We analyzed more than 50 of the top GPS-enabled fitness watches and chose the best 11 to test side-by-side for three months. We subjected each product in our review to a bevy of empirical tests and recorded our observations over hundreds of hours and thousands of miles of use in the field. Which watch will still be with you on mile 72 of your ultramarathon? Which will keep you on track deep in the backcountry? Which is dead accurate while tracking your bike commute? Which are overly complicated and which ones deliver exactly what you need? Whether you're overwhelmed by this rapidly evolving field, or you're just looking to get the best bang for your buck, we can help. If you just want the simplest step counters available, see our pedometer review.
Best GPS Watches of 2018 for Running & Training
Welcome to the ever-evolving world of fitness watches! Garmin continues to dominate the competition when it comes to fully featured, easy-to-use products for a wide range of runners, from first-timers to seasoned athletes. In our 2018 update, the new Garmin Forerunner 935 snatched the Editor's Choice Award from its bulkier sibling, the Garmin Fenix 5. We also couldn't help but test the watch that's been blowing up our ad pages and social media influencer accounts, the Garmin Forerunner 645 Music. We're excited to see this field continue to improve as companies figure out ways to fit more and better features into impossibly tiny packages.
Best Overall Competitor
Garmin Forerunner 935
We added the Garmin Forerunner 935 to our review in 2018, and it quickly climbed to the top of the heap to steal our Editor's Choice Award from its sibling, the Garmin Fenix 5. These watches are identical in terms of features and uses, but the 935 is significantly lighter and thinner, and it slightly edged out the Fenix 5 with respect to accuracy and battery life. The Forerunner 935 has every feature we could think to include in a GPS watch, from extensive activity tracking to navigation tools to smartwatch functions. It's easy to set up and use, it's incredibly accurate, and its battery will outlast all but the most hardcore competitors in GPS mode. Given all that, it comes in an impressively light and slim package. Swoon!
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. It also has a wide diameter, so it looks like a lot of watch and may overwhelm small wrists. Finally, some might 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 less. But for the most comprehensive option available in a user-friendly design, look no further than the Forerunner 935.
Read review: Garmin Forerunner 935
Best Bang for the Buck
Garmin Forerunner 35
We can recommend the Garmin Forerunner 35 to any and all consumers looking for basic run tracking with virtually no reservations. 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 Forerunner 35 is accurate, easy to use, and represents a great entry point for new runners.
While we consider the Forerunner 35 to be a great value, the price of this watch isn't the lowest in our review. Those who want extensive running analytics and navigation on-the-go will find this watch too basic for their needs. However, this is a proven product from a proven manufacturer, so folks who don't want all the bells and whistles will be well-served with this choice.
Read review: Garmin Forerunner 35
Top Pick for Daily Smartwatch Use, With Exercise
Apple Nike+ Sportwatch
The Apple Watch Nike+ wins our Top Pick Award as a smartwatch for daily use and training. The watch is co-branded with Nike and comes in a 38mm size, which we tested, or a 42mm model, which boasts a larger screen and at least slightly better battery life. There are an infinitely customizable set of apps available to use with the Apple Watch and the iPhone that is required to operate it. These means that users will be able to find the data management and motivational resources they want.
This watch's battery life is limited, so it's not a good choice for ultra-distance training or events. But for typical runs and life around town, there is enough juice in this Apple to keep you happy.
Read review: Apple Watch Nike+
Notable for Music on the Go
Garmin Forerunner 645 Music
Do you love listening to music and podcasts on the run, but hate lugging your bulky phone around to do so? Us, too. So we were stoked to test the Garmin Forerunner 645 Music, which lets you store up to 500 songs right on your watch and listen to them via wireless headphones — no phone required. We loved the experience of using this watch while running, and it won our hearts in other ways, too: It's light and exceptionally compact given its extensive set of features, which is almost comparable to our Editor's Choice, the Forerunner 935.
