Activity trackers are made to monitor your every move, but GPS watches serve a different purpose: They locate you in the world, no matter your activity. Unlike accelerometer-based fitness trackers, GPS watches communicate with satellites to grab your location and follow you as you run, walk, bike, hike and move through a workout. With this detailed information, GPS watches can accurately track speed, pace, altitude and more, making them ideal for serious athletes.
There are quite a few GPS watches to choose from, and they range in price from $100 to more than $400. However, the most expensive devices (and there are many) may not be the best fit for your needs. Here's what you need to know before investing in a GPS watch.
GPS Watches vs. Fitness Trackers
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Fitness trackers are ubiquitous now, and even the bare-bones devices track steps, calories and distance as you go through your day. Some will even record how well you sleep.
While most GPS watches track distance, they will only do so when you activate them. That's because acquiring and maintaining a GPS signal requires much more battery life than the accelerometers used by non-GPS-enabled fitness bands. As a result, GPS watches are generally used to track discrete activities, such as a run, hike, or where you are on the golf course. GPS technology also gives you a much more accurate reading of your distance traveled, and can measure your altitude, too.
MORE: Best Fitness Trackers
Since GPS devices can better connect with satellites outdoors, one of the most important things to know is how often you plan on training outside. If you frequently run around your neighborhood, take trips to the mountains to hike or train in different environments, a GPS watch may be better-suited for you than a fitness tracker.
Heart Rate Monitor
Some GPS watches have optical heart rate monitors built in, giving you more data and extra convenience, but they will cost you more.
The $269 TomTom Runner Cardio and the $249 Fitbit Surge both have built-in heart rate monitors. Many less expensive GPS watches, such as the $139 Garmin Forerunner 15, don't have built-in heart rate monitors, but can be paired with a chest strap, which costs anywhere between $40 and $70.
A GPS watch must be made to withstand the elements. Most, if not all, are at least splash-proof, but even some of the least expensive devices offer more protection. The $99 Garmin Forerunner 10 can be submerged under 165 feet of water (a rating of 5 ATM). Its newest big brother, the Garmin fēnix 3, can survive a dip in up to 330 feet of water, or 10 ATM.
But water resistance isn't just for protection. GPS watches such as the $400 Suunto Ambit3 Sport, which is designed for triathletes, can resist 10 ATM of water and tracks swimming metrics, including time, distance, pace and stroke rate, and type.
For reaching new heights, a built-in barometric altimeter will provide more accuracy. It's a sensor that measures changes in elevation by measuring barometric pressure, working in conjunction with the elevation tracker of the GPS. If you do a lot of off-road running or cycling, or if you're a frequent hiker, this will measure how high you climb during each workout.
Typically, devices with altimeters will cost more, such as the $400 Suunto Ambit3 Sport.
Since smartphones have GPS technology embedded, you don't need both a GPS watch and a smartphone while you're working out. However, listening to music while you run requires a smartphone, and unfortunately not many GPS watches provide music controls. This is more of a smartwatch feature, found in all-purpose devices like the Fitbit Surge. The upcoming Garmin vívoactive, which has GPS, will also act as a music controller.
GPS watches tend to have two battery life ratings: one during standby and one during active GPS tracking. Some devices, such as the Garmin Forerunner 15, can last for months as straight timepieces. However, communicating with satellites is a taxing job and dramatically reduces battery life when the feature is used constantly: When in GPS mode, the Forerunner 10 can survive up to 5 hours on a single charge.
Multipurpose devices have even shorter lives because power is used to support other features such as activity tracking, heart rate monitoring and smartphone notifications. The Microsoft Band starts out with only two days of battery life, and that time is reduced to a mere few hours if you're constantly using GPS.
Devices such as the Garmin Forerunner 15 and TomTom Runner GPS watch can get at least 6 to 8 hours in GPS mode, and are ideal for day hikes, runs and bike rides.
Watches such as the Garmin fēnix 3, which are meant for more extreme outdoor activities, such as skiing and mountaineering, can last up to 20 hours in GPS mode.
