Best Overall Competitor
Garmin Forerunner 935
: 49 g | Battery Life
: Up to 2 weeks
Good battery life
Thin and lightweight
The Garmin Forerunner 935 won the Editor's Choice Award in 2018 and wins again in 2019, this time beating out some really tough competition. The Forerunner 935 has a very large palette of features but Garmin managed to package it all into a watch that is comfortable to wear for even the most petite of users. It's easy to set up and use, it's incredibly accurate, and its battery will outlast all but the most expensive competitors in GPS mode. Along with all that, it has a very comfortable wrist band and a screen that is easy to read while running. It is the perfect balance of features and fit, and that is why the Forerunner 935 keeps winning us over.
There aren't many downsides to the Forerunner 935, but they do exist. Chiefly, it's expensive, so if you're not looking to make a significant investment in a GPS watch, then this isn't the one for you. Some might also consider its feature list to be too extensive. There are much simpler models out there, so if you don't care about tracking your sleep data or navigating in the backcountry, you can get what you need for much less. But for the most comprehensive option available in a user-friendly design that was comfortable for all of our testers, look no further than the Forerunner 935.
Read review: Garmin Forerunner 935
Best Bang for the Buck
Garmin Forerunner 35
: 37 g | Battery Life
: Up to 4 weeks
Effective distance, pace, and route tracking
Good battery life
Accuracy isn't as good as our top contenders
The Garmin Forerunner 35 is a great watch for people who are budget conscious, want something simple to track their runs and bike rides, or want a watch that rarely needs to be charged. You have access to the important data fields while on the go and are 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 Forerunner 35 is easy to use, and offers a great value.
If you want extensive running analytics and navigation on-the-go, however, you will find this watch too basic. However, if you are just looking to start your running adventures or want something simple, this is a great watch that can introduce you to all of the opportunity that Garmin's software offers. Should you decide to upgrade your watch, you will not have to change your software ecosystem and will still be able to compare historical data. That makes it a very attractive model for people just starting out.
Read review: Garmin Forerunner 35
Top Pick for Hardcore Non-Techy Athletes
: 49 g | Battery Life
: Up to 3 weeks
Good balance of features
No Workout Downloads
The Coros Pace was the dark horse in this field of famous watch brands. Not only are we impressed with the number of features packed into this more affordable running watch, but we are also delightfully surprised at how simple it is to set up in the app and on the watch itself.
We gave the Coros Pace the award for Hardcore Non-Techy athletes because it is by far the easiest to set up, has a battery life fit for ultrarunners or Ironman triathletes, and it offers a well-balanced palette of features. This watch provides enough information and metrics to keep the most demanding of non-techy athletes happy and has a price tag that doesn't break the bank.
Read review: Coros Pace
From left to right: the Garmin Forerunner 35, Garmin Forerunner 935, Polar M430, Garmin Forerunner 235, Coros Pace, Suunto Baro 9, Garmin Fenix 5x Plus Sapphire, and Apple Watch Series 4.
Why You Should Trust Us
Lead tester and author Larin McPeak logs serious time navigating the great outdoors. She's worked as a Mountain Search and Rescue Team Member and a Park Ranger. She's also hiked through Brazilian jungles, snowboarded the Alps, cycled through the U.S. and trekked Asia's massive mountains. Larin now balances her more sedentary product development and production work life with an excessive training regime to prepare for her first iron-distance tri. Since she began training in earnest for long-distance cycling events and ultramarathons, her Type-A personality drew her to the data-heavy world of GPS and running watches. She loves diving into the technical details and rigorously testing these watches side by side.
To do so, she first reviewed 40 contenders online, weighing their comparative strengths and weaknesses before working with our Editorial team to decide which ones to buy and test. Larin then logged hundreds of hours putting these watches through their paces. In the process, she and her friends ran, biked and swam thousands of miles, testing for accuracy, comfort, and any annoying complications along the way. They also just wore the watches around day-to-day, receiving text messages and checking the time. The result is the most comprehensive GPS watch review you can imagine.
Related: How We Tested GPS Sports Watches
For runs in Germany, the straightforward Coros Pace was perfect, because we didn't want to waste time fiddling with devices when we could be seeing historical landmarks.