While this watch represents a big step forward in wrist-based technology, it's not perfect. It isn't compatible with several popular music streaming services, so you'll have to switch to a compatible service or manually upload MP3s to listen on the go. Using the watch to its full capabilities — listening to music while tracking a run — drains the battery quickly, so it won't go the distance for ultrarunners. It's also one of the most expensive devices in our test. We're looking forward to this technology improving in the coming years, but if you're a music junkie and you just can't wait to leave your phone at home, check out the Forerunner 645 Music.
Read review: Garmin Forerunner 645 Music
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 track your progress and increase your passion for fitness. Our team of fitness, outdoor, and technology experts have tested dozens of the best products on the market and evaluated the top contenders in six comprehensive categories: Ease of Use, Features, Accuracy, Ease of Set-up, Battery Life, and Portability. Below, we'll walk you through each category and note which watches outperformed the competition and which couldn't keep up. Still overwhelmed at the prospect of choosing a watch for yourself? Check out our Buying Advice guide for extra help.
Ease of Use
A great GPS watch should help you get out the door and should never be a barrier to your training. That's why ease of use counts for 25% of each product's overall score in this review. When using your watch, you'll interact with the physical product itself and the app that manages your data, so we evaluate both in this metric.
The GPS watches in our test that are easiest to use feature large displays and locking buttons. We want to be able to see relevant information at a glance without worrying about the integrity of the data. With sleeves, straps, and plenty of movement, a wrist is a busy place, presenting plenty of opportunities to inadvertently press a button or two. We appreciated the button locks on the Forerunner 935, Fenix 5, and Forerunner 645 Music models from Garmin, as well as the Suunto Ambit 3, Polar M400, Nixon Mission, and Apple Watch.
GPS watches strike a careful balance between portability and viewability. The wrist-mounted form limits the size of the screen and hard-working eyes need numbers and letters that they can see. Given these limitations, a watch can generally display a 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. We discuss the nature and difficulty of programming and customizing the watches in our ease of set-up category.
In terms of post-event data viewing and processing, all products in our test can upload data to a phone app and web-based interface. Garmin, Nike, Suunto, and Polar each provide their own web/cloud-based data storage and viewing platform. The Nixon Mission uses Google's open source Android Wear app to store and manage data. 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.
If you already have a Garmin product for monitoring your daily step count or bicycle activity, you'll likely reap some benefits by choosing a watch from the brand you already have. That way, data from both products can live in one app, enhancing your metrics and streamlining 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 organize and process your GPX data.
In assessing ease of use, we also considered the simplicity and reliability of data transfer between each device and its associated app. Some transfer data automatically, like the Apple Watch, the Suunto Ambit3 Peak, and the high-end Garmin devices, while others do it only when you open the app.
Based on a combination of all the factors above, our testing indicated that the Apple Nike+ and Garmin Forerunner 35 are the easiest to use.
The watches in our test group run the gamut in this category. The most basic models do little other than capture the GPS track of your activity. The most advanced are more akin to a combination running coach/outdoor guide/personal assistant/ weatherman/kindhearted older 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 Fenix 5, are clear leaders regarding features. These models include far too many features to list exhaustively here, but we'll give you some highlights.
They track your heart rate at the wrist, include a barometric altimeter (calibratable either manually or with GPS), and a have a compass. They also come loaded with a wide range of customizable activity profiles that determine 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. They also allow you to create workouts and routes online and send them to your watch. 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. We think these watches are well deserving of a 10 out of 10 in this category.
The Garmin Forerunner 645 Music includes most of the features in the larger Garmins mentioned above, with a few key differences. It's not set up as well for du-/triathletes, its navigation features are more rudimentary, and golfers will be disappointed to learn that it has no golfing features. On the flipside, the 645 Music allows you to store and play music from your watch and to link to a credit card for contactless payments, neither of which are possible on the higher-end Garmins.
The Apple Watch Nike+ is also a strong scorer here. The Apple omits a thermometer that the Garmins boast. The Apple does have a barometric altimeter. Incidentally, these two sensors often come together. For a barometric altimeter to work accurately, the data it collects needs to be calibrated against current temperature. Every device that has a barometer in it should also have a thermometer. The opposite isn't true. In the end, in terms of features, the Apple has almost all you'd want with a vast array of apps available. The Suunto Ambit3 Peak performs well here also but omits a heart rate sensor.
