Updated June 2017
Welcome to the quickly evolving world of fitness watches! This summer we updated our GPS watch review and upped our selection to include nine contenders. The Garmin Fenix 5 earned the coveted Editors' Choice award, while the Garmin Forerunner 35 secured a new spot as the Best Buy. We've also added a Best Buy on a Tight Budget for a meager $130 and a Top Pick for Daily Use. Our list of award winners is brand spanking new at a time when the explosion of fitness trackers and smart watches has blurred the category.
Best Overall Competitor
Garmin Fenix 5
Comprehensive feature set
Good battery life
At the top of a very big heap sits the Garmin Fenix 5
. At OutdoorGearLab, we evaluate lots of categories of products. In many categories, we assess the features included by the manufacturer. Manufacturers often have a long list of features they can include and some of them are usually omitted. Sometimes the omitted features are complicated, heavy, or expensive to include. It is very rare that a product, in any category, includes all the possible features we can think of. Garmin equips the Fenix 5 with all the major features that we feel are possible on a GPS Watch. The standard, bare-bones features of a GPS Watch are time keeping and GPS distance, speed, and data recording. The Fenix has all of that. In addition, it counts steps, tracks sleep, monitors heart rate, communicates with external sensors, measures air pressure and altitude, measures temperature, and has smart watch functions. No other product we tested has all these features, and no other product has any different or additional features. Now, all these features would be useless in a package that is too big, too finicky, or with too little battery power. Further good news is that the Fenix 5 is easy to use, comes in three different sizes, and has more than adequate battery power, given the other attributes.
Read review: Garmin Fenix 5
Best Bang for the Buck
Garmin Forerunner 35
Effective distance, pace, and route tracking
Good-enough battery life
With virtually no reservations, we can recommend the Garmin Forerunner 35
to any and all consumers looking for basic run tracking. You will have access to the important data fields while on the go, and be able to sort through the data post-event with one of Garmin's proprietary services or any of a whole host of data management services. The price isn't the lowest in our review, but the value is high. This is a proven product from a proven manufacturer.
Read review: Garmin Forerunner 35
Best Buy on a Tight Budget
Only the most basic features
The TomTom Runner
was a late addition to our award selection. It is by far the simplest product and is clearly the least expensive. It wasn't until we tested the accuracy that it really stood out. In our repeated, repeatable running track test, we found the GPS sensor of the TomTom to be exactly accurate. Over multiple .5 mile test iterations, the TomTom demonstrated no error. No other watch we tested was so accurate. Aside from the accuracy, we found the budget price and basic function set to be welcome with appeal to the dedicated runner.
Read review: TomTom Runner
Top Pick for Daily Smart Watch Use, With Exercise
Apple Nike+ Sportwatch
Extensive smart watch features
Just the right sensors for most runners
Poor battery life
The Apple Watch Nike+
, co-branded with Nike and tested in its 38mm format (there is also a 42mm model, with a larger screen and at least slightly better battery life), wins our Top Pick Award as a smart watch for daily use that also serves very well in normal running training. The battery life is limited, so this cannot be used for ultra-distance training or events, but for typical runs, there is enough juice. The infinitely customizable set of apps available for the Apple Watch (and mandatory iPhone) mean that users of all types can find the data management and motivational resources they want.
Read review: Apple Watch Nike+
Analysis and Test Results
Are you athletic, and do you every pursue your physical fitness passions out of doors? Do you wish to quantify your efforts in any way? A GPS (Global Positioning System) equipped, compact electronic device, usually worn on the wrist, may be for you. Our team of fitness, outdoor, and technology experts has tested dozens of the best products on the market and, along the way, learned a great deal more about what is available. For further information and advice on choosing your own GPS watch, see our Buying Advice
Ease of Use
In the overall evaluation of this field, ease of use is by far the most important category. It is the interface and user experience that really sets the devices apart. The user will have two distinct experiences with the data monitored, displayed, and recorded. Your watch will tell you useful real-time data during a session, and then deliver further summarizing and totaled information afterward. The consumer's experience with accessing this data, both during and after training, informs our scores.
