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How to Choose a GPS Watch

There are many GPS watches on the market. Which is best for your needs...
Photo: Amber King
By Amber King ⋅ Senior Review Editor
Tuesday May 18, 2021
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The market for GPS watches continues to grow with new features, technology, and add-ins that are enough to make your head spin. A GPS watch features a small antenna that communicates to overhead satellite systems to determine your current location. As you move from one place to another, this watch can log your location, time, speed, and a gauntlet of other metrics to look at your performance.

As technology has enhanced over the years, we see most GPS watches in smartwatch form offering the same capabilities as a smartphone at extraordinary prices. Whether you're new to purchasing a GPS watch or you've done it a few times, we're here to help you narrow down the options of this saturated market.

Claire enjoys connecting all the Red Mountains outside of Ouray...
Claire enjoys connecting all the Red Mountains outside of Ouray, Colorado. At 12,000 feet, it's nice to have a GPS watch to track elevation, ascent, and distance traveled. Plus, it's cool to see your track on a map and share it with your friends.
Photo: Amber King

How to Choose a GPS Watch


The first thing to consider is what you'll be doing with your GPS watch, what kind of features you need, and what you're willing to spend. Most likely, you are here because you already know you want a timepiece with GPS capabilities. There are many options out there that range from simple to complex, with the price going up as the features get better. So what are you in need of?

Features


Before diving into all the features, set a price and consider what options are best for your needs. All GPS watches these days also require the use of an app on your smartphone to optimize the watch, so make sure you own one of those too. While the feature field is blowing up with options, there are simpler constructs that omit extraneous options that you probably don't need. In fact, most recreational athletes that might be training for an ultra run or their first 5K don't really need more than a simple GPS.

Higher-end watches have features to track health using powerful...
Higher-end watches have features to track health using powerful algorithims.
Photo: Amber King

Simple Construction


In this category, GPS information is used to track your position for training purposes only. The device collects this information and displays speed, distance, and other data that you can view in real-time on the watch and analyze further after your activity in the software platform that accompanies the watch. If your pursuits are always on trails or roads, this sort of device is more than adequate. These devices just have the basics, namely GPS location, speed, distance, time, probably an optical heart rate monitor, a step counter, alarm, and stopwatch. It might also incorporate a simple map with a bread crumb trail. Most of the watches in this review come complete with all the basics and actually have graduated to the next level with Smartphone notifications.

The Coros watches are less featured but still offer smartwatch...
The Coros watches are less featured but still offer smartwatch features and excellent sensors.
Photo: Amber King

Featured Smartwatch Trainers with App Integration


Over the years, most of the GPS watches we've continued to test are now smartwatches with basic fitness tracking capabilities. Not only do they track sports activity, but they track steps, sleep quality, heart rate, and some have started to include a blood oxygen saturation monitor as well. They come armed with smart notifications, and as the app industry continues to develop, are being developed in conjunction with Google and other platforms to offer other exotic features like music storage, wireless payment, and more. Many of the Garmin watches have all these features, in addition to the ability to download workouts and take advice from virtual coaches.

This menu accesses all the apps that you can load up and use when...
This menu accesses all the apps that you can load up and use when connected to cellular or wifi service.
Photo: Amber King

Navigational Features


The next level is those that have all smartwatch features and onboard navigational capabilities. Many of the watches tested in this review have a breadcrumb trail with the ability to track back to your starting point. However, what sets the high-end watches apart from others are mapping capabilities. These are typically more expensive and physically bigger to accommodate the amount of storage required for maps (and sometimes music too).

The Garmin Forerunner 945 has some really nice navigational features...
The Garmin Forerunner 945 has some really nice navigational features including onboard mapping and navigation.
Photo: Amber King

Some high-end contenders offer turn-by-turn navigation with onboard maps that contain layers, points of interest, and more. These same watches will allow you to upload a course from the app to your watch to follow, with beeps signaling turns. If you're caught in a heavy fog, sight n' go might be a helpful feature. Here, you point your watch at a given point, and your watch will guide you to that point. While navigational capabilities might give some peace of mind, we still think that nothing will beat out a good old paper map for reliability. That said, most watches come armed with the ability to give you location coordinates so you can use both.

