Motorola MOTOACTV GPS Workout Recorder Review: Close, But Not Quite There

motoactv-wristbandFor the past three months or so I’ve been using the Motorola MOTOACTV GPS on almost every single one of my runs (disclosure: this product was a media sample provided to me free of charge by the manufacturer for review purposes). About a month into using the MOTOACTV I was prepared to write a review claiming that I would no longer have a need for my Garmin and that the MOTOACTV was the device that would best all other GPS devices on the market. Alas, I never wrote that review, and in the following few months I’ve come to the conclusion that this is instead a device still in need of some improvement.

The reason for my change in outlook is that the Motoactv has started to feel like a beta version that was released before all of the kinks could be worked out. This is frustrating because the device is pretty darned amazing in many ways, but it’s limitations make it hard for me to recommend that anyone buy it right now.

Let’s start with the good stuff. Basically, the MOTOCACTV is like an iPod Nano crossed with a Garmin Forerunner. It can both record a GPS signal and spit out pace, splits, etc., and it can also play music. It does both of these things quite well. When running with both my Garmin 205 or 305 and the MOTOACTV the GPS results are very close, and I have found the accuracy of the MOTOACTV to be overall excellent. This is one of the reasons that I have been willing to go solo with the MOTOACTV for so long – it works very well as a workout recorder.

MOTOACTV details

Though bigger than a typical watch, when attached to the optional wristband the MOTOACTV is not so big that it cannot be worn as a full-time wristwatch – I have done so for a few months and have found it plenty comfortable (and it has prompted a lot of comments!). The interface is clean and very well designed, and there are plenty of options to customize the data displayed on the screen (for workouts, you can choose up to 4 customizable data fields at a time), and the full color display looks beautiful. The screen is touch sensitive, so a simple swipe will allow you to jump from the real-time data readout to a listing of your splits. You can even swipe to a real-time map showing your location and running route (though cool, this is limited by the size of the screen, and the lack of detailed map labeling makes it of limited practical utility). There are also multiple clock-face options for using the MOTOACTV as a watch, and you can set the device to function as a pedometer that records the number of steps that you take (accuracy is questionable, especially if you do a lot of walking while pushing a baby carriage…).

Motoactv Screen

The ability to play music is also a huge plus for this device as it means one less gadget that I need to lug around in my workout bag – I actually have not had to use my IPod Nano for several months. Importing music to the device is simple, it plays files purchased on iTunes with no issues, and sound quality is very good. Having an all-in-one device like this is really nice, and is the major draw for me.

So, the MOTOACTV has a beautiful and user friendly interface, records GPS signals accurately, and can play music – sounds like a dream device, right? Not quite. There are some serious issues that in my opinion need to be addressed before the MOTOACTV becomes a prime-time player in the workout GPS world. Here’s a rundown of what I see as the biggest issues.

1. The headphone jack is problematic. Because the headphone jack does not have a cover, it’s wide open to sweat, water, etc. After about a month of use, I started to notice that my headphones would not work sometimes when I plugged them in – sometimes I could get them to kick on by twisting the plug around, but success with this technique was spotty. This problem has gotten progressively worse, and now I have completely given up on using plug-in headphones – the jack is essentially non-functional. In perusing the MOTOACTV online forum, I have seen numerous people reporting this same issue, and it is a major flaw in the device (apparently you can call and ask them to send a rubber grommet to stick in the hole – this should have been standard with the watch). My workaround is that bluetooth headphones continue to work just fine, so I have been able to continue to use the device as a music player. It would appear that the problem is thus specifically isolated to the jack. I would not recommend buying the MOTOACTV unless you plan to invest in a pair of bluetooth enabled headphones to go with it.

2. Battery life is not great. Motorola has been proactive on this issue and has issued several firmware updates to improve battery life, but let’s just say I still would not risk using the MOTOACTV as a GPS device for any race longer than a half marathon. I have not done a multi-hour run with it so I can’t comment on absolute battery life, but it’s not terribly great in active GPS recording mode (especially with music playing). Even just using the device as a watch, it needs a charge every other day or so. Thus, battery life lags far behind most every other GPS device currently on the market.