The GPS watches in our test that are easiest to use have large displays and locking buttons. Our testing team enjoyed being able to see relevant information at a glance while working hard and do so with no worry as to the integrity of the data. A wrist is a busy place, and most sports and clothing layer combinations present opportunity to inadvertently press a button or two. We appreciate the button locks on the Garmin Fenix
, Suunto Ambit 3, Polar M400, Nixon Mission, FitBit Surge, and Apple Watch
GPS watches strike a careful balance between portability and viewability. The wrist-mounted form factor limits the size of the screen and hard-working eyes need numbers and letters of a certain minimum size. Given these limitations, a watch can display an absolute maximum of three types of information at any one time. All the models in our test show up to three categories of data at once. Some can be programmed to show customized combinations of information. The nature and difficulty of programming and customizing are discussed in our ease of set-up category.
The 2017 set of tested GPS watches, clockwise from upper left: TomTom Runner, Polar M400, Garmin Fenix, Suunto Ambit3, Nixon Mission, Garmin VivoActive, FitBit Surge, Garmin Forerunner, and Apple Watch Nike+ 38mm.
In terms of post-event data viewing and processing all products in our test can upload data to a phone app and web-based interface. Garmin, Nike, Suunto, Polar, FitBit and TomTom
each provide their own web/cloud-based data storage and viewing platform. The Nixon Mission
uses Google's open source "Android Wear app to store and manage data. Each is comprehensive and useful, once the user is roughly acquainted with the system. Garmin also provides proprietary pc-based software for storing and reviewing data. Of all the manufacturers we reviewed, Garmin has the most widely-used data management software. FitBit is fast gaining a solid foot-hold in the activity data-management business.
It is entirely possible that you already have a Garmin or FitBit product for monitoring your daily step count or bicycle activity. Keeping some brand loyalty in your GPS watch choice will allow the data collected by the new device to live alongside what you already have. Also worth noting is that most of the devices in our test export activity information in a standardized format. All watches can generate gpx files that can be stored and viewed in a variety of fashions. A gpx file contains, essentially, time and position data. Various applications, pc or web based, can take this data and generate distance, rate, and other information. Strava can interpret and store all gpx files, for instance. Regardless of what device captured the gpx file, Strava will organize it and integrate it with its website. There are a host of other applications and products that will organize and process your gpx data.
Most of the products we tested have a computer interface for managing data. Shown here is Suunto's MovesCount online portal.
In assessing ease of use we also considered the simplicity and reliability of data transfer to the app. Some do the transfer automatically, like the Apple Watch
and the Suunto Ambit3 Peak
, while others only do it when the app is opened. The Garmin devices are all in this latter category. Finally, the TomTom Runner
requires that the user both opens the app and activates the watch at the same time. Our testing indicated that the Fitbit Surge
was the highest scorer in this metric, earning a perfect 10 out of 10, followed by the Apple Nike+
, Garmin Forerunner 35
, and TomTom Runner
The FitBit is a daily tracker that can also monitor proper running sessions. The Surge earned a 10/10 (the highest in the review) for Ease of Use and a 9/10 for Ease of Set-Up. Here, lead test editor in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru.
Above and beyond speed, distance, and time data, a GPS watch can process the raw information its various sensors collect to provide additional features. All the devices we reviewed capture the above information, and most add some of the following. As the category has matured, we look for a list of features that also includes GPS navigation, step count, sleep tracking, built-in optical heart rate, compatibility with external sensors, barometer, thermometer, and smartwatch functions. Some people will want all of these, and some will only want select ones. Thankfully, there is a device for everyone and a feature set that is likely tailored to your needs and desires.