In terms of features, the next tier of products includes the Garmin Forerunner 35, the Garmin VivoActive, the Polar M400, and the Nixon Mission. None of these have exactly the same feature set, but all have something between comprehensive and basic. The Forerunner 35 has a set of features truly optimized for specific training use, while the VivoActive is better for daily use with occasional training sessions. The Polar M400, with a built-in step count, can be used daily but is more optimized for use in training only. The Nixon Mission is a ruggedized smartwatch daily driver.
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 and can save themselves some money in the process. But if you want precise recordings of your workouts and activities with the best wearable technology out there, you're in the right place.
Overall, signal strength and quality have 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 super basic to $700 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.
We have found a clear correlation between the integrity of distance data and proper accelerometer confirmation. Basically, these wrist-top devices have inherently small GPS antennae, and GPS satellite signal is 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. Mapping these position points against one another measures distance. Calculating the distance covered over time measures speed. When the device gets a data point that is inaccurate, both distance and speed can be artificially inflated. An accelerometer-based step count can verify or refute that seeming increase in rate and distance.
To evaluate this category, we put all the watches through the same test — two sets of two laps around the inside lane of a standard 1/4-mile outdoor track. In our 2017 test, the inaccuracy of the watches varied from 0% to 7%.
Interestingly, the least accurate product we evaluated also has an accelerometer. Whether the Nixon Mission uses the accelerometer or not to monitor the GPS for errors isn't clear, but the end result is an average of 7% inaccuracy. Over a long run, this adds up to significant error. The Best Buy Garmin Forerunner erred by an average of 4%. The rest of the products in the test were off by a minimal 1-3%.
In our 2018 update, we saw much less variation, with all the watches either measuring perfect half-miles or measuring just 2% short. To get a better read on how two of the top watches compared to each other, we took the Garmin Forerunner 935 and the Garmin Fenix 5 on the same run and compared their GPS tracks afterward. Consistently, the Fenix 5 underperformed, measuring a sloppy track compared to the Forerunner 935 (above). We also noticed that the 935 reported a smoother, more accurate pace than the Fenix (below).
Finally, for those watches with barometric altimeters, we assessed how accurate they were at tracking our altitude over time. This group included the Garmin Fenix 5, the Forerunners 935 and 645 Music, the Suunto Ambit3 Peak, and the Nixon Mission. Some of these watches, including the Fenix 5, the Forerunner 935, and the Suunto can be calibrated either manually or using GPS.
The Suunto Ambit3 Peak is the gold standard here, having picked up the Editor's Choice Award in our standalone altimeter review. Of the remaining devices, the Forerunner 935 stuck most closely to the readings we got from the Suunto, which in turn conformed most closely to our known elevations.
Ease of Set-up
In the smartphone age, consumers are used to unboxing a small electronic device and using it right away, with little to no learning curve. That's the kind of experience we were testing for in this category. 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.
Thankfully the market is consolidating and set-up procedures are largely easy and clear. Every device syncs with a smartphone app, and in general, the app/phone interface makes setup easy. For the most part, you charge the watch initially, download the appropriate app, and follow the instructions on the app. Each comes with at least rudimentary paper instructions, but we made sure to have at least one tester perform the set up without the paper instructions. Every device could be used for most, if not all, of its functions without consulting the paper instructions for more than selecting the proper app.
Don't let prior experiences with clumsy interfaces and long instruction manuals turn you off of any of the brands in our review. The only issues we had with set-up, in fact, were in extended initial syncing. Some devices, it seems, take longer to get going during that first use. Notably, the Polar M400 spun its gears for over an hour on first set up. Since we were testing, we had the time to deal with this. If you want to "plug and play", realize that the Polar might take some more time between the plugging and the playing.
Setting up the Nixon Mission is complicated a little by its use of the generic "Android Wear" app. Nixon uses Google's open-source Android wearables platform (it still works with Apple products) that works with a wide variety of devices. It works just fine, but it is clear that it isn't tailor-made for the Mission.
