The Best GPS Watch for Running and Training
In the burgeoning market for fitness-tracking, GPS enabled watches, which is the best product for you? Over the course of multiple years, thousands of miles, and in ten different sports, our team has examined dozens of available devices. We have evaluated, and summarized here, five of the best. Further, we have sorted this subset by which is likely the best for you. Each GPS watch we reviewed is excellent. Some are very specific in their function, while others excel across a wider range. In order to help you decide, we have fully described the function of each one and scored each GPS watch on ease of use, features, accuracy, ease of set-up, durability, and portability.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best Overall GPS Watch for Running and Training
Suunto Ambit 3 Sport
Best Bang for the Buck
Garmin Forerunner 210
Top Pick for Dedicated Runners and Nike+ Users
Nike+ Sportwatch GPS
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Analysis and Test Results
At OutdoorGearLab we are detail oriented athletes and adventurers. We use our equipment to enhance the experiences we seek. We seek experiences first, and use our equipment to facilitate. In that light, our perspective, testing, and opinions are application based. You will find opinions and reviews on the web from other equipment fanatics that focus more closely on the technology, but you will find no reviews better targeted to actual application in the great outdoors. In the case of outdoor digital technology, we are outdoor experts fastidiously examining complicated devices for our peers. All technology, and GPS watches are no exception, is rapidly changing and almost always thoroughly confusing. Allow us to walk you through the field, step by step, in order to help you reach a conclusion about what is the absolute best product for you.
Why a Training Watch?
Do you walk, run, ski, bike, or otherwise move around outside (and occasionally inside) for training and exercise? Do you wish to monitor this activity and record your progress? If so, a dedicated GPS watch can really step up your game. Keeping track of time, distance, and speed while working out can gauge your improvement, motivate further activity, and allow objective comparison to others. A dedicated training device collects relevant information and displays it handily and clearly. These devices are all well thought-out, superbly designed, and there is something here for everyone. For further information on choosing the proper watch for you, consult our Buying Advice article.
If you know you are looking for something; something currently non-specific in your mind, something to enhance your outdoor endeavors (or, commonly, as a gift for your outdoor-loving friend or family member) and it just doesn't seem like a GPS watch is exactly it, please consult our overview of outdoor tech article. In this article we have sorted all the electronics one may choose and use for various sports. The entire article, in a reflection of our general style here at OGL, is activity focused. For each type of outdoor athlete and adventurer, in that linked article, we spell out the types of electronics you are apt to consider.
Specific Activities for a GPS Watch
Some of these devices are very multi-purpose, while others are more specific and narrow in their application. Among all those that may end up using a GPS watch, different demographics will have different needs and preferences, and therefore at least slightly different final product choices.
Runners have been the first to adopt this type of device. The data they seek, especially as compared to other sports, is relatively simple. Runners wish to track speed, distance, and time. They may also be interested in exertion information as collected by a heart rate band. Special mention must be made of the increasing popularity of ultra-distance running events. Ultra runners require more battery life than most devices provide. The market is responding, albeit slowly, to this demand for more than eight hours or so of GPS recording.
Cycling, On Road or Off
Dedicated cyclists are usually best served with a proper, purpose built, GPS equipped bicycle computer. We have conducted a full review of these products elsewhere on OutdoorGearLab. The top of the line wrist-mounted devices, however, are fast approaching the functionality of top of the line dedicated bike computers. If you bicycle and participate in any other outdoor endurance activity and you wish to use one device across the board, you could use one of these multi-purpose, wrist-mounted devices.
Swimming and Triathlon
Those passionate about swimming or who compete in triathlons now have GPS equipped devices for their pursuit. We did not test these products while swimming, but we have worked with those who have. Top-of-the line tools like our Editors' Choice Suunto Ambit 3 Sport are excellent swim trackers.
Climbing, Mountaineering, and Backcountry Skiing
Backcountry skiing, mountaineering, and other sorts of wilderness travel in steep terrain can benefit from wrist-mounted, GPS equipped instrumentation. In addition to tracking your efforts similar to those practicing the above sports, wilderness fiends will benefit from navigation features tapping into the GPS technology. For those wishing to use their GPS watch for navigation and tracking in steep environments it is worth pointing out one limitation of GPS location services. In mellow terrain GPS technology can pretty accurately deduce the user's altitude. Where the terrain gets steep, however, the elevation as gathered from satellite information is basically useless. In that case, barometric (air pressure) sensors and appropriate information processing is best. Only certain devices, notably the Garmin Fenix and the Suunto Ambit 3 Peak pack in a barometer.