3. The “Start” button on the top of the watch is touchy (wither that or there is some weird software issue). I find that the watch will randomly start workouts while I’m walking around, and after pausing the workout on a run the watch will frequently restart the workout on its own before I am ready to go and without me touching it (very annoying!). This is a big pain, especially since the online software does not make it particularly easy to delete mistaken workouts.

4. There is currently no streamlined way to export data from the Motoactv to the workout recording platforms that I use (Sporttracks and dailymile). It is possible to export workouts as CSV files and then import these into Sportracks, and there is a bookmarklet that facilitates upload to dailymile, but indirect uploads are cumbersome and have gotten old fast. Furthermore, some of the CSV files I upload to Sporttracks need to be corrected, so I have concerns about accuracy using this method (I’ve uploaded a few 8000+ mile runs – wish I was capable of that!)I haven’t played around much with the Motorola workout site since I don’t have any desire to adopt yet another recording platform.

My general feeling about GPS devices is that hardware manufacturers should worry about making the hardware work well, and allow users to choose their workout platform. So may of us are already tied to one site or another and for various reasons have no desire to switch. Thus, facilitating the ability to sync a device easily across platforms should be a priority (maybe this is planned for the future, I don’t know). I kind of view this analogous to the days when manufacturers would make digital music players that couldn’t play iTunes files – no way was I going to abandon my investment in all of my iTunes music to adopt a different piece of hardware. To be honest, even given its flaws, I probably would still use the Motoactv regularly as is if I could simply download data directly into Sporttracks. Without this, it’s one more nuisance to have to deal with that my trusty old Garmin 305 solves effortlessly.

The above points are what I view as critical flaws or nuisances, some of which may be fixable or at least improvable with firmware updates, others of which are design issues (the headphone jack). Clear these up and this would without a doubt be one of the most innovative GPS devices out there, and the Motoactv would be on my wrist every day.

I also have a wish-list of things that could be easy improvements for the watch.

1. Add additional data screens. My Garmin 305 has 3 screens, each of which is capable of displaying four separate data fields. I use all of these regularly – one for general run stats, one for lap data, etc. This would seem to be an easy fix to make via a firmware update – add a few additional screens that can be swiped to view, each which of which can be configured like the standard data screen.

2. Do more with the map view. This is a cool feature, but not of much practical use right now. More detail, return to home capability, etc. would be great.

3. While I’m in the asking mood, since Motoactv is hooked into Wifi, allowing the ability to do a one touch upload to various workout sites would be amazing.

I will finish by saying that there have been a few firmware updates that I have not yet loaded onto my Motoactv. I have hesitated to do so since one of them introduces a “shake to wake” feature that sounds like a total disaster to me (note, my random workout starts are with the firmware just previous to the one that introduced this feature, so that is not the issue with my watch). On the plus side, the folks at Motorola have been pretty proactive about issuing firmware updates for the device, so they do seem committed to improving user experience. I hope they continue to do so, and I hope they continue development on the hardware as I truly believe that Motoactv has game-changing potential. It’s just not quite there yet.

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About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a recovering academic who currently works as an exercise physiologist, running coach, and writer. He's also a father of three and a fanatical runner with a bit of a shoe obsession. In addition to writing and editing this site, he is co-author of the book Tread Lightly, and writes a personal blog called The Blogologist. Follow Pete on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and via email.

Comments

  1. Matt (Forums Manager) says:

    Pete, thanks for the thorough review. Since I’m delighted
    for the positives you cited, let me quickly comment on the negatives you have
    listed.
     

    1. The headphone jack is problematic.
     

    We have had reports of headset issues, as you pointed out.
    In most cases, we’ve traced this problem to the headset rather than the jack,
    and we are working on a redesigned headset to address this. (We are also
    replacing failed headsets on request.) Per your suggestion, we now include the
    grommets to cover that jack receptacle in shipping MOTOACTVs. A quick call to
    our call center can also get them shipped to you, gratis.
     