First, the Garmin Fenix 5
is the clear leader in terms of features. It has everything we list above, which also happens to be everything we have ever seen in a GPS watch and everything we can currently imagine having in a GPS watch. Sure, there may be additional features that get integrated to GPS watches in the near future, and things we're not thinking of, but this is a comprehensive product. It seems rare even, that any one product will have all the attributes that are remotely possible. In that way, the Garmin Fenix was an easy choice for the top award and is a special award winner at that, earning the only 10 out of 10 for features.
Next in line are two other top performers. The former Editors' Choice winning Suunto Ambit3 Peak
and the current Top Pick Apple Watch Nike+
are roughly tied, in terms of features. Neither has the full set, like the Garmin. The Suunto
omits the onboard optical heart rate sensor while the Apple
omits both barometric altimeter and thermometer. Incidentally, these two sensors often come together. For a barometric altimeter to work accurately, the data it collects needs to be calibrated against current temperature. Every device that has a barometer in it should also have a thermometer. The opposite isn't true. In the end, in terms of features, the Suunto and Apple
have almost all you'd want, both in a package less expensive than the Garmin Fenix
. If the compromises they have, and there are more below, are ok to you, one of these two is a good back-up, budget option as compared to the Gamin Fenix
Mountaineering is perhaps the most feature-demanding test environment we get into. Here, lead tester Jediah Porter in Peru testing the Garmin Fenix 5 (the only contender to score a 10/10 for features). May 2017.
The next tier of products, measuring in terms of the features included, is the Garmin Forerunner 35
, the Garmin VivoActive
, the Polar M400
, Nixon Mission
, and FitBit Surge
. None of these have exactly the same feature set, but all have something between comprehensive and basic. The Forerunner
has a set of features truly optimized for specific training use, while the VivoActive
is more tailored to daily use with occasional training sessions. The Polar M400
, with a built-in step count, can be used daily but is more optimized for training only use. The Nixon Mission
is a ruggedized smart watch "daily driver" and the FitBit Surge
is similar to the VivoActive
in that it can readily capture step and sleep info. It also has a heart rate monitor to better complement the GPS tracking during exercise and to collect info about your rest, recovery, sleep, and normal daily movement.
Testing the watches side-by-side for features. The Fenix scores the highest, followed by the Suunto Ambit 3, and Apple Nike+.
Accuracy is important for an athletic training device because effective comparisons of efforts require integrity of data. Overall, signal strength and quality have by far the greatest impact on device accuracy. The best device with a limited view of the sky will be far less accurate than a cheaper tool with a tiny antenna out in the wide open plains. In our testing, we found very little variation in accuracy. This is remarkable, considering our tested devices ranged from super basic to $700 pieces of highly engineered equipment. However, even small variations in accuracy can be important. If your device is off by 1 or 2 percent over a long run, the quality of the data could suffer.
The accuracy of a GPS receiver is a function of signal quality, antenna size, and the device's software algorithms. Additionally, the data on some devices is being calibrated with and compared to data from step-counting motion sensors. We have found a clear correlation between the integrity of distance data and the presence of accelerometer confirmation. Basically, these wrist-top devices have inherently small GPS antennae, and GPS satellite signal is regularly flawed. This results in "outlier" data points. While a user is running or walking, the device periodically uses the GPS signal to determine that user's position. Mapping these position points against one another measures distance. Calculating the distance covered over time measures speed. When the device gets a data point that is inaccurate, both distance and speed can be artificially inflated. An accelerometer-based step count can verify or refute that seeming increase in rate and distance.
Checking the altimeter with the actual altitude. San Antonio pass in the Cordillera Huayhuash has a recorded altitude of 16,371 feet.
All the devices we tested measure distance, outside, with GPS signal. While it isn't clear how or whether each uses the accelerometer information to verify GPS data, the TomTom Runner
, Suunto Ambit3
, Garmin Fenix
, Garmin VivoActive, Polar M400, Nixon Mission, FitBit Surge, and Apple Watch
all have this potentiality. This sort of complementary data serves to make overall distance and speed far more accurate. In standardized testing, over a known distance on a standard running track, we found that the inaccuracy of the tested watches varied from 0% to 7%. That means that in one watch the reported distance (and all devices we evaluated measure and report to the nearest hundredth of a mile) did not vary from the actual at all, while one watch varied by an average of 7%.
