Many fitness trackers and smartwatches now incorporate location-tracking on the device itself, rather than relying on your smartphone. Still, serious athletes are investing in dedicated GPS watches. Even the most basic devices track and map your routes, and use the data to calculate your pace and speed. Extra features, such as heart rate monitors, altimeters, preloaded maps and Bluetooth capabilities can come at a premium.
Our favorite GPS watch is Garmin's Forerunner 645 Music, which packs advanced workout-tracking features in a stylish, round, stainless steel watch frame and offers on-board song storage, which is a first for Garmin. Now that you can listen to music without a phone nearby, Garmin's latest GPS watch is a device that can truly stand on its own.
For those on a budget, we recommend the Garmin Forerunner 25, a no-frills watch that accurately tracks your runs.
Similar to fitness trackers, the line that separates GPS watches from smartwatches is blurring with the arrival of devices that incorporate smartphone notifications with GPS, step, distance and calories counts, plus heart rate measurements.
GPS watches can be general purpose, or they can be dedicated to specific activities. Golfers will want to opt for a device with preloaded course maps, while triathletes will want to get a multi-sport watch that can not only withstand more than a dip in the pool, but can also measure your strokes and your biking distance.
To help you choose which device is best for you, we've selected the top GPS watches in various categories, judging them based on performance, ease of use and design.
Latest News and Updates (June 2018)
- Garmin just released a version of its Vivoactive 3 GPS smartwatch with on-board music storage, a feature previously limited to Garmin's pricier Forerunner 645 Music. The new Vivoactive 3 Music is $300, compared to the $450 Forerunner. We plan to put the latest Garmin to the test to see if it can beat the Apple Watch Series 3 and become our Best GPS Smartwatch.
- Garmin also just announced a trio of new models in its Fenix 5 lineup. The Fenix 5S Plus, 5 Plus and 5X Plus, which range in size from 41-51mm, are GPS multi-sport watches with topographical maps, on-board music storage and an NFC chip for mobile payments with Garmin's Garmin Pay service. The 5X Plus also has a Pulse Ox Acclimation sensor to track blood oxygen saturation levels, which is particularly useful for high-altitude sport-tracking. All of those features come at a high price: from $700 to $1,150. But for serious athletes, these models are worth a look. All three Fenix 5 units go on sale this summer. Stay tuned for our full review.
How We Test GPS Watches
For each GPS watch, we evaluate its hardware design and comfort. The device needs to be comfortable enough to wear during even the most rigorous and lengthy runs. We test for GPS speed and accuracy by grabbing location signals in different areas — in between tall buildings and skyscrapers, as well as in open spaces. We use each watch for an extended period of time to test the manufacturer's battery-life claims. Lastly, we evaluate the device's companion app and the experience of using the watch and app together.
If the GPS watch also happens to be a smartwatch, we evaluate the included software, app ecosystem and special features like mobile wallet capabilities.
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