The Best GPS Watches
Our top picks for best GPS watches include (from left to right) the Garmin Vivoactive, Garmin Forerunner 920XT, TomTom Runner Cardio and Polar M400.
Credit: © Jeremy Lips / LiveScience.com

After testing more than 20 GPS watches, we recommend the Garmin Vivoactive as the best GPS watch overall. If you want the most bang for your buck, we recommend the Polar M400, a $150 watch that tracks running, cycling and a variety of other sports.

We rounded up a total of 21 watches, including devices designed specifically for runners and triathletes. We tested these products out on runs, bike rides and, when applicable, in the pool for swim workouts. Then, we evaluated each watch based on its comfort, design, accuracy, user-friendliness and the value of the information it provided. Here are our top picks:

 

 

Our rating: 8.5/10

Price: $250 (plus $50 for compatible heart-rate monitor)

Mobile compatibility: iOS and Android

Data transfer: Bluetooth, USB, ANT+

Features: tracks indoor and outdoor running, walking and cycling; tracks indoor swimming and golf; smart notifications from mobile device; daily activity tracking; vibration alerts; music controls

Design/Comfort:

The Vivoactive combines a touchscreen with conventional buttons, which makes navigating the watch easy.
The Vivoactive combines a touchscreen with conventional buttons, which makes navigating the watch easy.
Credit: © Jeremy Lips / LiveScience.com

The Vivoactive has a slim design that sets it apart from other bulky, multisport GPS watches like the Suunto Ambit3 and the Polar V800. It has a modern-looking square face that is easy to read and makes the device seem more like a smartwatch than a sports watch. Like the Fitbit Surge — another fitness watch with "smart" features — the Vivoactive combines a touch screen with conventional buttons, making it easy to navigate (once you get the hang of it). The dimly lit screen can be tough to read in the dark, but the watch has a backlight that you can activate with the tap of a button.

User-friendliness:

The Vivoactive syncs wirelessly with your mobile device via Bluetooth, or you can plug the watch into your computer to transfer data via a USB cord. But if you don't feel like syncing data from your watch to some other device, you can just view your stats right on the watch itself. Workout summaries, as well as a record of your daily activity, are stored on the watch, and you can access this information by hitting the History widget on the main menu. In my experience, the watch's battery lasts about five days when you're using the GPS feature every day for about 30 minutes or so. That's a decent battery life that rivals those of smartwatches and fitness trackers that don't have GPS capabilities.

Value of information:

The Vivoactive is missing some of the advanced data tracking that you'll find on Garmin products that are devoted exclusively to running, swimming or triathlon training. For example, the watch can't be paired with a heart-rate sensor to track in-depth data about running efficiency (which is something you can do with Garmin's Forerunner 920XT and the Forerunner 620). But you can use the Vivoactive to track your distance, pace, time, cadence and elevation gain while running. The metrics are similar for cycling, and you can even use the watch to track speed. Swimmers can also use the Vivoactive to track laps, strokes per lap and swimming efficiency (or SWOLF). All of this data is displayed in an easy-to-read format on the Garmin Connect mobile app or on Garmin's online dashboard, which features comprehensive graphs and charts, as well as workout summaries and information about your daily steps and calories burned.

Enjoyment/Inspiration:

The Vivoactive connects with Garmin's new app platform, Connect IQ, where you can download custom display screens for the watch and try out apps developed by other Garmin users. I really enjoyed customizing the watch. (I downloaded the weather app and a new "watch face," or display screen.) I also like that the watch features Garmin's signature "move bar" — a graphic on the display screen that turns red when you've been inactive for more than an hour. If you don't get up and walk around, the watch will buzz your wrist until you get moving. I found this feature useful for reminding me to be more active throughout the day.

