When it comes to smartwatches, Garmin has traditionally had the longest feature list and the deepest analytics of any other brand. Nowhere is this more obvious than in its Forerunner 9xx line. This has always been Garmin’s most “sport-friendly” watch — while other lines like the Venu focus more on lifestyle and the fenix line focuses slightly more on outdoor/adventure activities. The new Enduro line has seemingly split the difference between the outdoorsiness of the fenix and the Forerunner, but the Forerunner is still typically the line ready-made for athletes. The latest version of their maximal Forerunner 945 now adds LTE cellular service into the mix, but only for a few, mostly pre-existing functions. Read on for our extended review for what that all means (and doesn’t mean).
Garmin Forerunner 945 LTE: The Base Features
If you’re looking for the TL;DR version of the Garmin Forerunner 945 LTE review, check out this link, but here we’re going to dive into the most important features, then we’ll take a look at what’s new. If you’re super familiar with the Forerunner 945 already, you can skip this quick section and scroll down for the LTE newness. In order from most to least important (we’ve left off anything that’s not super relevant for triathlon training), below are the base features of the 945:
Tri-Related Sport Profiles: The 945 boasts pool swimming, open-water swimming, indoor and outdoor cycling (with cycling dynamics like power, L/R balance, and more with a compatible power meter), indoor and outdoor running (with some built-in dynamics, but running power sensor compatible), trail running, and track running mode. It also has built-in triathlon and swimrun modes along with a fantastic multisport mode that lets you create a sport profile that links multiple sports together — this is not something that other smartwatches do nearly as well.
Pace Pro: This is an often unheralded and recently added function that allows you to input a course via the Garmin Connect app, answer a few questions about how fast you want to run the distance and how you want to pace it (negative split, positive split, etc.), and then it spits out a pacing plan that will guide you live as you go. While this might not seem groundbreaking, the fact that it takes into account hills is a huge boon for athletes who need help pacing on long runs.
Training Effect/Recovery Time/Performance Condition: I lump these together because they do similar things: Training effect tells you how much of each system you engaged during your workout (aerobic or anaerobic); recovery time uses your workout info to tell you how long you need to recover after the efforts. Performance condition tells you early in your run how prepared you are, physiologically, for an effort.
Daily Suggested Workouts: While it won’t take into account a goal event coming up, if you’re ever at a loss for what to do while building your base fitness, this handy recommendation comes up before every session and takes into account your current training load and rest status. Take it a step further with Garmin’s free “Coach” training plans that help guide you.
Livetrack, Live Event Sharing, Incident Detection/Assistance: These are grouped together because they all share very similar use: safety and tracking. In the standard version of the 945, these all require a connected phone (Android only for the Live Event sharing). All of these share where you are, how fast you’re going (and even heart rate), and mile splits with preselected contacts. They also notify these contacts if an incident occurs (either by force, or if you choose to send an alert).
Onboard Mapping: This is one of the features that’s unique to the 945 and higher-end fenix models. Built-in color maps allow you to navigate in real time, without the need for a phone and give you a better experience with their built-in suggested routing that uses crowd-based data for popular courses.
Big Battery (in some cases): While we’ll get to this more below, the 945 has good battery life for smartwatch mode (two weeks), with GPS (up to 35 hours), and with GPS and music (up to 12 hours). We found that in practical use with one to two workouts each day, the watch lasts about a week before needing a charge. With LTE mode on, it drains considerably faster, and we’ll get to that further down in the LTE section.
Sleep Tracking: Much like other smartwatches, the 945 has decent sleep tracking that lets you know your quality of sleep, length of sleep, and the amount of time spent in each type (deep, REM, light, and awake).
Onboard Music: This is near the bottom of the list, as it’s more of a lifestyle feature, but you can store music on the 945 either via a USB connection or download premium Spotify playlists over WiFi. The watch pairs with Bluetooth headphones (or speakers), and you can control music either on the watch or on your connected smartphone with the 945.
The LTE Features
All of the features listed above are present on the original 945 — though some were added as software updated later. Below are the new features that come with LTE:
Phone-Free Livetrack, Live Event Sharing, and Assistance: The functions we listed above are now available without a phone needed, though it will require the LTE service to be set up ($5+/month) and connected to compatible cell towers.
Spectator Messaging: This is actually pretty cool, as it allows any approved contacts who are receiving the Livetrack information for that session to message you, phone-free. You can also send an audio message. The message pops up very quickly on your watch, then disappears.
Assistance Plus: This is like the extreme version of Assistance, that coordinates a response from Garmin’s IERCC — the same group that does response for their InReach devices. Once triggered (no need for a phone), you can either cancel the call or it will set into motion a series of events that will coordinate your rescue and communicate with an emergency response team.
