Have you heard of Coros sports watches?
If you take a quick look at the wrists of runners you’ll no doubt see the majority of them wearing some type of Garmin sports watch. There may be some Suunto and Polar in there, but that is about it in terms of “serious” devices specifically designed with running and other sports in mind. Well now there is another brand to consider – Coros. Here I take a look at the Apex Pro.
Based in the United States, Coros launched their first sports watch in 2018 and have continued to expand their range. The Apex Pro was launched in September 2019.
This review isn’t intended to look at every single function of the watch, (the Coros website has lots of info and videos) rather I’ll talk about it from a trail / fell / mountain runner’s point of view discussing what I think are the useful features and my experience of using it. I’ll also discuss anything that could be improved to make my experience of using the watch better.
Straight away Coros make a good impression with their packaging; a box in a box in a box like some elegant Russian doll! I’ve been using the Garmin Fenix 3 for the past three years and whilst it would be unfair to Garmin to compare it like for like, when I saw the Apex Pro it did make me realise just how heavy and bulky my Fenix is! At 58g (on my scales) with an outer diameter of 46mm the Apex Pro feels sleek and the Titanium Alloy bezel and Sapphire glass screen give the impression of a quality product.
The other thing I immediately noticed was that the watch only has three buttons. One is solely for the backlight, one is the lap, back and settings button whilst the larger knurled knob is used to start and stop recording and to scroll through the screen displays.
In order to get the most from your watch you need to first download the (free) Coros app. Most of the settings on the watch are controlled via the app so you need an up to date smartphone with sufficient storage to download it. If you don’t you won’t be able to adjust any settings or see details of your activities. This probably isn’t a problem for the tech savvy generation but it might not suit everyone. You also need the app in order to upload your activities onto Strava or similar platforms. Once you’ve finished an activity the watch will upload the details to the app as soon as the app is opened (the watch needs to be in close proximity of your phone with Bluetooth turned on). You can enable integration with 3rd party platforms such as Strava and Training Peaks so that your data automatically uploads to these too. Note that unlike Garmin Connect there is no website on which to review your data, everything is on the phone app. The app allows you to dig into the details of your activity with various graphs showing your data.
Immediately after finishing an activity the details appear on the watch screen and you can look more closely at your data but oddly this display disappears after a couple of minutes. If you want to see the information again you can view it by going into AI Trainer in the settings on the watch. It isn’t very intuitive but once you know where to look it’s fairly straightforward to view your history.
If you use a 3rd party platform that isn’t supported by automatic integration you can manually upload your files. You could even upload data recorded on your Coros watch to Garmin Connect if you’d got really used to that platform and didn’t want to leave. However, unfortunately you can’t plug the Apex Pro into your computer and access the files as if it were a mass storage device. The computer recognises the watch and sees the folders… but they are empty! So rather than being able to export / import mass files you need to go to the app and export each activity one at a time as a .fit or .tcx file then import them to your preferred platform. Again I think this is a bit disappointing, meaning that you are very reliant on the app.
As with other platforms such as Strava and Garmin Connect, the Coros app acts as a training diary showing all of the activities that you have recorded with the watch. Over time the Apex Pro records your training and ascertains your fitness levels which are then displayed on the app. I’m not sure how it does this or how accurate it is; it shows my Lactate Threshold pace and heart rate to be what I think is reasonably accurate, my VO2Max is shown as Superior even for someone twenty years younger (must be correct!) yet my Fitness Level is only in the mid range for a recreational athlete. I generally treat these things with some scepticism, race results are a better indication of fitness than numbers on a watch!
The app is very good at some things though. There are over twenty activities to choose from (anyone for speedsurfing?) and for each one you can customise your data screens. You can have up to six screens, each one displaying up to six data fields – that’s thirty six different bits of information at your finger tips whilst you run! I find that four data fields per screen is plenty, any more and it’s hard to see at a glance whilst running. On the app you simply select which data to display and press save. This automatically syncs to your watch.
Despite all this choice there are some things I think could be improved. For example, heart rate can only be shown as beats per minute. I prefer to use percentage of maximum heart rate so glancing at my watch and seeing 169 bpm means much less to me than 94% max. I don’t want to be trying to do mental arithmetic whilst wondering if I should slow down on my threshold run! For interval training, Last Lap time, pace and speed can all be added but no Last Lap distance. This is a useful metric to have when mountain running or hiking to assist with navigating so I’m surprised that it isn’t an option. It is certainly more useful to me than stride rate or stamina which are options.
