It’s been about 50 days since I started testing the TomTom Spark watch (also branded as the Runner 2). These were TomTom’s new entrant into the market by combining an optical HR sensor with music and GPS tracking capabilities. In many ways the core of the unit isn’t super different than past GPS watches from the company, yet at the same time it makes those slight but important additions that make it incredibly competitive – especially in the mid-range running watch category.
For this review TomTom provided me a final production unit back in late October. Additionally, I also purchased my own TomTom Spark unit as well to test. My testing has been on a mix of both of those units, and following this review I’ll return the media loaner to TomTom like normal. That’s just the way I roll.
The Spark comes in a bunch of different variants, though the internal packaging is actually the same on all of them (unless you get the headphones). That’s because it’s only the innards that differ between the different models. Externally of course on the box it’ll say which model you’ve got. For example, on this music one, you can see it lists music as a feature – but for this model I bought, it didn’t include the headphones (that’s a different bundle).
Next, note there are different sizes, which is just the wrist band. The pod that goes in the wrist bands are all the same. And remember, it also could be named differently too (Runner vs Spark). In any case, the box:
Inside the box there aren’t really too many pieces. You’ve got the watch, the charger, and a chubby little manual:
The charger is actually different from previous generations. It’s less plump, and is a bit more aero. Thus, it won’t work with previous TomTom watches. The cable both charges and allows download to Mac/PC. But of course you can also download via your phone (iOS/Android).
Next, with the watch it comes as a little pod that fits into the wrist strap. Because the pod is a bit different, it’s not compatible with older TomTom straps. You can get different colored straps, as well as different sized straps.
You navigate through the menus using the little joystick thingy at the bottom. The screen is NOT a touch screen.
Meanwhile, if you flip it over you’ll see the optical sensor on the back. Obviously, if you didn’t buy the version with an optical sensor then you’ll just see a black backing.
Finally, the manual. It’s super-chubby, but actually doesn’t have a lot of content in it. Rather, you can use it to learn how to plug in a USB cable in 48 different languages.
With that, let’s talk size.
Size & Weight Comparisons:
First, you’ll notice that the TomTom Spark (blue) is a bit slimmed down from the TomTom Cardio (red) units. Not so much the pod itself, but rather the strap. The strap lost the thicker edging and also just some of the bulk.
They also have a pile of different colors/combos:
This thinner strap translates into lost weight as well. If you look at the TomTom Spark, it comes in at 51g (for the version with the optical sensor & music):
However, if you have the black strap, you’ll save a bit of weight – it’s only 47g (45g for the small strap):
The pod itself is 35g, though you can’t very well run with just that.
Meanwhile, the older TomTom Cardio comes in at 63g:
For reference, a few other watches’ weights:
Garmin FR225 (optical): 53g
Garmin FR235 (optical): 40g
Garmin FR620 (non-optical): 42g
Next up is size. Here’s a round-up of most of the more popular current generation GPS watches on the market, and how things look size-wise. The TomTom Spark is 2nd from the right, in the blue configuration. Like in real life, it appears slightly slimmer when you go with the black strap.
Left to right: Garmin Epix, FR920XT, Suunto Traverse, Suunto Ambit3 Peak, Polar V800, Garmin FR225, Garmin FR630, Garmin FR235, TomTom Spark, Garmin FR25
And here’s the depths of them. The rolling pin is held level (by two 9V batteries), thus allowing you to see the height between the table and each watch face).
Ok, comparison time is over. Let’s start using the darn thing.
For those that have experience with past TomTom GPS watches, it’s probably easiest to know that outside of the new feature areas – almost everything else remains the same. Meaning, only these four things have changed:
A) Activity Tracker Added
B) Music Storage/Playback via Bluetooth Added
C) Optical HR sensor changed
D) Smaller/thinner strap than Cardio version
Virtually every other function of the watch remains the same as its predecessors. About the only minor menu shift you’ll notice is that they’ve moved the two secondary data fields from the top of the screen to the bottom of the screen.
Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t backend changes – because there are. The company has completely revamped their web platform in a shift off of MapMyFitness to a self-hosted site. Those changes will start to become more evident in the coming months as they shift from ‘duplicating existing format’ mode to ‘new features’ mode.
Of course, in the meantime there are certainly new features like the ability to see step tracking and distance walked each day.
For those unfamiliar with the watch, it’s probably good to start by knowing there are a bunch of different versions of the device:
TomTom Spark GPS Watch: €149/$149USD
TomTom Spark Cardio GPS Watch: €199/$199USD
TomTom Spark Music GPS Watch: €199/$199USD
TomTom Spark Cardio & Music GPS Watch: €249/$249USD
TomTom Spark Music GPS Watch with Bluetooth Headphones: €249/$249USD
TomTom Spark Cardio & Music GPS Watch with Bluetooth Headphones €299/$299USD
What’s notable here is that all versions of the TomTom Spark are multisport, unlike the past where they had a dedicated runner and a separate multisport version. Basically, to summarize, you’ve got these core features that you’d pick from/add:
GPS Multisport (all watches)
Music via Bluetooth in Music versions (option)
Optical HR in Cardio versions (option)
All versions have activity tracking, and all versions have multisport capabilities (running, cycling, pool swimming). And all versions support connecting to Bluetooth Smart Heart Rate Straps and Speed/Cadence sensors. Whereas the Cardio versions also add an optical HR sensor, and the Music versions allow you to playback music stored on the watch via Bluetooth audio headphones.
Got all that? Good.
The Optical Sensor:
Probably the most important thing to know about the internals of the watch compared to past TomTom units is that they’ve swapped out the optical sensor for a different brand. Readers will remember I’ve been a bit nervous about this, since the brand of optical sensor in fitness watches is the most important thing between a crappy accuracy and rock-solid accuracy. The differences in optical sensor quality is vast, and in general, most suck.
