A simple multi-function “sports” watch is a cheap ($20 to $100) and practical tool for all forms of exercise. They also make good watches for active kids and teenagers. Popular brands include Casio and Timex (1440, Ironman).
Sports watches are relatively simple, yet their detailed specifications contain a few “gotchas” that can trip-up unwary buyers. This article looks at how to choose general purpose multi-function watches for the casual fitness enthusiast. Specialized watches (heart rate monitor, pedometer, GPS, digital compass) are not covered.
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Characteristics of a Sports Watch
Sports watches are usually fun, colorful plastic designs (for women, ladies), though black is also popular (for men). They should be:
- Light. This is critical for long distance, endurance, marathon or triathlon runners.
- Cheap, for worry-free use.
- Easy to read at a glance, to avoid disrupting the exercise. This explains the popularity of digital LCD models, especially when the timer or stopwatch is used. Displays should be simple, clean and uncluttered. Analog-digital sports watches are less popular because of their smaller LCD displays. Analog sports watches are even more rare.
- Waterproof and sweat-resistant. No fabric or leather bands. Water resistance to 50 meters sounds like overkill, but some users have reported that lower-specification watches often don’t survive a dip in the pool.
- Easy to clean. Few grooves, layers or other dirt traps. A simple single-piece construction is best.
Useful features are:
- Countdown timer.
- Interval timer.
- Automatic illumination, when the wrist is turned inwards to read the watch (for evening runs or dimly-lit gyms).
Less important for exercising, but useful for daily use are:
- Dual time. Their low cost makes sports watches suitable for international travel, where it’s not practical to go back to look for a lost watch.
- Alarm. If the alarm is too soft to be a wake-up alarm, it can still be used for reminders.
A fun feature is the ability to wirelessly control an iPhone, iPod or other MP3 players. This is possible with models such as the Timex iControl watches.
Digital Stopwatch Features
Digital stopwatches are more practical than analog chronographs. (Chronograph and stopwatch mean the same thing, but the term chronograph is more often used for analog watches.) They can measure down to 1/100 seconds and up to a few hours. It’s a good idea to check that the maximum hours measured, is enough for the user’s exercise activity.
High 1/100 or 1/10 seconds precision is necessary only for sprinters and other short distance runners. For jogging or general use, 1 second precision is enough. One “gotcha” to watch out for is that some stopwatches reduce the displayed precision after an hour or so:
- Some watches stop showing 1/100 seconds after an hour; and show hours, minutes and seconds only.
- Others stop showing seconds after 30 or 60 minutes; and show hours and minutes only.
Most stopwatches will have a lap or split-time feature. Track runners and competitive swimmers will want more sophisticated models that can store lap times for 30, 50, 100 or more laps. A lap counter helps keep track of the number of laps run.
Digital Countdown Timer and Interval Timer Features
Many timers can be set for hours and minutes only, not seconds (as required by say, Tabata Protocol exercising), so this should be checked. The maximum time can range from an hour to a day or more. The timer should automatically return to the set time after countdown, and also if the countdown is interrupted (false start case, for races). It should not be necessary to reprogram the timer after every use.
A timer auto-repeat feature will automatically restart the timer after it times out. It can be used as a simple interval timer. A real interval timer allows a few different timers or segments (typically 5 to 10) to be automatically triggered one after another. They are used for exercising, and for refereeing games.
Sports Watch Alternatives
Other types of watches can be good alternatives to a general purpose sports watch. Swimmers will appreciate the additional waterproofing of a 200 meter water resistance dive watch. An analog chronograph watch (automatic or quartz) is good-looking option for those with simple timing requirements.