15 Years This Week: The Forerunner 305 Was Released: How does it test now?

It was 15 years ago this past week that the Forerunner 305 was released, at CES 2006 (Consumer Electronics Show). Arguably the device that began it all from a GPS running watch standpoint, it’s famed reddish color made it easy to spot a mile away. Or, maybe it was the gigantic size. Either way, it was the first time a GPS running device actually sorta looked like a GPS watch. Previous to that was the Forerunner 101 and 201, which were basically just Twinkie’s strapped to your wrist.

When it was announced at CES 2006, it shared the spotlight with the Forerunner 205, which looked identical from the exterior except was blue instead of red. But software-wise it lacked a few features, including sensor support. You can read the original Garmin press release here. Or my full review of it here.

The Forerunner 305 carried a number of features that even some of today’s rival watches don’t have. It’s feature set included:

– 10 hour battery life
– Structured workout support (downloadable from Garmin Training Center)
– On unit quick interval feature
– Course/route following (downloadable from Garmin Training Center)
– Back to start directions
– ANT+ sensor support for cycling sensors, heart rate sensors, and running footpods
– Multiple bike profiles tracking odometer
– Multi-sport triathlon mode, even a ski mode (which I then used)
– Virtual Partner functionality to race a given pace
– Quick release kit and bike mount for triathletes

Of course, that’d skip over a few itty bitty little things it didn’t have. It didn’t actually have a regular daily watch mode (mostly), so it was only worn for sports. It also wasn’t actually waterproofed for swimming, despite being a triathlon marketed watch. And of course, it didn’t have things like step tracking, an optical HR sensor or Bluetooth/phone support. And yet, it was loved by many.

The question I had though was more basic: Was it as accurate as all of us seemed to remember? And what’s it like running with it here in 2021? No problem – I dug around in my Garmin watch bin and found my old one, as well as The Girl’s old one too. We both had them back in the day.

For me, the Forerunner 305 was my first GPS watch. Though not my first sports watch – that was an older Polar device, pre-GPS for them. Notably though, the Forerunner 305 was the first true product review I released here on the site some 14 years ago. As I’ve told the story previously, the review itself was actually a copy/paste from a seriously long e-mail I had sent to some co-workers while working at Microsoft, about my thoughts on the watch. My wok e-mails were just as famously long and detailed as my reviews are now. I figured people outside of my friends would find it interesting. Turns out, you did.

Getting it Setup:

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I starting digging in my bins. Finding the Forerunner 305 was easy. In fact, I found The Girl’s too. Finding a functioning charging cradle was more tricky. I spent roughly half a day troubleshooting because the first one apparently wasn’t working. Once I grabbed the second one, I was in business.

Now, when the Forerunner 305 first came out, it used an app called Garmin Training Center. I think you can even download that today if you really want. But eventually that got shifted over to Garmin Express. And turns out, Garmin Express still supports the Forerunner 305. It paired up quite easily in fact:

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I did have to find a functional Mini-USB data cable (specifically, a data one, not just a charge one). Also, I found the mount a bit finicky, but then again, it was always finicky after the first couple years. But once it chirped it was happy to sync.

And then would you look at that, if I check to ‘view details’, I have my most recently available newly unfavorited and favorited gravel loop route available for me to sync:

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I then hit the install button and waited for the device to implode:

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Holy crap, it did it! I mean, it didn’t implode. But did the sync!

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Before we headed out though, I needed to ensure the watch was wearing the right clothes for this momentous occasion. Basically the entire time I’ve owned it, it’s been naked, in the quick-release configuration. That’s where you remove the stock straps and use a Velcro quick release band:

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Yes my friends, that is thousands and thousands of miles of usage on that beautiful fully now yellowed band:

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But I felt that was a bit underdressed for the date at hand. So, I went digging in the plastic container full of Garmin strap parts to see if I could find the Forerunner 305’s original straps:

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Sure enough, I found a pile of them. I assume mine, The Girl’s, and a few others that I must have bought as spares at some point. I also found that I had even put all the pieces in a tidy plastic baggie with the special screwdriver and four unknown screws:

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Holy crap, I used to be this organized?

Huh. Noted.

On The Run:

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With everything synced up and properly dressed, I stuck the Forerunner 305 outside for about 30 minutes, with GPS on and recording – as a throwaway activity. GPS device devices typically do best once they’ve had a chance to fully ‘soak’ based on the current GPS information. In fact, that was actually the underlying issue with everyone’s dorked up GPS tracks last week, because that underlying information wasn’t there or incorrect. And since the Forerunner 305 predates the current era of watches downloading that information from online servers, I gave it a bit of time to get itself up to date – just as a first run would normally take care of.

While that was happening, I decided on its running mate. Obviously I had to compare it against something. From a price standpoint, that’d be something like the Forerunner 245 ($ 299) or 745 ($ 499), which are the closest latest generation Forerunner series watches to what Garmin offered the Forerunner 305 at ($ 399). But, the Forerunner 305 was Garmin’s top of the line unit. After the Forerunner 305 came the FR310XT, then the FR910XT, then the FR920, then the FR935, and finally now the FR945. The correct direct lineage of that watch is indeed the Forerunner 945, at nearly double the price these days of $ 599 – albeit with a gazillion features you’ll probably never use.