We ask a great deal of the power source in these tiny electronics. First, it is important to note that the first job of a GPS watch is to receive a signal from outer space! That is a tall order. Before you get all bent about the limitations of these things, ponder just what that wristwatch is actually doing. Next, it needs to be pretty dang small. Finally, all GPS watches now communicate both ways with your smartphone. All this communication takes a lot of battery power. That a device will do any of this even for an hour or two is remarkable. That some will perform all of these functions for upwards of 24 hours should blow your mind. Some, if used sparingly, will go weeks between charges.
Battery life is influenced by a wide range of design and usage variables. The two biggest variables are the size of the battery, which is directly correlated with the size of the watch, and how often the user employs the various antennae. Larger batteries last longer. Using a GPS signal, syncing with a smartphone, and collecting data from wireless accessory sensors all suck battery. Of those, GPS is the big one.
All other variables — including the screen (is it a touchscreen? is it color? is it high-resolution? does it turn off when you're not looking at it?), accelerometer, barometer, and thermometer --are minor as compared to antennae and battery size. The shortest-lasting battery, that on the Apple Nike+, is a product that is the smallest and has many features. The longest battery life comes from the Garmin Forerunner 935, the Garmin Vivoactive, and the Garmin Fenix 5, while the large Suunto Ambit3 Peak finishes close behind. When the Suunto is used without GPS signal and without syncing to your smartphone, it will literally last almost three weeks.
Objective testing and direct comparisons of battery life are very, very difficult. In our 2018 update, we took on this challenge by tracking a GPS activity continuously, from 100% charged until the battery died. The best performer was our Editor's Choice, the Forerunner 935, which lasted more than 21 hours before petering out. The Suunto Ambit3 Peak lasted slightly longer, but did so without the optical heart rate sensor that was working the whole time in the Forerunner 935.
For the most part, though, our testing was anecdotal. "Does this one seem to last longer, all else equal, than that one?" Our charted rankings of battery life assume the user is roughly average for that product. The Apple Watch, for instance, is intended to be worn 24/7. In this average usage, it lasts one day. The Editors' Choice Garmin Forerunner 935 is also a day-to-day product. In most athlete's lives, the 935 will last about a week of 24/7 wear. The Best Buy Garmin Forerunner is primarily a dedicated training tool. In this context, it will last for about ten hours of dedicated use. If you train 12 hours a week, you charge a little more than once a week.
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.
In our test, the Suunto device is the bulkiest and heaviest, while the Apple Nike+ is the most compact. Should you choose to carry your watch in your pocket occasionally, the Garmin Forerunner 935, Fenix 5, and Forerunner 645 Music are unique in that their wrist straps are attached with hinges that allow the entire package to lay flat. Generally speaking, devices with more features were less portable. The Apple Watch is an outlier this way, but you pay for that with battery life. It has lots of features, in a tiny package, but it needs to be charged regularly.
One reason the Garmin Forerunner 935 edged out the Fenix 5 to steal the Editor's Choice award in 2018 is that while its display is the same size, the 935 weighs significantly less than the Fenix 5, and it's thinner to boot. The newcomer Garmin Forerunner 645 Music is also a compact option, weighing slightly less than the Forerunner 935 and taking up appreciably less room on the wrist.
We can divide our tested watches into three main "portability" strata. The biggest, most cumbersome are the Garmin Fenix 5, the Suunto Ambit3 Peak, the Nixon Mission, and the Garmin Forerunner 935. These are roughly equal, with the Fenix on the smaller side and the Forerunner 935 weighing the least.
In the middle, is the Polar M400 and the Garmin Forerunner 645 Music. They are larger than a standard wristwatch but smaller than the big guns above. The smallest products on our list, the Garmin Forerunner 35, Garmin VivoActive, and Apple Watch are little, if any, larger than a standard wristwatch. For the features, these compact choices are remarkably small.
Choosing a GPS watch to track your running, cycling, hiking, and other outdoor endurance activities is challenging. Thankfully, there are excellent products on the market, and we have worked hard to demystify the options for you. If you still feel as though you're in the dark as to which contender is best for you, or whether you even need a GPS watch, consider reading our Buying Advice article to help clear things up.
— Jediah Porter and Joanna Trieger
Still not sure? Take a look at our buying advice article for tips.