By Rehan Iqbal
The times really have changed. Just a few years ago, smart dressers were complimenting each other on their Swiss timepieces. And now? Hipsters and bankers alike are sporting trendy GPS running watches and fitness trackers that do everything from making calls to tracking sleep patterns.
So what’s the big deal about these trendy gadgets? Aren’t they basically just souped-up versions of my calculator watch from the 80s? Yeah, sure, much like your iPhone is just an old rotary phone with a makeover!
There are a lot of smartwatches out there, but the best GPS running watches and fitness trackers can do so much more than you think. The powerful computers and the sensors inside them don’t just provide hands-free access to calling, messaging, and apps; they deliver valuable information that can improve your health, help you live longer and that may even save your life!
To find out more about all the latest features of GPS running watches and fitness trackers, check out our buying guide below (and then run right back here).
Ready? Tie up your laces, and let’s get into our experts’ picks for the best GPS running watches and fitness trackers on the market today.
Fitness Tracking GPS Watches
You won’t find any of our fitness-experts-turned-tech-gurus not wearing one of the GPS smart watches on this list. To stay on the cutting edge, they’re constantly testing out new sports running watches and fitness trackers, reading reviews, and talking to real customers. They’ve blazed the trail to find the best GPS running watches and fitness trackers, so you can be sure the one you choose will provide exactly what you need. Let’s get started!
1. Garmin Forerunner 935 Running GPS Unit
The Garmin Forerunner 935 Running GPS Unit is a running watch with GPS that simply has it all. This may not be the right watch for casual joggers or those who just want to keep track of their calorie burn, but if you’re a serious athlete or a tech nut like us, you won’t find a GPS watch much better than this one.
Any type of athlete can use this watch. It tracks running, cycling, swimming, weight training, paddle sports, skiing and more, and it even differentiates within these categories (e.g. running, trail running, treadmill running, etc.). You’re sure to get an extremely accurate assessment of your performance, as the watch doesn’t just measure your heart rate, stride, breathing and cadence, but it also takes external factors into account by using GPS/GLONASS along with a barometer and altimeter. This means the watch automatically notices changes in incline, elevation and barometric pressure.
When you’re not working out, The Garmin Forerunner 935 provides convenient and time-saving features that make daily life easier. Sync it with your smartphone to receive all your notifications and even control your music player. You can also download apps like Uber directly to the watch.
2. Fitbit Versa Smartwatch
Fitbit was the original pioneer of fitness trackers, so it’s only natural that they have moved into the realm of GPS smart watches. The Fitbit Versa Smartwatch is considered by many reviewers to be the perfect smartwatch design. It’s thin, light, stylish and fully customizable. This smartwatch offers a great balance between fashion, awesome hi-tech features and fitness tracking.
Let’s start with the fitness benefits. The Versa can track over 15 sports via its intuitive touchscreen display. Its heart monitor and movement tracker combine with GPS capability to provide accurate information about your health and fitness goals. It even tracks swimming and is waterproof up to a depth of 50 m!
Access to loads of apps, Wi-Fi, music storage and secure payments without the need to connect with a smartphone push the Versa into the space of premium smartwatches (albeit at a much cheaper price). As an athlete, this makes all the difference. A smart watch isn’t worth much if you need your bulky phone in your pocket to use any apps.
Finally, the Fitbit Versa is fully customizable, meaning yours won’t look like anyone else’s. There are tons of watch faces to choose from and even more bands. Each is easy to clip on and off and won’t get in the way of your fingers or the charger. Purchase a few of each and accessorize with any outfit!
3. Garmin Vivoactive 3 GPS Smartwatch
With the Garmin Vivoactive 3 GPS Smartwatch, you get the style and convenience of the Fitbit Versa backed by the comprehensive fitness tracking technology of Garmin. The Vivoactive 3 has many of the tracking capabilities of the Forerunner at a much cheaper price. It also links with Garmin Connect, an app that allows you to track your progress and compete with other athletes around the globe. Are your old cycling buddies scattered around the country? With Garmin Connect, you can still message, race and push each other to the limit!