    2. Battery life is not great…I still would not risk using
    the MOTOACTV as a GPS device for any race longer than a half marathon.
     

    I think you would feel differently on the latest software
    using Marathon Mode. Most runners should approach 10 hours of battery life,
    using GPS and an HRM with this setup. Listening to music using Bluetooth will reduce battery
    life significantly, but most serious runners could
    get through a marathon with GPS, HRM, and music using a wired headset.
     

    3. The “Start” button on the top of the watch is touchy.

     
    This isn’t something that we’ve seen reported regularly. I
    wonder if you have a hardware issue – say the word and we’ll exchange yours and
    get it to our engineers for investigation.

     
    4. There is currently no streamlined way to export data from
    the Motoactv to the workout recording platforms that I
    use (Sporttracks and
    dailymile).

     
    This is something we hear quite often. It’s no easy task to
    break into a market like this – there are three distinct areas of complexity.
    First, there is the watch itself, then the Web portal. But most complex is the
    various athletic sub-cultures and their preferred Web sites, metrics, features,
    etc. We are working hard to make our own MOTOACTV portal meet the needs of our
    owners – you should check it out. But we recognize that some MOTOACTV owners
    will always prefer to stay with the site they have been using. While I don’t
    know if we’re going to change our current approach, I can say that the conversation
    about how we should fit in continues. Your feedback will be considered.

     
    We’re also continuously evaluating the many, many
    suggestions we get on how to improve our product, and we are certainly going to
    consider your ideas.

     
    I hope you do elect to update your MOTOACTV to the latest
    firmware. The shake-to-wake feature is working great and if you don’t update,
    you won’t get the great features and improvements we’re continuing to deliver.

    Regards,

    Matt (Motorola Forums Manager)
     

    • Stephanie says:

      Matt, you ever coming back to the Motoactv forum?

    • Pete Larson says:

      Matt,

      Thanks for taking the time to respond. A few comments.

      1. The jack is not a headset issue – none of the headsets I attempt to use work with it, and I have tried many. I guess it could be caused by the headset if the headset included with the device triggers the problem, but the jack does not work reliably with any of my wired headsets.

      2. I do plan to try the new firmware, and I suppose without music it probably would last through a marathon, but battery life remains a significant issue relative to other GPS devices. Just the fact that it needs to be charged so frequently even when not used for a workout is a concern. The problem is that with a non-functional headphone jack I have no choice on training runs but to use bluetooth, so battery drain becomes magnified.

      3. No idea what triggers the start button issue. I can contact you via email if you’d like to take a look at the device?

      4. The workout platform is probably the most significant thing for me and many others. The Motoactv platform is nice, but I have way too much invested in other platforms to switch. Once you get involved in the social training world and make friends in one location, it will take an awful lot
      to get people to leave their current site of choice. Furthermore, I see no
      reason why allowing upload directly to a program like Sporttracks is an
      issue as it is a standalone, offline program that simply provides an easy
      way of looking at data – don’t think it’s a competitor to what you are
      doing as a site like dailymile might be. It is worht noting that Garmin
      does allow upload to various sites, which is a big plus in their favor.

      Again, take these comments more as constructive criticism than anything
      else – the device has a huge amount of potential if some of these
      challenges are overcome. I’m a fan, just not quite sure all of the kinks
      have been worked out yet.

  2. Motorola Motoactv Guide says:

    Very good and thorough review Pete. I definitely recommend getting the latest firmware updates, the latest one now lets you receive Twitter and Facebook updates straight to your Motoactv.

  3. I’m planning on purchasing a Motoactv unit in a feel weeks here and I am wondering if the Motoactv portal has elevation correction to enhance data from running/cycling workouts?

  4. Bob Maulucci says:

    I have had my Motoactv for several weeks. I like it a lot, but agree that the sporttracks or training peaks logs are much better than the Motorola one. However, I find the simple uploading of the file to the other two sites to be easy but a one step solution would be nice.
    The main thing I would like to see is a way to use a foot pod and the GPS. I would like to use the foot pod to track cadence, but I am pretty sure when used it will override the GPS which is more accurate for pace and distance.