[Read full review of the Garmin Vivoactive]

 

 

Our rating: 7.25/10

Price: $150 (plus $50 for compatible heart-rate monitor)

Mobile compatibility: iOS and Android

Data transfer: Bluetooth, USB

Features: tracks indoor and outdoor walking, running and cycling; daily activity tracking; ability to create and follow custom workouts and create custom sports profiles; vibration alerts

Design/Comfort:

You only have to press one button on the M400 to start tracking a workout.
You only have to press one button on the M400 to start tracking a workout.
Credit: © Jeremy Lips / LiveScience.com

The Polar M400 is made from durable materials, like stainless steel and rigid plastic, that make it seem sturdy and ready for anything. But despite its brawn, the watch is comfortable to wear while working out, and the device's five buttons are easy to press, even when you're running. I like that this watch comes in solid black or white. Many of the watches I tested were brightly colored and too bold for my taste.

User-friendliness:

Navigating the M400 is easy, which is more than I can say for many of the GPS watches I've tested. You need to press only one button to start recording a workout — and that button is bright red, so you can't miss it. I did run into some trouble when I first tried to set up the watch on my computer. (The Polar software didn't immediately recognize my device.) But when I called Polar's customer service hotline, I was immediately connected with a company representative who helped me troubleshoot the problem, which was entirely a result of user error.

Value of information:

The M400 isn't designed to track swimming workouts, and it doesn't have a multisport mode, so you can't really use it as a replacement for a triathlon watch. However, you can use the watch to track both running and cycling workouts. Runners and cyclists can use the watch to track their time, distance, calories burned, pace, speed and heart rate (when the watch is paired with a heart-rate strap). The watch also tracks your daily step count and calories burned. All of this data is displayed in the Polar Flow mobile app and website, which is easy to navigate and features some ready-to-read charts and graphs. You can also customize the data that the watch collects and displays by creating new "sports profiles" online. This allows you to label all of your workouts properly, whether you're playing soccer or taking a dance class.

Enjoyment/Inspiration:

The M400 is one of the easiest GPS watches to navigate, which makes it a pleasure to use. And for people who are interested in connecting with other athletes to stay motivated or swap workout advice, the Polar Flow website seconds as a type of social network. You can use the site to find other fitness fanatics in your area and see how you measure up to the competition.

[Read full review of the Polar M400]

 

 

Our rating: 6.75/10

Price: $250

Mobile compatibility: iOS and Android

Data transfer: Bluetooth, USB

Features: tracks indoor and outdoor running, vibration alerts

Design/Comfort:

The Runner Cardio has an unconventional design that makes navigating the watch easy.
The Runner Cardio has an unconventional design that makes navigating the watch easy.
Credit: © Jeremy Lips / LiveScience.com

The TomTom Runner Cardio has a large, brightly lit display that's easy to read while running. And unlike most watches with buttons along the outer edges, this watch has a single button located underneath the display that can be pressed up, down, left or right. While unconventional, this design makes it easy to navigate the watch during a workout.

User-friendliness:

Not only is the watch easy to navigate while running, but it's also easy to figure out how to work the Runner Cardio without reading any kind of instruction manual. You can upload data from the watch to your computer by plugging the device in with a USB cord, or you can upload data wirelessly to a mobile device via Bluetooth. But the most user-friendly feature of this watch is its built-in heart-rate sensor, which lets you leave your heart-rate chest strap at home and track your pulse right from your wrist.

Value of information:

This running watch provides all the information you need to track your progress, whether you're a seasoned runner who's training for a race or a beginner looking to monitor your improvement over time. The watch tracks distance, time and pace, along with calories burned, elevation gain and cadence (steps per minute). Unlike the Forerunner 620, an advanced running watch from Garmin, the Runner Cardio doesn't collect data about your vertical oscillation (movement up and down, or "bounce") or ground contact time (the amount of time your foot stays on the ground with each step). But running-efficiency data can actually be more overwhelming than it is useful, which is one of the reasons we chose the Runner Cardio, not the Forerunner 620, as our pick for the best GPS watch for runners. The heart-rate data that the Runner Cardio collects is displayed in an easy-to-read format in the TomTom MySports mobile app and on the company's website. It's easy to analyze your average heart rate, as well as your heart rate over the course of your run, in both the app and the online dashboard.

