Smartwatches and fitness bands can help you stay fit and manage your daily schedule much more intuitively than a smartphone but what if you've always wanted something that has the best of both products? Enter GPS running watches. These watches are not your average smartwatch but come with a host of features that promise even more detailed fitness statistics and workout guidance.
A GPS running watch sports many sensors including heart rate monitors, gyroscopes, accelerometers, compass, barometer, altimeter, etc. For serious athletes and professional sportspersons, a GPS running watch offers all the vital information they need while at the same time offering smartwatch features such as watch face customization, apps, widgets, and notification replies.
It can be a fairly daunting task to decide on the best GPS running watch for your needs but as long as you keep the following considerations in mind, purchasing one can be extremely rewarding. Firstly, the accuracy of the sensors is paramount in any fitness tracker. Many offer built-in heart rate monitors but not all are very accurate and some won't work underwater. In such cases, a GPS running watch that syncs with a heart rate monitoring strip is essential. GPS tracking is a core feature so it needs to be done accurately as well.
Some watches show detailed terrain information while others just show a path on the map. It is up to you to decide the level of detail as this depends a lot on how advanced your training requirements are. Finally, good syncing capabilities with your Android or iOS smartphone and notification relay from phone to the watch are also important factors. Battery life is the bane of most smartwatches, but GPS running watches generally have longer battery life than your average smartwatch.
With these factors in mind, we have narrowed down on some of the best GPS running watches available in the market. So, here are the 10 best GPS running watches to buy in 2019.
1. Garmin Forerunner 645 Music
The Garmin Forerunner 645 is one the best GPS running watches under $500 and it comes with a host of features to boost your running or workouts. You can download up to 500 songs directly to the watch itself and listen via Bluetooth without having to carry your smartphone. It also works with select offline streaming services for this. The Forerunner 645 comes with built-in NFC so that you can directly make contactless payments from the watch itself. You get a wide variety of biomechanical statistics to help with your workouts including ground contact time and balance, vertical oscillation and vertical ratio, stride length, and cadence. Even information about anaerobic training and recovery is available for you to get a quick glimpse of your current fitness state.
Garmin's Connect IQ store is your one-stop-shop for downloading apps, widgets and watch faces on to the Forerunner 645. Overall, this GPS running watch is really worth the price it commands and offers a whole set of workout routines along with a good battery life. There are few minor quirks, mostly with the software such as the default watch face not showing the heart rate and incorrect resting heart rate measurements but they are easily addressable via software updates. You also might want to invest in a better wristband as the default one can get quickly soiled.
- Pros: Excellent tracking; Good selection of built-in workouts; Offline music and NFC support
- Cons: Minor software bugs; Wristband can get dirty quickly
2. Polar V800
If you are a sports enthusiast or a professional athlete, the Polar V800 makes for a good GPS running watch at a reasonable price. The Polar V800 does not offer fancy watch faces or widgets but it gets the essentials right. The GPS watch can track all your workouts and provides a host of statistics to help you improve your performance. The built-in heart-rate monitor in the Polar V800 gives accurate readouts in every resting and workout phase including swimming. You can also extend the functionality of the V800 by pairing it with Bluetooth smart running and cycling sensors or third-party power meters.
The data can be uploaded to the Polar Flow service that works with iOS, Android, and desktop PCs. While the fitness tracking features are really great, users have complained about the functioning of the heart rate monitor especially, underwater. Although Polar advertises a water resistance of up to 30 m, many have found that the back metal plate starts corroding easily. This is something that Polar needs to fix but overall, when it comes to pure tracking abilities, the Polar V800 is hard to beat.
- Pros: Focused on sports tracking; Compatible with third-party Bluetooth sensors
- Cons: No smartwatch features; Water resistance needs to be better
3. Suunto Spartan Ultra HR
The Suunto Spartan Ultra HR is not just a smartwatch but also one of the best GPS trackers in the market. The Spartan offers a responsive touchscreen and comes pre-installed with 80 sports modes, which can be customized. Among all the options listed here, the Spartan probably offers the highest battery life on GPS at 26 hours of continuous tracking. It also includes a host of other sensors such as altimeter, barometer, and compass. The best part is that the Spartan can be taken for a deep dive swimming session as it offers a whopping 100 m water resistance. While it's a great GPS running watch, it is equally a good smartwatch as well and pairs well with your Android and iOS phone to show notifications or stream music.
