Complete GPS Watch Buyers Guide
Every runner knows that if a run isn’t recorded and posted on Instagram, Strava, Garmin Connect, or the likes, the run never happened. We’re kidding…
That’s exactly why we’ve come up with a complete GPS Watch Buyers Guide to help you find the best GPS watch for your run.
Let’s dive in.
What Is a GPS Watch?
Before we get to the features in GPS watches, let’s first talk about what a GPS watch is.
A GPS watch is essentially a watch that uses an integrated GPS — or Global Positioning System — receiver to determine your location via triangulation. With the integrated technology, the watch records a series of points that it then uses to derive various metrics such as distance, speed, and pace.
All GPS watches share some common basic features such as display time and date, measure speed and distance, and measure time elapsed between activation and deactivation.
But, allow us to let you in on a little secret: those basic features are, of course, undeniably important. However, the main fun of a GPS watch lies in its additional features. These extras are also what separate it from the bunch.
Having said that, we did promise that this would be a complete GPS watch buyers guide. So, let’s start with the basic features to look out for when you’re buying a GPS watch. Then, we will move on to the additional ones.
GPS Watch Buyers Guide – Important Features
Well, as is obvious from their name, GPS watches, naturally, comes with a clock to display the time, day, and date — which means that they can double as standard watches.
It’s also pretty common to see all three — time, day, and date — displayed together regardless of whether the watch is entry-level, mid-range, or premium.
Besides that, certain GPS watches also come with dual time zones and this isn’t necessarily influenced by their price tags. For instance, the Suunto Core All Black is what you’d consider a budget GPS watch but it comes with this feature.
GPS – Signal Strength and Accuracy
Now, you want a GPS watch with accuracy as close to 100% as possible, which is why we feel that this is one of the most important features in our GPS Watch Buyers Guide. In the perfect world, this is attainable. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in reality. Instead, most watches have a relative error of about 0.6% to about 3%. Yes, this applies to GPS watches from popular brands, too.
Just check out this study on the accuracy of GPS watches in measuring distance. The study took place at a 56km road race in Cape Town, South Africa, and involved 225 participants.
These participants wore watches from different brands and categories, including Garmin fēnix and Forerunner, Suunto, TomTom, and Polar. Some of them used their cell phones.
The study found that all the GPS watches in the study had a relative error of 0.6% to 1.9%. Now, while that’s not 100% accurate, it’s actually not too bad.
But, why is there any inaccuracy at all?
Well, there could be a few reasons for the inaccuracies. For starters, GPS watches need satellites to work. So, you need to be outdoors. But, that isn’t enough.
See, if you’re running in the city with tall buildings, in a place with lots of trees, or even just an extremely cloudy day, the satellites might not be able to pick you up. Ultimately, this will impact the accuracy of the result.
But, the good news is that the Cape Town study also highlighted that its results reflect better accuracy than an earlier study from 2013, which saw errors ranging from 0.8% to 6.2%.
So, what’s the reason for this change? A simple explanation is that it’s likely due to the advancements in technology and GPS watches in the seven years between the two studies.
Now, you’re probably wondering if there’s a way to minimize the inaccuracy of GPS watches.
Well, many watch-makers include a built-in accelerometer to get around this problem. This is somewhat like an activity tracker that’s also able to track distance and speed by measuring your arm swing.
It’s also a great feature to have if you’re running indoors since your GPS watch won’t be able to connect to satellites.
On top of that, quite a number of GPS watches come with inertial foot pods as well. This is a small device very similar to an accelerometer that you attach to your shoes. The pod’s motion sensor will analyze your movements to track speed and distance.
Since they don’t rely on GPS or satellites, they can work indoors or when you’re out of satellite range. This is why many runners use them to supplement their GPS watches.
Distance, Pace and, Speed
These three metrics — distance, speed, and pace — let you know how far and fast your run is. The three are also some of the most important and common features in GPS watches for runners. In fact, most GPS can display all three in both metrics and imperial units.