Enjoyment/Inspiration:

The straightforward design of this watch makes it enjoyable to use, even during intense workouts. The watch is missing some of the motivational features that come with watches from Polar and Garmin — like "badges" that you can receive for achieving your best time, or the ability to share your stats with other TomTom users — but these features aren't necessarily must-haves for GPS watches. The watch does have one great motivational feature: the "Race This" mode that lets you try to beat your time or distance from a previous workout.

[Read full TomTom Runner Cardio review]

 

 

Our rating: 8.25/10

Price: $440 (plus $50 for compatible heart-rate monitor)

Mobile compatibility: iOS and Android

Data transfer: Bluetooth, USB

Features: tracks indoor and outdoor running, cycling and swimming; multisport or triathlon mode; daily activity tracking; vibration alerts; ability to create and follow custom workouts; live race tracking (i.e., send live GPS data to others); smart notifications from mobile device

Design/Comfort:

The FR920XT is fairly wide, but it's thin enough to slip inside your wet suit or under your running glove.
The FR920XT is fairly wide, but it's thin enough to slip inside your wet suit or under your running glove.
Credit: © Jeremy Lips / LiveScience.com

The FR920XT may not be the smallest GPS watch (in fact, it's rather bulky), but it is slim enough to slip under a wetsuit or tuck under your sleeve. And though it's large, it's very comfortable to wear when you're working out, and the device's four buttons are easy to press. The watch also has a bright backlight that makes it easy to read, even if you're underwater.

User-friendliness:

The FR920XT tracks all three triathlon sports (running, cycling and swimming) and is loaded with features. You'll want to spend a bit of time getting to know the FR920XT before using it during a workout, but once you familiarize yourself with the watch, it's easy to navigate. Garmin's website also has some great video tutorials that can help you get started with the watch. Unlike most GPS watches, the FR920XT connects to Wi-Fi, which makes it easy to upload data from the watch to your mobile device or computer. You can also transfer data to your phone or tablet via Bluetooth, or plug the watch into your computer with a USB cord to upload your workouts.

Value of information:

The FR920XT tracks a lot of data, from the most basic stats (e.g., distance, time and pace) to more advanced metrics, like running and swimming efficiency and VO2 max (maximum oxygen consumption during a workout, a good measure of physical fitness). All of this data is displayed in an easy-to-read format on the Garmin Connect website or mobile app. Both the site and the app have a few features to help you make sense of the data. For example, if you use Garmin's HRM-Run heart-rate strap, you can collect information related to running efficiency (such as vertical oscillation and ground contact time). This data is graphed out and color-coded in Garmin Connect. (Purple dots on your cadence graph mean you're a very efficient runner, whereas red dots mean there's a lot of room for improvement.)

Enjoyment/Inspiration:

When you achieve a fitness milestone while wearing the FR920XT, you'll be rewarded with a "badge," which is like a congratulatory note after you run your fastest mile or bike your longest recorded distance. I really liked this feature and found that it kept me motivated during workouts. Garmin Connect also doubles as a kind of social network for fitness lovers, and you can use the site to connect with athletes in your area or get some insight into how others are training with their GPS watches.

[Read full review of Forerunner 920XT]

Suunto Ambit3 Sport, $350 with heart-rate monitor

A great option for triathletes and swimmers, this watch lets you track both indoor and open-water swims. You can also pair the Ambit3 Sport with a heart rate monitor that tracks your pulse both on land and underwater. However, the Suunto app isn't as well designed, or as comprehensive, as apps from Garmin and Polar.

Our rating: 7.75/10 [Read full review of Suunto Ambit3 Sport]

 

Polar V800, $400 with heart-rate monitor

Like the Ambit3 Sport, the V800 can track running and cycling, as well as both indoor and open-water swimming. But this watch also lets you track dozens of other sports, ranging from soccer to yoga, and you can use the V800's compatible heart-rate strap to track your pulse on land and in the water. However, the V800 is very bulky and may not be a good fit for people with small wrists.

Our rating: 7.5/10 [Read full review of Polar V800

 

TomTom Multi-Sport Cardio, $300

The Multi-Sport Cardio is one of the only triathlon GPS watches on the market with a built-in heart-rate sensor. This means you can track your pulse with the watch without wearing a separate heart-rate monitor around your chest. However, the Multi-Sport Cardio isn't the best option for those who prefer swimming in lakes or oceans, since it doesn't track open-water swims.