Hiking and Backpacking
The needs of hikers and backpackers are similar to those of mountaineers. Hikers can benefit from the trip and activity tracking technology inherent in every product we reviewed, but they also can use the navigational tracking features of some of the more advanced products we tested. Because hiking and backpacking takes place, generally, away from the cliffs and mountain faces that climbers frequent, GPS only altitude data is often sufficient. Super aggressive off-trail backpackers, approaching the technicality of endeavors that mountaineers seek, may benefit from barometric altimeter sensing.
What is Inside?
This category is united by the presence of a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver antenna and the associated software to process the location data collected through that system. In short, GPS is a network of satellites in space and individual devices on the ground. Each satellite on the network is continuously emitting a signal for any appropriately designed device to receive and utilize. A device that receives this signal, whether it is in your watch, hand-held navigation tool, or smartphone, processes the strength and meta-data in the signal from multiple satellites to deduce the device's location at that moment. The location fix is a three dimensional value, but the x and y axis information is the most accurate. In other words, altitude data from a GPS triangulation is not as accurate as the latitude and longitude information from the same signals in the same device. Therefore, at any given moment, with a big and clear enough view of the sky (GPS location information suffers or completely fails indoors, in dense tree cover, and in narrow valley topography), a GPS equipped device knows exactly where the device is on the earth's surface. If the device moves, it can calculate the direction and distance it has moved. Comparing this movement to time, the device can deduce rate of travel.
Distance and rate of travel are valuable pieces of data for training athletes. All of the products in our test collect, display, and record distance and rate of travel information. Additionally, all devices in our test monitor time just like any other stopwatch style device. Lap and split times can be monitored and recorded by each as well. In addition to time, distance, and speed data, some of these training watches have even more features. These additional features are enumerated below.
Types of GPS Watches
There are several different styles of watches that are GPS enabled, and some styles work better for certain activities than others. We group them as follows:
Basic Training Devices
In this category, a GPS watch will collect real-time distance and speed data, along with perhaps a few other categories of information. It will store that data, at least for immediate post-trip viewing, if not cataloged on your home computer. The instrumentation in these devices is specifically for monitoring and displaying distance and speed.
Devices for Monitoring Training and for Navigating
These models do all the same things as the basic training models, but they also can interpret and utilize GPS data for navigation. With at least a little prior preparation and skill, these devices can, in addition to monitoring and tracking athletic activity, help the user negotiate off-trail terrain.
Products that Monitor Heart Rate and Other Metrics Through External Sensors
This type of device can be either a basic training watch, or one with navigation attributes. It may come with a heart rate band, or the band may be an aftermarket product. Regardless, it integrates with a separate, chest-mounted band that collects heart rate data. Heart rate is a function of exertion and can be used in multiple ways, both during and after a training event, to gauge and evaluate one's fitness, progress, and effort. While heart rate is the most common bit of data collected by an external accessory and organized by a training watch, athletes in specific instances will also want to collect other information. Runners, especially those that train both indoors and out, may wish to track their step cadence with a foot mounted sensor. Cyclists can monitor pedal cadence and applied power with bicycle-mounted sensors. If you wish to track and record this data along with your speed and position data, choose a device that is compatible with such sensors.
Criteria for Evaluation
Ease of Use
In the overall evaluation of this field, ease of use is by far the most important category. It is the interface and user experience that really sets the devices apart. The user will have two distinct experiences with the data monitored, displayed, and recorded. Your watch will tell you useful real-time data during a session, and then deliver further summarizing and totaled information afterwards. The consumer's experience with accessing this data, both during and after training, informs our scores.
The GPS watches in our test that are easiest to use have large displays and locking buttons. Our testing team enjoyed being able to see relevant information at a glance while working hard and do so with no worry as to the integrity of the data. A wrist is a busy place, and most sports and clothing layer combinations present opportunity to inadvertently press a button or two. We appreciate the button locks on the Garmin Fenix, Suunto Ambit 3 Sport, and Nike devices.
