Saturday, 26 May 2012

Finis Hydro Tracker - Review

After much umming and aahing about which measuring device to get, I finally settled on the Finis Hydro Tracker. I chose it over the Garmin 910xt, on the basis of cost (c. £100 for the Finis, against £350 for the Garmin), my concerns about the size of the Garmin and the impact that might have on my wrist, and finally, following very mixed reviews from swimmers I know and trust about the Garmin. So, the Finis Hydro Tracker it was.

The Hydro Tracker isn't yet available through European retailers (although I understand that this is going to happen soon), and so I had to order it directly from Finis in the US. They were impressively prompt and efficient in handling this, which was very reassuring. It's worth remembering, of course, that you have to pay import duty to bring it into the country (c. £30) which adds to the cost; there are, however, a few discount codes floating about which I didn't know about before I ordered but which would probably counterbalance the import duty if you can't wait for the European retail outlets to open up. But the important thing was that it arrived safe, sound and very speedily - so quickly in fact that the lakes where I swim still hadn't opened by the time I had it in my excited little hand.

Setting it up and getting going proved to be both straightfoward and complicated. You have to plug it in to your computer to charge, then download the software. Unfortunately, I had an outdated instruction leaflet in the box, which had a different name for the software, which I then spent quite a while looking for online. I eventually settled on the right software, but had a lot of trouble getting the Hydro Tracker to connect to it. A change of cable seemed to help, but I still find that it does not always hold the connection well and I get angry messages from my laptop chastising me for not disconnecting properly when I haven't even touched it. I should say that some direct and very supportive contact with Finis rectified the problem of the outdated insert very quickly. A second problem I encountered from the outset was that on my Mac, the battery level never rose above three out of the five boxes, so I was left wondering whether something was wrong with my Tracker and it was unable to take a full charge. However, when I loaded the software onto my PC laptop, it immediately showed a full five boxes for the battery level, so this is obviously a Mac / PC glitch. There are other differences between the two - on the Mac, the software prompts you to set the sampling level at every 6 seconds for swimming, but on the PC, it suggests setting it to every 4 secs. It also says 4 secs in the insert (new and old).

And one more word of warning (which is also in the Finis material) - after charging, make sure that you switch it off. It turns on when it's charging, so if you leave it like that after charging, when you come to use it, it will be flat or will run out of beans very quickly and not record anything. Some lessons, even when you've been warned, you have to learn the hard way. The documentation does, however, promise a 13+ hour battery life from fully charged when sampling every 6 secs, which I haven't tested, but is a very good length of time to be able to work with.

So now onto the good stuff.

Firstly, it's very easy to use as there are only two buttons and it has a limited range of functions. The button on the top powers it on or off. Once on, it will locate itself via GPS, signalling readiness with a green flashing light. Then, when you're ready to start, you hold the bottom button down for a couple of seconds, and it begins timing you and recording your movements. At first, it's hard to have confidence in it, and you tend to start it and then spend ages checking that the recording light is flashing; this is a little difficult in bright sunlight and involved lots of cupping of hands and cowering in corners. But once you've got confidence in it, you just push the button and you're away. I've finally got comfortable enough with it now to do this while it's clipped onto my goggle straps, just reaching up to the back of my head and holding the button down, then off I go. This saves the very frustrrating recording of the first 100m of your swim as having taken 5 minutes!

I was worried that it would be uncomfortable on the back of my head, especially since, like many women, I have a knot of hair that sits between goggle straps. But it sits there unnoticeably - so much so that on my first swim, I kept stopping to check that it was still in place.

When you finish, you just hold the bottom button down again for a couple of seconds, and then power it down. Back home, you plug it into your computer, open up the software, and upload the swim. You get overall time / distance, plus a breakdown of your swim in 100m bites, and then km chunks, organised into graphs so that you can see trends and patterns in your pace:

On the software page, If you hover the cursor over each bar, you get the specific time, plus the bars give you a sense of how steady (or in this case, slowly declining) your pace is. (Note the long first 100 metres while I faffed about with the Tracker). 

You can also get nice satellite maps of your swims. This first is from the swim at Swan Pool that was documented in the graphs above:

And this second is from today's 5km swim at Market Bosworth:

From these, we can conclude that I spend a lot of time going around in circles, and at Bosworth in particular, my sense of direction is sometimes a little eccentric. I would imagine that this mapping function is far more aesthetically pleasing for linear coastal swims or larger circuits than my local 700m round swim spots. But I like the look of these loosely wound wool.

At the moment, because I'm not really training in a focused way for anything, the Hydro Tracker is more novelty and fun than serious training tool. But it definitely has the potential to be useful in training - especially in terms of keeping track of pace and consistency over longer swims, or building in harder efforts. Obviously, it doesn't give you any feedback in the water, so you need to use other more conventional markers to structure sessions - for example, today, I worked on hard effort up the lake, and easy going back down, and this is then reflected in the graphs (where I could see afterwards that my hard efforts slowed as the swim progressed - a reflection of my poor swim fitness, I suspect). Alternatively, you could wear a regular watch and do X mins of harder effort, followed by recovery, which would then be easily visible on the graphs, especially when combined with your knowledge of the timed intervals.

