Review: We Give The TomTom Spark Cardio a Brutal Field Test

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TomTom Spark Cardio At A Glance

Pros

  • Far smaller than predecessors, yet packed with even more amazing tech
  • Plenty of categories to suit you training, no matter what sport you’re into
  • Four-way rocker navigation switch is brilliant to use while exercising
  • Built-in activity tracker makes it a great two-in-one gadget
  • Wirelessly streaming music to headphones means no more iPhone armband

Cons

  • Clear limitations when it comes to swimming
  • Some issues with music streaming headphone connectivity
  • Partner app feels basic compared with competitors
  • High price point 

RECOMMENDED: TomTom Spark 3 Cardio + Music Five-Star Review

TomTom Spark Cardio In Depth

The TomTom Spark is the fourth-generation sports watch from the Dutch GPS specialist, and it’s safe to say that the engineers at TomTom have built on each successive generation to make this latest model something pretty special.

The company’s first foray into the sector was its 2011 partnership with Nike that produced the Nike+ SportWatch, which was designed to integrate seamlessly with the Nike+ running portal. It was a good, if basic, device that traded on the Nike+ compatibility more than its own feature set.

In 2013 the TomTom Runner appeared, without Nike branding. It was a good-looking sports watch, but again lacked some features and was hamstrung by a poor online portal. But when the TomTom Runner Cardio arrived in 2014 it completely changed the game.

The TomTom Runner Cardio was the first sports watch to include an integrated heart rate monitor. No longer did you have to wrap a strap around your chest to get a constant heart rate readout, the Runner Cardio could measure your heart rate straight from your wrist.

Now TomTom has raised the bar again with the new Spark, which as an exhaustive feature set and improved app and online support. If you’re looking for a sports watch that can do pretty much everything, the TomTom Spark should be high on your list.

Look and feel

The original TomTom Runner was one of the smallest and slimmest GPS sports watches available at the time, but the new Spark is smaller still, despite having considerably more tech packed into it.

TomTom has managed to reduce the width of the face by offsetting the time-of-day display, just as it did with the Nike+ SportWatch. Reading the ToD is still easy, and once you get used to the date being squeezed into the top right corner, you’ll have no problem spotting it at a glance.

There are no buttons surrounding the main watch face – instead, there’s a four-way rocket switch below the face. This is also where the GPS receiver lives, which is partly how TomTom manages to make the main watch casing so small.

The Spark is fairly unobtrusive for a sports watch, especially if you pair it with a black strap – you can swap between straps if you prefer something a bit brighter. The strap itself has fixing holes running its entire length, so finding a comfortable fit is simple. There are also three separate lugs securing it, so there’s almost no chance of the strap coming undone while you’re training.

The four-way rocker switch is simply superb for navigating the menus on the Spark, and in a world dominated by swiping screens it’s good to see old-fashioned, tactile controls on a device that you’ll be interacting with while exercising.

A small but welcome improvement is the Spark’s backlight function. On previous TomTom watches you needed to touch the right-hand edge of the screen to activate the backlight, which wasn’t always easy to do while running. On the Spark you simply cover the whole watch face with your palm for a second and the backlight will activate.

There’s still a night mode feature to keep the backlight on constantly during your run, but thanks to this new method of backlight activation, you’ll rarely need to employ it.

Multi-sport

The TomTom Spark is a multi-sport watch, so it will happily track running, cycling, swimming, treadmill runs, stationary bike rides and even gym work. There’s even a freestyle setting that you can apply to anything that doesn’t fit another category.

Obviously there are limitations to what can be measured using each of the activity settings.

Running will be the staple for most users, and here the Spark is well covered. When you embark on your run, the built-in heart rate monitor will track your BPM throughout the activity, and the GPS will track your route, while measuring speed and pace. The accelerometer will also measure your cadence while you run, giving you an average strides-per-minute reading at the end.

For cycling the Spark will pair with any Bluetooth Smart sensors, so if you already have TomTom sensors on your bike you can use them, but you could just as easily use the speed and cadence sensor from Wahoo Fitness, which simply wraps around your bike’s crank arm. The sensor is only really adding cadence to the mix, though, since the watch itself will track speed, distance, route and heart rate.

If you’re thinking about trying a triathlon, then the Spark’s ability to track your swims is a bonus. While not a specifically tri-focused watch like the Garmin 930XT, the Spark will still help anyone training for a triathlon. The Spark will measure your exercise time, laps and pace while you’re swimming. Neither the heart rate monitor nor GPS are active during swimming, so if you’re looking for a watch that will track your distance and route during open-water swims, you’ll need to look elsewhere. You can still measure your heart rate during a swim, but you’ll need to use a Bluetooth Smart chest strap HRM to do so.

For treadmill running the Spark uses its built-in accelerometer to count your strides and estimate distance, while also timing your run and tracking your heart rate. You can, of course, edit your run when you’ve finished, using the treadmill data, which will likely be far more accurate. We tended to find that the watch over-estimated our runs, but as long as you remember to update it before saving it’s not a problem.