GPS watches strike a careful balance between portability and view-ability. The wrist-mounted form factor limits the size of the screen and hard-working eyes need numbers and letters of a certain minimum size. Given these limitations, a watch can display an absolute maximum of three types of information at any one time. All the models in our test show up to three categories of data at once. Some can be programmed to show customized combinations of information. The nature and difficulty of programming and customizing is discussed in our ease of set-up category.
In terms of post-event data viewing and processing, the best scoring products in our test can upload data to a pc or web-based interface. Only the New Balance model does not offer the option to upload data for off-device viewing. Garmin, Nike, Suunto, and the Strava App each provide their own web/cloud-based data storage and viewing platform. Each is comprehensive and useful, once the user is roughly acquainted with the system. Garmin also provides proprietary pc-based software for storing and reviewing data. Of all the manufacturers we reviewed, Garmin has the most widely-used data management software. Also worth noting is that most of the devices in our test export activity information in a standardized format. All watches, except the New Balance and the Nike+ Sportwatch, which uses the proprietary Nike+ system, can generate gpx files that can be stored and viewed in a variety of fashions. A gpx file contains, essentially, time and position data. Various applications, pc or web based, can take this data and generate distance, rate, and other information. Strava can interpret and store all gpx files, for instance. Regardless of what device captured the gpx file, Strava will organize it and integrate it with its website. There are a host of other applications and products that will organize and process your gpx data.
Above and beyond speed, distance, and time data, a GPS watch can process the raw information it collects to provide additional features. The Nike Sportwatch, Strava, Garmin Forerunner, and New Balance all share a fairly basic suite of distance, speed, and time features. The New Balance GPS Trainer also comes with an integrated heart-rate band for in-activity monitoring.
The Garmin Fenix and Ambit devices offer more sophisticated distance, speed, and time data. The user can customize each product to display and alert the user on a virtually infinite array of information. Also, this same selection of devices can be used for wilderness and off-trail navigation. Like one would do with a handheld receiver, the user can use the device to navigate along a pre-specified path or to pre-determined points.
The list of other relevant features primarily includes other types of sensors. The Garmin Fenix (and the non-tested, but otherwise similar to our Editors' Choice winner, Suunto Ambit 3 Peak) includes an integrated barometric pressure sensor and a thermometer. The Strava App, Garmin Fenix, and Suunto Ambit 3 Sport devices can be synced with external, after-market sensors to collect information on temperature, running foot-cadence, bicycle pedal cadence, bicycle power output, and heart rate.
The accuracy of a GPS receiver is a function of signal quality, antenna size, and the device's software algorithms. Additionally, the data on some devices is being calibrated with and compared to data from step-counting motion sensors. Whether that motion sensor is built into the device like in the Suunto Ambit 3 series or an iPhone equipped with the Strava app, or the sensor is in a wirelessly linked foot pod as in the Nike+ Sportwatch GPS, this sort of complementary data serves to make overall distance and speed far more accurate.
Accuracy is important for an athletic training device because effective comparisons of efforts requires integrity of data. Overall, signal strength and quality has by far the greatest impact on device accuracy. The best device with a limited view of the sky will be far less accurate than a cheaper tool with a tiny antenna out in the wide open plains. In our testing, we found very little variation in accuracy. This is remarkable, considering our tested devices ranged from free smartphone apps to $400 pieces of highly engineered equipment. However, even small variations in accuracy can be important. If your device is off by 1 or 2 percent, over a long run the quality of the data could suffer.
Predictably, the most accurate devices in our test were those that integrated motion sensor data. The Strava app on our tested iPhone 5s measured mileages exactly. The Suunto Ambit was pretty accurate, while the Nike was nothing special until tested paired with the included foot pod. The New Balance trainer was inaccurate as compared to a known distance, but the error was consistent. In other words, as long as you are only comparing your results to your own, the New Balance should be more than adequate.
Ease of Set-up
In the smartphone age, when consumers are accustomed to un-boxing a small electronic device and using it right away, manufacturers face a difficult task. The ideal device is intuitive, requiring little to no formal instruction. However, with button interfaces and multiple types of data and viewing options, every watch will require at least a little initial set-up and learning curve. Predictably, the smartphone interface of the Strava app was the easiest to initially set-up. Next, the Suunto Ambit series of devices brings a well thought-out interface for users to get going. It is required that the consumer register and connect their Ambit 3 to Suunto's MovesCount online interface in initially setting up the watch. However, doing this is well worth the time as it is crucial to maximizing the function of the Ambit over its entire life. The initial leg work is well worth it. Similarly, the Nike requires online set-up. The Nike+ system is simple and intuitive. Garmin provides both web-based and pc-based options for setting up your watch. Garmin's system is a little older and more established. It is possible that you have your Garmin interface already worked out for your cycling computer or for an older Garmin running watch. This familiarity is the primary appeal of the Fenix over the Ambit family. If you are already a Garmin user, setting up the Fenix will prove to be quite simple. Finally, the New Balance trainer is the most complicated to initially set-up. You'll need the lengthy user manual in order to maximize its function.
