The Best GPS Watches of 2017 for Running and Training
We researched 50 of the best GPS-enabled fitness watches for your runs and rides. We then bought 5 and subjected them to 2 months of side-by-side tests. While we focused on trail and road runs, our testing team used these for 9 other sports including mountaineering, hiking and cycling. We have an overall winner but also note which watches are best for specific activities. We also help you decipher between the increasingly overlapping categories of fitness trackers, smartwatches and GPS watches. Which ones are overly complicated and which ones deliver exactly what you need? Read on.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Updated Spring 2017
Fitness watches evolve fast and this April was no exception. Most of award winners either got minor upgrades or were completely replaced with new models. In addition, the explosion of fitness trackers and smart watches has blurred the category. We recommend reading this fitness tracker buying advice article to see if maybe there is a better device category for your training.
Best Overall GPS Watch for Running and Training
Suunto Ambit 3 Sport
Updated Ambit 3The Ambit line keeps growing and winning our awards. We've been testing Ambits since the first model and have extensively used the Ambit 2 and 2S models. The 3 Sport hits the sweet spot for the vast majority of consumers. By omitting the arguably unnecessary barometric altimeter sensor and using a smaller battery, the 3 Sport slims down considerably as compared to other models. With plenty of battery for full days of action, and given the fact that only the most dedicated mountaineers will require the barometric pressure sensor, the slimmer profile of the 3 Sport is well worth the compromise.
The Ambit 3 got a new look and a few features. The model we tested had a different aesthetic and was $60 less expensive. The main difference in the new model is a software update intended to better gauge energy consumption when not using a heart rate monitor.
Read full review: Suunto Ambit 3 Sport
Best Bang for the Buck
Garmin Forerunner 230
Updated ForerunnerWith virtually no reservations we can recommend the Garmin Forerunner 230 to any and all consumers looking for basic run tracking. You will have access to the important data fields while on the go, and be able to sort through the data post-event with one of Garmin's proprietary services or any of a whole host of data management services. The price isn't the lowest in our review, but the value is high. This is a proven product from a proven manufacturer.
The Forerunner we tested, the 210, has been replaced by the 230. It was a nice update. The 230 keeps all the great features of the 210 and adds in Garmin Connect and better technology for measuring heart rate, VO2 Max and pace.
Read full review: Garmin Forerunner 230
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 230 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.
We know that experienced evaluation is important to seek out before purchasing any gear product, but especially tech ones. Our intention with this review is to help you quickly narrow the market options down to an ideal one or two products for your needs, cutting out uncertainty in the purchasing process. Strap on your watch and hit the trails!
— Jediah Porter
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