Let’s break down each of them. First, distance, naturally, lets you know how far you’ve run and is measured in real-time. This might be one of the most invaluable features if you’re a long-distance runner. Alternatively, it’s also great if you’re a new runner looking to build endurance by gradually increasing your mileage.
As for pace and speed, they are sort of the two sides of the same coin that tell you how fast you’re running. Pace is measured in terms of time per unit of distance. So, essentially, it’s the number of minutes needed to cover a mile or kilometer. For example, 10 minutes per mile.
On the flip side, you have speed which is pretty much the reverse of pace. It’s measured in distance per unit of time. For example, four miles per hour.
The majority of runners will use pace for a few reasons. For starters, you can almost immediately know how long it takes to cover a certain distance with pace. Besides that, you can complete shorter races (for instance, 5K) in under an hour. If you’re using speed, you’ll have to do a whole lot of unnecessary calculations and nobody has time for that.
Besides that, you should always check out a GPS watch’s battery life before actually purchasing it.
Battery life will vary from watch to watch and is influenced by various factors. For starters, if you have multiple features running, you’ll definitely have to compromise on battery life.
Besides that, a couple of other factors will also determine how long the battery lasts between charges. For example:
- Backlight is one of the main causes of battery drain. The brightness of the backlight and how often it comes on have a large say on battery life. If you have your backlight set to 100% or set to come on from a gesture, this will drain quite a fair bit of battery.
- GPS tracking also determines your watch’s battery life. This is why you should only activate it during your run.
- If your WiFi is active, the watch will constantly and continually search for and maintain a connection. This leads to a short battery life, too.
In any case, most watches now feature rechargeable lithium-ion batteries and should last for at least a few hours after each charge — even in GPS mode.
The bare minimum is at least five hours in GPS mode. However, it’s much more common to find watches that can last for 10-12 hours in GPS mode after each charge. Meanwhile, if you’re only using it as a watch, you can easily go up to 12 weeks between charges.
It’s also worth noting that some watches have an exceptionally good battery life. For instance, the Garmin Forerunner 945 can last up to 36 hours in GPS mode if you go without music. But, naturally, these watches are often more expensive.
Practically every single GPS watch comes with this feature. Here, the watch will automatically mark each lap at a specific distance. For example, ¼ mile, a mile, 5 kilometers, and 10 kilometers.
Most watches default to lap/mile but you can usually recalibrate it yourself. This feature is one for convenience so that you don’t have to keep track or manually mark each lap.
A standard feature, you should be able to find it even in entry-level GPS watches. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that this feature isn’t all that accurate.
Instead, it’s calculated using an algorithm based only on your basic information, including age, weight, height, and sex. There’s a huge margin of error here as the watch doesn’t take into account other vital factors such as exertion, heart rate, and skin temperature.
It’s best to regard this feature as providing more of an estimation rather than accurate data.
Another thing that all GPS watches come with? Workout history.
Here, your GPS watch will store your previous workouts so that you can track your performance, improvement, and more.
Of course, the amount of memory available will vary depending on the cost and how advanced the watch is. It can be anywhere from just an hour to even up to hundreds of hours of activity data.
Take the Garmin Forerunner 945, for example. The watch, very impressively, offers up to 200 hours of activity data.
It’s a good idea to consider how much you’re willing to spend on the watch’s memory/history. If you’re on a budget, pen and paper are perfectly fine to track your workout history. An Excel sheet could be all you need, too.
Speaking of workout history, most GPS watches now allow you to transfer your workout history to an online platform. You can then learn more about your run on the platform or use the data for review.
Now, if you take a quick look around, you will see that each watch manufacturer has its own platform, program, and proprietary software. They vary in terms of quality, available features, and ease of use. Garmin Connect is one of the most popular ones around.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that certain platforms allow you to transfer data to third-party applications/programs such as Strava, Training Peaks, and RunKeeper. Meanwhile, others may require you to use unofficial third-party applications to enable the transfer.
Now, we’re finally going beyond the basic features. Basically, there are two types of auto-syncs. The first type is where your GPS watch will automatically sync with your computer as soon as you’re near the latter.
An example of this is that you can automatically transfer your data from your Polar watch to your computer via its FlowSync software.
