Best GPS Watch of 2020
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Related: Best Altimeter Watch
Best Overall Competitor
The Coros Apex is a great watch for people who are not ready to break the bank on a watch but demand a lot anyways. Not only will it accurately track your activities and heart rate, but it will also send you on your way with a great navigation feature using preloaded routes. If you get lost, you can utilize the "Back to Start" function to find your way back. The best thing about the Coros Apex, though, is its battery life. Many watches have either long battery life in GPS mode or long battery life in "normal daily use." The Coros Apex is the only watch we tested that has unbelievable battery life in both categories - up to 30 days in normal use and up to 35 hours in GPS activity mode! This watch is perfect for endurance athletes. These bonuses, coupled with a slew of other features and its high-end titanium alloy bezel and sapphire glass make it the hands-down winner for our top honor.
Read review: Coros Apex
Best for Feature Junkies
Garmin Forerunner 945
The Forerunner 945 has even more features than its predecessor but is still packaged in the same comfortable to wear and not-too-bulky casing. It's easy to set up and use, it's incredibly accurate, and its battery will outlast most of its 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 as the Forerunner 935, but with even more features and that is why the Forerunner 945 has won us over.
It is difficult to go wrong with the Forerunner 945, but there is a downside; namely, it's expensive. 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, which makes the menu navigation and app more complicated. There are much simpler models out there, so if you don't care about tracking your pulse oxidation or navigating in the backcountry with topographic maps instead of just a breadcrumb trail, 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 945.
Read review: Garmin Forerunner 945
Best Bang for the Buck
Garmin Forerunner 45S
If you are a runner looking for a smaller watch that accurately tracks your route and heart rate, then the Garmin Forerunner 45s is the watch for you. It is easy to use, is small and unobtrusive and really offers a great value.
This also happens to be Garmin's most affordable watch that offers the enviable "downloadable workouts" feature. This feature allows you or your coach to design workouts within Garmin Connect, the Garmin online platform, and download them to your watch. So if you are doing intervals, for example, the watch will count down the time and beep when you need to start sprinting. For serious athletes or runners with a coach, this feature makes training so much easier. If you want extensive running analytics and navigation on-the-go, however, you will find this watch too basic.
Read review: Garmin Forerunner 45s
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 iron-distance triathlons and ultramarathons.
To do so, she first reviewed top 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 tests. 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.
Related: How We Tested GPS Sports Watches
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, we factor price into each model's overall performance. We recommend the Garmin Forerunner 45s if you're on a tight budget, and the Forerunner 945 if you want tons of features. The Coros Apex falls between these two in price and is a good option for the non-techy but still demanding athlete.
The watches in our test group run the gamut in this category. The most basic models capture your GPS activity track, heart rate, and basic activity statistics. 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, the Garmin Forerunner 945 is the clear leader in terms of the features it provides. This watch includes far too many features to list here, but we'll give you some highlights.
It will track your heart rate at the wrist, has a compass, and includes a barometric altimeter, which you can calibratable either manually or using GPS. It also comes 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. The Garmin Forerunner 945 syncs with your smartphone to deliver notifications, calendar updates, and weather forecasts, monitors your daily steps and sleep patterns, tracks your training, gives you tips on training load, and predicts race times.
The Garmin Forerunner 945 also allows 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, it allows 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. Where it differs in its predecessor, the Garmin Forerunner 935 is that in the 945 you get a whole lot more. You get background maps instead of just a breadcrumb trail in the navigation, the 945 has a pulse oximeter meter, music onboard and more. In fact, the additional features list against the 935 is long.
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.
The next tier of feature functionality includes the Coros Apex. It has great onboard features such as pre-downloaded route navigation, including "go back to start," barometric pressure, sleep tracking, and numerous activity profiles.
The Forerunner 45s has a set of features meant specifically for training use, as does the Polar Igniteand thethe Polar M430. All three offer a built-in step counter, GPS tracking, and an optical heart rate monitor. But the Polar Ignite has more interactive features, such as Polar's new "digital coach" that they call "FitSpark." That said, the downloadable workouts offered on the Garmin Forerunner 45s are also a huge plus for serious runners. Both of these watches have the fewest features in our review but are also the most affordable.
Ease of Use
We are all busy people. If you're an 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 six 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 Apex, the Coros Pace, and Garmin 45s are the easiest watches to use. The Garmin Forerunner 45s 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 Apex 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 Coros Apex also offers the most data fields on one screen (six as compared to Garmin's four), which means you rarely need to change screens during your run to get your data. 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.
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, Coros, Apple, Suunto 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 analysis 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 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. So if you, e.g. own a Garmin, you probably want to stick with Garmin unless you are unhappy with it.
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.