In TomTom’s case they went from licensing Mio’s optical sensor technology, to utilizing a previously unheard of company called LifeQ. This would be LifeQ’s first product on the market. Note that technically LifeQ is more about the software than the hardware. They essentially guide companies (like TomTom) through a package of hardware (optical sensor components), and then layer in their software algorithms.
Since I wrote up a bit about them in my preview post after I visited TomTom’s headquarters and had a conference call with the LifeQ team, I figure much of those few paragraphs are relevant here too.
The key theme when talking to TomTom about the Spark was really about them building a platform for the (or their) future. This was both on the device side, but also on the web platform. They noted that while cost of the LifeQ optical solution was certainly less than the Mio/Philips offering, it was actually the deeper integration and future potential that was the major driving factor. With Mio/Philips, the sensor was essentially plug & play – providing just heart rate as an output to the watch. That was great for the Cardio, and worked well. But they were concerned that long term it wouldn’t be as competitive as other companies added more and deeper features.
Whereas with the LifeQ solution they felt that they’d be able to get more ‘out of’ the solution. In discussing their roadmap during the conference call with LifeQ, I can’t argue with that approach.
To begin, LifeQ is a mostly South African based company that has offices in Atlanta and soon Boston & San Diego. At 70 employees strong, it’s certainly not four guys in a garage somewhere. Their focus is really on the bio-mathematical algorithms that are behind the sensor packages they put together. They don’t actually sell sensors, or hardware. Rather, they are mostly about algorithms and down the road, big data-esque type solutions.
That said, this is LifeQ’s first product. That’s both good and bad. On the obvious-bad front, it means that they lack the real-world user usage that can only come with deploying thousands of units. No amount of studies or test runs (no matter how many years they’ve done them) will replace that.
On the flip side (the good side), with what is effectively one customer (TomTom) deciding their future as a company, they’re incredibly motivated to ensure they get it right. They noted they really wanted to partner with TomTom, versus various knock-off brands seen across the CES floor, due to TomTom’s specific baseline requirement that it be just as good (or better) than the existing Mio sensor (in their current Cardio lineup). The agreement between LifeQ & TomTom is not exclusive, and LifeQ certainly sees a world of potential partners down the road outside of TomTom.
As I alluded to earlier, LifeQ doesn’t make the sensors. Instead, they take off the shelf components and put forth reference designs to companies like TomTom. TomTom could, if they wanted to, come to LifeQ with a preferred set of chipset and sensor partners, but in this case they let LifeQ run with what they specialized in (a wise move). As such, the TomTom Spark uses an multi-wavelength PPG (photoplethysmography) optical sensor from Osram (the SFH-7060). That sensor includes 1xRed LED, 3xGreen LED, plus a single IR sensor. That set of multicolor LED’s helps them to ensure greater accuracy across more skin tones. For example, some companies (i.e. Valencell) use a yellow LED in addition to the green. LifeQ specifically selected the red over yellow, because it would give them more flexibility down the road for blood oxygenation levels.
You can clearly see the different colored LED’s here. The 1xRed LED to the left, the 3xGreen LED’s in the middle, and then the IR to the right.
Next, they layer in a Texas Instruments AFE 4404 to manage the optical sensor, before calling it done on the hardware layer. Now it’s really important to note that the firmware that LifeQ has is probably more important than the sensor set selected. Meaning, just because you have a good sensor does not mean you have good data. The hard work is taking that raw data stream and making something pretty out of it. An area that the vast majority of optical sensors within cheaper fitness products today hose up.
As I noted numerous paragraphs ago before we got distracted on company background, a significant reason they selected LifeQ was for the future expandability. For example, LifeQ is able to measure RR, and then calculate HRV (while resting). Further, they’re able to calculate VO2Max and VO2 (continuous). And down the road they’re able to measure lactate threshold, sorta similar to BSX. All features that could make their way into the TomTom Spark through firmware updates.
Right now TomTom has committed to getting VO2Max and the recording of HRV/RR data into the .FIT files by early next year. Whereas features like oxygenation levels and lactate threshold probably aren’t on the near-term update list for TomTom, even if LifeQ is able to deliver them. I’d suspect that any inclusion of those features would probably target a different (more advanced) user audience than the current TomTom watches aim for. Fwiw, you can actually dive into many of LifeQ’s white papers on their site. Obviously it’s biased in that they’ve published it, but still interesting nonetheless.
Now how did all this optical sensor talk play-out in real-life after about 50 or so days of usage? Let’s dive into it.
To start with the watch, we’ll start with running. But there are a number of sport modes you can select (on all versions), they are:
Running (GPS on, for outdoors)
Treadmill (GPS off, for treadmill)
Cycling (GPS on, for outdoors)
Indoor Cycling (GPS off)
Swimming (GPS off, for pools only)
Gym (GPS off, for indoors)
Freestyle (GPS on, for whatever the heck you want)
Stopwatch (when you’ve simply given up)
All of these modes then show the type of workout later on while online. But again, in our case, we’re going running:
At this point it’ll find satellites and also acquire your heart rate via the optical sensor. If you have a HR strap, it’ll talk to that instead (if configured as such). Note that the unit does NOT support any footpods.
I found that as long as I connected the watch to the TomTom platform, it downloaded the GPS quick-assist database, which enabled it to find GPS satellites in under 10-15 seconds virtually every time. You can validate your quick assist information is up to date by pressing down from the main screen:
In running mode, you can change different training options. These are:
None (basically free mode)
Goals (Run towards a set distance, time, or calorie goal)
Intervals (Run a structured interval workout)
Laps (automatically triggered laps for time, distance, or manual)
Zones (Set a range to stay within for pace, speed, or heart rate)
Race (Race against a historical activity, a standard distance, or a custom distance)
The vast majority of my time with the watch I was in either ‘None’ mode (free mode) or running intervals.