Meanwhile, the other type of auto-sync is where your runs will automatically show up on other platforms. Not all brands offer this feature but the bigger names usually do. Garmin is one of such brands that offer excellent integration in this regard.
The company allows you to integrate your Garmin Connect with external platforms such as Strava, MapMyFitness, and Endomondo. Besides that, it even offers auto-sync with calorie counters like MyFitnessPal, too.
Touchscreen or Button
When you’re weighing your GPS watch options, make sure to also consider if you prefer touchscreen or if you’re perfectly fine with buttons.
Most basic and budget models don’t come with touchscreens on them. So, you’ll have to invest in the premium units to get your hands on this feature.
Plus, it’s also worth remembering here that you can’t compare the touchscreens in GPS watches to that in smartphones. Or, at least, not yet. For now, the general consensus is that touchscreens in GPS watches currently found in the market tend to be rather finicky and delicate.
Most modern-day watches — and especially GPS watches — can withstand accidental exposure to water. This includes sweat, snow, and even rain. So, you don’t necessarily need to seek out this feature if you’re just using your GPS watch for running.
But, it becomes an important feature to have if you’re going to wear your watch throughout the day, including in the shower and bath. And, if you take it up a notch and want to swim with your watch, then you absolutely should consider getting a waterproof GPS watch.
Just be prepared to pay more for it.
In any case, you’ll need to look at the device’s moisture protection level in the Ingress Protection Rating or its ISO-set water-resistance levels if this feature matters to you.
Auto-pause is exactly as it sounds. Instead of having to constantly push the stop/start button, the watch automatically detects and pauses your workout when you stop running. This is a particularly useful feature to have if you run in the city or in areas with plenty of stoplights.
Certain GPS watches also allow you to configure the auto-pause to set in when your speed is below a specified value rather than a complete stop.
So, what does this mean for you?
Well, sometimes it takes a bit of time for the watch to detect that you’ve come to a complete stop. This, of course, delays the auto-pause. Setting the auto-pause to kick in at a specified value takes care of this problem.
There are two layers to auto-tracking. First, we’re talking about tracking activities. Most, if not all, GPS watches in the market also serve as activity or fitness trackers.
Let’s take the Garmin Instinct for example. If you wear the watch all day, you can set it to automatically track and monitor things like steps, hydration, sleep, calories burned, and even floors climbed.
Beyond that, the watch also offers a different type of auto-tracking: LiveTrack. With this feature, your friends and family can follow your activities in real-time. All you have to do is pair your watch with the Garmin Connect app and enable LiveTrack. All future runs will automatically start a LiveTrack from then on.
This is a far less common feature and only offered by certain brands — Garmin is one of those brands.
Not only is this a great safety feature — especially if you’re someone who prefers solo runs — but it’s also great for races and marathons. Your friends and family will know exactly where you are and can cheer you on. Plus, they’ll also get access to things like distance, pace, and elevation.
This isn’t exactly a standard feature and is usually only offered by GPS watches with prices somewhere in the mid to the higher end of the spectrum.
So, what exactly are intervals?
Well, this feature basically allows you to configure a set of intervals — or workouts — based on pace, distance, and time. Certain watches even allow you to set multiple paces, distances, and periods in a single workout.
Not all that long ago, intervals were mostly only carried out on running tracks. But, the fact that this feature is now available in GPS watches means that you can do away with tracks. Instead, you’re free to do intervals anywhere you like.
This is how it usually works: first, you need to create your interval workout or, alternatively, you can follow a pre-planned one. The watch will then alert (by vibration, beep, or visual cue on the screen) you when it’s time to switch gears.
Now, we’ve discussed interval workouts above. But, certain companies (such as Garmin) also offer advanced workouts — a variation of intervals. So, we talked about how intervals allow you to set up workouts based on pace, distance, and time.
Well, advanced workout takes it a step further and allows for more complex workouts based on things like calories, heart rate, and more. Or, a combination of the different metrics. For instance, a three-mile run followed by 10 minutes at 10 minutes per mile.
