A significant technological change in swimming over the previous few years has been the development and introduction of various sports watches intended primarily for swimming. Most of these watches introduce some feature or combination of features, from lap counting to calorie expenditure to GPS tracking. For example some years ago I reviewed the Swimovate PoolMate watch, my original of which is still going strong and now has clocked up many millions of metres, despite some of my reservations about it.
Another such recent watch, and the only one of its kind is Brilliant Swim‘s PaceWatch™. I saw a picture of the PaceWatch somewhere online and was intrigued enough that I emailed the American designer who founded Brilliant Swim, Phillip Luebke.
Unlike most of my reviews, which arise from me testing something I’ve already purchased myself, I asked Phillip if he would supply a unit for me to review, and he very promptly and graciously agreed. The price is $75, and since Phillip wrote the value on the packet, even though I didn’t pay for it, I got the dreaded Customs and Excise notification from the postman who wouldn’t hand it over until I paid almost €30 (>$30). (Damn, how we Irish people resent the Customs and Excise MAN!)
Swimmers are usually familiar with the pace clock and we frequently find ourselves explaining its use to beginning and non-swimmers (article coming soon!). Phillip actually has a good article on the development of the swimmer’s pace clock, from its first development in Sydney, Australia in the 1940’s by the fantastically-named Australian coach Forbes Carlile, and a subsequent and later widespread (re-)development by one of the most famous and influential coaches in swimming history, none other than James “Doc” Counsilman, (yes that Doc Councilman).
Unlike the aforementioned GPS and lap counting swim watches, the PaceWatch is designed to do one single task: To provide a substitute pace clock for those swimmers who do not have such in their pool.
What the PaceWatch isn’t: A timekeeping (chronograph) watch. It’s also not intended as an open water swimming watch.
I’m sure I must have mentioned previously that I like tools. Most especially hand tools, and even more specifically tools that are designed to do one task and do so really well. It took me years to understand that tool collection and use is one of the primary reasons I’ve been an (irregular) model-maker for years. I like tools that have evolved into their current shape through the long, iterative and often hidden cycle of design, use, improvement, until they are elegant expressions of expertise. Do one thing. Do it well.
The PaceWatch aims to do one thing and do it well. I appreciate this desire. So how does it fare?
In my feedback to Phillip, (because I wanted to be fair to him because he was generous to provide the test unit) I itemised both positives and negatives. This review is based on the first generation PaceWatch, and Phillip is currently in the design and test phase for the second generation.
I do have access to a pace clock, though it’s the property of an age group club, (who have agreed that I can use it), rather than property of the local pool. So the situation is similar to what many other pool users will experience. Some leisure pools don’t have pace clocks, and many swimmers travelling may find that none is available during their swim. I also use a Swimovate Poolmate for pool swimming. I use it only for counting laps, total session time and keeping time. The rest of the features are pretty superfluous. I’m in usually an odd length SCM pool which actually makes it much more difficult to keep count (“which end did I stop at last time?“). I find a standard 25 metre SCM pool much easier.
To set the PaceWatch, you just let the second hand reach 12, then reset the minute hand to 12, and you are “zeroed”, a bit like resetting an analog stopwatch and you are ready to swim (remember with watches you always advance the hands, never turn them back). After using the PaceWatch for a few weeks, I couldn’t argue with the fact that it does this simple task as it was intended.
But a few other aspects coloured my perception. I knew from the images that the face was big. BrilliantSwim say it’s 47mm wide with 55mm strap lug to strap lug. Watch sizes are usually given across the crown and I measured it at 49.66mm. (Because yes, I have a micrometer, remember what I said about tools?). In contrast the Omega SeaMaster I used to wear in open water is 45mm across the crown and would be considered a large watch. I thought I liked large watches, until I tried the PaceWatch, when I discovered that apparently I don’t like huge watches. This is mitigated somewhat by how thin it is, a mere 7.9 mm versus the SeaMaster at 12mm or just under half the chunky Poolmate at 14.9mm and it does not feel like it’s catching drag on your wrist. That large face requires a large strap thought. The soft matching silicone strap is quite wide, and I found that I noticed while wearing Agility paddles that it was pushed back into my wrist, (not that it caused actual problems). I may not be the world’s biggest man, but I can imagine many women swimmers would never consider such a large watch. The image of the watch (below), shows it being worn by a man, not me, and being wider than his wrist.