So, my conclusion is that although there seem to be some Mac / PC glitches and inconsistencies, and occasional problems is establishing and maintaining a connection, this is good little bit of kit that is reasonably priced. It is also very simple, and I like the fact that the relatively small number of functions that it performs are well chosen and useful. I'd definitely recommend it.


  1. Hi Karen,
    I got my new Hydro Tracker today, but have some questions about set-up as can see you mentioned some challenges too. I have downloaded the Streamline Bridge and am on the Streamline Training Log page. I'm not convinced that my Mac can 'see' the device?

    I'm trying to follow the section in my (like yours outdated instruction leaflet) to adjust the sampling rate but I cannot find the 'settings' link on this page.

    Probably doing something silly, but thought you might be able to help.

    Thanks, Ruthie

  2. Hi Ruthie
    A couple of people have contacted me with the same problem too. Based on my experience, I have a couple of suggestions.

    Firstly, if you've charged it up a bit, do a quick walk round the block with it recording so that you've got some data to test it with.

    Then...make sure that it is switched off completely (by holding down the top button) before you plug it in to the computer. Once it's in the cradle and plugged in through the USB port, after a short wait, you should see the GPS drive appear on your desktop (as you would with any external storage device). Then open the Streamline software. Again, wait for a short while (you should see the 'buffering' symbol), and then it should 'see' your device. From there, you should be able to upload the data from the walk round the block, change the settings etc.

    If you can't see the device on your desktop, then it's probably not properly connected. In this case, uplug, take out of the cradle, make sure it's completely switched off (plugging it in always turns it on), and the reconnect it.

    Good luck - let me know how you get on.

  3. Thanks Karen

    I hadn't checked your blog when I met you at Bosworth Water on Saturday. Thanks for your advice. I've got it to work now and uploaded two swims. I wrote about one on my blog if you are interested.

    See you soon

  4. Glad you've got it all set up - I was very impressed with your tidy laps of Bosworth compared to my random wanderings! Great blog, too! See you down there again soon.

  5. If I had a British accent I would never stop talking.
    That said, I just used my hydrotracker for the first time today. Except I messed up. I got a 50m reading from the beach to the first buoy. Then nothing. I don't think I turned it off. You have to press the off button for a few seconds to do that. All I can think is that I didn't press the record/pause button long enough. I laughed when I read your "cupping hands/cowering in a corner." I had to have my wife look to see if the green light was flashing. I guess I didn't have her check the record/pause button. Well, I'm swimming open water again on Monday, so, upward and onward. Big Shoulders on Sept. 8. 1200 swimmers in Lake Michigan. Can't wait.

  6. I love the idea that I write with a British accent!
    I've had a few swims where I've been in for several hours, and it's only recorded the first 10 metres - either because the battery wasn't charged, or I'd accidentally pushed the bottom button twice, turning it on and off. It's quite vulnerable to user error, I think, but it's happening less and less as I get used to it.
    Good luck for the Big Shoulders swim (such a great name for a swim!).

  7. Hi Karen. I’ve just discovered your great blog whilst I was searching for reviews on the Finis Hydro Tracker GPS device. Very informative.

    I’ve already got the Speedo Aquacoach but it lacks GPS. What I want is something, ideally, that will let me know current speed in real time (in mph or kph). The Aquacoach already lets me know pace per 100m. I like the idea of being able to download and review stats to see where in the swim I was dropping off speed etc. Because I also do triathlons, I’m attracted to the idea of using it on land too. I can live without the instant data aspect during the race as I can still use the Aquacoach for that. I just can’t justify a Garmin910XT at the moment.

    As long as the GPS is accurate then I think the price of the Finis Hydro Tracker is worth a punt. Is this your opinion still? What about for indoor pool use too?

    Keep up the great blog posts (better than my efforts!)

  8. Hi there. Thanks for your comment. I use a Poolmate for my swimming pool training, which pretty much does the same as the Aquacoach, but this is no help in open water of course because of the lack of GPS.

    The Hydrotracker is an excellent (and affordable) device, but you don't have any kind of 'real time' input from it. I tend to train in a few regular lakes and have used the HT to map the lap distances. I then use a regular sports watch to follow my progress in real time, plus I download the HT data afterwards for some more detailed data on consistency (or not) etc. I've never used it on land, since I run mostly on treadmills and don't ever go far enough on a bike to be worth it, but I imagine it would be equally good for review purposes. It's no good for indoor pool use - you wouldn't get the connection with the satellites.

    I think that it's reasonably accurate, although with some margin of error, and I certainly didn't regret buying it. I'd also read some fairly ambivalent reviews of the Garmin 910XT in terms of, depending on the size of your wrists, it's quite big. I see that Bia are developing a GPS watch for OW swimming that will be a lot smaller (they seem to be marketing it primarily to women), but it's still in development.

    The advantage of the Garmin is that it is an all-in-one, whereas at the moment, I use my Poolmate in the pool, and a sports watch and the HT in open water.

    I hope this helps. If you get one, drop in to the blog again and let me know how you get on with it.

  9. Thanks for the reply, Karen.

    I did wonder about the inability to obtain a GPS signal indoors.

    Whilst cumbersome for training, I use my Android phone with the fantastic (and free) Cardio Trainer app to provide data for my run and bike legs. However, I think the setup of HT/Poolmate (Aquacoach) is a good compromise over the Garmin.

    Thanks again.