Analysis and Test Results
Whether you're just starting out on your journey as an athlete or you've been running, biking, and swimming for decades, a GPS watch can help you not only track your progress but also directly increase your fitness when used properly. Our team of ultra runners, triathletes, outdoor enthusiasts and technology experts evaluate the top contenders in six comprehensive categories: Ease of Use, Features, Accuracy, Ease of Set-up, Battery Life, and Design. Below, we'll walk you through each category and note which watches outperformed the competition and which can't keep up.
Related: Buying Advice for GPS Sports Watches
No one wants to spend more than they have to on a running watch, especially if you're just getting started with your running adventures, training goals, or need a budget conscious option. We tested watches that balance functionality, features, and price.
When we rank the watches, we only consider their performance. But after we finish testing, factor price into each model's overall performance. We recommend the Garmin Forerunner 35 if you're on a tight budget, and Forerunner 935 if you want the best of the best. The Coros Pace falls between these two in price and is a good option for the non-techy still but demanding athlete.
The watches in our test group run the gamut in this category. The most basic models capture only your GPS activity track and your heart rate. The most advanced act as a combination running coach/outdoor guide/personal assistant/weatherman/sometimes annoying relative who's concerned you're not eating or sleeping enough. Thankfully, there is a device for everyone and a feature set that is likely tailored to your needs and desires.
First, our Editor's Choice, the Garmin Forerunner 935, and its sibling, the Garmin Fenix 5x Plus, are clear leaders in terms of the features they provide. These models include far too many features to list here, but we'll give you some highlights.
They track your heart rate at the wrist, have a compass, and include a barometric altimeter, which you can calibratable either manually or using GPS. They also come loaded with a wide range of customizable activity profiles. These control what data you see when you're doing everything from trail running to SUPing. Both devices sync with your smartphone to deliver notifications, calendar updates, and weather forecasts. They also monitor your daily steps and sleep patterns, track your training, give you tips on training load, and predicted race times.
At this altitude, it is good to have a pulse ox like the Garmin Fenix 5x Plus Sapphire offers.
They allow you to create workouts and routes online and send them to your watch so that, for example, when you do a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout, the watch notifies you when you should begin and end your sprints. Finally, when paired with additional Garmin devices, they allow you to monitor everything from how much bounce is in your running stride to where your dog is in relation to you on the trail.
The Apple Watch Series 4 is also a strong scorer here. That said, the features we like the best are all available through 3rd party apps and what we'll call workarounds. They aren't built in Apple apps and features. Please read our Apple Watch Series 4 review for the details.
The next tier of feature functionality includes the Garmin Forerunner 235, the Coros Pace and the Suunto Baro 9. None of these have exactly the same feature set, but they all offer functions that fall between comprehensive and adequate.
The Forerunner 35 has a set of features meant specifically for training use, as does the Polar M430. Both offer a built-in step counter and an optical heart rate monitor. But the Polar M430 has more training specific features, such as adjustable battery life settings for distance athletes. The Garmin 35 can control the music playing from your mobile phone. Both of these watches have the fewest features in our review but are also the most affordable by far.
Running in Hong Kong with fog was no problem using the Garmin Fenix 5x Plus Sapphire navigation with background maps.
Ease of Use
We are all busy people. If you're an endurance athlete that works full-time, chances are, you do not have the time to waste fiddling with an overcomplicated GPS watch. That's why ease of use counts for 25% of each product's overall score. When using your watch, you'll interact with the physical product itself, the app and possibly the software/webpage that manages your data. We evaluate all three interfaces in this metric.
The GPS watches that score the highest have user-friendly interfaces, well-placed buttons, and intuitive scrolling. We also want to be able to see relevant information at a glance on the screen while running. We don't want to strain ourselves to find the basic info that the watch should deliver.
GPS watches strike a careful balance between design and usability. The wrist-mounted form limits the size of the screen, as well as how the manufacturer can pack the hardware into it. Given these limitations, a watch can generally display a maximum of four types of information at any one time. Smaller watches usually max out at three. Some can be programmed to show customized combinations of data. We discuss the nature and difficulty of programming and customizing the watches in our ease of setup category and the factors that affect the size of a watch in our design category.
