First Look: Music Takes Garmin's New GPS Watch to Next Level

LAS VEGAS — On a chilly Las Vegas morning — yes, really — I laced up my sneakers and hit the Strip with Garmin’s newest smartwatch on my wrist.

The run offered an early look at the Forerunner 645 Music, which debuted at CES but isn’t yet available to buy. What makes this device different from the rest of Garmin’s lineup of GPS running watches is the addition of local music storage. This is a feature Garmin fans have been waiting for, and it finally makes Garmin competitive with more versatile fitness-focused smartwatches such Apple Watch Series 3 and Fitbit Ionic.

I had to see how the Forerunner 645 Music stacked up against its rivals, so Garmin provided me with a test unit to run with in Las Vegas.

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Garmin’s new watch lacks a touchscreen, which surprised me after the recent release of the Vivoactive 3 and Vivomove HR. It seemed like touch was where Garmin was taking its watch lineup.

The Forerunner 645 Music is a round watch with five buttons, three on the left and two on the right, to navigate its menus. It took some getting used to; I kept tapping at the screen to skip a song or to see my stats as I ran, only to remember that I had to press a button.

But maybe that becomes more intuitive over time. And it could be worth the hassle for the sake of having music, which adds so much to the running experience. No longer do Garmin users have to tote a smartphone along to listen to their favorite up-tempo tunes.

At least it's extremely easy to switch between the workout-tracking screen and the music playback screen — just long-press the the lower button on the right-hand side of the bezel. Skipping tracks requires a few more button presses, but it wasn't that arduous in my hands-on time.

The watch Garmin provided me was preloaded with a playlist created by iHeartRadio, which is one of the streaming services Garmin will have in its app store at launch. (The company hasn’t named any others yet.) Garmin loaned me a pair of Skullcandy Method Bluetooth earbuds to pair with the watch.

The process of connecting the earbuds to the Forerunner was just as easy as pairing Bluetooth headphones to the Ionic and the Apple Watch. If you’re using a pair of AirPods with the Apple Watch, or a pair of Fitbit Flyers with the Ionic, it’s a bit more seamless — those watches are designed to find those earphones without friction. But after pairing the Skullcandy ‘buds to the Forerunner, they stayed connected to the watch for the entire 3.3-mile run.

The best part about the Forerunner 645 Music is that you don’t need a phone at all. After you set up the device and store playlists offline, you can track all kinds of exercises with Garmin’s deep workout analysis, including location data thanks to on-board GPS and GLONASS. Just sync the watch after to log all of your data in the Garmin Connect app.

I wish the newest Forerunner was a touchscreen watch so I wouldn’t have to press buttons to navigate the interface. But my first impression of Garmin’s latest watch is that music makes a huge — and much-needed — difference.

Caitlin is a Senior editor for Gizmodo. She has also worked on Tom's Guide, Macworld, PCWorld and the Las Vegas Review-Journal. When she's not testing out the latest devices, you can find her running around the streets of Los Angeles, putting in morning miles or searching for the best tacos.