The overall performance of the Suunto Spartan Ultra HR is commendable. There aren't any sync issues or update issues we've seen so far. You can download additional watch faces but there is a limitation that you cannot really choose the complications in a certain watch face. Also, it would have been great if the Spartan provided a way to respond to smartphone notifications instead of just displaying them.
- Pros: Good tracking abilities; High water resistance
- Cons: Watch faces are not customizable; Cannot respond to notifications directly from the watch
4. Polar Ignite
- Features: Polar Precision Prime heart rate monitor; Daily training guide; Nightly recharge; Advanced sleep tracking; Built-in GPS
- Platform Support: iOS, Android, Desktop
- Display Resolution: 204 x 204 pixels
- Dimensions (W x H x D): 1.69 x 1.69 x 0.3 in
The Polar Ignite offers a good alternative to the Garmin and Fitbit offerings and also to the company's own Polar V800. The Ignite offers everything that is expected of a fitness watch including tracking for exercises such as running, cycling, swimming, and more. However, the Ignite stands apart from the sea of GPS running watches by offering extensive health insights and sleep and recovery tracking. The Polar Ignite is designed well. It fits snugly on your wrist and is not at all heavy. The Ignite features a bright 204 x 204-pixel display that is legible in all lighting conditions. The interface is easy to navigate although, some users may find that the touch response may lag a bit here and there. Users can select from a variety of sports profiles and presets. There is also a FitSpark training guide that can guide your workouts along with a Nightly Recharge tracker that tracks your sleep. FitSpark workout training adapts and recommends exercises based on your current fitness levels and performance. The Nightly Recharge feature uses a combination of heart rate and breathing rate and compares it to your last sleeping session to let you know how well you are recovering. This information is presented in an easily comprehensible manner.
The GPS of the Polar Ignite is very accurate and does a great job for the price. Polar's Precision Prime heart rate sensor does a good job of accurately tracking heart rate. It uses a combination of nine optical wavelengths and an electrical sensor to measure the efficacy of proper skin contact. The Polar Ignite is focused on fitness so you will not find apps such as Spotify or Twitter. However, you can still receive notifications for calls, messages, and apps when paired with your smartphone. Battery life on the Polar Ignite is very good — you get up to 17 hours when GPS and heart rate on and up to a week in normal smartwatch mode. For those looking at the best GPS running watch that offers a lot of tracking features without breaking the bank, the Polar Ignite is your best bet.
- Pros: Extensive training tools; Sleep tracking; Long-lasting battery
- Cons: Heart-rate monitor can be erratic at times
5. Apple Watch Series 5 (GPS)
The Apple Watch Series 5 is the latest update to the most popular smartwatch and fitness tracker in the market. Series 5 is largely similar to the last-gen Series 4 but brings a few new features such as an always-on retina display and compass. The GPS-only Apple Watch Series 5 is great for fitness tracking if you can make do without some of the cellular functionality. Nevertheless, you still need an iPhone to enable most of the Watch's functionality. The always-on display is one of the highlights of the new Apple Watch as it allows you to look at information without having to actually turn on the display completely thus saving battery life. You also get an upgrade to watchOS 6 that brings in new watch faces and support for podcasts and a new ambient noise meter. Apple promises the same 18-hour battery life of the last-gen Apple Watch Series 4, but it is difficult to reach such numbers in real life. The always-on has a few caveats, though. For one, it only works with watch faces and the Workout app. Secondly, it needs to sense skin before it can turn on, meaning it will only work on your wrist.
The fitness tracking features are more or less similar to what was seen with the Watch Series 4. You do get a compass feature this time for accurately pointing direction. If you are getting the GPS-only version, you won't have access to the SOS calling feature. Like all previous Apple smartwatches, the Watch Series 5 does not have sleep tracking, something that is a standard in most other GPS running watches in this list. For those looking at a combination of fitness tracking and smartwatch capabilities, the Apple Watch Series 5 is still the one to beat. For others who require a much more dedicated GPS running watch that offers features such as sleep tracking, the Apple Watch is hard to recommend. That being said, if you aren't too fond of the always-on display, the Apple Watch Series 4 makes for a more economical option.