Based on a combination of these factors, the Coros Pace and Garmin 35 are the easiest watches to use. The Garmin Forerunner 35 achieves this by having fewer features than the more expensive watches we tested. This means that you have fewer menus to scroll through but you can still enjoy all of the basic features you require and some you don't need but will certainly enjoy.
The Coros Pace is also super easy to use, not because it has a short feature list, but because it has a very intuitive interface on both the watch and the app. The Coros app is hands down the easiest to use on its own and when syncing with the watch. The buttons on the Coros Pace are also easy to push while running. Both of these watches have a very easy-to-read screen as well, which pushes their scoring in the "Ease of Use" metric to the top of the list.
The Apple Watch Series 4 unfortunately did not have connectivity outside of the USA but we appreciated its weather information and music storage when planning runs.
All the products in our test can upload data to a phone app or web-based interface for post-run data viewing and processing. Garmin, Apple, Suunto, Coros and Polar each provide their own web or cloud-based data storage and viewing platform. Each is comprehensive and useful, once the user is roughly acquainted with the system. But some offer many more features than others.
Of all the manufacturers we reviewed, Garmin has the most widely used data management software with the most features. But, we are also impressed with the Polar data management software. Because data tracking and analyses are the main reasons that most people purchase a GPS watch, the online platforms and apps cannot really be separated from the watch itself in a comprehensive review.
If you already have a Garmin product to monitor your daily step count, bicycle activity or outdoor adventures, you may want to choose a watch from the brand you already have. That way, data from both products can live in one app. This enhances your metrics and streamlines your fitness tracking routine.
Also worth noting is that most of the devices in our test export activity information in a standardized format. All watches can generate GPX files (i.e., GPS exchange files) that contain time and position data and that can be stored and viewed in a variety of ways. Various applications, PC or web-based, can take this data and generate distance, pace, and other information. For instance, Strava can interpret and store all GPX files. Regardless of what device captured the file, Strava will organize it and integrate it with its website. There are a host of other applications and products that will help you organize and process your GPX data.
The only watch that can not natively export data without utilizing a 3rd party app is the Apple Watch Series 4. In order to download the GPX file to your computer, you need to use an app like RunGap (a paid service) or use a different app on the watch to track your activity from the get-go.
The battery of the Garmin Forerunner 935 tracked the entire 11 hour day in the Sangre de Cristos with smart notifications and music controls being used.
Our battery life demand for a watch is really quite crazy. We need to remember that the GPS watch is communicating with a satellite in outer space! That is wild. The watch is also communicating with your phone through Bluetooth or wifi, and it is tracking all your data while displaying it simultaneously. Think of how someone 20 years ago would have reacted to these watches! Now think about what your specific demands are from the battery and how you use your watch. We tried to consider the various needs of users from the recreational runner to the triathlete to the hardcore multi-day ultrarunner.
Whether we like it or not, battery life is directly influenced by design and usage. If the battery needs to last longer, the technology that we currently have requires it to be larger. It is not a coincidence that the two largest watches that we tested, the Garmin Fenix 5x Plus and the Suunto Baro 9, both have the longest lasting batteries when you need GPS tracking and extra feature usage.
GPS use drains the battery the fastest. No other feature — screen size and resolution, touchscreen or buttons, barometer, accelerometer, heart rate, etc — affects the battery life as much as the antennae used for GPS and the literal size of the battery.
The Apple Series 4 Watch has the shortest-lasting battery. It is also the watch with the highest screen resolution, a long list of features, and a smaller watch body. So it is not surprising that the battery needs to be charged pretty much every day.
During our testing, we quickly realized that we needed to conduct two separate battery usage tests — normal usage (i.e. using as a smartwatch every day and tracking an hour of GPS activity every couple of days) and activity usage (testing the tracking capability until failure). The first metric will maybe be what most users are interested, in but a subset of endurance athletes out there (ultra distance athletes, Ironman athletes, etc.) that need 12+ hours of continuous use.