Personally I feel that most runners overlook many of the features of their watches. It seems that recording time, distance and elevation and then uploading to Strava are the only functions that many people need! However, modern sports watches have features that can help you train more effectively and the Apex Pro is no exception. Take workouts for example, the app allows you to easily design training sessions and upload them to your watch. These workouts can be as simple as time or distance of the effort and recovery or more complex with heart rate, pace, cadence or even power zones set. It’s quite straightforward to design these sessions on the app and then sync to the watch. Then when you want to do the training session it’s just a matter of selecting the workout on the watch and pressing start. The watch will beep as you approach the end of each section of the workout and then vibrate as you hit the required time or distance. If you have set certain zones for pace, heart rate etc then the watch will beep if you fall out of the zones prompting you to speed up or slow down. The image below shows how a workout can be designed using time, heart rate and pace.
designing a workout on the app
You can also use the app to upload a training plan to your watch so that you know exactly what run to do each day. This could be one you’ve designed yourself or that a coach has created for you or one of several training plans that you can freely download from the Coros website. This doesn’t just include running, there are lots of strength exercises available too and the app shows a Muscle Heatmap to help you target and record your training of specific muscle groups!
Apex Pro in use:
I’ve spent six weeks testing out the Apex Pro, getting strange looks for wearing a watch on each wrist in order to compare performance with my current watch. I found that Apex Pro was very quick to pick up satellites, in over 30 runs I have never had to wait more than 30 seconds for the watch to acquire a signal. The Apex Pro usually recorded slightly less distance than my Fenix but every so often it recorded slightly more! There didn’t seem to be any pattern to this and it’s difficult to know which watch was correct. I used the Apex Pro in GPS + GLONASS setting.
The Coros also consistently recorded more elevation gain than the Garmin, again hard to know which one to believe but out on the hill the Coros more accurately matched the elevation on the map and didn’t need re-calibrating unlike my Garmin. The Apex Pro has both GPS and barometric altitude sensors.
One of the first things to get to grips with is that rather than pressing buttons, the various display screens are accessed by twisting the knurled knob rather like winding up an old wrist watch (youngsters ask your grandad!) I found this a bit strange at first but soon got used to it. It isn’t too difficult to do with gloved hands either as you can scroll with one finger rather than needing to grip the knob between finger and thumb.
However, if you are recording an activity then you don’t need to rely on twisting the knob, the watch face can be used as a touchscreen so you simply swipe up or down (see video below) You can turn this feature on or off in the settings. I think that is a great idea as it is much easier than trying to twist or push buttons, especially whilst you are running fast. Similarly in Navigation Mode, touchscreen allows you to pan and zoom in order to see the route.
A great feature is that you can choose to have the buttons on either the left or right side of the watch. Basically the watch inverts the display so you put it on upside down. The straps can easily be removed without tools and swapped round if you don’t want to have to buckle it the wrong way round. This is really useful for people who want to wear the watch on the right wrist but want the buttons on the left. I like it because by wearing it on my left wrist but with the buttons on the left it prevents accidentally stopping the watch when you bend your wrist back. I’ve done this numerous times with other watches, usually when scrambling down rocks or climbing over gates etc and it is really annoying, especially if you don’t realise you’ve stopped your watch!
The Apex Pro has a wrist based optical heart rate sensor. I record heart rate on most of my runs and I’m not a fan of wrist based sensors. Not only are they known to be less accurate and reliable than a chest strap they rely on being in contact with your skin. If I am wearing a long sleeved top or jacket I wear my watch over the top so that I can see my watch at a glance. I don’t want to be digging down under layers of clothing to see how far I’ve gone! This isn’t a criticism of the Coros, the same applies for any brand using a wrist based sensor. There is a simple fix as the Apex Pro can be paired with any Ant+ heart rate strap so I just paired mine with my Garmin Run chest strap. So, not a problem but it is extra cost on top of an already expensive watch. The sensor on the back of the watch is almost flush with the case and doesn’t protrude or add thickness unlike early version optical sensors on other brands of watch.
Also using the optical sensor the Apex Pro has a Pulse Oximeter. This measures your blood oxygen saturation levels, the idea being that it can alert you if these are becoming dangerously low. Designed with high altitude athletes in mind I’m not sure how useful it is for your average user. It has the same issues as the heart rate sensor in that it needs to be worn next to the skin and won’t work if you are too dark skinned, hairy or bony! I have only managed to get it to take a reading once and that was in the comfort of my house, not 3000m up a mountain! It might be a selling point for a small number of people but it is certainly surplus to requirements for your everyday athlete.