So, out on today’s test would be the Forerunner 305 vs the Forerunner 945. And for some bipartisan comparison data, the Polar Grit X and an Apple Watch SE. Just to make this foursome as awkward as possible. Oh, and actually, playing odd man out I even had the Nurvv running insoles with GPS pods attached. With that, let’s start running.

Oh..wait, you wanted to hear that little chirp of a starting sound? Fear not, you can – just hit play on the video at the top. It’ll bring you back to more peaceful times. Or, I suppose, bring you back to when you had to stand outside in the cold for 5 minutes for GPS signal. Also, totally unrelated, did you know you could actually add in a weight vest if you wanted to?

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Totally unrelated moment aside, GPS acquisition was reasonably quick. With having got my current location about 45 minutes prior, it took only about a 10-15 seconds for it to find GPS signal. It took the Forerunner 945 about 2-3 seconds.

As I started running it showed a pretty steady pace relatively quickly.I needed to pair it up to an ANT+ chest strap for heart rate, since this lacked an optical HR sensor. I was curious if that would work or not, given that the newer Garmin HRM-PRO that I was using (like most ANT+ devices released in the last decade or so) uses new longer ANT+ ID’s that the Forerunner 305 doesn’t know about. In theory, the ANT+ spec is supposed to let this work nonetheless by truncating the ID a bit. But in practice…not so much.

So dug back in another chest strap bin for a much older chest strap – one of the ‘classic’ Garmin chest straps that was included with watches back in the day:

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And sure enough, that paired up just fine.

Ok, back to pressing the big top start/stop button and starting my run:

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While I had started my run with 4 out of 4 battery chunks (there’s no exact percentages), I didn’t really know how long that’d last in real-life. After all, who knows how well this battery would hold up. The earlier 30 or so minute GPS soak test burned one bar before I refilled it, but who’s to say how accurate that was.

Into the forest I went. My routes would be a variant of one of my main test routes, which includes some forested sections, wide open areas, buildings, significant bridge to go under, the running track, and the stadium. And a few other things tossed in for good measure.

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Now, one downside to this watch is that Garmin apparently treated the display with a mirror – I forgot how miserable this was to take photos of. It reflected everything and anything back at the camera. Using a GoPro certainly didn’t help the situation.

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However, for my own eyes, it was silly easy to see. Everything was just as crisp as I needed it to be, equally as visible as the Garmin FR945. Interestingly, my data pages were exactly as I left them. The Garmin FR305 allowed you to configure two different data pages, plus different configurations per sport…of which there were three sports in total: Running, Cycling, and ‘Other’. This was well before Garmin ever tracked swimming of any sort.

I had it setup for AutoLap, the same as all my other watches – configured for mile splits. And on the first two miles, it perfectly nailed the splits exactly the same second as the FR945.

Later, after the bridges, stadium, and track, there was a few seconds difference between them – which is to be expected as the units differ in the GPS tracks they recorded. I had no issues hearing the chirp from the watch, or changing data pages by using the up/down buttons.

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One of the most obvious differences was the lack of pace stability on the FR305 compared to the FR945. The FR945 was silky smooth as my running pace was smooth and constant. Whereas the FR305 was basically a drunk uncle shouting random numbers half the time.  In fact, you can see this difference looking at Garmin Connect later on:

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Compared to the FR305:

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I rounded back into the finish area at just prior to 40 minutes, hitting about 5mi/8km. Nothing crazy…mostly cause I had no idea how long this battery would last, and didn’t really want it to die mid-run on this chilly day. You can see 5.11mi on the FR305, and 5.13mi on the FR945.

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One interesting note is that when you finish/end a run on the FR305, you just hold down the lap button until it resets the timer. The button is literally labeled ‘Reset’. There’s no summary screen or anything else. You’re just hoping that it does what you want and saves it. And as it did many hundreds of times before, it did exactly that: Saved my workout – ready to upload.

I then plugged it into the cradle, and a few seconds later Garmin Express synced the workout to Garmin Connect. A second or two after that I even got the notification that it was live on Strava.

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Here it is up on Garmin Connect:

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You can look at the full file if you’d like to on Garmin Connect. Here’s the FR305 link, and the FR945 link.

With that – let’s dig into the files a bit.

Accuracy Check:

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No DCR comparison post would be complete without some GPS accuracy testing. And I’m here to deliver. On this run I had the following gizmos:

– Garmin Forerunner 305
– Garmin Forerunner 945
– Apple Watch SE
– Polar Grit X
– NURVV Running Insoles (has GPS pods too!)
– Garmin Classic HR Strap (lower chest)
– Garmin HRM-PRO Strap (upper chest)
– Whoop sensor (upper arm)

There’s no reason to compare the heart rate data here, I just had that for the heck of it. We’re here for the GPS data only, and at a high level the distances were reasonable close:

FR305: 8.25km
FR945: 8.22km
Polar Grit X: 8.15km
NURVV GPS: 8.24km
Apple Watch SE: I somehow effed up initial start point

So, let’s look at the actual track data itself, and at a high level – things look pretty close:

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Now, for the purposes of keeping things simple on this post, I’m just gonna show the FR945 vs FR305. But if you want to look at the complete data comparison, you can simply load up the set data here in the DCR Analyzer.