Believe it or not, Bluetooth isn't ubiquitous across GPS watches. Low-end devices such as the Garmin Forerunner 10 don't support wireless syncing; you must connect the watch to your computer to transfer activity data to a Garmin account.
Even as you go up in price, Bluetooth isn't standard. The $139 Garmin Forerunner 15 only syncs wirelessly to accessories such as foot pods and chest straps, not your phone for data syncing. You'll find more freedom with devices like the $250 Fitbit Surge, which let you sync data wirelessly.
GPS watches can get expensive fast. It's important to know your goals before you buy. If you want a basic companion to wear only while running, an inexpensive GPS watch in the $100 to $150 range will have the features you'll need. However, if you dabble in other activities and sports, and want to perform better and track your progress, investing in a top-tier device will be worth it.
The Garmin Forerunner 10 ($100 on Amazon) is your best bet in this price range; it's a solid device that will be perfect for anyone who only needs a device to track and map runs. It starts off a session by grabbing your location and it will track distance, pace, speed and laps while you run. After, you sync to Garmin Connect to view maps and full breakdowns of each activity recorded.
$100 to $200
This price range is a mixed bag, but most of these devices offer a few more features than just GPS tracking. The Garmin Forerunner 15 ($139 on Amazon) has all the GPS capabilities of the Forerunner 10, but it adds daily activity tracking and can wirelessly connect to Garmin accessories, such as a chest strap heart rate monitor.
At the top end of this spectrum, the Microsoft Band ($200) is more of an all-purpose device. It supports activity tracking, heart rate monitoring, GPS and smartphone notifications. Plus, you can download workout routines to the band to follow along with.
$200 to $300
Devices in this price range tend to have premium features like smartphone notifications, built-in optical heart rate monitors and sometimes music controls. The Fitbit Surge ($249 on Amazon) lets you know who's calling or texting you while you run, while continuously monitoring heart rate and letting you flip through songs in your workout playlist. The TomTom Runner Cardio ($269 on Amazon) focuses more on running performance, letting you work toward preset goals like endurance, fat burn and speed. It also has a heart rate monitor built into the watch, and it's water-resistant up to 165 feet.
This is where the big boys come out to play. The Suunto Ambit3 Peak ($500 on Amazon) not only has GPS, but also a barometric altimeter and digital compass, making it exceptionally easy to know where you are and where you're going. The device monitors speed, distance, pace, laps and much more while tracking a variety of activities, including swimming. Its battery will also last up to 50 hours in GPS mode. Many watches in this price range come with displays large enough to show a map of your running route and include wireless syncing as a standard feature.
Find the Best GPS Watch for You
Best Value: Garmin Forerunner 10
The $99 Garmin Forerunner 10 is beautifully simple — you wear it while running, and that's it. It tracks distance, pace, speed and laps while mapping your route. It's a no-frills device that, with its comfortable yet plain design, makes it easy to wear even through the longest runs. And it's the most affordable quality GPS watch you'll find.
Best for Multiple Activities: Fitbit Surge
If you find yourself hiking in the morning, jogging in the afternoon and going to kickboxing class at night, the $249 Fitbit Surge can keep up with you through all of those activities. You can choose a specific activity you want to monitor with the watch's full touch screen, and it uses its embedded heart rate monitor and GPS where necessary to capture as much data as possible. The Surge also delivers call and text notifications from your smartphone, and lets you control music on your phone.
Best for Hardcore Training: TomTom Multi-Sport Cardio
The $299 TomTom Multi-Sport Cardio gives you the best bang for your buck when it comes to elite GPS watches. This watch has a built-in heart rate monitor and GPS, and can track running, cycling and swimming. The Cardio will measure your distance, speed, pace and calories and even keep track of heart rate zones as you exercise. Syncing all your data to TomTom's mobile and Web app lets you see maps of all your past routes, giving you as much insight as possible into your training. Spending an extra $100 will get you an altimeter and cadence sensor.