The gym and freestyle options will track your heart rate and movement, but essentially it’ll be the HR zones and duration that amount to anything in these instances. All that said, it’s still good to be able to track pretty much any training you undertake.

Activity tracking

Activity trackers have become ubiquitous – it’s no longer unusual to see friends or colleagues with a Fitbit or Jawbone around their wrist. The ability to measure our daily activity, rather than just our specific training sessions, is welcome. Whether you’re starting down a new road of fitness or are already training regularly, the more data you have, the more you know about your body and what it’s telling you.

TomTom is clearly aware of how popular activity trackers have become, because it has integrated that functionality into the Spark too. While pressing right on the four-way rocker switch will take you to the training options, pressing left will show you how many steps you’ve taken that day, while pressing left a second time will give you your total steps for the week.

So, the Spark can save you the trouble of wearing an activity tracker, while also tracking all your training activities – not a bad two-in-one solution then. It’ll track your sleep too if you wear it to bed at night.

 

Music to your ears

Without a doubt, the stand-out USP for the Spark is its music playback feature. TomTom has equipped the Spark + Music with 3GB of storage, which you can fill with MP3 or AAC files. You can import playlists from iTunes, although I found that I needed to physically drag a playlist from my library into a folder before the Spark would find it.

Once you’ve transferred your playlist to the Spark, you can stream your music wirelessly to a pair of Bluetooth headphones, essentially removing the need to strap your phone to your arm when you run. 

Given the size of modern smartphones, it’s incredibly liberating to be able to go running without having to carry one with you, while still taking your favourite tunes along for the ride. You can pause/play your music direct from your headphones, as well as adjust the volume – just like you can when using your phone.

TomTom does offer its own Bluetooth headphones, which can be bought as a bundle with the watch, but the Spark paired perfectly with a variety of Bluetooth headphones while we were testing it.

You may find that you need to wear the Spark on a specific wrist to get a steady connection, though. This is because some Bluetooth headphones have the receiver on the right and others have it on the left – essentially you need to be wearing the Spark on the same side as the headphone receiver.  This usually involves trial and error – if you’re running and your music drops out, it’s a safe bet that switching the Spark to the other wrist will result in rock-solid streaming.

You can choose to play the tracks in your playlist in order, or you can shuffle them. You can also choose to shuffle between all the music on the device rather than just a specific playlist, just bear in mind that the Spark comes preloaded with TomTom’s “Running Trax” playlist, which can be jarring when it cues up – halfway through one run it felt like we’d walked out of a Foo Fighters gig and into the Ministry of Sound.

Online portals

Recording your data is only half the story, though – you also need to put it somewhere after your training sessions. This is an area where TomTom fell short in the past, with its MySports app and web portal proving to be lacklustre and buggy. Thankfully those issues have been addressed and, thanks to TomTom’s open syncing model, the quality of its own portal is somewhat moot anyway.

When you hook the Spark up to your computer it will automatically connect to MySports and transfer your data. Within MySports you can analyse your training, examining speed, distance, pace, route, cadence and so on. The MySports smartphone app can also be used to transfer your sessions, and it’s good to see that the Spark is much quicker at transferring data than the TomTom Runner Cardio was.

While MySports is fine for logging your activity and tracking it over time, it’s still a pretty basic affair compared to other options available, especially if you’re looking for features like training calendars and social interaction with friends.

But TomTom has been smart in this regard. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel and convince users to abandon the online platforms they’ve been using for years, it has made it very easy to carry on using your platform of choice with the Spark.

Within the TomTom app on your computer you can select from a plethora of platforms and output your data directly to them. So if you’re already invested in Strava, or Nike+, or RunKeeper, you can carry on using them and the Spark will automatically output your data to your chosen platform. In fact it will happily output to as many platforms as you like and, once initially set up, the whole process is automatic every time you connect the watch.

 

Verdict

There’s a huge amount of choice when it comes to sports watches, while the latest activity trackers and smartwatches are blurring the lines and positioning themselves as viable alternatives. But with the Spark, TomTom has created a device that will appeal to anyone who’s serious about their training, while offering an extensive feature set and activity support.

The design is unobtrusive enough for the Spark to be your everyday watch, thus making the activity-tracking feature even more pertinent. It’s small, light and easy to navigate, even when you’re pounding the trails.

The ability to stream music directly from the watch and leave your phone at home is another huge bonus, especially since our phones just keep getting bigger and bigger.

At £189.99 the TomTom Spark Cardio + Music is expensive for a sports watch, but it has enough features and functionality to justify that price, especially if you had previously considered a separate running watch and cycle computer.

While hardcore triathletes may want GPS functionality while swimming, for more recreational fitness fanatics, the Spark should be all the sports watch you need, no matter what activity you choose to do when you wake up in the morning.

Score: 5/5

Manufacturer: TomTom

RRP: £189.99

Buy it now: here