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Huawei finds its niche with the sporty Watch GT Runner

By focusing on a specific niche, Huawei may have found an audience for its latest smartwatch, the Watch GT Runner. It’s a spinoff of Huawei’s classier Watch GT 3 smartwatch, but as the new watch’s name suggests, it’s targeted squarely at runners.

It’s a technically impressive bit of hardware, and the software is very good, so when you consider it as an alternative to other running watches, the Huawei idiosyncrasies that frustrate on the Watch GT 3 become less of a problem here. I’ve been trying it out and here are my thoughts.

A light touch

The Huawei Watch GT Runner is light — just 51 grams with the very flexible silicone strap — and that makes it comfortable to wear all day. The 46mm case is quite big, but at 11mm thick, it never feels that ungainly. For comparison, the new 47mm Garmin Fenix 7 weighs 79 grams and is nearly 15mm thick. The lightness comes from the polymer fiber case, which is given some visual appeal with a ceramic bezel and titanium crown. It’s also worth noting the huge amount of adjustment on the strap that allows it to be worn both under and over clothing.

The Huawei Watch GT Runner watch on a man's wrist.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The end result is that the Watch GT Runner is more watch-like than many activity smartwatches or fitness trackers. It’s definitely sporty, and it’s not as classy or expensive-looking as the Watch GT 3, but it sits comfortably on your wrist and doesn’t look out of place when you’re not wearing sporty clothes. It means you can wear it all the time and people won’t look at it and think you must run absolutely everywhere.

A view of the Huawei Watch GT Runner from the side.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

It’s still an unusual design, though, and it’s all due to the polymer fiber lugs. That’s because Huawei has taken the GPS antenna out of the smartwatch’s case and placed it inside them, making for what Huawei calls the “industry’s first suspended hidden antenna.” The new design should mean more accurate positioning with less interference, and Huawei says it improves performance by 135% over antennas inside metal structures. The Watch GT Runner also uses a dual-band receiver and the Global Navigation Satellite System for location tracking.

GPS tracking

To find out if the GT Runner’s new GPS antenna system makes a notable difference, I tracked several different activities with it, the Apple Watch Series 7, and the Huawei Watch GT 3. First, I put it up against the Apple Watch connected to an iPhone 13 Pro, with the Watch GT Runner linked to the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. I tracked a 40-minute walk with both at the same time.

Huawei Health app map comparison.
Huawei Health (right) and Apple Fitness apps. Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Looking at the map from both phones, the route is broadly the same, but when you zoom in, the Watch GT Runner’s map shows where I repeated the route and crossed over several times. The Apple Watch either didn’t capture this, or the Fitness app doesn’t feel the need to show it. Either way, there’s absolutely more — and more accurate — detail in the Watch GT Runner’s map. It really does look like the exact route I took, practically down to the meter.

Regarding the health data collected, the pair match on average heart rate and distance, but differ on elevation gain. The Apple Fitness app reports an 86 feet of elevation gain, while the Huawei Health app shows a 144 feet. Huawei Health certainly provides plenty of data for you to absorb, including average speed, stride, and cadence, along with VO2 Max data, a comprehensive heart rate chart, and a recovery time. Apple’s Fitness app is more basic.

Tracking and speed

Tracking the same route using only the GPS systems in each smartwatch made no difference to the results, with both neatly plotting the route I took. Again, the elevation gain differed, and Huawei Health’s map showed more detail. Swapping the Apple Watch for the Huawei Watch GT 3, the map recorded was slightly different, the Watch GT 3 shows various movements that I don’t remember making, and it finishes at a different — and inaccurate — point compared to the GT Runner.

If the GPS antenna in the GT Runner does offer a speed advantage when connecting, it’s barely noticeable. It’s a beat or two faster than the already lightning-fast Watch GT 3, and because the Apple Watch doesn’t make a fuss about connecting and doesn’t provide signal details at all, it’s impossible to compare speeds and connection stability. But based on the maps both apps show, there doesn’t appear to be any serious concerns about either.

