The best high-tech fitness watches

Written by randy o. williams
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It's high time for high-tech

The best high-tech fitness watches
Performance and style drive the sports and fitness watch market. (iStock Photo)

With GPS, you can customise any workout for pretty much anywhere you wish to go, as it marks off the distance as you proceed.

— Jason Tillinghast, design manager for the Timex Run Trainer watch

Style and high-tech have overtaken what once was the simple wristwatch -- a leather band with two hands and a sweep second hand with maybe a date indicator. The current state of instant access and digital data has changed that and now there is a wealth of performance technology atop your wrist as you bike, ski, hike, run, scuba dive or power walk. Exact yardage to the back of the green? No worries. Need to count calories or calculate the distance you’ve walked during your round of golf? Done. All encased in a package that aims to be both functional and stylish. If the late Timex spokesman John Cameron Swayze could update his popular "take a licking but keep on ticking,” he’d be stunned by the range of capabilities, durability and styles. Combining the aesthetics and functionality of watches with sport-specific computers to help athletes improve performance is big business. And consumer demand for this technology is driving watch manufacturers to innovate.

More than time

The best high-tech fitness watches
Many great watches will track your runs with GPS. (iStock Photo)

In the world of recreation and fitness timepieces, options range from simple to complex and this applies equally to design and features that measure activity.

This goes well beyond dates, alarm reminders and leather bands. It could be an “ABC” watch that includes an altimeter, barometer and compass or one for a diver that requires waterproof illumination 100 metres down in a dark sea.

There are plenty of options in fitness watches, with one of the most popular functions being a measure of heart rate during exercise. Traditionally, that has required chest straps (which is still the most accurate way to monitor the heart), but manufacturers such as Sportline are looking beyond the strap.

Sportline’s Any-Touch Technology, for example, uses sensors that detect and read the electrical signals your heart emits. A touch of the finger displays EKG-accurate readings in seconds. It also allows you to count your steps and calories burned and records lap/split times and distances with a built-in accelerometer-based pedometer.

GPS technology, as in many applications, has opened a new frontier for fitness. It has been incorporated in some fitness watches and has freed up the more adventurous athlete to go off the beaten track.

“One of the beauties of the GPS is that it allows us to run on a larger track. In the past, we’ve been restricted to workouts limited to a stopwatch or chrono watch. Distances had to be premeasured or known in advance," said Jason Tillinghast, a design manager of the Timex Run Trainer watch. "With GPS, you can customise any workout for pretty much anywhere you wish to go, as it marks off the distance as you proceed.“

Form and function

The best high-tech fitness watches
Fitness watches come in a variety of colors and materials to fit your style and activities. (iStock Photo)

While about the same weight as a regular watch, fitness watches have opened new doors for athletes. An athlete can record a performance, download the data for instant feedback and create a custom program for specific workout goals.

These online tracking programs -- complimentary services of some watch manufacturers -- store fitness data and allow you to interact with fellow participants.

Given these watches are not cheap, manufacturers look to present a product that is both functional and stylish. It's not just for running.

“We started the company with the presumption that these tools were more than just special purpose, but indeed, would be worn all day as part of a lifestyle and to make a statement,” said Liz Dickinson, founder and CEO of Mio.

Appealing to both the technical geek and the grab ‘n' go consumer who prefers to start small has presented a range of challenges for manufacturers.

“The most important thing we take into consideration when designing a product is how it will fit into the target consumer's lifestyle. If they are an outdoor enthusiast, what does the product say about him/her? Or, if they prefer to wear it all day, does it satisfy their lifestyle needs? This question impacts all sorts of design questions," Dickinson said. "Some customers are prepared to read a manual; others just want to put it on and have it work right away. We really focus on understanding our target consumer and that consumer varies by product.”

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