The VivoActive on a thinner-than-average adult male wrist. This contender scored a near perfect score of 9 out of 10 for accuracy.
It is the Best Buy award-winning TomTom Runner
that was exactly accurate. This is interesting because the TomTom is by far the least expensive product we tested. The TomTom does not seem to have step count for day to day use, but it is reported to have an accelerometer. Presumably, this helps the TomTom achieve the high accuracy score.
A screenshot from one day of testing the TomTom. As you can see, over two test runs, adding up to 1 mile, the Runner captured the exact distance, to the nearest hundredth of a mile.
Interestingly, the least accurate product we evaluated also has an accelerometer. Whether the Nixon Mission
uses the accelerometer or not to monitor the GPS for errors isn't clear, but the end result is an average of 7% inaccuracy. Over a long run, this adds up to significant error. The FitBit Surge
was off by 5% and the Best Buy Garmin Forerunner
erred by an average of 4%. The rest of the products in the test were off by a minimal 1-3%.
Ease of Set-Up
In the smartphone age, when consumers are accustomed to unboxing a small electronic device and using it right away, manufacturers face a difficult task. The ideal device is intuitive, requiring little to no formal instruction. However, with button interfaces and multiple types of data and viewing options, every watch will require at least a little initial set-up and learning curve.
Thankfully the market is consolidating and set up procedures are all largely easy and clear. The ubiquity of smartphone apps with these products is their biggest advantage. Every device syncs with a smartphone app, and it is the app and phone interface that makes setup so easy in every case. For the most part, you charge the watch initially, download the appropriate app, and follow the instructions on the app. Each comes with at least rudimentary paper instructions, but we made sure to have at least one tester perform the set up without the paper instructions. Every device could be used for most, if not all, of its functions without consulting the paper instructions for more than selecting the proper app.
The app set up screen of the main Apple watch app.
FitBit's set-up represents the state of the art. This is a new company, entirely built on "wearable" devices that work in direct conjunction with your smartphone. It is the start-ups that are often most nimble and lead the charge in certain ways in their respective markets. FitBit is long past being a "start up", but the set up is smooth and easy. In testing wearable devices for years now, we've watched the other companies emulate the FitBit set up. All the other manufacturers are now basically up to speed. Don't let prior experiences with clumsy interfaces and long instruction manuals turn you off of any of the brands in our review. The only issues we had with set-up, in fact, were in extended initial syncing.
Some devices, it seems, take longer to get going during that first use. Notably, the Polar M400
spun its gears for over an hour on first set up. Since we were testing, we had the time to deal with this. If you want to "plug and play", realize that the Polar might take some more time between the plugging and the playing. Set-up of the Nixon Mission
is complicated a little by its use of the generic "Android Wear" app. Nixon uses Google's open-source Android wearables platform (it still works with Apple products) that is built for a wide variety of devices. It works just fine with the Nixon, but it is clear that it isn't tailor-made for the Mission.
We ask a great deal of the power source in these tiny electronics. First, it is important to note that the first job of a GPS watch is to receive a signal from outer space
! That is a tall order. Before you get all bent about the limitations of these things, ponder just what that wrist watch is actually doing. Next, it needs to be pretty dang small. Finally, all GPS watches now "communicate" both ways with your smartphone. All this communication takes a lot of battery power. That a device will do any of this even for an hour or two is remarkable. That some will perform all of their prodigious functions for upwards of 24 hours should be mind blowing. Some, if used sparingly, will go weeks between charges.
The VivoActive and its bulky charging cable/platform. However, this contender did earn a near perfect score of 9 out of 10 for battery life.