You can usually set this up right on your watch. But, here’s the thing: setting up an advanced workout on a teeny tiny screen isn’t only time-consuming but can be frustrating, too.
Our advice? Designed the workout on your computer or at least a tablet/phone. Then, upload it to your watch. It will make life so much easier.
Heart Rate Monitor
Heart rate tracking is a very useful and, fortunately, rather common feature in GPS watches.
Why do we say so?
For starters, this is one of the best ways to measure the intensity of your run. With access to this information, you can accurately determine if you should turn the intensity up a notch or ease into an easier pace.
Besides that, many new runners fall into the trap of running too fast too soon. What the heart rate monitor can do is that it will ensure that you’re training at the right intensity.
That’s not all. When you’re just tracking distance or pace, you don’t take into account other factors such as temperature and terrain. But the thing is, these external factors can make or break your run.
See, a 10-mile run might be effortless on a mild day. But, when it’s hot and humid outside, that same 10-mile run is going to feel never-ending and impossible. You might even overexert if you force yourself to complete the run.
But, if you’re using a heart rate monitor, it displays the intensity of your run. So, you can keep track, know when to take a break, and know to not over train.
For the most part, GPS watches offer either chest strap heart rate monitor or — as part of the latest trend — wrist-based one. The chest strap version is often more accurate.
Here is how it works: it receives electric signals directly from your heart. The monitor on the strap will then detect these signals.
Then, you have wrist-based heart monitors. Here, the monitors use a light sensor to see the blood pumping through your skin in order to measure your pulse.
While wrist-based monitors mean that you can say goodbye to chafing caused by chest straps, they’re not without their problems. The main issue is, of course, that they’re nowhere as accurate as a chest strap heart rate monitors.
VO2 max offers significant insights into your aerobic fitness. But, first, let’s check out what exactly is VO2 max before moving on to why it’s important.
VO2 max is essentially the maximum amount of oxygen you utilize during exercise. The name itself comes from three abbreviations: “V” for volume, “O2” for oxygen, and “max” for maximum.
A lower VO2 max score indicates a poorer fitness level. As your fitness level improves, your VO2 max should also go up. This is why athletes often measure their VO2 level before and after a training cycle.
But, this isn’t just about fitness levels.
VO2 max is also considered important because it’s a great indication of your complete health and disease risk factors. In fact, the American Heart Association even suggested that it should be a new “vital sign” to be assessed yearly and by a doctor.
Bear in mind that VO2 max isn’t exactly a basic feature you can find in budget or entry-level GPS watches. In fact, while it’s more common in mid to high-end watches, many watches within these categories still don’t offer this feature.
Altitude and Elevation
You probably know the deal by now: not all GPS watches display the current altitude or the elevation gained during your run/workout.
For those that do offer these features, the watches typically use either GPS elevation or barometric elevation. Let’s have a look at both.
GPS elevation is pretty much self-explanatory — the watches use elevation data from GPS coordinates. Unfortunately, this method often falls short in terms of accuracy.
This is because GPS heights are based on the ellipsoid — a mathematical representation of the earth’s shape. The ellipsoid is a 3D shape and somewhat oval. But, here’s the problem: the earth isn’t a perfect ellipsoid. There are canyons, craters, mountains, and other natural features.
And, this is why the data have to be reconciled with a vertical datum tied to the geoid. Or, more simply put, mean sea level. The reconciliation is necessary but the thing is, they are two completely different systems — which explains the inconsistencies. So, be prepared for the elevation reading to be off by ± 400 feet.
On the other hand, you have certain watches that use barometric elevation, which is based on the measurement of atmospheric pressure. It provides a more accurate reading but still not without errors. And, for this method, the watch must be outfitted with a barometer which tends to hike the price up.
We said this once and we will say it again: if a run isn’t shared on social media or at least a running platform, the run obviously never happened.
Here’s the good news: nearly all watch-makers — especially the more popular brands — allow you to share your run on their platforms, Strava, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and more.
So, you’ll definitely have the chance to brag to your friend list that you ran 26.2 miles — all while they’re still asleep.
