Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Under Armour HOVR review: Smarter running shoes, light on gimmicks

Enlarge / Vaguely reminiscent of the brand’s infamous Steph Curry design.

Valentina Palladino

In recent years, I’ve tracked my running in many ways—wristbands, smartwatches, pant sensors, socks, and the like. But smart running shoes have always promised the most convenient solution for those who want to track running without extra devices. Unless you prefer running barefoot (which some do), everyone needs a pair of shoes before they go running. And why not make those shoes work a little harder?

Under Armour initially embraced this idea with the debut of its Speedform Gemini 2 smart sneakers a couple of years ago. Now, the company has new designs with improved internal tech in the form of the $130-$140 HOVR Phantom and $100-$110 HOVR Sonic connected shoes. The new kicks track every step of your run, capturing enough data to educate both novice and expert runners about their form and progress. And when combined with the improved MapMyRun app, the new HOVR shoes make a good case for ditching that smart wristband and lacing up a pair of these instead.


Out of the two new shoe models Under Armour debuted, I tested the HOVR Phantom. It has an improved design that is made with a wax-based foam for better energy return, softness, and adaptivity. The HOVR name (pronounced “hover”) comes from the new foam cushion with a durometer contained by Under Armour’s “energy web,” which is supposed to be responsive and better at directing energy than other designs.

The knitted collar around the ankle and the knit forefoot make the Phantom feel like a sock on your foot, which some runners will appreciate more than others (the Sonic is more minimalistic and doesn’t have a knitted collar). It took me a few runs to get used to this style, but the Phantoms were quite supportive and comfortable to run with, both during indoor and outdoor workouts.

Under Armour’s previous connected shoes, the Speedform Gemini 2, are completely different in design from the two HOVR styles, and the new shoes have some invisible design changes as well. Under Armour’s sensor pod, the technology that’s used to track running and transmit that data to the MapMyRun app, remains embedded in the sole of the right shoe, but it has been improved. Company representatives told Ars that the connectivity and transfer abilities of the new pod are much better than the previous model, allowing it to better maintain a connection to the MapMyRun app and transmit more data to it. In the future, Under Armour hopes to add more trackable stats to the shoes by pushing out software and firmware updates.

Under Armour also lowered the pace threshold for run tracking: in its previous connected shoes, you had to run at a pace of 11 minutes per mile for the shoes to properly track the exercise. While Under Armour didn’t specify the new pace requirement, it did say that the new shoes will now be able to detect running at slower paces.

Like the Gemini 2, the HOVR shoes don’t need to be charged. According to Under Armour, the battery will outlast the runner’s wear-and-tear of the shoe, meaning the shoes will likely wear down to the point where you need a new pair before the battery comes close to dying. The company says the HOVR shoes last an average of 300 miles of use, but it’s tough to estimate battery life because every user has a different running schedule and frequency. However, the shoes enter power conservation mode when not in use to maintain the battery’s life for a longer period of time.

Running while connected

Untethered running

Connected running with the HOVR Phantoms is just like running with regular shoes—just lace up and go, but you let the shoes do the tracking. You can start a recorded activity in MapMyRun hitting the pavement, but it’s not necessary, thanks to the untethered running feature. This feature lets you run without the app and still record the activity—the shoes automatically recognize that you’re running and will track duration, distance, calories, pace, cadence, and stride length, uploading that data to MapMyRun the next time you open the app.

There are some perks of running with MapMyRun working in tandem with the shoes to track you in real-time. But personally, untethered running is my favorite kind of running because it lets me do whatever I like to do without worrying about whether I’m running indoors or outdoors, integrating programs with MapMyRun, or using audio feedback or voice coaching. Sometimes I want to worry about those things, but most of the time I don’t.

An untethered run with the HOVR Phantoms is a lot like running with Fitbit’s SmartTrack, which automatically tracks a workout after you’ve been doing it for more than 10 minutes. The Phantoms don’t seem to have such a high minute threshold for auto-tracking since most of my recorded run durations matched the actual amount of time I spent running. Data captured by the Phantoms (at least distance, duration, and pace) was always nearly identical to that of my treadmill or my own calculations.

Both Under Armour’s and Fitbit’s technologies encourage you to forget about the devices you’re wearing and exercise freely. Under Armour’s is more effective purely because it’s built into technology you already need—shoes. If you forget to put on your Fitbit before going for your morning jog, it’s like that jog never happened (at least, in Fitbit’s eyes).

With MapMyRun

If you were to forget your Fitbit, you can add exercises to your daily log in Fitbit’s app. But with tech built into your running equipment, you should never have to do that when using the HOVR Phantoms. It’s the easiest tech-assisted way for runners to track workouts and progress, so long as you like the HOVR shoe styles. If you’re particular about the type of running shoe you use, however, HOVR may not be the best option for you. So going forward, I’d love to see Under Armour take a Fossil Group approach and build connected technology into all of its shoe styles, allowing more runners with different shoe preferences to take advantage of the connected approach.

To manually begin a run in MapMyRun, the shoes need to connect to the app. Under Armour’s improved sensor pod makes this a nearly instantaneous act—if you’re wearing the Phantoms and holding your phone with MapMyRun open, it takes mere seconds for them to connect. From there, you can simply choose the type of workout you’re doing and hit the green start button at the base of the app’s homepage.

Depending on the activity, MapMyRun will display a map of your route in addition to all of your running stats. MapMyRun uses your smartphone’s GPS to track your location, so you’ll only get a route map when using the app in tandem with the HOVR shoes. Since the shoes themselves do not have an embedded GPS, they cannot track location on untethered runs.

Otherwise, the shoes collect accurate running data no matter if you’re indoors or outdoors. Many running devices, particularly connected shoes, get tripped up while you’re running on the treadmill because you’re not actually gaining any ground that the shoes can track. But Under Armour optimized the shoes to work accurately no matter where you run, so frequent gym-goers will not get the short end of the stick.

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