Before we start running, you can slightly configure data screens. Specifically, you can configure the two metrics along the bottom to stay put with fields of your choice.
The main (bigger) screen simply will iterate through all of the metrics as you press the buttons.
The metrics that are shown are: Clock, Duration, Distance, Pace, Avg. Pace, Speed, Avg. Speed, Calories, Heart, HR Zone.
Again, for the metrics above, you press up/down to change the main field. The two smaller fields do not change. You’ve also got three different graphs related to HR that’ll show up when you press to the right. These are not customizable.
Once you’ve selected a mode, you’ll go ahead and begin the timer from the main running screen. At that point it starts recording and you should start running.
As you run, the metrics will display showing your current status:
One of the most common questions on GPS watches is pace stability. In my case, I’d give pace stability a good but not great rating. It mostly kept my pace stable, but did seem to wobble a tiny bit more than other GPS watches I was using at the same time (Suunto Ambit3, Garmin FR920XT). Not enough that it was a deal killer, but just a tiny bit more.
Within the interval mode, you’ll configure the interval portions such as work, rest, and warm-up/cool-down. These can be set for time or distance:
Then, while running the interval it’ll keep you on track with which set you’re on (i.e. Set 1/4).
However, the interval mode does not specify *what* to do for each section. Meaning, it doesn’t tell you to run X pace, but instead just that you need to run Y time/distance. So it’s not as advanced as some units.
Also, to my disappointment the interval mode doesn’t take advantage of the Bluetooth headphones to announce that an interval is about to start (or your finishing splits). I asked TomTom and they said that’s coming down the pipe though.
So what about GPS accuracy? Well in general, things did quite well. Here’s a run-down of my activities and the different watches I was using and distances:
TomTom Spark GPS Data
|Date||Type||TomTom Spark||Other Unit #1||Other Unit #2|
|Nov 15th||Bike||25.56||25.66 (Edge 520)||25.61 (Edge 520)|
|Nov 14th||Run||11.41||11.21 (FR920XT)||11.21 (FR630)|
|Nov 14th||Run||6.19||6.20 (FR620)||-|
|Nov 12th||Run||7.62||7.32 (FR235)||7.21 (920XT)|
|Nov 8th||Bike||27.12||27.29 (Edge 520)||-|
|Nov 7th||Run||10.93||10.91 (FR920XT)||-|
|Nov 5th||Run||5.55||5.54 (FR920XT)||5.56 (Ambit3)|
|Nov 3rd||Run||6.04||5.99 (Epix)||6.06 (Ambit3)|
|Oct 28th||Run||5.00||4.90 (Epix)||-|
|Oct 20th||Run||8.34||8.35 (FR25)||-|
|Oct 10th||Run||7.08||7.04 (Epix)||-|
|Oct 6th||Run||6.52||6.46 (Epix)||6.46 (Ambit3)|
|Oct 1st||Run||3.69||3.58 (Epix)||Note: Trail Run|
|Sept 30th||Run||5.78||5.75 (Epix)||-|
|Sept 26th||Bike||29.28||To be found||-|
|Sept 24th||Run||6.07||5.93 (FR920XT)||-|
(Note: I’ll put all of these files up in a ZIP file in the coming days for you to download, just compiling them all and wanted to get the review up for you in the meantime.)
In general, I’m interested in cases where a given unit is substantially different than others. And if so – why. Of course, I’m always looking at GPS tracks, because it’s quite possible for both units to have the same end-GPS distance, but with equally horrible tracks.
In the majority of cases, the TomTom tracked very well. Still, there were a few odd ducks that I checked into. For example, on Nov 12th it showed a pretty big difference for a hill repeat run I did in the city. In poking at it, I actually don’t see an obvious explanation there for being so much shorter (1/3rd of a mile). Only the Suunto Ambit track looks problematic (a rarity for it):
Looking at some of the other big difference activities:
Nov 14th: Spark somehow misaligned one of my loops by a few city blocks (see below)
Oct 28th: 5.00mi (Spark) vs 4.90mi (Epix): The Epix cut corners in the city, Spark was correct.
Sept 24th: 6.07mi (Spark) vs 5.93mi (FR920XT): No obvious differences between track, rather odd (see below)
For example, below is the Sept 24th one, while the purple track shows it going into the water, it’s still parallel where I ran (just offset perhaps 10-20m for a brief chunk). Obviously, not ideal, but also doesn’t account for the gap of .14 miles.
On the Nov 14th run, it did some super-wonky satellite shift on one of my loops around that area. You can see I was doing loops between two bridges, and for some odd reason, it shifted one of those loops west a ways, causing a spike in mileage. Oh, and the FR920XT going waterborne? That section is actually underground, so something weird happens there. The TomTom, Suunto, and FR235 did handle it well (I’d say about 80% of the time units get it right).
My running turf for this test period included mostly open-sky running along the beach in Mexico, extensive city running in Paris, mountain/forest running in Alberta (Canada), and some trail running in Delaware (US).
Overall, outside of calling out these specific oddities, the unit actually did perform pretty well. I know it’s easy to look at just the odd duck cases, but do pay attention to the entire table – since it shows that in general, despite challenging conditions (mostly city running), it held its own.