  5. kamilothoris says:

    I have the motoactv and  the best thing about it is….Matt, the forums manager. He is on the Moto forum but also all over Amazon and this blog and the internets. Wherever someone is expressing an opinion about how beta the device is Matt is there to carry feedback to the engineers.

    Motoactv is trying to be a jack of all trades and it ends up being a master of none. The device needs juice all the time though it recharges very fast. And the new shake awake feature gets on my nerves. I have to turn it off all the time. Satellite acquisition can be very fast indeed. The Moto BT headphones are also fun. You can forget you have them on but you can’t wear sunglasses. I have also run in torrential rains with the device exposed with no problems and no after effects.

    I want to be able to analyze the data, not just track. I ended up using my Garmin 610  to take advantage of the R-R recording and FBA software.

    If you are a beginner runner you might get into the numbers aspect and want to know how long and how fast and how much distance and how often etc. If you are a regular runner or someone obsessed with running or someone who is trying to make progress what you need to know is your effort level and whether your training is optimum or if you are overtraining. FBA, TE, iathlete, Polar Training Load, Polar OwnOptimizer and OwnZone etc. That’s what Moto lacks.

  6. Aaron R. says:

    So, if you aren’t using Bluetooth headphones, is the cord to your headphones just dangling loose, or is it “routed” along your arm in some fashion?

  7. ClaraCWhitsett says:

    I want to be able to analyze the data, not just track. I ended up using
    my Garmin 610  to take advantage of the R-R recording and FBA software.

    link to goo.gl

  8. Keithtyger says:

    I encourage you to update the firmware. It certainly helps with battery drain. I love mine, but it is rough being a beta tester. I love that 1 device can take care of all my exercise needs. The sky is the limit with this device. Now they have added golf tracking to the mix. I lost my first month of data due to a glitch. Since then, it has been golden. I purchased mine in December.

    • Pete Larson says:

      I’ve had it about as long – did the first firmware update that addressed battery life, looks like there may have been another. Plan to give it a go, but there are some issues that cannot be overcome via firmware.

      • Keithtyger says:

        I am similar to you in that I had 3 years of history from my 305 on the garmin Site. I would consider this unit great for the enthusiast.. While a die hard will miss the use of training peaks or other in depth software. I tried training peaks and it is too much info for me.

      • Matt (Forums Manager) says:

         If you think yours has a hardware issue, please shoot me a note at supportforums@motorola.com. Thanks.

  9. SlapFitness says:

    I can’t believe you didn’t like it! Our customers just love this thing. Motorola just dropped the price by a cool $100, so that certainly helps.

    Plus, you can ditch that iPod Shuffle that a lot of people buy. No thanks! I’ll admit that the Motoactv GPS function is pretty pointless, though.

  10. Girl In Motion says:

    Thanks for the great review.  The inability to import directly into Sporttracks is the one single reason I won’t buy it.  Aside from the clunkiness of conversion, I’d been reading elsewhere that the data via .csv is incomplete as well.  Aside from that, all the features seem excellent.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Thanks for commenting – the more people that point this out, the more likely it may be that the feature is worked on. I contacted Sporttracks about it and they told me they need Motorola to produce a download API in order to enable direct import – this seems like it should be a no-brainer to me as it really does limit adoption by those using other workout recording platforms.

  11. Hey pete u mentioned awhile back that you have been running in the kinvara 3, are you planning on doing a review for them? And also have you tried the  new Saucony grid A5 ?

    • Pete Larson says:

      I do have the Kinvara 3. Only one run in them so far as I have a backlog of shoes to review, but they feel fairly similar to previous versions. Have not tried the new Grid Type A5.

      •  Well I guess thats goodnews right, not too much is changed. The downside to being a shoe reviewer right? not enough miles in the day

        • Pete Larson says:

          Yeah, especially when life limits your mileage. I’m needing to find a new approach to reviewing…

          •  Help maybe?  You could have your running friends review shoes too. The few reviews that are on here are great.

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