracking, calendar and weather displays, and notifications. I experimented with a variety of third-party apps on the watch, but none of them have proven reliable enough to both with long-term. However, its notification function has proven to be outstanding, and easily one of the most valuable aspects of the format overall. My watch notifies me of calls, text messages, calendar events, and new podcast releases. The latter is almost useless to me, but once in a while triggers delight.

After recording an activity on the watch it notifies me when the file has been uploaded to the Gamin Connect app, which I have set to post to my Strava account automatically. While listening to music the watch allows you to enter ‘Music Controls’ mode to start/stop your playback and skip tracks forward or back. This is particularly handy when listening to music with headphones that lack controls, or even if you’re broadcasting to a BT speaker and don’t want to carry your phone around the house or whatever in order to control the play.

I’ve found the notification function extremely useful, and one of the 235’s strongest points. While riding, I’ve always hated having to fumble to pull my phone out to see who is calling or texting me. Is it my wife; the school? When texts and calls come in the 235 vibrates and display’s the info my phone has on the communication: name of the caller if they’re a contact, number otherwise. I’m presented the choice to accept or ignore the call by pressing one of two buttons. Messages are displayed as the other party’s name and a preview of their message. While connected to my phone with headphones, accepting a call from the watch will pipe it right in without any need to touch the phone or toggle on the headphones, if they even have one. While in meetings and conversations it is far less disruptive to glance at the watch face while receiving a call or message than looking at my phone. When riding in cold weather with my watch over my sleeve I really appreciate not needing to access my phone in order to tell whether a communication coming in is important.

Worn on the outside of my jacket at -12C, the 235s battery faded at an accelerated rate, nearing

There are a few other functionality categories I’d like to focus on here. First, endurance. Given I was looking for a data capture and GPS solution that performed across all the riding styles I do, a broad range of battery endurance demands were in effect. In short, I have been 100% happy with the 235’s battery endurance, even though I discovered it suffers in seriously cold conditions, as I mention above. I’ll make sure I fully charge it before winter rides if I plant to wear it outside my sleeve.

Beyond the duration advertised, I believe it is reasonable to get 10+ hours of GPS tracking out of a full charge (I have done so) in ‘normal’ conditions. When using the watch without the GPS engaged, it easily lasts a full week (I’ve never gone to 9 days without using it for a ride). Doing multiple rides between charges is pretty fantastic, and the charging duration is fast, about an hour from near empty to 100%. Topping up the battery in the morning before a ride when it seems dangerously low is worthwhile; even 15 minutes brings it up considerably.

This was a long, magical day. I rode three cols – Hautacam, Luz Ardiden, Tourmalet – over a total of 9 hours and 15 minutes. There is no chance my Garmin battery would have lasted; can you imagine the feeling of not being able to record such a ride in its entirety? The 235 gave me one less thing to worry about, and the ability to just focus on completing one of the toughest rides of my life.

Starting up activity tracking is dead simple, emblematic of the 235s high degree of user-friendliness; I love this! I have my 235 set so one press of the activity button (running person icon) takes me to my default activity (which you can choose): ‘Bike’. I hit the same button again, which takes me to the data screen I configured. One more press of the button starts the recording. I often do this while actually rolling down my street and I know whether I’ve actually started the recording because the watch vibrates when I activate ‘go.’ This is clever, because I’m usually not actually looking at the watch; I don’t need to. I only use four data screens, which are really simple. 1) Distance, speed, HR; 2) HR, HR zone; 3) Time of day and battery level; 4) Calories, elapsed time, speed. In practice, I only really tend to look at the time of day screen most of the time.

I’ve come to love the simplicity and reliability of my activity tracking on the 235, and quickly found my head-unit computer annoying to deal with in contrast, not least because it needs to be plugged into a computer to upload the file. This is not the case with the the current generation, right down to the Edge 25.

I haven’t noted any GPS accuracy issues with the 235 outside of the typical variation between recorded tracks that seems to occur between various units for certain Strava segments.

After trying out the watch’s HR tracking during various activities, I’ve determined that it is not accurate for me while sweating a lot and/or exposing the watch to wind. This might have something to do with wearing the watch relatively loose. Thus, I wear my Garmin Ant+ HR strap while riding, which connects automatically every time (Garmin has a new strap that also communicates with BlueTooth devices). The watch will not receive Bluetooth HR or any BT transmissions other than connectivity with phones.

