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 Unfortunately, I had an outdated instruction leaflet in the box, which had a different name for the software, which I then spent quite a while looking for online.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 I should say that some direct and very supportive contact with Finis rectified the problem of the outdated insert very quickly.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:
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.