Lastly, but most importantly – the optical sensor accuracy. In my testing I found that it did good, but not great. Specifically, as the weather cooled in the last few weeks, I saw issues where the first few minutes (usually 3-4, but in one case as long as 9 minutes) the unit struggled to accurately display my HR. It would always undercut my actual HR in these initial minutes. Once it locked onto my HR though, it almost always nailed it for the rest of the session – no matter what wonkiness I did running pace-wise. Once past that point, it tracks along with the three other HR sensors I was wearing, no problems.
Here’s another example of cooler weather runs. Note, that none of these were terribly cold – about 50-55°F (10-13°C). The TomTom Spark briefly had problems in the first two minutes where it dropped low (blue). The green line you see all wobbly is where the Scosche managed to catch the Velcro on my t-shirt and pulled off and I hadn’t realized it for a moment, so it’s wobbly until I fixed it. That’s more of a ‘me issue’ than a ‘them’ issue.
Here’s another run, where the unit has trouble during first few minutes finding lock. But once it finds it – boom, good to go! Though, you see one brief blip at the end of the 5th interval.
In warmer weather I saw no issues at all with the optical sensor in the first few minutes. For example, this run here I only saw one tiny segment of a few seconds where it diverged. It’s entirely possible that I had adjusted the band at that moment for something.
Another example here, where the two units tracked near perfectly. You see the Scosche ramp up a few seconds slower this morning than the TomTom, but nothing appreciable. Towards the end you see the TomTom briefly dip for a few seconds, but again, only by a few BPM.
Next, a lukewarm run in the Canadian mountains. Again, near identical. You see two random drops of 0BPM data on the Garmin Epix. Not sure what that’s all about.
Finally a nice fall run in Delaware, where the temperatures dropped as sunset approached, but not overly cold. You can see it near perfectly matched the other HR sensor (and actually tracked slightly better in the first minute or so).
So ultimately, the HR sensor is pretty good for running, with some minor caveats that it seems a little more susceptible to the first few minutes getting warmed up, than some other sensors out there. Not a deal-breaker, but something to be aware of.
Note that optical sensors in general struggle on your wrist in cooler weather. The TomTom Spark probably would have gotten a better review had I posted two weeks ago, since the weather was largely warmer then and didn’t manifest itself until cooler weather. I’d note though that many units struggle here. For example, I saw similar issues a year ago with the Mio Fuse during the winter (albeit much colder weather).
The TomTom Spark has a basic cycling mode that enables you to support cycling sensors (the speed/cadence sensor), as well as displays your metrics in speed (MPH/KPH) rather than pace. Further, it helps to automatically identify those activities later when looking at them via the app or website (or to 3rd party sites).
To select the cycling mode, simply choose it from the list when you press to the right once:
Additionally, you can also use the indoor cycling mode, which disables the GPS and relies on a Bluetooth speed sensor for distance/pace. This sensor is not required however, so if you were to just join a spinning class you could still just have it categorized as indoor cycling.
To pair the speed/cadence sensor, you’ll go into the sensors menu within the watch. It’s super basic, and you can’t save multiple sensors if you have multiple bikes:
In my case, I tested it with the Wahoo BlueSCv2 (which is dual ANT+/BLE), it worked just fine.
Whether indoor or outdoor cycling, you may end up mounting your watch to your bike (such as with this simple $10 adapter). In doing so, you’d obviously lose optical HR since it would no longer be on your wrist. So in lieu of that you can pair to a separate Bluetooth Smart heart rate strap.
This allows you to still display/record HR, even when it’s not on your wrist.
Using a strap may be a good idea anyway while cycling, because in my testing the optical HR hasn’t been very accurate while wearing it on my wrist riding. This wasn’t a huge surprise to me, as most (but not all) optical HR sensors worn on one’s wrist struggle here. For example I’ve seen lackluster cycling optical HR performance with the Apple Watch, Fitbit Surge, Microsoft Band (1 & 2) and Samsung Gear Fit. Meanwhile, I’ve generally had good luck with the Mio Link on my wrist from a sensor standpoint (while I usually wear the Scosche Rhythm+ optical HR sensor, it’s not for one’s wrist).
I’ve also tried it on the inside of my wrist, which is usually a much easier way to get accurate results as it’s a bit more ‘fleshy’ and not as bony. In this case, no such luck:
For example, in the below you’ll notice the first 25% of the ride it has me just wandering along at 110-120BPM. In reality, I’m where the Scosche has me at 140’s. Then, it locks on for a while, before eventually having quite a bit of trouble the rest of the ride.
Yet on a different ride this weekend, it actually tracked quite well for perhaps 80% of it, but then had a really tough time in a few key chunks:
Indoors, I saw no problems at all with optical HR tracking – it tracked beautifully there:
Ultimately, I’m not really sure where to place HR accuracy here in terms of cycling. I think it’s basically just a crapshoot while outdoors.
(Note: All of the charts in these accuracy sections were created using the DCR Analyzer tool. It allows you to compare power meters/trainers, heart rate, cadence, speed/pace, GPS tracks and plenty more. You can use it as well, more details here.)
The TomTom Spark (all versions) includes the ability to track your pool swims. It DOES NOT track openwater swims. It has no openwater swim mode, though some people have used existing TomTom watches in the ‘Freestyle’ mode with mixed success.
Further, in Swim mode, the optical HR sensor is not enabled. TomTom says that perhaps down the road if testing pans out, they’ll enable it. But today, when in swimming mode it’s disabled (but I’ll show you what happened when I tried it anyway).
First up, to get into the swim mode you’ll go ahead and select the ‘Swim’ mode.
Before you press start though, you’ll want to configure your pool size by clicking down to ‘Settings’, and then selecting ‘Pool Size’. I had pictures of all of this in the pool, but they came out looking downright horrid. See:
It’s here you can specify the exact number of meters or yards your pool is. You’ll first select the numerical length, (both whole and partial numbers), and then meters or yards. Super easy.