- Pros: Always-on display; Works great with iPhone
- Cons: No new health tracking features compared to last-gen
6. Fitbit Ionic
No mention of fitness trackers goes without a listing of a Fitbit product and this is no exception. The Fitbit Ionic is a GPS running watch under $300 and offers a good feature set. You can store up to 300 songs in the built-in storage or download offline playlists from Pandora. GPS tracking and heart rate monitor work great. The Fitbit Ionic offers both large and small wrist straps so that you need not hunt for one that is comfortable. The Corning Gorilla Glass 3 screen has a brightness of up to 1000 nits making it visible even its bright sunny days. You can add more apps via the Fitbit store or download new exercise regimens that provide onscreen guidance. SmartTrack recording ensures that all stats pertaining to an exercise are available at your disposal.
Those who value a quality fitness tracker over a smartwatch will find the Fitbit Ionic a perfect choice for their needs. The interface is responsive, the tracking features are great, and the battery life is higher than your average smartwatch too.
- Pros: Accurate tracking; Bright display
- Cons: None as such
7. Garmin Forerunner 935
If you are looking for the best fully loaded GPS running watch, very few can stake claim to the throne as the Garmin Forerunner 935. Sporting a heart rate monitor, barometer, altimeter, GPS, and compass, the Forerunner 935 is filled to the brim with sensors. Apart from detailed workout stats, you also get indicators whether you've under-performed or overdoing a training along with advanced dynamics for that include vertical oscillation, stride length, and vertical ratio. While you have many individual workout options, if you are a multi-sport or triathlon athlete, you can change sports immediately at the touch of a button. Forerunner 935 also offers many smartwatch features including the ability to download new apps and watch faces or share your progress on social media directly from your wrist.
While the Garmin Forerrunner 935 is a great GPS running watch, it might not suit everyone especially, if you have small wrists. The watch itself is light but can still be heavy for some. There are also some limitations such as limited terrain detail, not being able to play music, or reply to notifications but we feel that those are secondary. The HR monitor works accurately but you need a separate HR strap while swimming as the built-in monitor does not work underwater for some reason.
- Pros: Great feature set; Excellent tracking; Long battery life
- Cons: Firmware updates are sometimes buggy; Limited terrain detail on the GPS; HR monitor does not work underwater
8. Coros Apex
The Coros Apex is perfect for those who need a no-frills fitness tracking solution with good GPS features. Coros presents a good alternative to the likes of Fitbit, Garmin, and Polar at a relatively affordable price. The Apex is available in 42mm and 46mm sizes with the larger variant offering more battery life, which is needed if you are continuously using the GPS. Apart from the GPS, you also get a compass, barometer, altimeter, accelerometer, and gyroscope. The Apex also features an optical heart rate monitor and can be paired with external sensors as well. For those primarily into sports such as running, cycling, and swimming, the Coros Apex suits well. However, those into other sports will find the experience a lot limiting. Other sports modes can be added with a software update but you will have to play the waiting game. The Apex is well-designed and will fit most wrists pretty comfortably. The 240x240 pixel display is sharp though a tad bit dim. You may have difficulties in reading the screen in bright sunlight.
Coros offers something called a breadcrumb navigation feature. In this, you don't get to see the full map data, but the watch can still point you in the right direction. You can also design routes online or in dedicated GPS apps and import the GPX file into the watch via the Coros mobile app. The Apex also includes a few features that fitness enthusiasts will love including VO2 max, lactate threshold, stamina gauge, aerobic and anaerobic training, and a whole lot more. However, do note that these measurements may not be always 100% accurate as they rely on the proper functioning of many other sensors. But for those who need to have a quick glance at the values to get an idea of their workout intensity, the Apex suits them just fine. Go for the Coros Apex if you are looking for a good GPS running watch that doesn't break the bank. Just be mindful that some of the readings may not be always accurate.
