GPS run watches: 10 of the best tested and rated

GPS-equipped fitness watches will maximise each and every training session. But does the theory stand up to practice? James Witts gets with the beat…

Credit: The Secret Studio

Today wrist-based training tools are more like mini computers. Apart from Suunto’s Ambit 3, every training tool tested here dips under £200. Against that relatively frugal backdrop – it’s all relative compared to the likes of Garmin’s 920XT at £389 – you’ll still receive enough data to refine your training plans and stimulate the physiological changes you’re after, whether that’s more speed or greater stamina.

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Part of that more affordable revolution is down to the smartphone. Nearly every monitor on test syncs seamlessly with an iPhone or Android equivalent, meaning manufacturers can divert more of their resources on software (apps) than attempting to cram everything into a wrist unit and still keep the weight down.

Forty percent of run watches on test here dispense with the humble chest strap, which is great for comfort but just how accurate are they? That’s a good question and one you’ll find the answer to by reading on…

GARMAIN FORERUNNER 10

£89.99

The FR10 is aimed at those new to multisport metrics, highlighted by the run/walk feature. You simply preset the run/walk time split and off you go. A virtual pacer will also keep you on track, and both features come courtesy of the GPS that, though not as swift at pick-up as the pricier 920XT, is consistent and retains signal well. You can upload the info to Garmin Connect for further analysis. Sadly, there’s no heart-rate compatibility so you can’t purchase a Garmin chest strap and begin zone training; instead, you’ll have to pay a further £60 for the FR15 if you’re seeking bpm feedback. As you will if you’re after daily tracking activities like daily steps, though, at time of press, the FR15 without HRM was available for £99.99 at Argos. At that price it might be a better call.

Verdict: Useful GPS monitor but the FR15 might be a better investment 80%

Related: Garmin release next generation of GPS run watches

SIGMA RC MOVE 

£159.99

How many of you remember Garmin’s original GPS breakthrough in the fitness market? While data displayed on the wrist, it was from GPS information collected via a whopping great device strapped to your biceps. In many ways, it’s the same with the RC Move as it displays speed, pace and distance via the GPS signal on your smartphone. With the latest iPhone 6 Plus measuring 5.5in, that’s a hefty extra burden to carry around on the run. That’s not to say there aren’t virtues here. There’s a HRM strap, a cute music feature where you can scroll through your phone’s playlist, and the voice announcement after each lap to feedback seven parameters of data
is a nice touch, albeit it can grow irritating. Sigma’s Move app is okay but nothing more.

Verdict: Some great features but reliance on phone loses marks 74%

SOLEUS GPS ONE

£69

The name pretty much sums up this watch from Soleus, its streamlined features list aimed at those graduating from training by feel to exercising by numbers. There’s no heart rate to contend with and no Bluetoothing to apps; instead, you’re given distance, pace and speed.

There’s also no chance to purchase a chest strap, either, so presumably Soleus’ intentions are for the consumer to progress onto their Pulse BLE + HRM, which features wrist-based HR measurement at nearly three times the price. Whether they’ll be enticed by the GPS One remains to be seen. Pick-up and retention of GPS is fine, though can take a while to connect in built-up areas, while the holey wrist strap isn’t the most comfortable. The data display’s font is also more akin to an ’80s computer.

Verdict: Nothing special but GPS at this price isn’t bad 81%

GARMAIN FORERUNNER 225

£199.99

Garmin’s first foray into wrist-based HRMs utilises sensors developed by Mio, which adds bulkiness to the 225 over its chest-strap siblings, the 220 and 620. A raised perimeter of silicon on the undercarriage aids comfort, as well as aiming to keep out ambient light that’d distort readings.

That said, even Mio concede their wrist-based technology is only 86-90% reliable, though it proved within around 3bpm at varying intensities, which isn’t bad. As you’d expect of Garmin, GPS pick-up and retention is good; syncing is swift to wirelessly send data to Garmin Connect; and the five buttons are easy to use on the fly. That said, we prefer the touchscreen-button combo of the 620. And as the updated 235 has just hit the shelves, it might be worth holding off purchase.

Verdict: Does a good job but suspect 235 will be superior 81%

TIMEX IRONMAN RUN X50+ 

£149.99 

Just when we’d got over the Sigma’s iPhone-GPS reliance, along comes this Timex offering similar functionality. Yes, to tap into the pace, distance and speed features of the X50+, first you need a smartphone. But overlooking the hefty joint fiscal and weight outlay, the Bluetooth connection between the two is more erratic here than with the Sigma.

When things do sync, though, you can access email and calendar notifications, and your phone’s music files. Also, like many Timex products, the X50+ is waterproof to 50m. That said, unless you waterproof your phone and strap it to your swim cap, you’ll lose many of the features. The Timex app’s designed for connectivity but it can then upload to third-party apps like Strava. But in this instant world, it seems a clumsy method of analysis.