While HR is inaccurate for me while active, I find it accurate the rest of the time, and of particular use when it comes to sleep data tracking. I like tracking my resting HR, which is complimented by the watch’s accelerometer for sleep analysis. It ascertains when you fall asleep (fairly accurately, most of the time), based on your movement, then tracks your light and deep sleep phases. I can’t say for certain, but I think this differentiation is pretty accurate after 10 months of relating how I feel to the data the watch collects and analyzes. I’ve made changes to my ‘sleep protocol’ over this period, based on how much deep sleep the Connect app was telling me I was getting. The more deep sleep you get, the better, so I really appreciate the value the watch and app have delivered on this front.

An ancient fortification on the island of Naxos, Greece, between the road, me and the sea. I traversed a short singletrack trail from the road to get a closer look, and discovered the remains of a massive grinding wheel within the structure. I was pretty worried about my (lack of) water, but found a little store just before I started to prune; amazing!

What’s missing? For cyclists, power data collection is likely going to be of interest to many. Initially (back to 2015), the 235 wasn’t able to receive power data, but as of this writing, there is at least one app that enables the 235 to collect and display ANT+ power data: ANT+ Power Meter. The app seems to be going through some growing pains at the time of this writing, but it’s not unreasonable to imagine it’s only a matter of time before all issues are resolved and the app is reliable.

From my perspective, there are no gaps in the functionality of the 235 that need to be filled. I don’t need the watch to do everything under the sun, but I do need it to be accurate, reliable, durable, and intuitive. The 235 is not lacking on these fronts.

An attempt to cross up and over Mount Immitos, one of the four mountains that embrace Athens. Immitos rises to 1,026m, and features ancient marble quarries, a primordial cafe, and a network roads and trails, ranging from absolute gnar like in the image to broad fireroad and good quality pavement.

Conclusion

Cyclocross and broken Garmin Edge 500 head units catalyzed my search for an alternative to handlebar-mounted cycling computers. Since the introduction and mainstreaming of mobile phones that feature extremely powerful GPS-enabled map applications, the navigational functions of GPS cycling computers have suffered from comparisons to phones. The bread-crumb trail of a Garmin Edge 500, for example, pales greatly in comparison to the navigation most of us have become accustomed to on our phones. So when travelling to new areas and wanting to use the bike computer to navigate, this tool has felt pretty lame for a good while now. Garmin has been adapting, incorporating touchscreens into their more powerful head-units, along with BT connectivity with phones that brings all the notifications I speak of above onto the unit’s screen. Garmin has also been dropping the cost of these units, which is great to see.

Riders like me will continue to want head-units with strong navigation capabilities for the rides that demand that, but at the same time, when trying to decide on what to replace their old computer with, many will ask whether it really makes sense to spend the money for a fancy unit they’ll only use for navigation a few times each season, when they might rely on their phone in these cases instead, or even borrow a unit from a friend, as I did with the Hammerhead Karoo for my trip to Europe in 2018.

This is sort of analogous to car purchases. Many people buy SUVs for the worst driving conditions they expect to ever face, which might constitute a small percentage of overall driving. So, rather than plan to either not drive, borrow, or rent a suitable vehicle when conditions will be too extreme for the sort of car that makes sense for 90% of the owner’s driving, a tool that is way overkill for the job 90% of the time is chosen. This decision, I believe, is driven by an underlying fear of not having the right tool for the job when it matters the most, such as an emergency that requires driving in difficult conditions. I get that. On the bike, not having an adequate navigation tool can be dangerous too, but since phones are generally with us, are very powerful navigational tools, and can be set up with base maps for use outside cellular data zones, they constitute an excellent fall-back. No, it’s not fast and efficient to resort to a phone to navigate home, but it works. I’m speaking to an unplanned scenario, like the emergency case with regard to driving.

This is what I wanted to dig into the 90% solution with this test and review. Is it really necessary for a rider like me to have a powerful bar-mounted computer for my riding? My aim is to address one or two other solutions for the remaining 10% of riding in future tests reviews.

My first ride in Europe, why not head up the Tourmalet and try to get all the way to the Pic du Midi? What an adventure it was, too bad I was thwarted by a gigatonne of snow only 100m from the summit!