To account for multi-day stage races, backpacking or ultra cycling. we checked which watches can be charged DURING an activity without interrupting it. In other words, can you hook up your watch to an external battery without causing the activity and its data to stop or clear.
The perfect day can change in one hour to the worst at these elevations. A storm alert/ alarm linked from the barometer is available in the Suunto Baro 9 and Garmin Fenix 5x Plus. You want their batteries to last long enough for you to get the alert.
Testing normal battery use is extremely difficult to do. Testing battery life while running GPS tracking during a lengthy activity is much easier. You just put the watch on, start an activity and let it track until it dies. A number of outside influences affect the results of normal use testing. The more texts and phone calls you get during the day, the faster your battery will drain. Other factors that affect the draw-down rate include how many times you turn on the backlight to see the watch face at night, whether or not the optical heart rate monitor is on, how often you sync it, and whether you play music on the watch. These are hard to track.
What does that mean? It means that our normal use testing was exactly that: normal. Some days we had more texts and backlight usage, some less.
Our testing showed us that the watches that had the most features and longest battery life during an activity actually had the shortest battery life during normal usage and vice versa. Our Editor's Pick, the Garmin Forerunner 935 is a happy medium. It lasted a long time in normal usage (up to 3 weeks) but we also ran it during an activity to over 23 hours and charging it during the activity was not a problem.
The conclusion is that for short ultra marathons up to 10 hours, every watch we tested, with the exception of the Apple Watch Series 4, will last the entire activity and record your data. For longer ultras, the Suunto Baro 9 easily wins. But all watches, again with the exception of the Apple Watch Series 4, can be charged during an activity, which enables them to technically work for any ultra event as long as you have external batteries.
Running group on the train platform in Germany. The group had 40+ people and we saw at least 9 wrists wearing the Garmin Forerunner 235.
We're guessing you're not in the market for a GPS watch so you can figure out roughly how far you ran and about how many feet you climbed. Those who don't care about accuracy can guestimate their mileage and paces with a free online map and a basic stopwatch. They can also take their pulse by hand, saving themselves some money in the process. But if you want precise recordings of your workouts, heart rates, and activities with the best wearable technology out there, you're in the right place.
GPS signal strength, satellite location, watch fit, and internal hardware all have a large impact on device accuracy. If the very best device has a limited view of the sky, it might be far less accurate than a cheaper tool, with a tiny and misplaced antenna, that is out in the wide open plains. In our testing, we got a wide range of accuracy results, which we elaborate upon in the individual reviews.
Wrist-top devices have inherently small GPS antennae, and GPS satellite signals are regularly flawed. This results in outlier data points. While a user is running or walking, the device periodically uses the GPS signal to determine that user's position. It measures distance by mapping these position points against one another. Calculating the distance covered over time allows the watches to measure speed. When the device gets a data point that is inaccurate, both distance and speed are affected. An accelerometer-based step counter can verify or refute such inaccuracies. As a result, watches that have both GPS tracking and step counters tend to be more accurate.
To evaluate tracking accuracy, we ran and ran and ran….usually with up to 4 watches simultaneously. Since some of us are ultra-runners, we train a lot already. Other testers ramped up our mileage and some added HIIT workouts. We ran the same routes over and over and explored new ones to collect as much data as possible. We tried to run over bridges and next to bodies of water as much as possible to find out which watches thought we were swimming instead of running.
It is no surprise that the most expensive watches, namely the Garmin Fenix 5x Plus, Garmin Forerunner 935 and the Suunto Baro 9 are the most accurate. They are usually dead on or less than 1% off base. These three watches stood out for being the closest to the actual distance traveled and most accurately mapping the track we ran.
The Coros Pace was always within 1-2% of the above watches and the Garmin 235 under 5% off. Surprisingly, the Garmin 35 beat out the Apple Watch Series 4 and Polar M430 in both distance accuracy and mapping accuracy. That is, the Garmin had fewer gpx track maps showing that we were swimming in the river instead of running on the trail beside it. This was one really great way of comparing the accuracy of each watch…we were definitely not swimming even if the recorded running track showed otherwise!