For the initial portion on the path with barren trees around me, the two units were pretty close and basically a wash. At times the FR305 was off in the bush, but other times the FR945 was slightly offset a couple meters of the small 1-2m wide path.

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However, as the trees became slightly more dense (or rather, taller), you could see the FR305 falter a bit more on the turns. We’re not talking more than a meter or three, but it seemed unsure of itself at times. To the casual observer, you’d probably never notice, but compared to where I actually ran and as someone that does this daily, it’s barely visible.

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However, the FR305 quickly made up for any errors when the FR945 got distracted playing in traffic. In a rare move for it, it was out in the main boulevard, well into incoming traffic and approaching helicopters for the hospital. The FR305 stayed the course and on the bike and pedestrian paths where I was actually running.

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However, as I went under the massive span of bridges for the highway and numerous rail lines, the FR945 snapped back into place, and the FR305 took it’s turn at doing some wiggles. Nothing major, but not as crispy as I usually see here.

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Next we had some loops around the stadium, which I did both clockwise and counterclockwise to ensure both sides of my body had fair representation. You can see how the FR305 on the lower left side differs the path slightly (despite me running the exact same channel both directions), whereas the FR945 locks in place.

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Similarly, my little test island to the left there, which has zero tolerance for being off track, the FR305 was very good, but a bit slopping going across the bridge. Kinda like a typical Amsterdam tourist with too much to drink (or smoke) that evening. Hardly an offence to flag as major, but barely visible.

Meanwhile, for the running track, the FR945 was *NOT* in track mode (which would have easily given it the win). Instead, it was in regular GPS+GLONASS mode. However, annoyingly, during the last reset of it I didn’t re-enable 1-second recording, so you see that most obviously on the track where it doesn’t have as many update points, and is slightly off on the curves. Seriously Garmin: 15 years later and that’s still not the default option? Every other company defaults to 1-second recording rate now for this very reason.

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Meanwhile, the FR305 appears to think it got a software update with the newfound track mode, because it almost perfectly nailed the lane I was in. Seriously, I don’t think I’ve seen a non track-mode GPS nail it this closely before. Granted, only two loops worth, but man…talk about a lucky twofer.

Finally, on this last straightaway under the trees, the FR305 was straight – but slightly away and offset. The FR945 was properly on-point here. Again, we’re only talking a couple meters, but hey…that’s the name of the game.

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Still, from an accuracy standpoint, this is nothing to be ashamed of. It easily bests the Fitbit Sense that I tested this past fall, especially in the bridges. It also beats the accuracy of the Wahoo RIVAL. Which isn’t to say it’s a better watch than those two. Those two have numerous other features that most people probably value above spot-on accuracy, such as phone integration or other sensor data. Or maybe just simple activity tracking.

Further, while this was a reasonable test – it was just a one-off. As any long-time GPS watch owner knows, it’s multiple outings that matter. A core reason why in full in-depth reviews there’s often weeks or months of data points. Nonetheless, it’s hard to be upset at these results.

(Note: All of the charts in these accuracy portions 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 for your own gadget comparisons, more details here.)

Wrap-Up:

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About a decade ago, I was talking to a then Garmin employee about the Forerunner 305’s longevity as a product, and he joked that “seriously, these things just don’t die”. The joke was is in reference to at the time their biggest competitor was their own products lasting forever. And, as it’d turn out – that’s still true with the Forerunner 305. Of course, the FR035 has a distinct advantage in the battery drain department compared to today’s watches: It was only worn during workouts. Whereas your watch today you wear 24×7 and charge weekly or so, thus the battery wear/tear is astronomically higher. But even then, the vast majority of people never end up actually ‘killing’ their GPS watch or have it die entirely – instead, they just upgrade for newer features or increased capabilities.

As for the accuracy. No, it’s not quite as good as we all remember. Despite having a gigantic satellite antenna on the entire bottom half of the watch, the GPS chipset lacks many of advancements you’d expect over the course of 15 years. In fact, you may remember my post back a while ago where I pulled up all my NYC Central Park runs over many years to see how GPS accuracy faired with various devices. As we saw there – indeed, despite our occasional run aggravations with GPS devices today, the reality is accuracy is far better now than back then (especially in tricky situations like tall buildings).

Still – there’s something about running with the FR305 that just feels right. I can literally say ‘back in the old days’, and be totally correct. As if I’m talking about Betamax tapes or such. All the quirks of old technology slowly fades in our memory, from having to deal with the FR305 charging ports that constantly needed cleaning using an eraser to keep the contacts clean, to the fact that it simply wasn’t even waterproof like a $ 15 Walmart watch. All forgotten with the winds of time.

But ya know what’s most important? It properly showed up on Strava as a run with a Forerunner 305. No kidding – go check it out!

With that – thanks for reading!

Product Reviews – DC Rainmaker

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