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September 26, 2016

The best GPS running watch

by John_A

By Jim McDannald

This post was done in partnership with The Sweethome, a buyer’s guide to the best things for your home. Read the full article here.

We’ve run with more than 20 GPS running watches over the past three years, and we’ve found the Garmin Forerunner 230 is the best for both beginners and experienced runners. It carries the accuracy, long battery life, and light profile of our previous Garmin pick (the Forerunner 220), but has a larger screen with more information, offering quick-glance updates while running. The Forerunner 230 feels good enough to potentially wear as a day-to-day timepiece, and it can track steps and other metrics. It is easy enough to use as your first GPS watch, but it contains advanced running features and optional apps that expand its powers. It tracks runs better than most watches at its price and can work with cycling sensors. It’s also waterproof down to 50 meters.

How we picked

Some of the GPS running watches we considered. From left: the Forerunner 235, the Forerunner 230, the Fitbit Surge, the Polar M400, and the TomTom Spark Music. Photo: Jim McDannald

GPS devices and the companies behind them need to have a solid reputation for accuracy. Nothing on the market is 100% accurate, as mapping errors and signal drops occur under heavy tree cover. But the major players in this category (Garmin, Magellan, Timex, TomTom, Polar) each have a strong background in GPS and watch technology from their products in other fields. It’s taken time even for these experienced and well-recognized companies to work out bugs and bring a viable product to market. So if you’re intrigued by a new brand or crowdfunded device in this category, know that a sleek, first-generation product may be a little raw or unpolished.

GPS watches can now be made small enough to pass as a regular “sports” watch, so watches that still resemble hockey pucks have to earn their heft. The same goes for watch displays; a GPS watch’s ability to display and arrange information in an organized and readable fashion on the face cannot be overemphasized. It’s a huge hassle to squint to figure out which number is which.

The GPS running watch you choose should have a navigable, intuitive menu, starting with satellite connection and launching each new run. Some feature the ability to pre-cache satellite locations to avoid long waits before running. Once you push Stop, it should be easy to save data and review it right on the watch’s screen. (You’d be surprised how many watches fail at this.) Likewise, the desktop or Web software that offloads and arranges your data should let you glimpse all your running data, and dig into details when needed.

Pricing varies among GPS watches, from about $100 to $500. For about $100, you can get a GPS watch like the Garmin Forerunner 10 that records time, distance, and your route on a map, which may be just fine for some. Go up to $250, and watches can be waterproof, adaptable to other sports, and capable of working on longer runs. Go a little higher ($300 and up), and watches get even more durable, have built-in heart-rate sensors, and work with a wide variety of sensor accessories providing more detailed statistics. We sought to find watches that include as much useful stuff as they can in their price categories while ignoring features they could not perform well.

Our pick

The Garmin Forerunner 230 in idle mode. Photo: Jim McDannald

The Garmin Forerunner 230 has everything we look for in a great GPS running watch. It takes the accuracy and long battery life of our previous pick, the Forerunner 220, and makes the screen larger and more readable during activities, and retaining a light and small profile that wouldn’t feel too weird as an everyday watch. The interface and data syncing are easy enough to use if you are new to GPS watches, but the Forerunner 230 also contains deep features and optional app downloads that experienced runners and statistics wonks can dig into. It can track some advanced running metrics we’ve seen only in higher-priced models and can work with cycling monitors for speed and cadence. All these features rest on top of Garmin’s unparalleled reputation for reliable GPS devices; adding up to a watch that, though currently right in the middle of the pricing curve at about $250, feels many product cycles ahead of its competitors.

A cheaper fitness-tracking pick

For the price, the chunkier feel and smaller screen of the Polar M400 may not be that much of a trade-off for more casual runners. Photo: Jim McDannald

For $100 less than our top pick, the Polar M400 does most things well, though it requires more effort from you. It connects to satellites just a few seconds behind the Forerunner 230, it’s less waterproof (to 30 meters), and its software, though improving, is not as fluid as Garmin’s. It falters because of its less informative screen and its design, which will feel bulky on smaller wrists.

The built-in heart-rate pick

If you want to track your heart rate but don’t want to wear an additional chest strap, the Forerunner 235 (farthest left) stands out as a thinner, more flexible option than the competition. Photo: Jim McDannald

If you want to track your heart rate and can’t stand wearing an extra monitor, the Garmin Forerunner 235 is a sibling to our top pick that’s far more comfortable than other watches with wrist-based monitors. It features an optical heart-rate sensor and is thinner, lighter, and less bulky than the previous generation of heart-rate-sensing watches. It’s not as accurate as a heart strap, but if you’d rather not run with extra equipment, the Forerunner 235 covers that need without much extra bulk or weight.

If you need auto-syncing or music

The TomTom Spark Music (pictured here in its heart-tracking Cardio+ variant) covers the basics of run tracking and can also stream directly to Bluetooth headphones. Photo: Jim McDannald

If you want the best run-tracking and activity-syncing experiences, for about $150 more than our top pic, the Forerunner 630 adds a touchscreen, more advanced metrics during runs and after, and automatic Wi-Fi uploading of run data. And if you want to stream music to your Bluetooth exercise headphones without bringing along a phone, look at the TomTom Spark Music, a good-enough GPS running watch with unique music powers.

This guide may have been updated by The Sweethome. To see the current recommendation, please go here.

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