The excellent Elevate fitness tracking is able to accurately measure heart rate, estimate VO2 max and fitness age and detect your stress levels throughout the day. It’s always working, so you’ll be able to see exactly at which points in the day your heart rate spiked—even if you weren’t working out. This can be a great tool for busy people who need help managing their time and stress levels.
As a running distance tracker watch, the Vivoactive 3 excels at tracking most sports. With over 15 preloaded unique apps, you’ll be able to track everything from running to swimming to yoga. It even counts your reps while weight training. Customers have commented on the optimal sensitivity of this fitness tracker. It is great at counting steps and tracking movement even when your wrist is still.
4. Garmin Fenix 3 HR, Slate Gray with Stainless Steel Band
As you may be able to tell by now, Garmin is a dominant player in the GPS heart rate watch industry. The Garmin Fenix 3 HR is definitely a serious watch for serious athletes. Packed with many of the features of the Forerunner with a sleeker design and more advanced app compatibility, the Fenix 3 is a mile tracker watch that looks as good as it performs.
Superior Elevate tracking tech automatically records your heart rate, cadence, VO2 max, elapsed time, heart rate zones, lactate threshold and more. And it can do all of this for a wide range sports, including swimming.
If you love the outdoors, this may be the best smartwatch for you. GPS/GLONASS provides extremely detailed location tracking and the built-in barometer, altimeter and compass ensure you’ll never lose your bearings. The Fenix 3 is also waterproof and extremely durable. It features a domed sapphire lens that’s ultra-strong and readable even in direct sunlight.
When it comes to apps and compatibility, the Fenix 3 doesn’t disappoint. It can connect with your smartphone to receive messages and notifications as well as sync to Garmin Connect. There are also a wide variety of apps and widgets available that provide access to weather, email and more.
5. UWear Smartwatch
The UWear Smartwatch is a much more affordable smartwatch than the previous entries on this list, but it still has some impressive features that are usually only found in premium products. Some of these include waterproofing up to an incredible 100 meters, GPS/GLONASS location tracking and a built-in compass.
Ideal for hikers, climbers and riders, this simple/basic smartwatch delivers improved altitude GPS capabilities to track altitude and height. It also has an “out of trouble” function that helps you avoid getting lost and puts you on a direct path to safety.
Along with these great features, the UWear pace watch comes with the tracking capabilities you’d expect from any fitness tracker. It monitors heart rate, calories burned, speed, step count and more. All of this is conveniently found in its custom app as well as on its screen.
This watch may not be as flashy or colorful as other smartwatches, but for its price, it provides everything you need and then some.
6. Polar M430 GPS Running Watch
Let’s get one thing straight. The Polar M430 GPS Running Watch is for runners, plain and simple. It doesn’t try to overextend itself to a million different sports and functions; it’s chosen one thing and done it right.
This watch does everything a runner needs it to do. Its state-of-the-art heart rate monitor needs no chest strap to attain incredible accuracy. The Polar M430 even organizes training activities, monitors recovery and customizes fitness tests to make sure you’re reaching your highest potential as a runner.
The highlight of this running watch is the Polar Flow app. It’s not just a mobile app you can use to view your stats. It’s a full-blown mobile and desktop program that makes it easy to optimize your training, analyze your workouts and chart long and short-term goals.
You may not want to wear this smartwatch all the time (it’s not quite as attractive as some of the others), but if you do, it has 24/7 tracking and sleep monitoring capabilities. Everything that it reads is fed into the app and goes towards one purpose: making your run the best it can be. If you’re a dedicated runner, check out the Polar M430 before spending hundreds more on a watch you may not need.
7. Suunto Ambit3 Peak HR Running GPS Unit
Billed as “The GPS watch for explorers,” the Suunto Ambit3 Peak HR Running GPS Unit is truly built for survival in the toughest conditions. Besides being extremely durable and waterproof, its features provide what any outdoors lover needs. These include exceptional GPS and industry-topping battery life, route navigation and accurate weather tracking (not to mention the barometer, altimeter and compass that are so essential on the trail).
One of the most unique features of this GPS smart watch is the Suunto Movescount app, which allows hikers to use heatmaps to chart new trails and discover unknown routes. True adventurers know that it isn’t just about the workout; the real thrill comes from exploration.