For 90% of the riding I do I’m 100% happy with the Forerunner 235’s functions and simplicity, both on and off the bike, as a stand-alone device. I don’t ride with power on the bikes outside (only on the trainer), and 90% of the time I don’t need to see any data in front of me. If I’m going to head out for a hard training ride with the guys or a crit, I will almost certainly be on my road bike, versus one of my off-road bikes, and I can use my old 500 for that to keep track of whatever metrics matter for that high intensity activity. When I need to navigate, I add the 500 up front or rely on my phone, and from time to time have borrowed a powerful navigation device, the Hammerhead Karoo. The rest of the time the 235 is the perfect tool for the job, and it’s virtually always already on me, ready to go.

Note the head-unit absent from the bar mount. In #dropbarbraap mode, I don’t want a computer dangling up there!

I think many of us have, over the years, sought one device solution that would cover every need we can imagine while occupying the Goldilocks sweet-spot in terms of size, weight, durability, legibility, ease of use and endurance. The Garmin 500 was the Goldilocks unit for a long time, evidenced by the massive proportion of riders using them. But as our performance expectations have risen, part of a dialectic with smart phones, the 500-type computer has become less and less relevant, because it’s overkill for most riding, yet doesn’t do navigation well. ‘Well’ is now defined as ‘like our phones’, so we’re led to look at platforms that provide that level of quality. So we might look to something like the Garmin Edge 1030 or Hammerhead Karoo as a navigation tool, but feel lame using it for day-to-day rides, and distinctly not want to use if for riding that might see it smashed into a tree. I can attest from experience with the Karoo that the weight of such a unit can be felt at the handlebars, and it affects handling. For cyclocross rides/training, mountain biking, bike path jaunts, etc. do we want or need a big head unit? Nope.

Thus, I think a lot of riders are going to look to something like the Garmin Edge 25, except….it has no power data compatibility. This renders the unit a simple data display at the bars with a bit less data collection capability. shorter battery life, and more specific utility than the Forerunner 235, at $30 cheaper ($229.99 CAN). If I was looking at a small unit for the occasions when I want an out-front display minus navigation, I’d look closely at the Lezyne Micro GPS at $99 USD. At around $100, this seems like a reasonable option for periodic use, should a GPS watch like the 235 be one’s primary device. From Garmin, the Edge 130 is the ‘new 500’, a relatively simple, black and white head-unit that is Ant+ power-meter compatible, and connects to phones for wireless data transmission, including uploads of rides and notifications. At 269.99 CAN, this unit seems like a good value for those looking for a computer for data at the bars, minus strong navigation capabilities. Meanwhile, the Edge 520 Plus extends beyond the functional range of the old 500 and current Edge 520 with a greater focus on navigation, underpinned by a preloaded base map, longer battery life (15 hours for both 520 models, nice!) and smartphone connectivity, notifications, etc.

A final thought regarding user-friendliness of the 235. While a few functions required a quick google search to access (like music controls), I found it straightforward and easy to put the 235 on and figure out how to use it. ‘Intuitive’ would be the appropriate term, perhaps related to having spent lots of time using Garmin’s 500 head-unit. I started testing a GPS smartwatch from another company just before receiving the Garmin, and found its functions awkward to access and control. I didn’t really know how unintuitive it was until I started wearing the 235; it set the bar. Within a short time I couldn’t justify swapping out the Garmin for the other watch. I have to commend Garmin for designing and building the user-interface really well.

Gathering all these threads together, I’m completely happy with both the function and utility of the Forerunner 235. My long-term test confirmed that the watch format is indeed very well suited to what I want from a data tracking device for about 90% of the riding I do outside (inside I use the Kurt Kinetic Fit app on my phone, which is virtually perfect).

Since this review has not only answered, but also raised a number of questions, it will become the first of a series of reviews on GPS device options for riders seeking pragmatic, user-friendly, reliable solutions. The next round of testing will see me put in lots of time on the Garmin 520 Plus with their MTB bundle, which should be rather interesting and informative. Will the unit’s navigational capabilities render larger options unnecessary? We’ll find out! Coupled with the 520 Plus, and a technology I’ve been really curious about for a while, will be the Varia RTL510 radar-enabled tail-light. I’m very much looking forward to learning the ins and outs of this innovative light, as I’ve noted that it is difficult to hear cars behind us as we ride noisy gravel. The light detect cars, brightens to alert them to the rider’s presence, and informs the rider at the Garmin head-unit of the car’s presence.

When it comes to navigating way out there I will spend more time testing and getting to know Hammerhead’s Karoo this summer, which will likely represent the outer limit of navigation tools in terms of size and power.

If I’ve missed anything you’d like to know about the Forerunner 235 or the watch GPS format in general from a cycling perspective, don’t hesitate to comment below or on FaceBook.

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