Tiny electronics can be finicky. Thankfully this world is full of excellent products. For all the potential issues, our selection of training devices was remarkably durable. Battery life estimates were true to advertised, none of the bands broke or degraded, and the screens and electronics all remained reliable. It is testament to our initial selection criteria that we had no major failures. As we regularly remind readers, at OutdoorGearLab we only test and report on excellent products. There are far less durable devices on the market: buyer beware. Beyond the above, traditional criteria by which durability is assessed, we also evaluated this category by the integrity of the data they collect. Essentially, even if the hardware stays intact, if you lose your data somehow, the device basically failed. The most common failure in this case was a loss or change of information as a result of inadvertent button activation. The New Balance Trainer doesn't have locking buttons and we regularly lost or changed data as a result. Neither the Nike nor the Garmin Forerunner have locking buttons, but perhaps on account of their lower profile, we had no problems with losing or changing data.
In most ways, the comfort and ease of carrying a GPS watch is a function of the absolute dimensions. Which is bigger, and which weighs more? Other criteria include contouring for the wrist, and the nature of attaching the wrist band. In our test, the Fenix device is the bulkiest and heaviest, while the Garmin Forerunner 210 is the most compact. Should you choose to carry your watch in your pocket occasionally, the Fenix is unique in that the wrist straps are attached with hinges that allow the entire package to lay flat. Strava is in a class of its own because, as a smartphone app, it cannot easily be strapped to your wrist and is inherently bulkier than any of the dedicated watches we tested. Generally speaking, devices with more features were less portable. While none of the tested models differ in mass or size by more than a few percentage points, it was portability that ended up tipping the overall Editors' Choice award balance in favor of the Suunto Ambit 3 Sport rather than to the bulkier, but more feature-rich, Ambit 3 Peak. In the beginning, in initial selection, the Ambit devices were tied. The 3 Peak has more features, while the 3 Sport is more portable. On the balance, the features omitted from the Ambit 3 Peak will not be missed by the vast majority of users, but everyone will appreciate its smaller stature. Hence our ultimate choice. Make no mistake, however. If you desire or require the additional features of the Ambit 3 Peak or Garmin Fenix, their bulk will be little more than a minor inconvenience.
Ask An Expert: Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle is best known for his rock climbing achievements, including the first ascent of Lucifer (5.14c) in the Red River Gorge. But the La Sportiva athlete is also a fitness fiend, and runs three days a week as part of his training regimen (something you have to do apparently to send hard routes). He regularly logs 15-20 miles a week on the trails around his home in Las Vegas, Nevada, and does it all with a GPS watch. And his favorite running route? Mt Charleston (11,916 ft), a grueling 17-mile return trip with a 4000 foot elevation gain, which he usually runs in just over four hours. He sat down with us to give up some professional insight into this category.
How long have you been using a GPS watch?
About five years now. I've used three different models in that time. Two Garmins and one Suunto. The Suunto was just a little big, and when the battery died I looked for one with a slimmer profile. Now I use a Garmin Forerunner 210 (our Best Buy winner).
What do you use it for?
I wear my watch for anything that I'm trying to keep track off. One of the things that I do enjoy is achieving a personal best, and also monitoring my pacing, so I track most of my runs.
I also use the watch when I go on long hike/runs exploring for new cliff lines. I can set waypoints when I find something interesting and keep track of the location, and I can also study the area back home and maybe try to determine a better way of getting there in the future.
Do you use a foot mounted sensor or chest strap as well?
I use the heart rate monitor chest strap. My watch does have an option for a foot sensor but I don't use it. The foot sensor mostly tracks cadence, and since I run on trails the cadence isn't as important as I'm constantly adjusting my pace for the terrain.
What do you do with the information you collect?
Since the current model I'm using is a Garmin, I use the corresponding Garmin Connect software. It allows me to track pacing, heart rate, distance and elevation.