But don’t get us wrong, the Suunto Ambit3 has amazing fitness tracking features too. It tracks heart rate (in and out of water!), recovery time, speed, pace, distance and more. It also syncs with your smartphone and can be controlled via its screen.
This smartwatch is a bit bulky and heavy, so it might not work best as an everyday watch. But, if you’re looking for a GPS watch that will last your entire week-long hike on one charge and come out of it unscathed, then this is the watch for you.
8. TomTom Spark 3 Cardio GPS Fitness Watch
TomTom has always been a leader in GPS technology and location tracking, and it’s brought that same expertise to the TomTom Spark 3 Cardio GPS Fitness Watch. Advanced location metrics allow for extremely accurate GPS readings, distance tracking and new route exploration. The durable, waterproof design is great for outdoor runs or hikes, and everything can be tracked on the innovative TomTom Sports App.
The Spark 3 offers more fitness tracking capabilities than one might expect at its price. Not only does it measure heart rate, fitness age, sleep, calories burned and VO2 max, but it also comes loaded with over 50 workout plans to help you reach your goals gradually. These workouts are programmable from the TomTom Sports App and include step-by-step guidance as you work out. It’s like having a personal trainer on your wrist!
If you don’t need guidance for weight loss or to lower your fitness age, the Spark 3 still has you covered. Just choose from one of the many sports tracking options and you’ll be able to measure your progress whether you’re jogging or training for a triathlon.
Top Fitness Trackers
1. Lintelek Fitness Tracker
The Lintelek Fitness Tracker shouldn’t be confused with the other entries on this list. It tells the time and it has GPS capabilities, but it isn’t a GPS smart watch. It’s a fitness tracker, which means it provides basic fitness tracking and some additional features, but it doesn’t have the same accuracy or performance of smartwatches.
So why consider a fitness tracker? Well, for one, they’re much cheaper than GPS watches. They also provide many of the features that most of us non-gladiators want without the expensive bells and whistles. The Lintelek Fitness Tracker comes with reliable GPS tracking, a heart rate monitor, step counter, sleep monitor, and can track activity from 14 sports. When it comes time to up the energy of your workout, you can log into the app, choose your sport, and set a new target.
The great thing about this fitness tracker is that it looks great and feels good on your wrist, meaning you can leave it on all the time. It comes in five attractive colors, so you can make it all your own.
2. LETSCOM Fitness Tracker
The LETSCOM Fitness Tracker is the most basic fitness tracker on our list of running watch reviews, but it’s also the cheapest. If you’re interested in tracking your steps, calories and heart rate for the first time, you can try the LETSCOM with basically zero risk of regret.
This may be a cheap fitness tracker, but it’s got what you need to start monitoring your health and getting into shape. It’s fully GPS functional, waterproof and tracks 14 different sport and fitness activities. You won’t get fine-tuned accuracy with this device, but you’ll still get a pretty good measure of your heart rate, distance, speed, and performance for a number of workouts.
Great for people who are active in every way, the LETSCOM receives all the notifications from your phone and apps. This is really convenient, as you won’t be bothered to take your phone out of your bag whether you’re on the treadmill, behind the wheel or have your hands full at the office.
GPS Running Watches Buying Guide
GPS running watches and fitness trackers are hi-tech devices. They come in many different varieties and have huge price differences. They even try to confuse us with funny names composed mostly of numbers and words that don’t exist!
It can be understandably difficult to choose the right one, and if you’re looking for a product with advanced tracking and monitoring capabilities, a lot of money could be on the line.
Luckily, we’re here to help! First things first: take a deep breath. It might seem confusing, but these devices are basically just watches with apps and sensors installed. All you need to do is to decide which apps benefit you and how sensitive you’d like the sensors to be. Once you’ve done that, it’s as simple as picking the smartwatch or tracker that fits your specs.
But before we look at the features that you need to consider when buying a GPS running watch or fitness tracker, we have to address one important issue: GPS smartwatches and fitness trackers are not the same thing, or at least not always…
What’s The Difference Between a GPS Running Watch and a Fitness Tracker?