Our battery life demand for a watch is 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 Suunto Baro 9, Garmin Forerunner 945, and the Coros Apex, 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, although playing onboard music is also a big drain (for the watches that offer this).
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 be what most users are interested in, but there is a subset of endurance athletes out there (ultra-distance athletes, Ironman athletes, etc.) that need 12+ hours of continuous GPS use.
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.
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.
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 drawdown 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, with the exception of the Coros Apex, which floored us with its all-around battery life. The Garmin Forerunner 945 is a happy medium. It lasted a long time in normal usage (up to 2 weeks) but we also ran it during an activity to over 32 hours without music 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, will last the entire activity and record your data. For longer ultras, the Coros Apex easily wins. But all watches, again with the exception of the Polar Ignite, and the Apple Watch can be charged during an activity, which enables them to technically work for any ultra event as long as you have external batteries.
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 guesstimate 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 results.
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 4 watches simultaneously. Since some of us are ultra-runners, we train a lot already. Other testers ramped up their 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 watch, namely the Garmin Forerunner 945 is the most accurate. It was usually dead on or less than 1% off base, and we experienced similar performance from the Suunto Baro.
The Coros Apex was always within 1-2% of the above watch and the Garmin 45s under 3% off, beating out the Apple Watch. The Polar Ignite gave us variable data.
Heart Rate Monitor Accuracy
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 and the results to those of a chest strap heart rate monitor. It was also important for us to consider 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 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.
Some manufacturers, like Garmin, 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 that the Garmin Forerunner 945 and Coros Apex are the most accurate. That said, the Garmin Forerunner 45s tested quite well also. All of these watches were usually within 2-4% of the watch that was paired with a chest strap heart rate monitor (these are considered more reliable).
Unfortunately, the Polar Ignite seemed to be either spot on or way off. During some runs, it only recorded our heart rates half of the time. During others, it was comparable to the other watches, and sometimes it was up to 20 beats per minute off. We could not find an explanation for this.
Wrist-based heart rate monitors were always less responsive and slightly less accurate than the chest strap monitors we tested them against.
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 device Coros Apex is the heaviest, and the Garmin Forerunner 945 is a close second. The Garmin Forerunner 45s is the most compact. Should you choose to carry your watch in your pocket occasionally, all of the tested watches, except the Garmin Forerunner 45s had wrist straps that allow the entire package to lay flat. This also 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.
Design is a very subjective thing but the materials used in the construction and the ability to customize are certainly not. This is where the Coros Apex won. It has a titanium alloy bezel with a sapphire glass. These high-end materials make for an attractive watch. The watch can be worn with the crown on the top right or bottom left. This enables left and right-handed individuals to fit the watch according to their comfort.
Since there are only two buttons on the Coros Apex, we found the design to be very modern and sleek, which appealed to many of our testers aesthetically. The band is a standard size so it can be traded out for different colored versions but fit large and small wrists equally well. Unlike the Polar Ignite, we found the band to be soft and flexible.
In fact, had the band on the Polar Ignite not been so uncomfortable and hard, it would have received a higher design score. In its price range, it is quite a good looking watch and the only one with. It was the thinnest watch we tested and had a very bright and clear display. There are other watchbands available for additional cost, but all of the other watches we tested came with a silicone band directly, instead of a hard rubber one.
The other more affordable watch from our test, the Garmin Forerunner 45s, will probably not impress too many people with its design. Although other aspects of this watch are super, the design looks somewhat cheap due to the amount of plastic. The screen resolution, although upgraded to color from its black and white predecessor, the Garmin Forerunner 35, is very low. That said, this is our best option for smaller wrists.
The Garmin Forerunner 945 is a good looking watch with an easy to read screen using a high-quality Corning® Gorilla® Glass DX and a fiber-reinforced polymer bezel. Although it is a larger watch, we found it to fit well under jackets and on smaller wrists. The screen resolution is high and clear to read even when it is raining. That said, this watch looks very much like a sports watch, although perhaps switching the band might make it ok for a more professional setting.
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.
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 Garmin Forerunner 945 and the Coros Apex, and the Apple Watch took the longest. These are also the watches with the most features, so we were not very surprised that they needed longer. The actual sync times for these watches were longer due to the updates of additional features so we just took it in stride that the more features available, the longer the update.
We were a bit dismayed that the Polar Ignite needed so much time, though! The problem was that the sync kept having an error so we had to start back from scratch 3 times. Compared to the seamless syncing of the similarly priced Forerunner 45s, the Polar frustrated us a bit.
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 Coros Apex was easily our favorite in the ease of setup category. Even those of us who are less-techy were able to customize the Coros Apex and get it up and running in no time at all. The app is also super intuitive, which cuts time substantially.
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
— Larin McPeak