Pros and Cons of GPS Watches

Before we get into the wide and wonderful world of GPS watches, let’s take a minute and discuss what a GPS watch can and cannot do. We feel that before buying a GPS watch, it’s important to understand their strengths, weaknesses, and limitations.

Accuracy

Most GPS watches are accurate within 1% to 3%.

This translates to a hundredth to three-hundredths of a mile per mile, plus or minus. To use a real world example, a GPS watch would measure a 10 mile run as anywhere between 9.91 miles to 10.09 miles.While not exact, it’s still very, very close.

But it’s not 100% accurate. Most people get hung up on this when running a road race. With a GPS watch, “your” distance won’t be the same as race distance. Partly, this is due to races being measured on the tangent, but it’s also due to GPS accuracy issues. GPS watches have unfortunately become the bane of race directors who must constantly answer angry racers who claim they ran 13.25 miles in a half marathon.

Satellites

GPS watches rely on satellites to work, meaning you need to be outdoors.

No duh, right? And nearby obstacles like tall buildings or thick tree cover – even cloudy days – impact accuracy, sometimes causing the watch to lose its satellite lock. Keep this in mind if you do the majority of your running on a treadmill – or if you run outside near potential satellite blocking objects.

Some watch makers have solved this problem by adding foot pods (basically a shoe-mounted pedometer) and bike speed and cadence sensors (similar to traditional bike computers), eliminating the need for GPS. These can be used in place of GPS indoors and can supplement it outside.

Cost

Budget GPS watches start at around $100, about the same as a pair of running shoes.

But to get features like a heart rate monitor, the price rises to $150 to $200. More feature-rich watches are higher still.

What this means is that a GPS watch is an investment. You will want to use it often otherwise it may not be worth the cost. If you don’t run regularly, an alternative might be a better choice.

Complexity

Like smart phones, a GPS watch is a sophisticated piece of computer wizardry. Depending on your technological prowess, there might be a learning curve. While watch companies have done their best to simplify GPS watches – the easiest to use are budget models with few features – this is lost as the number of features grows.

SHOULD I BUY ONE OR NOT?

Of course we want to say yes! But the truth is that a GPS watch is only right for you if:

  • You exercise outdoorsIf the majority of your running is done on a treadmill, we’d recommend just using the treadmill to track time and distance. The higher-end GPS watches can track treadmill speed and distance, but most lower budget watches can’t.
  • You work out oftenIf cost is not an issue, ignore this. But as GPS watches are expensive, your money might be better spent elsewhere if you aren’t using your watch regularly.
  • You understand and accept their accuracy limitationsDon’t get me wrong, GPS watches are great, but not perfect.
  • You’re comfortable with technologyWith the proliferation of smart phones and tablets, most of us are pretty adept with modern technology. But it must be stated that some GPS watches are complex. If you are easily daunted, stick with the budget to mid-range watches.