Admittedly, the line between these two gadgets is blurring as each year goes by, but we still need to distinguish the main differences if you hope to make a smart purchase.
GPS Running Watches
The best way to think about smartwatches is that they provide many of the same services as your smartphone. You can often make calls, send messages, download apps, play games and sometimes even check the time. One of the capabilities that has been added over time is the ability to track the user’s heart rate and monitor fitness. The smart watches on this list are all able to do this, which means they are also technically fitness trackers.
The main differences are the capabilities of smart watches compared to fitness trackers. Smartwatches are usually much more powerful, versatile and expensive. If you only want to track your steps and count calories, you definitely don’t need to drop hundreds on a smart watch. If you’re a serious athlete, on the other hand, you probably won’t be satisfied with a simple fitness tracker.
Fitness trackers perform basic fitness tracking and monitoring. Their primary function is to track heart rate, monitor sleep, count steps, assess distances and establish daily calorie burn levels. Many also allow you to set daily goals and will notify you when it’s time to get moving.
Fitness trackers may or may not have screens, though many of them do these days. They display the time like a watch and receive notifications. They usually have long-lasting batteries, as they don’t use much power, and they are often GPS compatible and waterproof. It’s not common for a fitness tracker to have Wi-Fi connectivity or more than one app. If you’re looking for a way to monitor your fitness but don’t need advanced training metrics or apps similar to those on your phone, then a fitness tracker is perfect for you.
Key Features of GPS Running Watches and Fitness Trackers
Knowing the features that are important to you will help you choose the right GPS running watch or fitness tracker. Here’s some of the amazing tech you can expect to see on our list.
The Basics: All smartwatches and fitness trackers provide some basic features that can be found in every device. Some devices may have more accurate measurements than others, but the following are almost always present.
Advanced Internal Metrics: Beyond the basics, more advanced devices (usually smartwatches) offer extra measurements. These provide very valuable information to serious athletes but may not be essential for the average gym-goer or weekend jogger. The monitors on these devices are much more sensitive and can tell you a lot more about what’s going on in your body. If you’re a dedicated athlete, look for these measurements in the device you choose.
Advanced External Metrics: As we saw above, advanced internal metrics tell us more about what’s going on inside our bodies. Alternatively, advanced external metrics provide more information about how the world around us can affect our workout. If your smartwatch or fitness tracker can detect altitude, incline or weather conditions, it can factor them into your results and provide you with more accurate data. The outside world can obviously play a huge role in your workout, so the following metrics are essential if you’re a hiker, climber or cross-country runner.
Survival Tools: This may seem strange. Why would I need survival tools in a fitness device? Well, many of these devices are made for climbers, hikers and explorers, and the features they offer can be lifesaving. If you love the great outdoors, look for a device that comes with weather tracking tech, a compass, route tracing, advanced GPS, great battery life and a mode that helps you find your way when lost.
Waterproof: Many smartwatches and fitness trackers can measure your heart rate and more while you’re swimming. But this isn’t the only reason to look for a waterproof gadget. Most of us don’t want to worry about our wearing our devices in the rain or while washing our hands. You may not think that taking it off is a big deal, but if you remove it and forget it often enough, your measurements will never be correct.
Battery Life: Battery life is very important. If you have to take your watch or tracker off all the time to charge it, you won’t get very accurate readings. Even more importantly, if you’re in the wilderness and your watch dies, you’ll be without the GPS tracking capabilities you need to plan a safe route home. Make sure your device has more than enough juice each time you leave the house.
Additional Bands or Straps: Not all the sensors built directly into each device are the same. Some are more sensitive than others, and some require additional bands or straps to provide accurate measurement of your heart rate or other metrics. Some companies will provide these extra attachments to ensure your readings are always correct. One example of this is a swim band. As you can imagine, it’s not easy for your watch or fitness tracker to track your heart rate under water. Another example is an additional chest strap that records more information about your movements and heart rate.