Data Collection and App Platforms


All of the GPS watches we tested in this review integrate with some kind of app that will take your data and store it in their database. Here you can typically check out your logbooks, explore data, and share your activities with friends. Some databases are more robust than others, so this should be a consideration in choosing a brand that you like.

A look at the Garmin Connect app that offers many features. If you...
A look at the Garmin Connect app that offers many features. If you purchase a Garmin product, you get access to it.
Photo: Amber King

Garmin is known as one of the best GPS watchmakers in the world, not only because they have top-notch products but because they have the most robust online platform we've ever seen. The platform uses Garmin Connect to store your information, but you can take that data and use it across many different platforms. Garmin has its own app store as well, with included integrations from a variety of third parties. You can become a part of Garmin's ecosystem and enter challenges, upload workouts, add new apps, and add new features as you wish. You can give kudos to others and compete within friend groups for motivational support. If this is the type of user experience you seek, Garmin is what we recommend.

A look at the popular app platform homepages. Left: Garmin. Middle:...
A look at the popular app platform homepages. Left: Garmin. Middle: Coros. Right: Suunto
Photo: Amber King

Other platforms used by Suunto, Coros, and Polar are simpler apps that also offer you the ability to easily share and extract data to use it as you wish. However, they don't come with a dedicated app store with access to hundreds of apps. Suunto, for example, has third-party integrations on their system, but Coros is yet to get there. That said, for these systems, you can easily have all your data sync to other platforms like Apple Health, Strava, Training Peaks, or whichever ecosystem you might choose to be a part of. On that note…

Social Networks


Maybe you don't already have brand or platform loyalty, but you might have friends who do. If you have a fitness community that inspires and motivates your activity, linking your digital record books can provide further inspiration. Or, conversely, maybe you want to avoid any possibility of your boss seeing that you tracked an activity while you should have been at your desk (of course, on all platforms, you can control who sees your activities and which information you display).

A look at the cover page of the Strava platform on the web. This is...
A look at the cover page of the Strava platform on the web. This is largely an app-based service but is a fully integrated ecosystem that most watches can sync to.
Photo: Amber King

Strava and TrainingPeaks have a robust user base and collect information from all platforms. Most of the manufacturers in this review have apps that will seamlessly integrate with these platforms. But in this rapidly evolving industry, we recommend that you make sure your particular watch choice will integrate with your chosen sports social media and/or training platform if that's important to you. Ask around among your friends and training partners. Perhaps one social media platform is more widely used in your circles, and that could, in turn, inform your choice of training devices. That said, most of the platforms integrate easily as they are quite popular in the fitness community.

Accessories


Many users will be content with the instrumentation inside their GPS watch. However, there are certain categories of information that can only be gathered with an additional accessory that links to your watch through Bluetooth. For example, many of the onboard optical heart rate sensors aren't very accurate because they lack the fit needed to get a good reading. As a result, many folks like to wear a heart monitor strap to get a precise heart rate measurement.

A heart rate monitor is a good investment if you want to precise...
A heart rate monitor is a good investment if you want to precise measurement.
Photo: Amber King

There are many other accessories that you can buy, such as cadence and speed sensors for biking, running dynamics pods, and heart rate monitors. These are just a few categories among the many options. All these sensors link via a Bluetooth or ANT+ connection. Before buying a product, be sure to do your research and ensure that the sensors or accessories you buy match your watch, as some are brand specific.

Battery Life and Distance Goals


As popularity increases for endurance sports, so has the need for ample battery storage for these devices. Humans are constantly pushing the boundaries of physical and endurance challenges, and now, multi-day staged endurance runs are becoming popular. Distances of 100+ miles (we've seen 250-mile running events out there) are being added to the roster of challenges, and we know the demand for battery life during these events will be large. If you're searching for a watch for ultra distances, be sure to check the battery life specs. In our experience, most of the companies' reported metrics are pretty accurate, sometimes being short by 2-5 hours depending on the context of the run and the settings on the watch itself.

Here we take on the tundra of the Faroe Islands on unknown trails...
Here we take on the tundra of the Faroe Islands on unknown trails. This day, we were out for many hours with a GPS watch in tow.
Photo: Amber King

Several variables contribute to wearing down battery life. This includes using features that are battery life hogs (i.e., map processing, listening to music, smart notifications, buzzers for miles, etc.) and travel where GPS signal is low (poor view of the sky). For example, if satellites are having a hard time communicating with the receiver, more power is used. So in areas of heavier overgrowth or canyons, expect the battery to run out faster.