The configuration options in terms of training are super-limited, and honestly kinda wonky. For example, if you want to configure sets, you have to do so using ‘Laps’. Except within the distance option for laps you’d do so in miles or kilometers. For metric folks, miles isn’t too bad (though, for my 33 1/3m length pool – it can still be tricky). But miles is just a mess for folks swimming in pools measured in yards.
In any case, with all that set, it’s off to start your set by pressing go. Once you start swimming you can view the following metrics:
Available Swim Metrics for Main Screen: Lengths, SWOLF, Strokes, Calories, Avg Speed, Miles, Duration (Time Elapsed), and Clock Time
Further, you can configure two metrics along the bottom, such as distance and time.
Now frustratingly (more mind-boggling actually), you (still) can’t display yards or meters. Who on earth shows their swim workouts in miles? Nobody. That’s who. Yes, I know, for metric folks you could see meters. But I’d bet that TomTom sells more of these watches in the US than Metric countries, so it would seem halfway logical to offer both (like every other swimming watch).
In any case, as you swim these metrics will update in real time – typically at the end of each pool length. As is the case with all swimming watches, it works both with flip and open (non-flip) turns. However, like most swimming watches you’ll want to ensure you press off the wall crisply. These watches work by measuring acceleration, and unexpected (or lack of) changes to that can cause problems for all companies.
Afterwards, online you can see your splits from the swim session, divided up by lengths:
Now in my testing, I found things mostly good. It made one lap error on a recent swim, missing a turn/length, where the FR920XT didn’t miss that length. To be fair, that was the same length that I totally whiffed the wall and basically just did a flip turn sans-push. I’m not going to hold that over the TomTom’s head. Note in the above case, I split the workout into two pieces – one without HR, and then one below with HR.
Which brings us to the HR piece. In this case, I just put the watch into a generic mode, called Freestyle. In this mode it records your HR, but doesn’t record swim metrics. So it won’t capture aspects like lengths, distance, or the fact that you were swimming. It just captures your HR.
I then set out for a short set to see how well it’d track. I had actually also worn the HRM-SWIM from Garmin to compare HR’s, but somehow that accidentally got into drill mode and oddly I learned it doesn’t record HR data in drill mode. So, I have just the TomTom data, but honestly, I can pretty much walk you through the accuracy there.
I basically did 6 lengths with it, with the first two lengths at an easy pace, and then the next two lengths springing, and then final two lengths back to an easy pace:
Obviously, the Spark sensor didn’t get the memo. It appears that it was entirely lost for the first two thirds, but seemed to actually find the plot for the last two lengths, as that HR would be more akin to what I was doing the rest of my swim per the HRM-SWIM.
Now again, TomTom doesn’t advertise they can do this. In fact, they purposefully turn off the optical sensor in swim mode. So this is more of a curiosity test than anything else. Further, optical sensors in the water can be finicky in that it might work for someone else, even if it doesn’t work for me.
Activity Tracker Usage:
Yes, the TomTom Spark has an activity tracker in it – like every other connected watch made in the last 12-18 months. But how they implemented it is both different and sorta intriguing. Parts of which I love, and parts of which I hate.
First up – obviously, it counts steps. It does this anytime you’re wearing it – so that you can see how many steps you walked as well as how far you’ve walked (or ridden) in total each day.
This steps page is accessible by tapping the left button, which changes the display to the activity tracker pages.
While this sounds like it’s pretty innocuous, it isn’t. See, it’s slow. Every time I tap I have to wait a few seconds for the screen. There’s lag, and that’s annoying. But more than that – is the fact that I just can’t see my darn steps on my home screen. I don’t care to see the clock in gigantic letters. I’d rather see my steps or progress towards my goal somewhere on the screen, with the clock a bit smaller. You know, like every other activity tracker on earth.
So what does TomTom do different that I DO like? Well, they’ve somewhat shifted away from the idea that you’re going to have a perfectly even daily step count. And instead overlaid a bit of a 7-day step goal. The idea being that for various reasons you might have a lower Monday but then make up for it on Tuesday. For the non-active person that might sound like a bad idea. But for the athlete trying to recover – that’s actually exactly what you want. It helps to even out those rest and peak days.
On the steps, the numbers seemed to be in the same ballpark as those of the Withings Activite. As usual with activity trackers, each company tends to do a bit different when it comes to algorithms, so I wouldn’t overthink minor differences like 5% or so.
One minor thing to note is that the distance travelled pages of the activity counter do include cycling. So if you do that, it’ll probably skew your step/walking mentality a bit.
Next, is sleep. The unit tracks sleep in basically the same manner as steps – on both a daily and running total:
I found the numbers pretty much matched what I got from the Microsoft Band 2 and the Withings Aura. All of this is then uploaded to the TomTom MySports site, via either the desktop uploader or the mobile phone app. Note though that neither connect to Apple Health, though TomTom says that’s on the way.
The TomTom Spark is one of the few GPS watches out there that has storage for music, as well as Bluetooth playback. You must have Bluetooth headphones to playback the sound, as there is no headphone port (that would impact/limit waterproofing levels).
You can buy a bundled TomTom Spark that includes headphones, or you can purchase your own. If you buy the bundled version, you’ll get these ones below:
They look a little…bulky…but in reality I’ve found they actually work really well. In fact, I’d say just as well as some of the different test headphones I’ve bought that cost $130-$180USD. But more on that in a second.