If you’re a trail runner or just often run new routes, these are great features to have. But, again, these aren’t very common features. They are often only offered in more costly or outdoors/trail running watches.
Some of the more helpful navigational features include compasses, breadcrumbs, and waypoints.
Let’s start with the compass. This is pretty self-explanatory and it’s also one of the more basic and commonplace navigational features. Most GPS watches — even those friendlier to the wallets — do offer them.
Next up is the breadcrumb. This is basically a feature that helps you to track back to where you started — not unlike the literal breadcrumbs in Hansel and Gretel. Here, the watch allows you to view your running activities on a basic map. This is also called a breadcrumb route.
As you run, the watch will drop “breadcrumbs” along the way and connect them. In the end, you basically have the complete route.
So, what does this mean for you?
Well, if you’re lost, these breadcrumbs will come in particularly handy. While it doesn’t exactly provide directions, you can backtrack and use the breadcrumbs as a basic guide to find your way back to your starting point. Plus, you’ll also have a rough estimate of how far away you are from a particular point in your run.
Then, there are also waypoints. Waypoints are coordinates — longitude and latitude — that you load to your GPS watch. When you run, the watch will prompt and guide you so that you’re running towards the next waypoint.
Some runners also use waypoints to mark things like bathrooms, water fountains, pit stops, and more.
If you’re competing in a triathlon or just generally want to track multiple types of workouts in addition to running, you might want to consider multisport watches. They still have all the GPS features but these watches also allow you to track multiple types of sports in a single workout.
This includes activities like trail running, mountain climbing, cycling, skiing, snowboarding, and more.
That’s not all. Some multisport watches even offer you the ability to quickly switch between different activities with just one press of the button. For instance, if you’re running and swimming, you can easily transition between tracking, say, pace of your run to the number of strokes of your swim.
The main setback when it comes to multisport watches is, of course, its premium price tags. But, in this case, you really do get what you pay for.
Some of the more popular multisport watches include Garmin Forerunner 945 and fēnix 6, Coros Apex, Suunto 9, and Polar Grit X. However, bear in mind that the exact multisport features that the watches offer may differ from each other.
These are features that aren’t exactly what you would consider necessary but they are good to have around. Why? Well, simply because they add a little more fun, excitement, and efficiency to your run.
For starters, most GPS watches offer some sort of pre-designed training plans. You can then choose one that you like and download it to your watch so that it can guide you during your run.
For example, Garmin has Garmin Coach where it offers dynamic training plans catered to your goals. Your customized plan will sync right to your watch.
Besides that, you’ll also receive free guidance from expert coaches. Here, you can choose between Olympian Jeff Galloway, physiologist and online running Coach Greg McMillan, or physical therapist and running expert Amy Parkerson-Mitchell.
Some watches also offer training estimates. Here, the watches can provide an analysis of your training load when paired with a heart rate monitor. For instance, certain watches can rather accurately estimate your finishing time for a race or a marathon based on your current training level.
Then, there’s also training recovery. This is where your GPS watch will display how long your body needs to recover after your run. The time is usually based on the duration and intensity of your run.
But, if you want a huge selection of training aids, you should take a look at Garmin’s watches. As a whole, the brand absolutely excels when it comes to training aids. Let’s check out some additional training aid that it offers.
To start, Garmin offers runner training status. This essentially evaluates your run history and performance to let you know how your training is affecting your fitness level and performance. The technology will identify and categorize your run as peaking, productive, unproductive, overreaching, or more.
On top of that, you can set up a virtual partner with Garmin, too. Here, you can calibrate a pace for a digital person (or a partner) and race against the partner. If you’re particularly competitive, this feature works wonders.
Additionally, Garmin allows you to race against a previously recorded or downloaded activity. So, in essence, you’re racing your past self. Again, this feature is a great one to have to serve as a sort of motivation during your run.
For the most part, it’s fair to say that the more expensive GPS watches usually offer more training aids.
If you’d like to keep track of your personal record — basically your best performance — for races and runs, most GPS watches do offer this feature. However, it’s worth remembering that these PRs are, of course, only the ones you achieved when you’re wearing that particular watch.
