Finding the Right GPS Watch for You - Part 2

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GPS watches, fitness watches, smart watches, activity trackers...when it comes time to consider getting into the wearable technology market for your outdoor pursuits it's a crazy and confusing world. In Part 1 of this blog series, I laid a foundation for evaluating watches that considered practical elements such as comfort and size in equal measure with specific features. In this installment, I will look further into the features themselves and the major categories of wrist-worn devices as defined by those capabilities. Next time we will look at top devices in each category and offer some final words of wisdom to help you make a confident purchasing decision.

It’s Time to Prioritize

In Part 1, I suggested that it was important from the very beginning to choose your primary objective. Do you want a personal assistant on your wrist that can also make your activities more enjoyable, or a training/adventuring partner that truly enhances the efficiency, productivity, and safety of your chosen pursuits? While the lines are not set in stone, deciding on your primary purpose will immediately narrow your focus and set you down one of three very different paths. After all, if you don’t know where you’re going then any of these devices will get you there, so the clearer your understanding of how you will use your watch the easier it will be to get past the mind-numbing overload of options at the beginning.

If you’re still having trouble with this step, here are some things to think about:

Do you want to be carrying your phone while engaged in your activities?

“Smart” devices that notify you of calls, texts, calendar appointments and admittedly an almost unlimited number of other things require you to also be carrying your phone to provide many of these features. Without it, they’re mostly just watches. If part of getting away for you is disconnecting electronically then do you really want your phone with you at all? If you are leaning towards a smart device figure out how you will carry your phone?


How important is GPS?

GPS is a Global Positioning System that uses satellites to pinpoint your location on the earth.  For watches, it provides the most accurate distance data and is necessary for any kind of wayfinding and mapping functionality. Many units have onboard GPS, but smart devices may use your phone’s GPS capability, which is less accurate and reliable across all environments. Fitness trackers may not have GPS at all but rather rely on high-tech pedometers, called “accelerometers”, to approximate distance traveled. If you prioritize accuracy and mapping capabilities then opt for a device with stand-alone GPS. Keep in mind too that GPS only works outside so if you want to use your device for biking as well as running laps in the gym you’ll need something with an accelerometer anyway, which many GPS units also have.


How Important is Heart Rate?

Only basic fitness trackers no longer offer heart rate monitoring, and wrist-based readers have become standard across sport watches, but if you are looking for more accurate heart rate data either as part of your training plan or because of a medical condition say, then you might want to consider a unit that links to a chest-strap instead. Sometimes these come included, sometimes you purchase them separately. The downside of greater accuracy, though, is having to think about and wear an accessory that many people find uncomfortable.


Are you a Tech Junkie?

Don’t get me wrong, all of these watches are absolutely loaded with cool technology, but if your thing is to explore unlimited possibilities for incorporating this device into your life then a unit whose main purpose is running Android or Apple applications has far greater appeal. Is this something you will strap on for activities or something you’ll be geeking on all through your day?


Do you engage in many activities or primarily the one for which you want this device?

A running watch is focused on running. The size, weight, band, interface, features...all optimized for that sport. Same with a watch made for diving, or golf, or sailing. If you have one true outdoor obsession that you want to take to the next level then a sport-centric watch will definitely make you the happiest. If not, that same watch may overburden you with loads of useless-to-you information that just gets in the way.


Now Choose Your Path


If you’ve done your homework since Part 1 of this topic, you should be feeling pretty clear by now about your goals, and ready to choose the category of device that’s right for you. Here are the main features of the three major groups we’ve been talking about:

Fitness Trackers:

  • Measure movement with accelerometers rather than GPS
  • Less accurate than GPS, no mapping
  • Work indoors or out
  • Small, lightweight, least obtrusive devices
  • Track distance, steps, calories burned, sleep quality and other movement-based metrics
  • May have wrist-based heart rate monitoring


Smart Watches:

  • Link via Bluetooth to a user's phone
  • Apple watches only link to Apple phones while a large number of devices are compatible with the Android operating system
  • A multitude of available models from phone manufacturers such as Apple, Samsung, Motorola and the like, but many tend to be designed for looks over practicality in demanding environments
  • Devices combine limited onboard capabilities with compatible Android or Apple applications when linked. In addition to the basic features of a fitness tracker, this provides a rabbit hole of possible ways to use these devices in your life including a plethora of apps for sports and outdoor activities


GPS and Adventure watches:

  • Measure distance by use of internal GPS (outdoors only)
  • May have accelerometers for indoor use
  • Tend to be rugged, waterproof, and designed for hard knocks
  • Models geared towards a wide variety of specific activities
  • In addition to the basic features of a fitness tracker, onboard capabilities may also include:

A touchscreen interface
Wrist-based and/or remote heart rate monitoring
Heart rate zones and alerts
Goal-based alarms
A timer and stopwatch
Run and bicycle cadence
Vertical oscillation, stride length and ground contact time for running
VO2 max
Training plans
Virtual training partner
Gym workout metrics
Music storage
A digital compass
A thermometer
Total ascent and descent and route altitude profiles
A barometric or GPS based altimeter
A barometer
Sunrise and sunset times
A moon phase calendar
Tide tables
Point-to-point navigation
Breadcrumb trail
Distance to destination
Storm alert
A weather trend indicator
Pool swimming metrics
Open water swim metrics
A depth sensor and dive modes and metrics
Golf modes and metrics
A red backlight and night vision compatibility
Ability to make payments at retail stores with Apple or Google Pay


So which watch is for you?


Wow, it's a lot to take in, but you if you have followed the series this far you should feel confident that you have done your homework and are in a good place from which to make a decision. You have considered the most relevant issues, decided which type of device will best meet your needs, and you can now start comparing a manageable number of options...which is where we’ll head in Part 3 as I look at some top contenders in each category.

Has this been helpful so far? Ask me a question, leave me a comment. Thanks for visiting and come back soon!

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