The headphones have two buttons on them, and charge via micro-USB. The buttons allow you to control audio volume, and change the power/pairing state. To do so you’d hold down the middle button till it goes crazy blue/red flashing. When it comes to pairing, you’ll do that before you start your run, by pressing up to launch the pairing screen:
Then, once you go to start a run it’ll search for your powered on headphones. I’ve found this to occasionally be kinda finicky, most notably with 3rd party headphones. I’ve always gotten it to work, but sometimes it takes a few tries before it finds its headphone friends.
You can play music without going into a running mode, so you can basically just use it as a wireless music player whenever you want, as seen below:
Once connected, you’ll see a headphone icon along the top of the screen:
You can increase/decrease the volume using the two +/- buttons. Further, you can pause/resume the music using the middle button. You can also long-hold the volume buttons to skip ahead/back on songs.
The music starts playing pretty much immediately, and then once GPS signal is found, it’ll audibly tell you that too.
While running (or riding I suppose – though that’s a bad idea safety-wise), I’ve found it best to wear the watch on the same side as the headphone transmitter. In the case of the TomTom headphones, this is the left side. This ensures consistent signal and reduces drops. This behavior is similar for other GPS watches I’ve tested that have Bluetooth headphones. Essentially, range is a bit limited.
In a left & left configuration, I’d rarely get music drop-outs while running. About the only time would be if reached my left hand over to my right hand to do something (i.e. press buttons on another watch), I’d see a slight drop in audio for a moment before resuming.
Using the TomTom headphones, I found audio quality just fine (you’re running and breathing hard; this isn’t a concert hall with finely tuned audio characteristics). I quite honestly can’t tell much of a difference while running between those headphones and the far more expensive options.
For 3rd party headphones, the TomTom Spark supports any Bluetooth audio device. So it technically doesn’t have to be headphones, it could be a Bluetooth water bottle or Bluetooth speaker if you want. But, they (and other readers) have found that certain brands implement the BT specification better (or worse) on various models. TomTom has outlined all of those models here.
In my case, I picked up three different headphones. I polled DCR followers on Twitter back two months ago on their favorite Bluetooth running headphones, and then picked up the two (very pricey) options. I also then picked up a much cheaper ($20) option that was highly ranked on Amazon (like 2,000+ reviews) and suggested a few times by some readers:
I’ve tried running with all three of these over the past 45 days, and all worked well. All had good quality audio while running, and none dropped out any more than the TomTom units did (which was rare).
So why is a $20 pair just as good as a $170 pair? Well, I think it’s partly just marketing and partly environmental. If I were to sit in a quiet room listening to music, yes, the Beats and Jaybird sound better. No question. But, when I’m out running I’ve got my breathing, wind, traffic, and all assortment of other noise. And just the fact that I’m not concentrating as much on the music quality anymore. So it’s simply not as important.
Note my goal here isn’t a headphone review; I’m not really in that realm right now – so it was more validating they worked with the TomTom unit. If I were to return them all, I’d probably just keep the TomTom ones. They fit well (just as well as the expensive options), and the quality was good enough for me.
What is important though is that you find headphones that fit. If they don’t fit then the experience and the quality will suck. Most headphones come with various buds or wings that you can swap out to find your ear size. It’s super important to do that.
But, all that said – unless you already have a pair of wireless headphones, I’d honestly just get the bundled TomTom version. Mostly because you won’t have to worry about compatibility issues, and if there’s a problem – you have one chicken to choke: TomTom. There won’t be any blame passing.
On capacity, the unit holds 3GB of music files. It comes preloaded with a play list of 11 songs that actually aren’t too bad. A bit of a running focused playlist. If you have Spotify, I’ve created a Spotify playlist of the songs here to check out.
Finally – note that the audio capability does NOT work underwater. Simply put, Bluetooth audio cannot transmit underwater, and since it’s transmitting via Bluetooth, that functionality just doesn’t work.
Mobile App & Website:
Obviously a big part of having a GPS watch is downloading that information for review afterwards. For that, TomTom offers two methods. First is via their desktop app that connects to your device via USB. This will then upload the data to the TomTom MySports site, as well as to third party sites like Strava and RunKeeper.
You can configure a vast number of 3rd party sites, as well as saving to standard file formats like .GPX, .FIT, .CSV, and .TCX. If your app doesn’t use one of these formats, you need a new app – as these are universally utilized.
These files will simply plop out into a desktop folder that you can upload to other services as you see fit.
Next up is the mobile app. This allows you to pair your phone via Bluetooth Smart and then upload workouts to the MySports site. Down the road, they’ll also setup backend connections to more 3rd party platforms so you don’t have to use the desktop uploader for all of those.
While I wouldn’t categorize the mobile app as the most category leading, it does seem to get the job done. You can view your activities pretty easily:
And you can also view your steps, sleep, and related metrics.
And for the most part, that’s it on the mobile app. Like I said, kinda bare bones, but ultimately it gets the core of things done.
Finally, we’ve got the website. Over the last 6 or so months TomTom has completely rebuilt the website from the ground up. It used to be that it was on MapMyFitness (platform), but now they’ve built what is basically a parallel version of that. From there they’ll be able to build out new features (something they felt they were limited on within the MapMyFitness realm).
Right now though, things are still pretty basic. To begin you’ve got your dashboard. This shows you steps for the current week, as well as for the day. It also below shows you all your activities and totals on the right side:
You can click on ‘Progress’ up top to get an overview of how much activity you’re doing, based on any of the different categories within the watch (i.e. cycling, running, general activity, etc…).
For most though, they’ll be cracking open an individual activity. So back on the main dashboard you can click on any given activity to dive deeper into it. Here’s one of my recent runs.
You’ll see it has summary metrics on the upper portion, and then splits along the left.
Down below there’s a graph that you can change/select the metrics for, by default it’s just pace and HR.
