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 (September 2018)
- Polar has launched two new GPS watches, the Vantage V ($499) and the Vantage M ($279); both watches have a new feature called Training Load Pro, which monitors the exertion level of each training session, and tailors the next session accordingly. Both also have new optical heart rate sensors that use both red and green LEDs to penetrate deeper, and help improve accuracy among wearers with darker skin pigmentation, as well as those training in colder weather. The Vantage V also has a Running Power meter, giving runners an at-a-glance number that shows the amount of power they produce with each stride. The Vantage V will last up to 40 hours when using GPS and its heart rate monitor, while the Vantage M will last up to 30 hours. Both are available for presale, and will ship in October.
- Apple's newest smartwatch, the Apple Watch Series 4, will have all of the same features as the Series 3 (GPS, heart rate, and automatic activity tracking and built-in music storage), but come with several new life-saving features: A new accelerometer can detect if you've fallen and automatically call emergency services, and an FDA-approved electrocardiogram can measure your heart's rhythm and let you know if you're experiencing atrial fibrillation. In addition, the watch will have a 30 percent larger display and a redesigned digital crown, and will last up to 6 hours when actively using GPS. The Series 4 will start at $399; the LTE version will cost $499.
- Garmin added 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. We're currently reviewing the 5X Plus, so stay tuned for a full run-down of our experience with the new watch.
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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