Is the software user friendly?
Relatively. There are some things I'd like to add. There are a few different data screens that it shows, and it's kind of hard to go back and forth between them. If you're trying to figure out where on the run your heart rate was the highest, you can't just click on the heart rate graph and have it show you the location on the map. You actually have to go to the map and track along. It would be nice to just click on some point on the heart rate graph and have it show where on your run you were at that point. (Mike is a computer software engineer so we consider him an expert in this department as well!)
Does your watch navigate and track or just track?
I believe my model has a function for navigation but I've never actually used it.
Do you have any issues with battery life?
I did have an issue with battery life with my older Suunto model. When I was running at full GPS and heart rate tracking it would only last for about six hours. So I've definitely had it run out on some long hikes where I was out all day and trying to track where I'd been. I haven't had any battery issues with my Garmin 210 yet — I believe the battery life is little longer on this one — about eight to ten hours.
What's the longest run you've ever tracked?
I was out for fourteen hours once, but since the battery died after six hours I lost more than half of the data.
Do you track your skiing or climbing?
I've used it a few times while climbing to track my heart rate. I did try to use it on Solar Slab once (a route in Red Rock Canyon) because I wanted to see what it would look like on the map afterwards, but I just kept losing the satellite signal in the canyons.
Is there anything you wish your watch did?
There's a lot of new stuff out there these days. Some new models have apps associated with them that can track what weather is coming your way and give you warnings, stuff like that. I think it would be interesting to tie them in with a 911 beacon. There was a woman lost on Mt. Charleston a few years ago and lots of people were out searching for her. I was up there for a run, and it occurred to me that if I found her it would be useful if there was some type of beacon on the watch that I could activate to call for help.
So who would you recommend buy one?
I do enjoy the data tracking, so anyone who is into keeping track of their training or adventures should probably get one.
Interview by Cam McKenzie Ring
GPS watches have only been on the market for around a decade or so. The technology itself is a byproduct of the Cold War and "Space Race" era. When Sputnik was launched by the Soviet Union in 1957, American scientists hurried to find a way to track its movement. Researchers at John's Hopkins University discovered that they could trace the path of the satellite by using the Doppler Effect (think of the way the sound of an ambulance's siren changes as it nears you, and then passes). The signals sent from the satellite would distort and change according to its distance from a receiving station, which then allowed the path of its orbit to be measured. Later on, a researcher named Frank McClure realized that this system could work in reverse. If you had a satellite with a set orbit, the signal changes would let someone on Earth identify their location as long as they were within range of the satellite.
The United States began putting satellites into space to aid in naval navigation in the 1960's. In the 1970's the US military designed and created the current global positioning satellite (GPS) system, perfecting the types of signals used and the triangulation methods required to pinpoint exact locations. They switched from measuring Doppler signal distortion to signal timing — distance could be determined by recording how long a signal takes to reach a receiver instead. Multiple satellites allowed for even greater accuracy using triangulation methods, and the current system of 24 orbiting satellites was deployed.
In the 1980's the technology was made available to civilians, however, the commercial units were very expensive and the signals were purposefully distorted, resulting in random deviations of up to 300 feet (100 meters). That deviation wasn't entirely critical if you were trying to find a specific location, but if you were trying to track a trail it was a different matter. Because the signal would distort every time a waypoint was recorded, even when hiking in a straight line the corresponding track would look like a bunch of zigzags. Units at that time were the size of a modern day tablet, only thicker, and were often used in conjunction with an external antenna. The result was not runner or hiker friendly!
In 2000, the signal distortion was finally removed, and the boom in portable GPS units was on. At first, the emphasis was on vehicle navigation systems and handheld units for hiking. In a few years, the first "watches" were on the market, though they looked more like a small handheld unit with straps. Garmin, one of the leading manufacturers of commercial GPS products, released its first watch in 2003, though it wasn't really until 2008 that the technology became truly "wearable," and similar in size to an altimeter watch. Advances in electronics helped miniaturize the GPS receivers, and they now easily fit into cell phones and watches, boosting their popularity.
The latest trends of personal tracking have also increased the interest in GPS watches. The positioning technology coupled with a fitness tracker allows for not only a route to be recorded, but all the accompanying biometric data as well. This has helped many athletes, particularly runners, improve their training methods and performance.
— Jediah Porter
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