Today’s powerful GPS watches have all the sport-specific features to track every stride on the roads, but they’re also packed with other sensors and technology to keep you connected the rest of the day, too. But they’re also a pretty sizable investment that you’ll want to last for years and miles to come. Whether this is your first time buying an advanced watch, or you’re poking around for an updated model, we have some tips and suggestions for making sure the right one lands on your wrist.
Made for Running… and So Much More
In most cases, more features mean more dollars when you’re shopping for a new GPS watch. While there are ways to cut down on price—like buying a refurbished version or opting for an older model of a recently released watch—narrowing down the features you need is key. And that doesn’t just include fitness features. These high-tech timepieces come with a slew of lifestyle functions and perks that you may—or might not—use long after you kick off your running shoes. Here are a few of the hottest features, for both working out and just hanging out, that you’ll want to consider.
Altimeters, barometers, and gyroscopes show up in GPS watches geared to hikers and trail runners who want to keep tabs on altitude, air pressure, and navigate new routes in the wilderness. But they do come at a bit of a price bump, so decide where you’ll be doing most of your training. If the answer is on the roads, check out watches with built-in visual maps to guide you through new neighborhoods, or ones that track your in-depth running metrics and design personalized workouts for you. Think you’ll be spending a lot of time cross training? Some high-end picks can offer you up to 80 different sport modes ranging from surfing to snowboarding and biking to badminton. Some watches will even let your friends live track your runs.
GPS watches with cellular service mean you can call and text right from your wrist, and give you access to your favorite smartphone apps. For example, you might order your Starbucks latte on the go, stream music wirelessly through Spotify, track your Uber ride, switch off your house lights—and then brag all about it on Facebook. Wi-Fi compatibility can also make it easier to sync a full music library, check the weather, or scroll through your e-mail. And no worries if you leave you wallet at home. NFC payment features mean you can pay right from your wrist.
Here are some of the top of the line watches and how they stack up. Looking for something simpler or more affordable? Check out Basic Watches for Runners.
Garmin Forerunner 945
Quick Take: Every training tool a runner or triathlete could want
Why We Like It: The Garmin Forerunner 945 is the most feature-packed Forerunner yet. It tracks your every step on the run and your heartbeat as you sleep to give you a complete profile of your life as an athlete. And the newest model supports music playback—it stores up to 1,000 songs, whether they’re your own MP3s or synced from a music service like Spotify. The color maps, previously exclusive to the Fenix watch series, are another handy feature. Displayed on the watch, they help you find your way around new cities without getting lost. You can even generate round-trip courses on the fly, no computer required.
Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.2, ANT+, Wi-Fi
Battery life: Up to 36 hours (10 hours with music)
Samsung Galaxy Watch Active
Quick Take: The brand’s latest smartwatch is lightweight and loaded with wellness-oriented features.
Why We Like It: The Samsung Galaxy Watch Active takes a holistic approach to fitness and wellness tracking. With built-in GPS and an accelerometer, the device automatically detects walking, running, and cycling, and users can manually track 39 different activities. Although there are only two buttons, the touch screen works well enough with sweaty hands. Working with the Samsung Health app for Android and iOS, the Galaxy Watch Active notifies you on your sleep habits, stress levels, and overall activity level. Battery life is the main detractor: We got around 3 hours of GPS runtime during testing, but only 1.5 hours when we also listened to Spotify while running.
Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.2, Wi-Fi
Battery life: ~3 hours (using GPS), 3 days (without GPS)
Garmin Forerunner 245
Quick Take: An update to a tried-and-true GPS watch, the 245 Music has enough new features to make you consider upgrading from the classic Garmin 235.
Why We Like It: If you’ve been a devoted fan of the Garmin Forerunner 230/235 models for years, this is an upgrade that will surely entice if you’re also a music or podcast lover. As long as you have bluetooth headphones, the 245 let’s you leave one piece of technology at home when you run—your phone—and let’s you sync your favorite music from services like Spotify as you run. (If you don’t use Spotify, you’ll be able to manually add music and podcasts via Garmin Express.) Other advancements include performance monitoring and adaptive training plans, new safety features, and other upgraded health features—like menstrual cycle tracking and sleep monitoring. The few downfalls include a lack of battery life when you’re using GPS along with music streaming (only 6 hours, according to Garmin) and the multiple screens to dial through when scrolling through your playlists and advancing/rewinding a song or podcast.
Connectivity: Bluetooth, ANT+, WiFi
Battery Life: 7 days in smartwatch mode; 6 hours in GPS with music.
Coros Apex Multisport Watch
Quick Take: An elite GPS watch for running and triathlons that has a long battery life and an intermediate price.
Why We Like It: Packing precise GPS tracking and insane battery life into a compact package, the Coros Apex is a top-tier multisport watch for beginners and elites alike. The Apex keeps the countless metric combinations found in the Pace, the brand’s previous sports watch, while integrating some exciting new features that runners will embrace. Notably, battery life is up to 35 hours in regular GPS tracking mode, but can be extended to last up to 100 hours if you require. It also gives you a slew of metrics you can view over five screens during your workout, including a new metric called stamina—an estimate of how much energy you have left in your own tank.
Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.2, ANT+
Battery Life: 35 hours
Apple Watch Series 4
Quick Take: The best smartwatch gets even better, with great new features for runners.
Why We Like It: Just like the previous generation Apple Watch, Series 4 lets you leave your phone at home but still be connected to the outside world (if you opt for the GPS+Cellular version). While the watch looks almost identical to AW3, the new model boasts 30 percent more space on the screen, so everything is easier to see—and easier to tap, like when you’re launching an app. Apple also increased battery life by an hour, extending up to six hours when doing an outdoor run. Exciting new health features include the ability to detect falls—and call emergency services if you’re unresponsive—as well as run your own ECG test to detect potential heart irregularities.