Motorola MOTOACTV 8GB Review

posted in: Cycling News | 2

motoactive-wristI have been using the Motorola MOTOACTV (8GB) for about a year now. I wanted to give it a thorough testing before I put my thoughts together for a review. It’s a handy and unique device that excels in some areas and fails in others. I give it 3.5 stars out of 5. Bottom line, it’s great for running and it works fine for a multitude of other activities. I cannot recommend it if you are only looking to use it on your bike.

Over the last year I’ve logged over 1000 miles on the bike and over 40 miles running. I’ve used it inside, outside, at the gym, with a heart rate monitor, synced it to my phone, in races, on trail runs, as a watch, with bluetooth headphones, on centuries, mountain biking, skiing, and hiking. I even took it with me mini golfing once (I really don’t think the golf mode was designed with this in mind). There are a ton of great reviews online already detailing each screen and feature so I won’t go over much of that. Instead of the normal pros and cons sections, I’m going to break it down by activity.

Cycling

motoactv-bike-mountMy unit came with the handlebar mount for my bike. It wraps around the stem very easily and securely. It takes only a few seconds to switch between bikes. My commuter bike has a quill style stem which is a little on the skinny side to fit correctly. It worked better around the handlebar on that bike. One of the nice things about the ACTV is it’s square and you can slide it into the mount from any direction. No matter how the mount is oriented, you can easily turn the unit 90 degrees so the display is oriented correctly towards you. I did not get the Motorola brand cadence/speed sensor. I almost bought it, but the Garmin sensor was about $10 cheaper. They are both ANT+ so it worked without any problem. The same went for the heart rate monitor, the Garmin was about $10 less.

garmin-ant+speed-cadence-sensorWhen you start a cycling workout and choose the outdoors setting, it pulls your speed and distance from GPS whenever possible. The advantage of this is you don’t need the sensor to start using it on your bike. You won’t get cadence (or power if you have a power meter), but if you already have a bike computer you can use the MOTOACTV for the GPS, workout log, and music. As an ANT+ head unit, it has most everything you need. You can display up to 6 metrics at once including duration, speed, distance, heart rate, cadence, calories, power. You can also view a map of where you are and the route you took during a workout. The screen is so small though that the map is really difficult to use. You can set it to pause automatically when you stop and resume when you get going again. You can do time splits and even pre-program structured workouts which will give you coaching cues if you have headphones connected. This worked pretty well for interval training and there are a number of Carmichael designed training plans to use if you want. The MOTOACTV site has a route mapping tool, but no support to import/export with other sites like MapMyRide or Strava. The mapping tool didn’t really make much sense because you can’t add a route to a planned workout and get turn by turn directions, a feature I would love to see added in a future software update. MOTOACTV now allows you to export your workout data to TCX, so you can add it Strava.

bluetooth-headphones
The major advantage the MOTOACTV has over other devices is the built in MP3 player. Adding music and playlists were a breeze. You can control volume, pause/play, and next song without going into the music screen. If you plan on using this feature, splurge and get some bluetooth headphones. A cord dangling between you and your handlebars gets a little annoying. Plus, the headphone jack cover isn’t attached to the device and I can’t believe I haven’t lost it yet. Motorola has some software to analyze your workout identify which songs helped you ramp up your effort level. It worked okay but it’s not intuitive to set up and it’s a little gimmicky. The more you use it, the better it’s supposed to get. It doesn’t really work for interval training. It would be better if it automatically bounced between a rest playlist and a sprint playlist. I got a pair of Novero bluetooth headphones and connection was painless.

The major disadvantage and the primary reason I wouldn’t recommend it for cycling only is the battery life. Using all of the battery saving methods, you can barely squeak by and put in a century. That’s setting it up with data sampling every 3 seconds, turning the screen off automatically after a few seconds, auto-pausing, and the brightness turned down to the lowest setting. That gives you GPS and the speed/cadence sensor. You’ll probably run out of battery if you add heart rate monitor, power meter, music, or link it to your smartphone. Turning off the GPS will greatly extend the battery life, but you miss out on one of the major selling points. I found turning the screen off saves the most battery. You’re hopefully not looking down constantly at your stats, but it is a little annoying to have to push the button to get the screen back on. There are a number of programming changes that Motorola could make and push out an update to improve battery life. If they ever do, I’d be willing to reconsider my judgement. Riding with full fingered gloves provides a few frustrations with the touch screen as well.

