GPS watches have come a long way since their inception. Forget heavy, brick-like, slow-to-find-satellite watches – today’s GPS watches are sleek, accurate, and come packed with features to enhance your training.
While Garmin has been the industry leader for over a decade, new GPS watches from established companies such as Magellan, TomTom, Timex, and Polar have entered the market. GPS watches made today come in a wide range of prices and styles, and are often designed for specific types of athletes.
With so many choices available, it’s important to consider certain factors when selecting a GPS watch. Intended use, the style of watch, and how much you are willing to spend should be determined prior to selecting a GPS watch. From this, you can choose the features that will be most beneficial to you.
Almost anything done outside can be monitored with a GPS watch. Running, cycling, skiing, hiking, even walking your dog, can be tracked.
While GPS watches are primarily made for runners, there are specific features found on some watches useful for cyclists, triathletes, and hikers. When shopping for a GPS watch, it’s important to determine what you plan to do with your watch to ensure it comes with features beneficial to that activity.
Additionally, you will want to consider your skill level. Higher-end GPS watches come with advanced features designed for experienced athletes. For example, Garmin’s new Forerunner 645 tracks heart rate and foot cadence; it can determine your VO2 Max; and can be programmed with interval or advanced workouts. If you are a beginner or intermediate runner, you may be better off with a more basic watch.
Just a few years ago, most GPS watches were big, bulky, and heavy. But current models, while still large, have shrunk considerably.
But on the other end of the spectrum, brick-style watches, reminiscent of early GPS watches, still exist. Their advantage is screen size. While you wouldn’t want to wear one to your best friend’s wedding, these watches can display lots of data (the Magellan Switch and Switch Up display 6 fields per screen), making it easy to view important training metrics.
At their core, all GPS watches track time, distance, and pace. But as price rises, the number of features increases.
While it varies watch by watch, these are the main differences between budget, mid-range, and high-end GPS watches:
Budget (less than $100)
These track time, distance, and pace/speed. Most lack support for accessories like heart rate monitors and foot pods. Some – but not all – can sync with a computer to download workouts.
These GPS watches support heart rate monitors as well as other accessories. They sync with a computer, generally have good battery life, and can be programmed with interval workouts or pace training aids (like Garmin’s virtual partner).
High-end ($300 and up)
GPS watches at this price point, support every GPS watch accessory made. They can be programmed with advanced workouts via computer and have highly customizable screens.
High-end GPS watches also tend to be split into specific activities. Triathlete watches track swimming distance and count strokes; running watches are thin and sleek and have advanced running features; mountaineering watches have barometric altimeters and compasses.
While it would take too long to review every individual feature available today, generally, they fall into these categories:
This includes things like battery-life and any additional sensors beyond GPS. While usually found on high-end watches, examples are: thermometers, accelerometers, compasses, and barometric altimeters.
This is the type of information a watch can track and record. Time, distance, and pace are standard. But it also includes: calories, elevation, heart rate, cadence, swim laps and strokes, and many more.
Maps and Memory
Maps are found on a few GPS watches, although they are typically simple lines displaying your route. Other watches store waypoints. These are navigational coordinates that mark important locations (like your house or a public bathroom).
How much information a GPS watch stores varies greatly. Some can hold just a few activities, others can store hours and hours of workouts.
Training Aids and Alerts
These are things like auto lap and auto pause. Alerts will flash on the screen, beep, or vibrate when you reach a lap or achieve some other goal. Some GPS watches also have tools to help you train. Examples include interval workouts and pacing aids programmed on the watch.
Most GPS watches will download workouts – sometimes wirelessly – to a computer. Others can download to a smartphone. They often integrate with Twitter and Facebook to make sharing easy.
Different accessories can be paired with GPS watches. These include heart rate monitors and foot pods — as well as bike speed and cadence sensors and power meters for cyclists.
One other factor should be considered when discussing features: simplicity. Like price, as the number features climbs, so does its complexity. If you’re easily intimidated by technology or just want to push a button and start running, it’s better to avoid feature-heavy watches.
A GPS watch is an incredibly powerful training tool. It has the potential to do much of the heavy lifting when training. And it makes your workouts more fun and varied. Hopefully, this guide has provided you with some insight when purchasing your next GPS watch.