Verdict: Some decent usability inclusions, but there are better Timex products 71%

TOMTOM RUNNER CARDIO 

£179.99 

The TomTom’s another wrist-based unit that’s integrated the optical sensor from Mio, though in a display pod that can be squeezed in and out of the wrist strap. With the original, users complained that this’d often fall out. Thankfully, the update has solved this problem. As well as heart rate, you’re given the usual pacing metrics, though satellite pick-up could be quicker, especially when confronted with an urban backdrop. Scrolling through the features is via a square button beneath the display, which works fine, though adds bulk to a pretty hefty training tool, made worse by a particularly wide wrist strap. It’s certainly something to bear in mind if you have twig-like wrists. TomTom’s MySports app offers a smartphone and computer platform for analysis, though it’s a touch rudimentary.

Verdict: A solid monitor but its feature list doesn’t warrant its size 74%

POLAR M400 (220 best on test)

£157.50 

The M400 is Polar’s second integrated GPS watch, coming off the back of the much more expensive but still impressive V800, which we tested back in issue 299. Whereas the V800 was aimed at multisporters, this is more run-specific – there is a cycling option but no sensors. You can customise data fields via the online Polar Flow software, which also supports impressive analysis.

The screen is crystal clear and offers up to four fields of data – and, for this price, there’s a lot of data to work with. You can train to HR zones; receive a running index based on HR and speed data; and altitude logs the rise and fall of your run. There are numerous more features that we don’t have space to list, but what’s important is that each feature serves a purpose and is easily used.

Verdict: A great watch with loads of very useful features at a very impressive price 92%

MIO ALPHA2 

£149.95 

The Alpha2’s design is clever, that ergonomic shaping countering its rather lengthy size. Part of that hulking look is down to housing the optical sensor to measure HR. We’ve talked about accuracy of this type of monitor in the ‘Wrist-based accuracy’ box (p91), but the fact many rivals here licence Mio’s certainly adds credence to their technologies. A soft silicone strap offers physical comfort, which eases the mental anxiety of managing its limited function set.

The two buttons are so subtle to be almost intangible on the fly, and that pain’s exacerbated because the narrow display only offers one piece of data at a time. Metrics include pace and distance, though accuracy’s questionable as they’re based on an accelerometer rather than GPS, which for £150 is disappointing. 

Verdict: Comfortable on the wrist, shame about the rest 69%

SUUNTO AMBIT 3 RUN 

£220 

Suunto’s Ambit 3 Run is a stripped-down version of the Ambit Peak. It loses outdoor-adventure extras like weather information and compass, and gains run-specific attributes like run cadence and, a new addition to the Ambit series, the ability to create intervals online via the Movescount App.

Disappointingly, despite shedding some superfluous features, it still weighs 73g, which is pretty hefty for a watch, and is noticeable compared to its more streamlined brethren like the Polar M400. Suunto would argue that bulk’s down to the lengthy feature list, which includes speed, pace, distance and altitude; activity tracker including sleep monitoring; and notifications of emails, messages and calls. There’s also a nifty feature that logs your route so you can track back. 

Verdict: Plenty of features and innovations, but it’s simply too large 76%

EPSON RUNSENSE SF-810B (Editor’s choice)

£179.99 

The brand better known for stationery goods moved into more mobile applications recently, becoming one of the earlier adopters of wrist-based HR tech. That clinical backdrop seeps into the SF-810B aesthetics, but its buoyed by solid usability.Three measurements per screen convey a myriad of useful features including distance, lap distance, pace, speed, altitude and calories burned, which you can configure via the watch or your mobile.

Locating satellites isn’t swift but neither is it unbearably slow, and once connected it clamps on with unerring accuracy. You can set target pace with an upper and lower range – a neat real-life feature – and input intervals. There’s a run app, but it takes a while to upload data and doesn’t offer much in the way of analytical tools.

Verdict: Not the coolest looking tool but packed with impressive features 82%

The final verdict

Will this test go down in 220 folklore as the beginning of the end for the humble chest strap? Wrist-based HR watches are on the rise with four models tested including the debut from Garmin. Though not featured here, Polar has also joined the party with the A360 fitness tracker. Training by heart rate is a proven way to maximise training gains, so it’s clear that dispensing with the chest strap is an easy sell to the consumer. But accuracy doesn’t yet match its older sibling’s. That might not matter to the health-and-fitness market; for triathletes, that’s not good enough. For now, for most triathletes, chest strap remains the preferred model, though the Epson is the winner in this new category.

While many were looking to simplify their tools for monitoring progress, Sigma and Timex were doing the opposite. You could argue that relying on your smartphone’s GPS and then transmitting that information to the respective interface is a genius idea, helping them to keep price and watch weight down. To us, it handcuffs you to your smartphone for longer periods than normal. In our opinion, save the extra gadgets and componentry for the bike – not the run.

 Simplicity is seen in the Soleus GPS One and Garmin Forerunner 10, which both come in under £100. Both offer reliable GPS features and we’d happily recommend them for those new to run training tools. That said, both lose marks for lacking the ability to purchase a chest strap and begin training by heart rate.

 Despite some pretty impressive watches with feature lists that are longer than the Strictly Christmas special, the Polar M400 is the clear winner. It’s a slick-looking and comfortable beast with a myriad of useful run attributes that, combined with the impressive Flow software, will help you manage and improve your training. It’salso light, highly usable and, for the price, an absolute steal.

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