You can also select to show your HR zones for the run, which is a pretty nifty little graph:
In the event you’re doing a cycling activity, you’ll also get sensor information such as that from the cadence sensor. You can see that listed below. Also, you’ll see it for each split.
Finally, at the top of the page is the ‘Race this’ option, which allows you to race any given past activity, or some pre-created activities. This isn’t an area I poked at too much, since my workouts tend to be different in length/function each day.
Still, if you were to click the ‘Race This’ activity, it would add it to the list on the second tab under ‘Training’:
It would then also show up on the watch as one of the items you could race. Sorta like a Virtual Partner/Racer feature.
Finally, note that while I displayed everything in statute miles above, you can easily switch to metric (kilometers).
I’ve added the TomTom Spark into the product comparison database, so you can compare it against other models that I’ve reviewed or had hands-on time with. For the purposes of below, I’ve compared the TomTom Cardio (previous edition) with the TomTom Spark, and then threw in the Garmin FR235. That seems to be the unit most people are interested in comparing against. But you can customize the tables as you see fit here.
Speaking of which, I’ll have my Garmin FR235 In-Depth Review out next week, so stay tuned for that.
|Function/Feature||TomTom Spark||TomTom Multisport Cardio||Garmin Forerunner 235|
|Copyright DC Rainmaker - Updated May 14th, 2021 @ 3:16 pm New Window|
|Price||$149-$199 (Features Vary)||$299||$249|
|Product Announcement Date||Sept 3rd, 2015||APR 2, 2014||Oct 21st, 2015|
|Actual Availability/Shipping Date||October 1st, 2015||Mid-April 2014||November 2015|
|GPS Recording Functionality||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Data Transfer||USB/Bluetooth Smart||USB/Bluetooth Smart||USB, Bluetooth Smart|
|Waterproofing||50m||ATM5 (50m roughly)||50 Meters|
|Battery Life (GPS)||Up to 11 hours (varies)||10hrs||Up to 16 hours|
|Recording Interval||1s||1-second||1-second & Smart|
|Ability to download custom apps to unit/device||No||No||Yes|
|Acts as daily activity monitor (steps, etc...)||Yes||No||Yes||Music||TomTom Spark||TomTom Multisport Cardio||Garmin Forerunner 235|
|Can control phone music||No||No||Yes|
|Has music storage and playback||Yes||No||No||Connectivity||TomTom Spark||TomTom Multisport Cardio||Garmin Forerunner 235|
|Bluetooth Smart to Phone Uploading||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Phone Notifications to unit (i.e. texts/calls/etc...)||Yes||No||Yes|
|Live Tracking (streaming location to website)||No||No||Yes|
|Emergency/SOS Message Notification (from watch to contacts)||No||No||No|
|Built-in cellular chip (no phone required)||No||No||No||Cycling||TomTom Spark||TomTom Multisport Cardio||Garmin Forerunner 235|
|Designed for cycling||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Power Meter Capable||No||No||WITH SOME CONNECT IQ APPS (BUT CANNOT RECORD DATA)|
|Speed/Cadence Sensor Capable||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Strava segments live on device||No||No||No|
|Crash detection||No||Running||TomTom Spark||TomTom Multisport Cardio||Garmin Forerunner 235|
|Designed for running||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Footpod Capable (For treadmills)||No (Can use internal accelerometer)||No (Can use internal accelerometer)||YES (Also has INTERNAL ACCELEROMETER)|
|Running Dynamics (vertical oscillation, ground contact time, etc...)||No||No||No|
|Run/Walk Mode||No||No||Yes||Swimming||TomTom Spark||TomTom Multisport Cardio||Garmin Forerunner 235|
|Designed for swimming||Yes||Yes||No (protected though just fine)|
|Openwater swimming mode||No||No||N/A|
|Lap/Indoor Distance Tracking||Yes||Yes||N/A|
|Record HR underwater||NO (NOT ENABLED IN SWIM MODE)||No (not enabled in swim mode)||N/A|
|Openwater Metrics (Stroke/etc.)||No||No||N/A|
|Indoor Metrics (Stroke/etc.)||Yes||Yes||N/A|
|Indoor Drill Mode||No||No||N/A|
|Indoor auto-pause feature||No||No||N/A|
|Change pool size||Yes||Yes||N/A|
|Indoor Min/Max Pool Lengths||15m-50m||15m-50m||N/A|
|Ability to customize data fields||Yes||Yes||N/A|
|Can change yards to meters||Yes||Yes||N/A|
|Captures per length data - indoors||Yes||Yes||N/A|
|Indoor Alerts||Goals only||Goals only||N/A||Triathlon||TomTom Spark||TomTom Multisport Cardio||Garmin Forerunner 235|
|Designed for triathlon||Sorta||Sorta||No|
|Multisport mode||No||No||No||Workouts||TomTom Spark||TomTom Multisport Cardio||Garmin Forerunner 235|
|Create/Follow custom workouts||No||No||Yes|
|On-unit interval Feature||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Training Calendar Functionality||No||No||Yes||Functions||TomTom Spark||TomTom Multisport Cardio||Garmin Forerunner 235|
|Virtual Partner Feature||Yes||Yes||No|
|Virtual Racer Feature||Yes||Yes||No|
|Records PR's - Personal Records (diff than history)||No||No||Yes|
|Day to day watch ability||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Tidal Tables (Tide Information)||No||No||No|
|Jumpmaster mode (Parachuting)||No||No||No|
|Weather Display (live data)||No||No||YEs||Navigate||TomTom Spark||TomTom Multisport Cardio||Garmin Forerunner 235|
|Follow GPS Track (Courses/Waypoints)||No||No||No|
|Routable/Visual Maps (like car GPS)||No||No||No|
|Back to start||No||No||Yes|
|Impromptu Round Trip Route Creation||No||No||No|
|Download courses/routes from phone to unit||No||No||No||Sensors||TomTom Spark||TomTom Multisport Cardio||Garmin Forerunner 235|
