It is one of those questions that comes up all the time – “what running GPS watch would you recommend?” And when people learn that I am a life-long techie and have been doing reviews of various gadgets and gear since … well, a long time, they really get interested. But unlike many other gadets I use, my needs for a running watch are actually fairly simple. That hasn’t stopped me from looking at several different devices over the last year or so, and I wanted to round up my opinions on the ones I have tried.
For me, the core criteria evaluating a running watch is simple: the GPS works, is repeatable, is accurate, and that the watch is comfortable. Beyond that I start to care about ease of use, reporting functionality, feedback and so on. And finally all of the extras come into play. But if I have an issue getting a watch to start and stop and difficulty getting repeatable results … it is pretty much over.
These are not real reviews, just quick summaries. I also provided pricing and an Amazon link (not an affiliate or anything, just for info).
Nike+ – $165.69 (Amazon link)
Summary: Powered by TomTom, the Nike+ sport watch is a running-focused watch that supports ANT+ wireless device standards (meaning you can use a Polar heart-rate monitor as well as the Nike footpod), offers a large number of standard features as well as easy configuration of screens. Large numbers make for easy reading, and the Nike+ website and software are simple to install and use, and incredibly full-featured. The watch is actually fairly large (not compared to a beast like the Garmin 305, though) – the smooth styling of the Nike+ is deceptive, so I recommend trying one one before buying.
Like: Footpod means that even when GPS signal is lost you are still tracking data; USB-connector in watch along with supplied cable is very convenient; Nike+ software is very well done; flexible screen configuration. Solid battery life.
Dislike: TomTom GPS is slow to connect; the watch can tend to ‘fog’ in high humidity and sweat situations; Tends to over-estimate mileage and caloric burn.
Magellan Switch – $179.98 (Amazon link)
Summary: I did a full review here, but this was Magellan’s first GPS watch. They also offer a ‘Switch Up’ model that can mount on a bike as well as running. Since the two are basically identical, that means the design is large and flat. It also means that there are plenty of options available.
Unfortunately the device feels like all of the software was tested while viewed on an emulator on someone’s computer, as there is often too much crammed onto a small screen, making it barely readable – and useless while running (or biking). But the worst thing is it violates my primary rule for GPS watches by not being precise or reliable. NOT recommended!
Like: Loads of data; good battery life.
Dislike: Least precise (and possibly also least accurate) of all the GPS watches I have used. By a lot. Also bulky and blocky and not very comfortable, and the menu system gets confusing, and the text on most screens is too small to read when running.
Garmin FR-10 – $129.95 (Amazon link)
Summary: Another watch for which I did a full review. In the review I said there are only a few types of people who wouldn’t benefit from the Garmin FR-10:
•You run races of more than 50 miles distance or 5 hours duration.
•You don’t like to sync/charge your GPS watch within 50-60 miles or 5-6 hours of use (or 7 ‘events’).
•You need more advanced ‘training computer’ functionality.
•You need to use a heart-rate monitor or other ANT+ wireless accessories.
In other words, for most people this is a great running watch. It is thin and light and very comfortable to wear, links quickly to GPS signals, is precise within feet on my normal courses, and syncs to the Garmin Connect site easily.
Like: Precise and accurate; easy sync; thin and light; does exactly what most runners need at a very affordable price.
Dislike: anemic battery life; bare-bones configuration; no support for wireless devices; Garmin Connect a let-down after Nike+ software.
Polar RC3-GPS – $229.84 (Amazon link)
Summary: I am in the process of reviewing this now, but my initial thoughts is that this is a rich, deeply featured device with a few hiccups along the way. The watch software is full-featured, and fairly easy to navigate after a little time with the manual.
This is a bigger watch, but is relatively light and comfortable to wear. I no longer wear a watch in general, so I can’t speak to the ‘daily wear’ potential, but it is bigger than the Garmin and seems a bit bigger than the Nike+. mostly due to a blockier design.
The biggest issues I had were with the interface software and getting the GPS and heart-rate monitor to work reliably. I figured out that the best option for the GPS was to start it looking before I was fully ready to go, because the beep wasn’t loud enough that I heard it reliably under winter layers.
I also had a couple of issues where the watch didn’t find the heart-rate monitor, or lost the connection during a run when the band unhooked and didn’t reconnect when I reattached the band. Since I have started wetting the surface and changed the way I strap it to my chest I haven’t had an issue.
Finally, I wanted to install the interface software on my Mac, but the install failed – and even after nearly 2 hours on the phone with support I never got it to work. It installed easily on an old WinXP netbook, and worked on my gaming PC laptop after I spent a bunch of time removing loads of excess software.
Like: Solid GPS precision and accuracy; loads of features and functionality; simply to start and stop workouts; quick connection with heart-rate monitor
Dislike: Problems getting software installed; GPS slower to connect than Garmin (but faster than Nike+); initial issues with heart-rate monitor connection.
Summary: I am also currently reviewing this newly released watch, but it is an entirely different beast. The Echo gets its name from the fact that it ‘echoes’ data from your smartphone over Bluetooth. Since it doesn’t have a GPS, it uses little battery and is a very small and light device – something you could easily use for an everyday watch – and it gets 6-months of battery life!
I started using the Echo with MapMyRun, since it was already on my watch, but was underwhelmed by the functionality offered from the app through the watch – it was basically a viewer.
Then I started using Wahoo Fitness (which I had never heard of before), and it was worlds different! Suddenly I could start and stop my run, pause it, use media controls, tap the screen to change view modes and so on. The Wahoo app uploads to a dozen different fitness portals, so I could just keep adding stuff to my MapMyFitness account.
I just got the Magellan heart rate monitor, and it is a Bluetooth connection (the Polar one is ANT+), and I used it once and it worked great – easy to pair, attach, and run.
Like: Easy pairing; low power drain; Wahoo app makes it a great device; ultra thin and light; great battery life.
Dislike: Control capabilities still spotty in different apps; since it doesn’t measure, if it loses Bluetooth signal you get no output (happened one time)
This wasn’t meant to be a comprehensive survey – I don’t have any of the higher-end Garmin devices represented. But it shows off a range of reasonably priced options for the runner looking for something – from $129 to $229, with and without heart-rate monitoring, there are some solid choices.
So what would I recommend?
GPS watch only? Garmin FR-10 - reliable, small, effecient, and inexpensive. It does what you need and the price is right.
Add Heart-Rate Monitor? Magellan Echo – given how much I disliked the Magellan Switch (and their SmartGPS as well) I was skeptical … but paired with the Wahoo app it is excellent, plus it forces me to bring my phone (which I SHOULD be doing anyway) and provides great capability at a reasonable price.