Most watches — especially those on the cheaper end of the spectrum — let you scroll through different screens by pushing a button. But, certain watches allow you to set auto-scroll on to cycle through different activities data. Plus, you can even select the display speed.
This will come in especially handy if you’re not one keen to fuss around with buttons during your run.
This feature allows you to personalize the data fields you want to be displayed on the screen of your GPS watch as well as how many of these fields. Most watches allow somewhere from 1 to 6 types of information on the screen.
Certain watches also let you create multiple pages to accommodate the different types of information. You can then scroll through them.
Now, some people may prefer to have plenty of information on the screen. That’s perfectly fine. But, remember that the more data you have on the screen, the harder it is to read them. So, it’s worth considering user experience when you’re customizing your screen.
This is a relatively standard feature especially for GPS watches with intervals. These alerts serve to notify you when it’s time to switch gears, cool down, or if you’ve reached your distance goal.
Plus, if you connect your watch — and if your watch offers this feature — to your smartphones, you can even receive notifications for incoming calls, messages, and emails.
Although, you likely need to look at at least mid-range watches to get this feature. For instance, the Garmin Forerunner 235 is one of the mid-level watches that offer this feature.
These alerts are usually in the form of a loud beep, a visual cue, or vibration.
This feature is used to measure external temperature — basically, the temperature of your surroundings. For this to work, your GPS watch has to come with a built-in temperature sensor.
But, here’s the rub: the reading isn’t going to be accurate since your body heat will have an impact on it.
Quite frankly, there’s not much use for this feature because of its inaccuracy.
Some GPS watches offer you weather information as well. For instance, the Suunto 7 offers various weather features via Google Play. This includes things like storm alarm, weather trend, sea level pressure, and more.
These features, while not necessary for everyone, could come in useful if you run outdoors. For example, the storm alarm is great for safety reasons.
GPS Watch Prices
Quite obviously, pricing should play an important part when you’re considering which GPS watch to buy. Generally, the more you spend, the more you get. But, here’s the thing: you don’t necessarily need all the features.
So, let’s take a closer look at the pricing.
GPS watches’ prices vary wildly. They can be as low as below $100 and as high as $1000. For the most part, we can divide them into three categories: entry-level or budget (below $150), mid-range ($150 to $350), and advanced or high-end ($350 and above).
Entry-level or budget watches tend to come with limited features — essentially, the bare minimum. They will track pace/speed, distance, and calories. On top of that, they likely will also offer standard watch functions, including time and date, stopwatch, and alarm. But, that’s about it.
However, battery life shouldn’t be too bad despite the lower prices. You can expect somewhere between 10-12 hours in GPS mode for each charge.
Meanwhile, mid-range watches, naturally, come with more features. For starters, they should come with things like heart rate monitors (whether chest strap heart rate monitor or wrist-based ones), intervals, and even built-in accelerometers.
Most GPS watches in this range should be waterproof and with better battery life than entry-level watches. It’s pretty reasonable to expect somewhere between 12-15 hours between charges.
Then, finally, you have the cream of the crop. At this price point, you can expect not only the basics but also interesting features such as multisport tracking, training plans, barometer, virtual partner, waypoints, and breadcrumbs.
In fact, you can even get features like payment solutions (for instance, Suunto offers Google Pay while Garmin offers Garmin Pay), music streaming services, real-time coaching, and more.
When it comes to battery-life in high-end GPS watches, don’t settle. Somewhere around 20 hours is a good benchmark.
Ultimately, it all boils down to what you need in your watch. And, if you need a little assistance in your search, you can always refer to this guide.
Did you enjoy reading this GPS watch buyers guide? Let us know what you think in the comments. And, if you enjoyed the article, share it!
- Tracks distance, pace, time, heart rate and more
- Connected features¹: automatic uploads to Garmin Connect™, live tracking, audio prompts, smart notifications and social media sharing
- Activity tracking² counts daily steps, distance, calories and sleep
- The Garmin Forerunner 235 continues to be a Runner’s Favorite. Even though it is an older watch, it’s still a great value!