I really like the detailed maps provided by the Watch GT Runner, the GPS connection seems to be rock solid, and there’s masses of data to absorb, too. It’s more in-depth than the Apple Watch’s tracking, but still presented in a digestible fashion, unlike some of the data in Garmin’s Connect health app. It appears to be more accurate than the Watch GT 3 as well. The Watch GT Runner’s new external GPS antenna deserves the hype.

Data-intensive

Is the GPS the only attraction for runners, walkers, and hikers? No, the Watch GT Runner has a barometer and compass, along with a selection of interesting additional features. These include a route back system that shows you how to get back to where you started even if you lose the GPS signal, a redesigned case back for improved heart rate monitoring, and data on blood oxygen, skin temperature, and stress.

The watch also offers a Lactate Threshold test and VO2Max data, can measure running performance, and has a dynamic running program that adapts to your ability and results. It’s not all about running either, as it can track more than 100 other activities including swimming.

Perhaps the biggest downside of the Watch GT Runner is that it doesn’t sync with all that many third-party apps.  If you use the smartwatch with iOS, it will connect to Apple’s HealthKit and share data, but on an Android phone, it does not sync with Google Fit. The only other sources listed in the Health app are Adidas Running and Komoot.

What about those idiosyncrasies?

If you own a non-Huawei Android phone that you want to link with the Watch GT Runner, you have to download the Huawei App Gallery and install Huawei Health from there, not from Google Play. It’s then a manual process to set up notifications and other required access. Huawei does provide instructions that are supposedly device -specific, but they are not precise and can lead to more confusion. It’s a frustrating out-of-the-box experience.

Huawei Watch GT Runner menu.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

However, smartwatches that don’t use Wear OS or WatchOS are all a bit of a pain, so pairing the Huawei Watch GT Runner compared to those isn’t really much different. It is different once you’re up and (if you’ll forgive the pun) running, as HarmonyOS 2.1 on the Watch GT Runner is slick and smooth, with big, clear menus and easy navigation using the twist crown and touchscreen. It’s a consumer-grade software experience on a niche activity watch, and that’s a big advantage compared to some of the fiddly, ugly systems used elsewhere.

You look at it on the same 1.43-inch OLED screen as the Watch GT 3, and its super-sharp 466 x 466-pixel resolution is far superior to almost all other running-focused smartwatches. I don’t mean to pick on it, but the Garmin Fenix 7 has a 1.3-inch, 260 x 260 pixel MIPS screen. The Watch GT Runner’s smart features are also excellent, it has received notifications reliably, has Bluetooth for wireless headphones, and is water-resistant to 5ATM.

Huawei Watch GT Runner case back.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The battery life is also good. I’ve worn the Watch GT Runner for six days, tracked four activities with GPS, had the always-on screen active, and the battery shows 48% remaining. It should easily pass Huawei’s estimated eight days of heavy use before needing a recharge, and possibly get close to its total 14 days of expected use.

Worth buying?

If you’re looking at a fitness-focused, multi-sport smartwatch, then the Huawei Watch GT Runner makes good sense. It’s light and comfortable, the new GPS technology seems to work well and provide genuinely more accurate positioning, the software used to track your activities is comprehensive and easy to use, and the regular smartwatch features are far better and more user-friendly than on those the competition. It costs 299 euros, or about $335, making it a lot cheaper than many of the dedicated fitness watches from big names like Garmin and Suunto.

It’s a struggle to recommend the Watch GT 3 due to the awkward onboarding process, as it’s far behind the slick Apple Watch and Wear OS systems. However, the Watch GT Runner should not be considered a competitor to those — especially as the same issues all still remain. But as a running and exercise smartwatch up against other similar smartwatches, it more than competes if you can live without much third-party app integration.

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