The dial is familiar from pace clocks. Five second major red intervals, with marked one second minor intervals, every five seconds written on the dial. Black minute hand and red second hand. But I found with the large face that the red second hand was too thin and not quickly read. Phillip said I was the only one who’d remarked on this and that others found it was easy to read, one of its design intentions. Quartz mechanisms can’t create the torque of a mechanical watch so the second hand size is restricted, but I wonder if the second hand wouldn’t benefit from an end marker such as pyramid or lance? The face has the PaceWatch name, and Brilliant Swim’s cartoon fish logo which I disliked. Purely personal taste.
The PaceWatch grabbed my attention because of its bold striking scarlet design. It screamed “statement” watch, that statement being “I’m a swimmer“. Statement is part of almost all watch design. My normal watch is the aforementioned SeaMaster. I leave it to you to decide what statement I am making by using it, because none of us can completely control the visual statements we are making by what we wear by a viewer. The PaceWatch is a big statement, and it shouts.
I said it was intended as a simple one-function swimming pool watch but wondered if you could use it as a chronometer. You can’t. Wear it for a couple of hours and if you are moderately busy you lose track of the hours. It’s ten minutes past…something o’ clock. Is it unfair to say the watch could be better in this area, when it was never planned to be a timekeeper? I doubt I would be the only person wearing one who wondered if it could be used as a simple out-of-the-water chronometer.
The PaceWatch is 5 ATM water-resistant. That equates to 50 metres water resistance, which to be honest means even less to most people, because they think that’s a real depth figure. Here’s the answer: If you want a watch that will handle all of the variables of open water coastal swimming, a watch needs to be 10 ATM (or 100) metres water resistant. Again, the PaceWatch is not designed for this. However if you aren’t are likely to swim offshore or through large breaking waves or underwater, then 5 ATM is acceptable for most open water swimming. But I’m an open water swimmer and honestly, I’ve worn it in two and a half to three metre silt-laden swell and chop and there the large face does really well as a time-elapsed watch, for a couple of hours anyway.
Swings and roundabouts. The PaceWatch did okay. It does what it intended to do. But users are complicated and always try unintended uses.
No matter what BrilliantSwim say, there are two uses for this watch. Pace clock substitute, and visual wearable object or jewelry. The design screams such. It’s a decent pace clock substitute, if you need one and can tolerate the huge size, but it currently fails as wearable decoration. Once I spent a day futilely trying to use it as a watch, the rest of the time it rested between swims in my swim bag. After a mere couple of week use the vivid scarlet lugs had worn. I’d expect that from a watch with enamel paint that I’d wear under long sleeves. I did not expect it so quickly from a watch that was sitting in a mesh swimming bag, not moving. Worse, the paint around the face also chipped off in large flakes. It looks pretty poor. Phillip recognises this problem and said he felt that the manufacturers alternative of plain steel wouldn’t look good. As someone who usually wears a plain steel watch, I fail to see how badly flaked red paint is an improvement over plain steel. He is working on it for the next generation, (and I even suggested a possible technical solution).
I don’t need the PaceWatch for the pool. If I did, it would be fine… if I was swilling to accept the serious flaky paint problem. I hope Brilliant Swim are more successful with the next version, because we swimmers do need to see innovative products, and innovation requires a willingness to risk trying to change people’s thinking. And that Brilliant Swim and the Pace Watch have attempted well for first generation.
The PaceWatch isn’t available from a distributor in Europe, so you’ll pay your local customs fees if you buy from the US. For US it’s available from the Brilliant Swim site up above.