The 8GB version retails for $260. Garmin offers the Edge 500 for $250 and the Edge 200 for $130, both use GPS and are great options. If you really want the music, use your phone or a small mp3 player. The additional benefit of this is you can run the wire under your jersey to keep it out of the way saving you the cost (and battery limits) of bluetooth headphones.

Running

garmin-heart-rate-ant+The MOTOACTV is the best single device I’ve seen for running. Garmin has 3 options at this price (or lower) which I have never used, but none of them offer music. Sure you can use your smartphone and get GPS, tracking, coaching cues, and music. You can even buy a bluetooth heart rate monitor to hook up to your phone. But, where are you going to put the phone when you run? They make armbands, but they are binding, slide down your arm, and you can’t see the data it is recording while you are running. The MOTOACTV does it all and puts it on your wrist.

wrist-strap-accessory-motoactv
On your wrist, the MOTOACTV is a little odd. Square watches aren’t too common and it looks a little over-sized on my wrist. The size is comparable to the Garmin and Suunto options, maybe just a tad smaller. I really dodn’t care though since I’m not looking to make a fashion statement. The display gives what you’d expect and is similar to the cycling workout. Instead of cadence or power you get pace, which was most useful to me.

Again, I feel the wireless headphones are a must. You can get away with wired in cold weather if are you’re wearing long sleeves and run the wire under your shirt and down your arm. Otherwise, wireless is the way to go. Motorola sells an armband, but my biggest contention with that is it’s hard to read while running without stopping. When the product was first launched, Motorola offered a pair of bluetooth headphones with a built in heart rate monitor. They were earbud style so presumably measured your heart rate in your ear canal. These headphones were only on the market for a couple months and I heard they were plagued with problems. That was about 18 months ago and there has been no word on if they will ever see the light of day again. If they work out the bugs and offer them up again, it would be a killer combo and really make the MOTOACTV shine. Music, GPS, and heart rate with nothing more than a watch and some earbuds. No wires, no straps, no armbands makes running simple and the way it should be while still getting all the cool technology benefits. Garmin also makes an ANT+ foot sensor which should work with this device too, but I have not tried it.

Battery life is still a concern, but not as much. I’ll often go for rides lasting 3-4 hours, but my run workouts rarely exceed 70 minutes. I’m not a distance runner and the most I was training for was a 10k distance. Ultra-marathoners may be cutting it close if you have heart rate and music going. Turning off the screen will help get the most out of the battery.

Triathlon

It’s great for running and it works fine on the bike. The device slips out of the wrist strap, into the bike mount, and back onto the wrist strap with ease. You wouldn’t lose any time in transition switching it back and forth if you really wanted the unit on your handlebars during the bike. If the unit was fully waterproof, it would give Garmin stiff competition in the triathlon market, especially on the training side where music helps get through a lot of solo miles. It’s not. Not even close, so it’s a deal breaker. I did use it for an Xterra triathlon race last summer, but I didn’t put it on or hit start until I got into the first transition. I had no idea what my swim split was until the organizers posted the results.

On the Slopes/Trails

I took the MOTOACTV skiing at Eldora one day. I didn’t find it offered much data of interest. I was hoping the autolap option would lap each run, but it just started a new lap every mile traveled instead. Full fingered gloves added a limitation on that day as well. You can’t use the touchscreen and the physical buttons are hard to use with ski gloves. Really cold fingers don’t work with touch screens too well either.

I tested the MOTOACTV hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park and trail running in the foothills of Boulder. My big complaint here is I lost GPS signal frequently and for long periods of time. I didn’t have that problem on flatter terrain or even riding in the mountains. I’ve used other GPS units in mountain terrain and under heavy tree coverage. Losing a signal comes with the territory. I tried keeping the unit on my wrist and also using the clip accessory on the top of my pack. The MOTOACTV was particularly ill equipped in this regard, losing the signal for 20 minutes at a time or more. GPS uses up battery life. Searching for a GPS signal gobbles it up even faster.

Where the Motorola MOTOACV Succeeds:

  • Syncs workout data via WiFi, no need to connect to computer
  • Running
  • Music, GPS, heart rate all in one small unit
  • Connects with sensors flawlessly
  • ANT+ and Bluetooth standards
  • Universal microsd charging port

Areas for Improvement:

  • Battery life
  • Waterproofing
  • Link routing to workout and give turn by turn directions
  • The user interface of the online workout planner can be frustrating
  • GPS signal on mountain trails
  • Allow battery saving settings to change mid-workout

Disclosure: I received a complementary unit and some accessories from Motorola. My opinions of the MOTOACTV were unchanged by this generous offer.