Battery life is influenced by a wide range of design and usage variables. The two biggest variables are the size of the battery (which is directly correlated with the size of the watch; a good percentage of a GPS watch's bulk is the battery) and the amount the user uses the various antennae. Larger batteries last longer. Use of GPS signal, syncing with the smartphone, and collection of data from wireless accessory sensors suck battery. Of those, GPS is the big one. All other variables, including the screen (Is it a touch screen? Is it color? Is it high resolution? Does it turn off when you're not looking at it?), accelerometer, barometer, and thermometer, are minor as compared to antennae and battery size. The shortest lasting battery, that on the Apple Nike+
, is a product that is the smallest and has many features. When GPS tracking, the Apple watch lasts just hours. The longest battery life comes from the Garmin Vivoactive
and Garmin Fenix 5
, while the large Suunto Ambit3 Peak
finishes closely behind. When the Suunto is used without GPS signal and without syncing to your smartphone, it will literally last almost three weeks.
For running, the Runner excels. It is simple, clean, and inexpensive. Here, lead editor Jediah Porter in Peru's Cordillera Blanca.
Objective testing and direct comparisons of battery life are very very difficult. The OGL team has wracked our collective brains on how to best objectively test the battery life of wearables. And we haven't come up with a good solution. We will keep brainstorming this, and welcome your input. In the meantime, our testing is purely anecdotal. "Does this seem to last longer, all else equal, than that one?" Our charted rankings of battery life assume the user is roughly average, for that product. The Apple Watch
, for instance, is intended to be worn 24/7. In this average usage, it lasts one day. The Editors' Choice Garmin Fenix 5
is also a day-to-day product. In most athlete's lives, the Fenix will last about a week of 24/7 wear. The Best Buy TomTom Runner
is unlikely to be worn all day, every day. It, like the other Best Buy Garmin Forerunner
, is primarily a dedicated training tool. In this usage, each will last for about ten hours of dedicated usage. If you train 12 hours a week, you charge a little more than once a week.
For trail running, the Garmin Forerunner works fine. Its battery power is too short for ultra distance events, but it'll do the job for "normal" distances.
In most ways, the comfort and ease of carrying a GPS watch is a function of the absolute dimensions. Which is bigger, and which weighs more? Other criteria include contouring for the wrist and the nature of attaching the wrist band.
The OGL 2017 mid-sized GPS watches, from left to right: TomTom Runner, FitBit Surge, and Polar M400.
In our test, the Suunto
device is the bulkiest and heaviest, while the Apple Nike+
is the most compact. Should you choose to carry your watch in your pocket occasionally, the Garmin Fenix 5
is unique in that the wrist straps are attached with hinges that allow the entire package to lay flat. Generally speaking, devices with more features were less portable. The Apple Watch
is an outlier this way, but you pay for that with battery life. It has lots of features, in a tiny package, but it needs to be charged regularly.
The Nixon Mission on the left, Suunto Ambit3 Peak in the middle, and the Garmin Fenix 5 on the right. These are the three largest GPS watches we tested.
We can divide our tested watches into three main "portability" strata. The biggest, most cumbersome are the Garmin Fenix 5
, the Suunto Ambit3 Peak
, and the Nixon Mission
. These are roughly equal, with the Fenix on the smaller side. Also, the Fenix is available with the same features in two other different sizes. We tested the "Fenix 5", while there is a smaller Fenix 5S and a larger Fenix 5X. Next, in the middle, are the Polar M400
, FitBit Surge
, and TomTom Runner
. They are larger than a standard wrist-watch, but smaller than the big guns above. The smallest products on our list, the Garmin Forerunner
, Garmin VivoActive
, and Apple Watch
, are little, if any, larger than a standard wrist watch. For the features, these compact choices are remarkably small.
The three smallest watches in our test, from left to right: Apple Watch, Garmin Forerunner 35, and Garmin VivoActive.
Choosing a GPS watch to track your running, cycling, hiking, or other outdoor endurance activities is challenging. Thankfully there are excellent products on the market and we have worked hard to demystify the options for you. If you still feel as though you're in the dark as to which contender is best for you, or if you even need a GPS watch, consider reading our Buying Advice
article to help clear things up.