Just the other day, I was complaining about how there hasn't been much innovation in running watches recently. Upon further reflection, I found this to be untrue.
Perhaps the biggest innovation was putting GPS in watches. I'm not sure who the first to do that was, but I think it was Timex. However, those required people to attach bulky receivers to their feet. Not a great solution. There were also the Garmin Forerunners, but those were essentially handheld GPS units strapped to your wrist with velcro.
In 2006 Garmin introduced the Forerunner 205. It charged via USB, wasn't much bigger than a regular watch, and it worked. Fabulous. Google Maps overlays for your running data was a cinch. Now Timex has similar products as well, and Garmin has greatly expanded their offerings. Even Nike is getting into the business now, as they've partnered up with TomTom to release a GPS watch in the coming months. The one problem is, all these are fairly expensive. What about regular watches?
The feature list has expanded. A good running watch now tells the time, date, and has at least two alarms, a backlight, chronograph with a lap timer, countdown timer, and at least a hundred lap memory. If it's for running or swimming should have an interval timer as well. These are good. But not exciting. So what're the gimmicks? Nike's is simple. The watch faces are angled, making it more natural to look at the time while active. Simple idea, works great. I love my Nike. Not exciting though. Adidas and Puma and the store brands all make watches that compete, but they're mainly about looks. The only company that tries to innovate is really Timex. It's now discontinued, but a few years ago they released a watch with built in iPod controls. It was by far the most elegant way to control an iPod while running. It just didn't sell though, which is really a shame, because more and more people are running with their iPods. I don't think it ever made it to an athletic watch because of all the activity, but they also build watches with accelerometers, so that it senses when you flick your watch back and turns on the backlight. Does it sound cheesy, maybe, but I still find myself flicking my wrist back and expecting the backlight to come on. Come to think of it, Casio does that on their GShocks too, but I wouldn't recommend that for physical activity. The buttons are too hard to reach, and they're just really bulky. All this is leading up to the new Timexes, which have a touchscreen. Not like Tissot, but now you can just tap the face to start and stop the timers. It's much much much less awkward. It's wonderful. And the face is giant too, so even though it's not angled, it's still very easy to see.
So that's the state of running watches. I know I overlooked some things, so I'll try and pay the big one due right here: Polar. Polar makes puts heartrate monitors in their watches, which is something a lot of athletes consider. However, I think all the Polars are 100+ dollars. If you're a serious athlete that may be something you want to consider, but it's not something immensely useful to most people. I know that in the end, it usually comes down to style, which is why Adidas is even making watches in the first place. I'd like to think that this is a more informed crowd though, so those are some features to consider next time you need a new watch.