Heart Rate Monitor Accuracy
The Garmin Forerunner 35 fits smaller wrists well. (It's shown here swallowed by the Polar M430.) This helps the optical heart rate monitor be more accurate.
Testing heart rate monitors is quite a challenge. During runs, we look at the actual data as we went. We also compared the collected data afterward. We also compared the results to those of a chest strap heart rate monitor and to our personal feel of the run. Being ultra runners, we know how our hearts perform over distance, so we used it as another data point. Overall, we found that we had the most issues were with watches that fit poorly in general or watches that were too loose on the wrist. In both cases, we almost always had poor data results.
One important thing to note regarding optical heart rate monitors is that they might not provide quality data for people with dark skin, tattoos or large amounts of hair or sweat under the monitor. This issue applies to every watch that has an optical heart rate monitor because they use photoplethysmography (PPG), where light reflected from your arteries indicates your heart rate. Outside light, bursts of activity, interference from hair, tattoo ink, sweat, etc, can all affect the readings.
Garmin and Suunto officially state that tattoos can cause skewed readings, but that their optical heart rate monitors are designed to function with dark skin. Other companies seem to avoid the topic altogether. Some claim that dark skin does affect heart rate accuracy. This is technically possible since a darker skin pigmentation might reflect light differently, but we have not tested this possibility to date.
When we assessed the heart rate monitors, we found, once again, that the most expensive watches, the Garmin Fenix 5x Plus, Garmin Forerunner 935 and Suunto Baro 9 are also the most accurate. That said, the Apple Watch Series 4 tested much better in the heart rate monitor accuracy testing than it did in the GPS and mapping accuracy. We believe this is due to the fact that the Apple Watch Series 4 fit all of our testers well. This the minimized outside light, sliding, etc. that can interfere with an optical heart rate monitor.
The Garmin Forerunner 235, Coros Pace and Garmin 35, were usually within 3-4% of the readings from their more expensive contenders. But the Polar M430 fell within this 3-4% category ONLY on wrists that are a bit larger. The watch fit petite wrists very poorly and the heart rate readings were negatively affected as a result. The watch is simply not designed with small wrists in mind.
Wrist-based heart rate monitors were always less responsive and slightly less accurate than the chest strap monitors we tested them against.
Backlights are consistently good on all GPS watches we tested. Here we show the Suunto Baro 9, Garmin Forerunner 935, and Coros Pace (left to right) lit up in the dark.
In most ways, the comfort and ease of carrying a GPS watch is a function of its absolute dimensions. Which watch is bigger, and which weighs more? Other criteria include contouring for the wrist and the nature of attaching the wristband.
With sleeves, straps, and plenty of movement, a wrist is a busy place. It presents plenty of opportunities to inadvertently press a button or two or disrupt the optical heart rate monitor placement. Not to mention the fact that you want the watch to look good for multiple purposes if possible. On top of that, the design will also have an effect on how easy it is to read the screen.
Devices with more features and battery life are the largest and heaviest. In our test, the Garmin Fenix 5x Plus device is the bulkiest and heaviest. The Suunto Baro 9 is a close second. The Garmin 35 is the most compact. Should you choose to carry your watch in your pocket occasionally, the Garmin Forerunner 935, Fenix 5x Plus, Forerunner 235, Apple Watch Series 4 and Coros Pace are unique in that their wrist straps allow the entire package to lay flat. This resulted in a far better fit on a variety of wrist sizes.
Generally, the items that did not offer a flat lay, such as the Suunto Baro 9 and the Polar M430, were the ones that had the most difficulties fitting small wrists. The Garmin 35 is a hybrid version, although the wrist strap cannot lay flat, it is flexible enough to fit into a pocket and fit all wrist sizes comfortably.
Some straps are easier to put on than others. From left to right: the Garmin Forerunner 35, Garmin Forerunner 935, Polar M430, Garmin Forerunner 235, Coros Pace, Suunto Baro 9, Garmin Fenix 5x Plus Sapphire, and Apple Watch Series 4.