- Pros: Affordable; Many fitness tracking statistics
- Cons: Not all trackings are accurate
9. Garmin Fenix 5X Plus
If you are looking at a GPS running watch that does it all, the Garmin Fenix 5X Plus is the one to have. The 5X Plus is larger than last year's 5X and crams in a lot of functionality for the price. The 5X Plus brings Garmin's GPS expertise and it works well in getting a lock at the earliest possible instance. Fenix 5X Plus offers a total of 38 fitness tracking modes that cover a majority of sports including golf, skiing, etc. Further modes can be downloaded from Garmin's own Connect IQ store. The best part about the Fenix 5X Plus is that you get to customize what exactly you want the watch to show. So, for example, if you decide that only screens relevant to swimming be shown, you can do so that you won't have to scroll through indefinitely before landing on the desired screen. You also get to decide the exact metrics you need while performing any activity so that unwanted clutter can be avoided on the 240x240 pixel display.
One of the unique features of the Fenix 5X Plus is the presence of a Pulse Ox sensor that can measure blood oxygen saturation levels. While this may not be of much use for regular exercises, mountaineers may find this a welcome feature. However, it requires one to be very still in order to get an accurate reading. The readouts from the Fenix 5X can be synced to the mobile app over Bluetooth or to the desktop app via USB for further insights into your fitness levels. Also available are preloaded color topographic maps that are a great substitute for a full map. Color topo maps are useful to let you know the location and can be a bit lenient on the battery as well. The watch has access to the Garmin Connect store that lets you download apps such as Spotify, fitness modes, and watch faces. You can also preload music tracks on the watch's onboard storage for offline listening. With an excellent battery life that can go up to 32 hours with all tracking on, the Garmin Fenix 5X Plus is easily one of the best GPS running watches in the market if the price is no bar.
- Pros: Extensive fitness tracking; Pulse Ox sensor; Long-lasting battery
- Cons: Expensive
10. Suunto 9 GPS
The Suunto 9 GPS is one of the more advanced offerings from Suunto and comes with a big battery and an exhaustive list of built-in sport modes. The Suunto 9 impresses with its build quality so you can take it outdoors without having to worry too much about damage to the watch. More than the wealth of fitness tracking features onboard, the Suunto 9 is best known for its battery life. The company claims a whopping 120 hours of battery life that is unheard of in most GPS running watches. The Suunto 9 offers everything that you expect from a high-end fitness tracker. These include an optical heart rate sensor, barometer, altimeter, sleep tracking, activity tracking, recovery time recommendation, and more. The Suunto is considerably heavy but is no way uncomfortable to wear. The 320x300 pixel touchscreen is bright enough to be legible outdoors and can display a wealth of information about your workouts. It is a bit difficult to read it in the direct afternoon sun, though. The Suunto 9 smartly manages the battery to give you the longest runtime possible. It does this by intelligently turning off sensors that are not needed for a particular activity. To fill in the gap intervals, Suunto uses FusedTrack technology to bring in readings from other sensors such the compass and accelerometer so that you don't lose track during the time periods when the GPS is off.
The Suunto 9's heart rate sensor is very accurate and so is the GPS. You also get some insightful statistics to make better sense of your fitness performance. The watch does a good job at sleep tracking as well and calculates parameters such as wake time, heart rate during sleep, and sleep duration. One sore point with the Suunto 9 is that you need to use both the Suunto app and the Movescount app to get the most out of this watch. This can be initially confusing to users because both apps have differing functionality. If you are looking at a GPS running watch that offers a breadth of fitness-focused features with possibly the longest battery out there, the Suunto 9 makes for a great purchase. The only negatives are the somewhat unintuitive UI on the watch and the sync apps.
- Pros: Excellent fitness-tracking features; Extremely long battery life
- Cons: UI inconsistencies
Dear readers, that was a list of the best GPS running watches, which we think deserve your wallet's attention. Do note that many watches in this list already come with built-in apps, which offer a good workout regimen and statistics. But not all apps cater to every individual taste so being able to customize the workout matters a lot. Also, don't forget to factor in display brightness in the purchase decision. The last thing you'd want to happen is to repeatedly struggle to view the display in the middle of a run.
We hope that our picks for the best GPS running watches across different price points will help lessen the confusion in your purchase. As always, feel free to reach out to us if you have any questions or if you'd like to share your own experience of owning a GPS running watch.