Something that I hadn’t come across in a watch before was Running Power. The Apex Pro uses inbuilt accelerometers, GPS and gyroscopic sensors and scientific wizardry to determine how many watts you are producing whilst running. For most recreational runners this is meaningless but for the more technically inclined it might be a metric to use in structured training or racing. I’m not knowledgeable enough to understand how a wrist based sensor can measure how much force your feet are putting through the ground but suffice to say the watch can tell the difference between fast strides and hill sprints! If you can build up a picture of your various power readings at different intensities it might be more useful than training by pace or heart rate.
The Apex Pro doesn’t have the capability to display maps, any routes are shown as a simple breadcrumb trail. That isn’t an issue for me, I’d much prefer to navigate using a paper map and not have to rely on a map on a tiny screen. Loading and following routes on the watch is very straightforward, you simply import a GPX file to the app and sync it to the watch. To follow the route you just select it on the watch and press start. The watch displays the route and your current position and also shows the route’s elevation profile. You can also see how far you have left to go. If you deviate from the route the watch beeps a warning that you are off route. I found that the warning kicked in once I was about 30 metres off course. In this mode the watch enables touch screen which allows you to move around and zoom in and out of the route displayed on the screen. As with other watches the Apex Pro has a “back to start” feature that enables you to follow a breadcrumb trail back to where you started. This will work in any mode, not just if you are following a route.
Multi day racers might like the Resume Later feature on the Apex Pro. When you finish an activity you have the option of Finishing by saving it (a 2 second press of the main button) or resuming later. This allows you to continue the activity several hours later or even the next day. So you would end up with one long activity rather than different activities that you would need to look at separately.
The thing I really like about the Apex Pro is its battery life. It is way better than any other watch I’ve seen. After fully charging it I ran every day whilst recording runs with either optical or chest strap heart rate enabled. It wasn’t until the 12th day that the low battery warning came on. Charging is quick and straightforward, back to fully charged in two hours. Although I haven’t tested it on one long continuous run I’m confident that it would easily last 24 hours (Coros claim around 40 hours in normal recording mode) so ideal for your Bob Graham Round! For anyone thinking of doing ultra ultras you can switch to Ultra Max mode which conserves battery life by reducing the number of GPX fixes it plots.
Another neat feature is that the backlight automatically illuminates when you turn your wrist but only between the hours of sunset and sunrise. Basically the watch knows when it’s dark and senses when you are looking at the watch face so illuminates it! I found this really useful when night running as it means I don’t need to look directly at the watch to illuminate it with my head torch in order to read it. You can also set the backlight to automatically stay on during a workout. Both these features can be turned off if you don’t like them.
My only real disappointment with the Apex Pro is that it doesn’t show a British grid reference (BNG). This would be a deal breaker for me if I was choosing a top of the range watch. If I am running or walking in mountains or remote locations then having access to an accurate grid reference is vital. When I ran the Charlie Ramsay Round I spent hours alone in the Scottish mountains in the dark. I had the peace of mind of knowing that my watch could give me a very accurate grid reference at the touch of a button should I need it. Not only would this be an extremely useful feature to aid with navigation, it is also a vital safety feature should you become lost or need to pass your location on to rescue services. Whilst it is possible to get a latitude and longitude position from the watch that won’t help you locate yourself on a map and it requires digging around in the watch settings, definitely not something you want to be doing whilst lying hypothermic on a hillside! My old Garmin Forerunner 305 that I owned 8 years ago gave a 10 figure grid reference so hopefully this is something that Coros can fix with a firmware update.
RRP – £449.99
This compares favourably with the similar specced Garmin Fenix 6 Sapphire at £529.99 and Suunto 9 Baro at £539
The Coros Apex Pro is a very good sports watch suited to recreational and professional runners alike. It is packed with features and offers tremendous battery life. Light, sleek and with quality materials yet costing less than other top of the range watches, it is a genuine alternative to the more established brands.
Being critical, I think it is a little too reliant on the app and whilst it boasts features that only a small number of users would realistically use it lacks a few features that would be really useful for many people. In order to be seen as a serious rival to the likes of Garmin and Suunto for people heading into the mountains, it needs to offer a British grid reference function. Hopefully future firmware updates can fix these issues.
Don’t be surprised if you start to see the Apex Pro appearing on more runners’ wrists soon!