Our rating: 6.5/10 [Read full review of TomTom Multi-Sport Cardio]

 

Garmin Forerunner 220, $250 with heart-rate monitor

With its bright, colorful display and ability to track both basic and advanced metrics, the Forerunner 220 is a great watch for runners of all skill levels. However, the watch (and compatible heart-rate strap) is the same price as the TomTom Runner Cardio, a GPS watch with a built-in heart-rate sensor, which was our pick for the best GPS watch for runners. If you'd rather not wear a chest strap during your workouts, TomTom's product might be a better option for you.

Our rating: 6.5/10 [Read full review of Garmin Forerunner 220]

 

Garmin Forerunner 10, $90-$100 (depending on size and color)

The Forerunner 10 is a great watch for beginner runners or anyone on a budget. While you can't use the watch to track your heart rate, you can use it to track your routes as you walk or run, and it will also help you monitor your total time spent working out, as well as your pace.

Our rating: 6/10 [Read full review of the Garmin Forerunner 10]

 

Garmin Forerunner 620, $350-$390 with heart-rate monitor (depending on size and color)

The Forerunner 620 is a watch for serious runners. You can pair the watch with a compatible heart-rate strap to track your pulse during workouts. If you purchase the watch with Garmin's HRM-Run heart-rate strap, you'll also be able to track advanced metrics that measure running efficiency, including cadence (steps per minute), vertical oscillation (movement up and down) and ground contact time (the amount of time you leave your foot on the ground with each step). But for $350, you could buy the Suunto Ambit3 Sport, which can also track your swimming workouts.

Our rating: 6/10 [Read full review of Garmin Forerunner 620]

 

Fitbit Surge, $225-$245 (depending on size)

The Surge combines the daily activity-tracking capabilities of a fitness band with the GPS capabilities of a running watch. The device has a built-in heart-rate monitor that seems to be accurate at tracking heart rate when you're just sitting around, but I found that the heart-rate data recorded during my workouts was less accurate.

Our rating: 6.75/10  [Read full review of Fitbit Surge]

We reviewed a total of 21 GPS watches, and some of them didn't live up to our standards. For example, the Ironman Run Trainer 2.0 is an advanced running watch from Timex that retails for $200, but for $250, you could buy the TomTom Runner Cardio, which is a better-looking watch with a simpler interface and a built-in heart-rate monitor. And the Polar RC3 might have been worth $190 when it first launched in 2012, but you can now buy an even more advanced Polar watch, the M400, for about the same price. The $200 TomTom Multi-Sport also seems like less of a bargain now that you can buy a newer version of the watch with a built-in heart-rate sensor — the TomTom Multi-Sport Cardio — for $300.

At $130, the Magellan Switch Up is one of the cheapest multisport GPS watches on the market, but it doesn't track swimming metrics, like laps and strokes per lap, making it useless for triathlon training. The Soleus GPS Mini also seems like a bargain at $72, but we think it's worth it to spend a few extra bucks on the Forerunner 10, which is much easier to navigate and is quicker to pick up a GPS signal.

We also tested a few products — namely, the Microsoft Band and the Sony SmartWatch3 — that combine GPS functionality with smartwatch features (i.e., the ability to read texts and emails right on your wrist). Unfortunately, neither of these products was as good at tracking workouts as the majority of the GPS watches we tested. And they both paled in comparison to Garmin's smartwatch/GPS watch hybrid — the Vivoactive.

You can buy the Nike+ SportsWatch and a compatible heart-rate monitor for less than $200. But, at $170, the more feature-rich Garmin Forerunner 15 costs about the same and isn't as bulky as the Nike watch. Finally, the $220 Soleus GPS Pulse + HRM has a built-in heart-rate sensor but is very hard to navigate. You'd be better off spending $30 more for the TomTom Runner Cardio.

Follow Elizabeth Palermo @techEpalermo. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+.