|Altimeter Type||GPS||GPS (Barometric for Performance Bundle)||GPS|
|Optical Heart Rate Sensor internally||Yes||Yes||YEs|
|Heart Rate Strap Compatible||Yes||Yes (also contains optical HR sensor)||Yes|
|ANT+ Heart Rate Strap Capable||No||No||Yes|
|ANT+ Speed/Cadence Capable||No||No||Yes|
|ANT+ Footpod Capable||No||No||Yes|
|ANT+ Power Meter Capable||No||No||No|
|ANT+ Weight Scale Capable||No||No||No|
|ANT+ Fitness Equipment (Gym)||No||No||NO|
|ANT+ Lighting Control||No||No||NO|
|ANT+ Bike Radar Integration||No||No||NO|
|ANT+ Trainer Control (FE-C)||No||No||NO|
|ANT+ Remote Control||No||No||YES FOR GARMIN VIRB|
|ANT+ eBike Compatibility||No||No||NO|
|ANT+ Muscle Oxygen (i.e. Moxy/BSX)||No||Yes|
|ANT+ Gear Shifting (i.e. SRAM ETAP)||No||No|
|Shimano Di2 Shifting||No||No||NO|
|Bluetooth Smart HR Strap Capable||Yes||Yes||NO|
|Bluetooth Smart Speed/Cadence Capable||Yes||Yes||NO|
|Bluetooth Smart Footpod Capable||No, has internal accelerometer||No, has internal accelerometer||NO|
|Bluetooth Smart Power Meter Capable||No||No||NO|
|Temp Recording (internal sensor)||No||No||NO|
|Temp Recording (external sensor)||No||No||YES (TEMPE)||Software||TomTom Spark||TomTom Multisport Cardio||Garmin Forerunner 235|
|PC Application||MySports Connect||MySports Connect||Garmin Express|
|Web Application||TomTom MySports||TomTom MySports||Garmin Connect|
|Phone App||iOS/Android||iOS/Android||iOS/Android/Windows Phone|
|Ability to Export Settings||No||No||No||Purchase||TomTom Spark||TomTom Multisport Cardio||Garmin Forerunner 235|
|Amazon||Link||Link||Link||DCRainmaker||TomTom Spark||TomTom Multisport Cardio||Garmin Forerunner 235|
Again, remember you can customize the above comparison charts with any of the products I’ve had hands-on time with. You can do that here.
In general, the TomTom Spark is mostly the same GPS watch you know and love from previous incarnations. It’s just that now it has activity tracking and wireless music playback support, with the music playback being the biggest differentiator to competitive units.
When it comes to the optical sensor, if I were a school teacher, I’d give it about a B+ for running, and about a ‘C’ for cycling. I recognize that despite its cycling mode, I don’t think it’s that much targeted at cycling as it is running. After all, its alternate name is the TomTom Runner 2 – not the TomTom Cyclist 2 or the Cardio 2. On the running front, the only issues I saw were really in the first few minutes of the run, and really only in the last few weeks as the weather got cooler.
It’s somewhat funny – companies who release optical sensors during the summer months tend to ‘luck out’ for reviews, compared to those who release them in late fall or winter. It may sound like a bit of a bad joke, but in reality it is absolutely a core challenge for wrist-based optical sensors, and would absolutely make a difference between tests, even on the same unit (for example, I saw zero issues in my hot/humid Mexico runs, or even my warmer Parisian weather runs).
Now while I’ve outlined many things that TomTom plans for the future, I’d caution that you should really only buy a watch based on what’s there today. Or, in cases where a company is extremely reliable on adding new features they’ve marketed via official PR channels (meaning, they put it on paper somewhere). Said differently: TomTom doesn’t have the greatest of track records at adding new features to GPS watches. Sure they’ve done a couple of sprints for the Spark already – but I worry that many of the features they’ve described for the future may not appear. So, instead of being disappointed down the road – simply make your purchasing decision based on what’s here today. If they overachieve – great. Simple, no?
The good news is that what’s here today is fairly compelling – especially if you want music integration. There are exceedingly few GPS options in that arena that do stream music, and for me this one worked very well in that regard.
Found this review useful? Or just want a good deal? Here’s how:
Hopefully you found this review useful. At the end of the day, I’m an athlete just like you looking for the most detail possible on a new purchase – so my review is written from the standpoint of how I used the device. The reviews generally take a lot of hours to put together, so it’s a fair bit of work (and labor of love). As you probably noticed by looking below, I also take time to answer all the questions posted in the comments – and there’s quite a bit of detail in there as well.
I’ve partnered with Clever Training to offer all DC Rainmaker readers exclusive benefits on all products purchased. You can read more about the benefits of this partnership here. You can pickup the TomTom Spark or accessories through Clever Training using the link below. By doing so, you not only support the site (and all the work I do here) – but you also get to enjoy the significant partnership benefits that are just for DC Rainmaker readers. And, since this item is more than $75, you get free US shipping as well.
TomTom Spark/Runner 2 (select dropdown for color/version)
Additionally, you can also use Amazon to purchase the TomTom unit or accessories (though, no discount). Or, anything else you pickup on Amazon helps support the site as well (socks, laundry detergent, cowbells). If you’re outside the US, I’ve got links to all of the major individual country Amazon stores on the sidebar towards the top.
Thanks for reading! And as always, feel free to post comments or questions in the comments section below, I’ll be happy to try and answer them as quickly as possible.