One reason the Garmin Forerunner 935 edged out the Fenix 5x Plus to steal the Editor's Choice award, is that its display is the same size, but it weighs significantly less. It is also much thinner than the Fenix 5x Plus. The dark horse Coros Pace is also a compact option, taking up appreciably less room on the wrist than the Fenix 5x Plus or Suunto Baro 9 but maintaining a very long battery life and a moderate amount of features.
As already discussed, a watch that doesn't fit will also result in a poor accuracy for the optical heart rate monitor. Although some of the larger testers did not notice this on the Polar M430, our lead tester, an ultrarunner, ultra cyclist and triathlete, is a petite female and found the Polar to be difficult to fit under any jacket, uncomfortable, and inaccurate in heart rate readings.
It was clear if you looked at the watch on her wrist, that the optical heart rate monitor was exposed to outside light due to the poor fit. Incidentally, she had no issues with the optical heart rate monitor on the largest watch, the Garmin Fenix 5x Plus but could not fit it under any jacket she owns. And, to be fair, the watch looked like a steering wheel on her small wrist. The weight of the watch also annoyed her during longer runs.
So who won the design test? It had to be the Apple Watch Series 4. All of the testers stated this was one of the comfiest and best-looking watches that they had ever worn. The watch also comes with two separate wristband sizes, which offer even more fit options. It looks professional but still maintains a screen that is easy to see when running. The face designs and band designs offered are also extensive, allowing you to customize the device to your style.
And Apple didn't stop there…the watch can be set up to have the crown on the left or the right side. That means that if you wear your watch on the right hand, you don't have to worry about the crown poking into the back of your hand when you bend your wrist!
Here are the charging cables (from left to right): the Polar M430, Apple Watch Series 4, Garmin Forerunner 35 and 235, Coros Pace, Garmin Forerunner 935 and Fenix 5x Plus, and Suunto Baro 9.
Ease of Set-up
Between working and training, no one has time to spend hours and hours learning how to use a GPS watch. We all want a product that does what it is supposed to do in an intuitive way so we can spend more time on the trails than inside at our desk reading a manual. Our testing for "Ease of Set Up" was all about getting the watch up and running as fast as possible. The device and its platforms and apps should be intuitive, whether it is the user interface on the watch itself, the data platform or the connection between the two.
The good news is, the market has realized that set-up procedures need to be fast and easy. Every device we tested synced to an app that was easily downloaded on our mobile phones. This made set-up quick for most devices. Basically, you charge the watch, download the app and follow the app instructions. Only the watches with the most features, the Garmin Fenix 5x Plus and the Suunto Baro 9 came with official user's manuals, the rest arrived with a quick start-up manual.
Every device could be used without consulting the paper instructions or a pdf download, though some were far more intuitive than others.
The main issues we had with set-up were the syncing times. Some devices, it seems, take longer to get going during this first use. The Apple Watch Series 4 and the Garmin Fenix 5x Plus took the longest. These are also the two watches with the most features, so we were not very surprised that they needed longer. Still, we were a bit dismayed that the Apple Series 4 needed more than 2 hours to update! The Fenix 5x Plus on the other hand, only took about an hour. And we didn't mind it as much since it was downloading maps for navigation. It is the only GPS watch tested that has a natively-built map in the background. This is a significant improvement over the typical bread crumb trail or connection to the phone map.
During set-up, we had two big surprises:
- There are currently two separate apps that Suunto offers to pair their watches, like our reviewed Suunto Baro 9. This is confusing because the two apps are not comparable in their offerings, which we only figured out after downloading the newer, but less-featured, app.
- The easiest to set-up watch, with the cleanest app user interface, is the Coros Pace, by far.
The Coros Pace was easily our favorite in the ease of setup category. After downloading the app, the watch synced and updated in about 5 minutes! The watch had 87% battery life directly out of the box. (In comparison, the Garmins had about 25% charge.) Even those of us who are less-techy were able to customize the Coros Pace and get it up and running in no time at all. This watch definitely earns its win for the Best GPS Watch for the Non-Techy Athlete.
Choosing a GPS watch to track your adventures is quite a task in today's massively expanded market, but we have streamlined the process to make your decision easier.
Related: Buying Advice for GPS Sports Watches
Auf Wiedersehen! That is the end of our GPS Watch review. Time to run.