Many watches will offer battery-saving modes like UltraTrac or Endurance Mode. These modes aren't recommended as it turns off watch features, captures less data, and takes fewer GPS points. This means a sacrifice in accuracy. Isn't the point of a GPS watch to get an accurate representation of what you're doing? That said, we recommend looking at the specs for regular GPS battery lifetimes, as this is the setting you'll want to run your device in during your events.

A look at the different battery modes of the Suunto Baro 9.
A look at the different battery modes of the Suunto Baro 9.
Photo: Amber King

When considering battery life, think of the longest distance you'd like to go and the time you think it'll take. Then add 5-6 hours. Finally, look at what's out there. If you plan on just doing 5K runs, you won't need more than one hour of GPS. However, if you're planning a 100-mile race, 30+ hours would be ideal (depending on your speed and the course). For marathon or 50K running distances, a watch with 8 to 12 hours of GPS is ideal to ensure you don't need to always be charging between training sessions and to give yourself a battery life buffer (especially if you plan on using music features).

There are many watches that boast an incredibly long GPS battery life. We've found that it's difficult to find the golden goose that also has a long smartwatch life. For example, the Garmin products with battery life of 30+ hours will only have a smartwatch life of 1.5 - 2 weeks, based on our research. Coros, however, seems to do it all. Both the Apex and Pace 2 have 25-30 hour battery life and a smartwatch use life of 20-30 days, but they come with fewer features.

Charging Devices On The Go


It's only recently that GPS watches have breached the 30+ hour GPS mark in regular smartwatch mode with most features turned on. However, if you simply can't afford to throw down on an ultra-expensive watch that with loads of battery life, the next best thing is to carry a small charger with you on longer missions

We love the Suunto Baro 9 (middle) for charging on the go. This...
We love the Suunto Baro 9 (middle) for charging on the go. This offers the most powerful connector, especially if you need to charge in the middle of a long adventure using an external battery pack.
Photo: Amber King

All the devices we tested can charge while still tracking activities. The hard part is that you have to take the watch off your wrist and put it into a pocket while charging. While this allows you to still capture your GPS data, heart rate and other data points can't be captured while this is occurring. As the watch market evolves, we hope that major companies consider this and develop a watch that has a charger on the side so you can do both. Some of the earlier GPS models had this functionality, but the chargers have mostly been moved to the back of the watch. None of the watches in our current review can charge without being taken off. If you happen to find one with this design, we would likely recommend it.

Design


Now that you've thought about the features, apps, software platforms, battery life, and uses, consider the design. For many, the weight and size can make or break buying a product. Many products also come in a range of sizes. However, the size does affect battery life and other features, so be sure to double-check the specs if you happen to go for a smaller versus a bigger watch face option. Larger watch faces are easier to see, but they are heavier and tend to get stuck on clothing if they're not thin enough. Many of our testers prefer smaller displays. We feel they are still easy enough to see on the run, though navigation with a smaller screen will be more difficult.

Do you prefer a large or small watch face?
Do you prefer a large or small watch face?
Photo: Amber King

Consider the materials of the watch face and look for high-quality options like Gorilla Glass. While sapphire glass seems enticing (the display is crisp and beautiful), it is also more expensive. The display is also an important consideration. Those that aren't crisp or with poor backlighting are difficult to see in both high and low-light conditions. If you get a touchscreen, make sure it works in cold and rainy weather. Also, be sure the font and text are large enough for your eyes to see at a glance, so you don't spend time staring at your watch when your eyes should be on the trail.

Conclusion


The GPS watch world is evolving quickly. Nowadays, software and GPS watch integrations are becoming crisscrossed to create a mind-blowing number of features and capabilities that we would never have thought possible a decade ago. In the search for your perfect match, don't forget to keep your eye on the ball. Establish a budget, highlight the features you want or need, then consider battery life and design. It's easy to get wrapped up in extras that you may not use. Enjoy the process, and we look forward to seeing you on the trail!

Take on rad adventures with your next GPS watch. Which one will you...
Take on rad adventures with your next GPS watch. Which one will you choose?
Photo: Amber King

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