Custom App: Almost all GPS smartwatches and fitness trackers come standard with an app for your phone and/or computer. These apps connect your fitness goals to all your devices and let you monitor your information, set goals and customize your workout. Some apps are quite standard and are mainly for tracking data. Others allow you to control your fitness tracker or watch, upload content, optimize your tracking for different sports or even communicate with other users. Be sure to check what each device’s custom app offers, as this is a huge part of the experience.
Apps and Widgets: Each device has its own app, but some allow you to download external apps that link to services like Uber. Many also have helpful widgets available that give you information on the weather, traffic and other things that might affect your run. Apps and widgets are usually only available in smartwatches.
Notifications: Almost all devices can be synced with your phone to receive notifications, but make sure you know which notifications you can receive and whether your phone is compatible. Some devices will display all of your notifications and may even allow you to respond to messages. Others will only show your calls and messages. If you want a truly hands-free experience, make sure your smartphone and smartwatch or fitness tracker are completely compatible.
Phone-Free Features: Not everyone wants to have to keep their phone nearby just to get the full effect from their smartwatch or fitness tracker. If you want to be able to jog and listen to your music or pay for a bottle of water without lugging your phone around, look for a device that has internal storage, Wi-Fi capability, and contactless payment technology. These are likely to be smart watches, though the technology may extend to fitness trackers in the near future.
Do I Need a GPS Running Watch or a Fitness Tracker?
Why switch your current watch out for a hi-tech gadget that needs to be charged regularly? Is it worth the hassle? Is it worth the price? Are you really going to use all those features?
These are the questions we asked ourselves when first faced with making the switch to a GPS smartwatch or fitness tracker. For us, making the switch was totally worth it, and we wouldn’t look back in a heartbeat (pun intended).
It’s true, if you don’t do much exercise, you probably don’t need to invest in an expensive GPS running watch, and if you don’t care about fitness or tracking your health, then a fitness tracker is not for you. But, there are plenty of people out there who can really improve their lives with the help of these products.
Here are some people that might especially enjoy the benefits of a GPS running watch or fitness tracker:
Athletes: This one should be obvious. The advanced measurements that GPS smartwatches can take provide information that only a doctor could give you before. This gives athletes the opportunity to optimize their workouts, stay safer and improve faster.
The Elderly: As we age, our metabolism slows, we burn fewer calories and we typically move less. Knowing how your body is changing as you age allows you to stay on top of your fitness plan. Smartwatches are especially useful for the elderly because they’re attached to their wrists. If they have an emergency or a fall, they won’t have to worry about their phone being on the other side of the house.
Those on Diets: Fitness trackers are wonderful tools for dieters. You can use them (and their apps) to track your calories and gradually improve your lifestyle. They also provide the hard truths that all dieters need to face. The numbers don’t lie! Some of the fitness trackers on this list cost less than your last fast food bill, so there’s no reason to wait another day to start losing those pasta pounds!
Lovers of the Outdoors: Those who love the tranquility of nature also know that it has a cruel side. We’re not saying that we have the power to counter Mother Nature or anything, but a GPS smart watch can help a lot. Weather alerts, route tracking, and tools to help you when lost can all be accessed from your wrist. These watches are also rugged and waterproof, making them wise investments for adventurers.
Those with Medical Conditions: First and foremost, fitness trackers and smartwatches are NOT replacements for healthcare professionals. But, if you have a medical condition, it’s always good to be as aware as possible of what’s going on inside your body. A fitness tracker can inform you if your sleep patterns or heart rate become irregular and may allow you to get to your doctor more quickly if something seems out of the ordinary.
Busy People: Having access to your apps, messages, schedule and more directly on your wrist is just plain convenient. When you add the fact that busy people rarely make it to the gym, smartwatches and fitness trackers become even more valuable. These devices help busy people—from moms to CEOs (and moms who are CEOs)—to organize their lives and manage their physical fitness at the same time. We may find multitasking difficult, but smartwatches and fitness trackers don’t!
In our opinion, most people can benefit from a GPS running watch or fitness tracker. Even non-athletes can easily become healthier with the encouragement that they provide. Simple features like calorie and step counters can help you gradually increase your physical activity over time. Some happy users have reported weight loss over the course of a year without recognizable changes to their lifestyle. So, what are you waiting for? It’s time to get fit!