Yes, this is a fairly small list (right now), but it leaves space for more cellular functions later down the road, and gives some clues to what they may be.
What It Doesn’t Do
Sure, this could be a huge list (“It won’t cook you breakfast,” “It won’t be your friend,” “It won’t do your workout for you”), but it’s important to note that the LTE service is not exactly like the cellular services you might be used to in smartwatches from brands like Apple or Samsung:
No Texting Or Calls: If the 945 LTE isn’t connected to your phone, it won’t take or make calls, and it won’t receive or send texts. It will receive spectator messages, but only when in a sport mode, while training, when connected to LTE, and when a contact is specifically sent the Livetrack link. Also, you can’t currently send any response to the spectator messages, though you can respond to the Assistance Plus messages from the IERCC.
No Streaming Music (Or Any Data): You cannot stream Spotify via LTE; you can’t receive any data, like the weather for instance, unless you’re connected to a phone.
What We Like
While I won’t go into the basic 945 features that work well — there are a lot of them — I will dig into the LTE features specifically. On the outset, there are some huge benefits to having phone-free emergency services, but much of that comes with some caveats. We’ll get to the caveats later on, but first the good.
When it comes to running, it’s very very unlikely that you’re going to be carrying a phone (especially in a race). In that case, the assistance features are a fantastic lifeline if you’re in a place where the risk of danger is high and the potential for quick help is low. While you could argue that that situation should obviate the need for a phone anyway, some people just can’t bear to bring a phone when they train.
In terms of race-day use, the phone-free LiveTrack function is probably the most important thing, and doubly important to long-course triathletes and their families. While most iron-distance events have notoriously poor in-race tracking with check-in stations that are few and far between, it’s a very big deal to know when your athlete is where. It could be the difference between a massive family-vacation-ending meltdown and the triumphant finish line moment you’ve been dreaming of (trust me, from experience). While it’s very, very tough to figure out (and not mentioned on Garmin’s website anywhere we could find), there is actually a way to extend the battery life of the 945 LTE while in LiveTrack LTE mode out to 18 hours. This is buried deep in the “Safety & Tracking” setting, under LiveTrack, at the bottom, where it says “Power Save.” If you’re doing an iron-distance event, you need to switch this on before you get going. If you don’t, you’ll have an epic watch and LiveTrack fail that will make everyone grumpy at the finish line.
Though it’s not quite as impactful in that “save-your-life” kind of way, spectator messaging could have more of a practical use than assistance. While we’ll talk about some of the potential for issues later on, being able to receive updates while racing is actually a huge deal. Of course getting an attaboy from the family is great, but imagine if you could get updates on your competitors or conditions down the road as you go. That would be a big deal. Also, being able to receive a message that you need to get home quickly while out training could have a more positive “domestic impact” than you might think.
One caveat with this watch is the availability of LTE service where you’re training/racing. In situations where you might need serious medical assistance, there’s a good chance that you’ll be very far from a cell tower. While this won’t apply to everyone, it’s worth being thoughtful about where you actually might need help and if you’ll be able to get out a signal. Keep in mind, the same could be said for bringing a phone with you, but you’ll have more flexibility with a phone when searching for a signal.
Then there is the distinct possibility that the whole spectator messaging thing could actually be illegal in a race. Ironman, USAT, and even the UCI all have rules banning two-way communication, though there may be some room for interpretation. USAT’s rules say:
“Participants may not use communication devices of any type, including but not limited to cell phones, smart watches, and two-way radios, in any distractive manner during the competition. A “distractive manner” includes but is not limited to making or receiving phone calls, sending or receiving text messages, playing music, using social media, taking photographs or using in a one or two-way radio communication. Using any communication device in this manner during the competition will result in disqualification.”
“A distractive manner” is an important phrase, as you could argue that there is nothing more distracting about receiving a quick message on your smartwatch than looking at your splits, but there is a distinct advantage to having a set of eyes and ears out on the course with you. The UCI has this rule in place simply due to the way it could artificially impact in-race dynamics.
While the new Forerunner 945 clearly isn’t perfect, that doesn’t mean it won’t get better. The fact that Garmin put an LTE chip in its highest-end sports watch means that it has the opportunity to be much more, later down the line. The opportunity for two-way texting is definitely there, given that you can send and receive emergency messages with the Assistance Plus operator — though it may be pre-made messages or something that’s awkwardly typed on their revamped character entry “keyboard.”
And while streaming data for music might not be in the cards, there is potential for other simple streaming data to go back and forth on future software versions of the 945 LTE — it already transmits a wealth of data during the Livetrack and live event sharing.
Finally, with just a little more battery boost — I’m looking at you, Enduro battery — this could be a viable all-day, frequently updating distance tracker that would allow spectators’ lives to be forever changed for the better.