Whether you are into running, hiking, swimming, or cycling, you should be wearing a GPS activity watch to track your progress. A GPS watch is the best fitness accessory for anyone who covers distance while exercising. However, does it need internet?
GPS watches don’t need the internet because they use the GPS satellite network to triangulate your position. The watch is a signal receiver, which sends out and receives a signal from satellites. The amount of time for an exchange of signals to happen is how a GPS watch tracks movement.
Before you jump into buying a GPS watch, read through all the details of how they work and what activities they are best for. Plus, there’s a short summary of the best watches available today, according to Wirecutter.
How GPS Works
Global Positioning System or GPS is a system made up of 3 components:
- Ground Stations: The station receives radio signals from the satellite to track health, location, and time. The ground stations are how the government keeps track of each satellite.
- Satellites: The United States has a system of 30 satellites that travel around the Earth continuously.
- Receivers: A receiver is an object like a phone, watch, or navigation device that talks to the satellites to track the receivers’ location.
In order for a GPS receiver to track your location, it has to be able to send and receive a signal from at least four satellites. The first time connecting a GPS device will take the longest, but the calculation will take less time after each use.
If you are using a GPS watch in a place with high buildings or dense tree cover, connecting to the satellites may be more difficult. Trees and dense leaf coverage will block the signal from a satellite, and tall buildings can block or reflect the signal.
The signal is accurate up to a few yards of your location. There can be discrepancies between devices depending on the technology in each device. If you are using a GPS navigator, the maps are preloaded onto the device (like Google Maps), and the satellite signal will line up with the map.
In a GPS watch, the watch and satellites’ continuous communication tracks how far you have moved as long as the watch is operating.
GPS Watch or Fitness Tracker?
Believe it or not, but there’s a difference between a GPS watch and a fitness tracker. They’re both used for exercise, but use different methods for tracking movement. Which one is better for you will depend on what you want from a fitness accessory.
Here is a summary of each device and what activities it’s best for:
A fitness GPS watch uses the GPS system to track your movement as you run. Most watches will track your distance, pace, and steps taken. Higher-end brands will include smartwatch apps and heart rate monitoring.
The luxury of a GPS watch over other GPS devices (phone or smartwatches) is they work specifically to track your location. No other fitness device will track you as well as a GPS watch. These watches have the most technology dedicated to location tracking, and they will give you minimal notifications and moderate fitness tracking.
A GPS watch is mainly designed for runners and comes defaulted to a runner setting. The GPS watch works best for individuals who need to track distance. Most watches will allow for settings to be adjusted to cycling, and the high-end watches will have settings for swimming. If you are training for a triathlon, consider purchasing the Garmin Forerunner 945.
A fitness tracker uses different technology to track your movements. The numbers reflected using a tracker is based on your body movements and not GPS signaling. Fitness trackers use the acceleration of your wrist or ankle to track the number of steps taken. Have you ever noticed how your tracker adds steps when you vigorously pick up a drink or while cleaning the kitchen?
Fitness trackers are less exact when it comes to recording your movements and distance. For an individual who is loosely tracking their movements, this discrepancy is minimal. But if you are hoping to be serious or a professional athlete, a few seconds difference is a big deal.
One positive to a fitness tracker is its smaller size. The sensors in a fitness tracker are smaller, making wearing a tracker 24/7 more comfortable. Like the Samsung Gear Fit2, these trackers do more general tracking of your movements, like multiple sports activities, sleep, are waterproof, and work with outside fitness apps.
The Best GPS Watches
For the best GPS watches, The New York Times Wirecutter conducted extensive testing of 15 watches from Garmin, Polar, Coros, and Suunto. To decide which would be the best, they measured accuracy in recording heart rate, GPS connection timing, and pace accuracy.
Some performed abysmally, recording double the amount of steps and low accuracy in recording heart rate. Some took almost a minute to connect to the GPS system. After looking through the data provided in the article, there’s no perfect watch. Each watch tested has features with less than optimal performance.
Here are the three best GPS watches according to Wirecutter:
1. Garmin Forerunner 45
This model from Garmin is a great budget-friendly choice and the simplest in design. It’s lightweight and has a smaller watch face. The range of capabilities is small in this watch but will get the tracking job done.
The Garmin Forerunner 45 tracks heart-rate, distance, steps, and reminds you to move. Because it’s GPS dominant, you don’t need to be swinging your arm for it to calculate your movements. Pushing a grocery cart, stroller, or riding a bike are movements the watch will track.
You can customize the watch to track activities, including yoga and indoor gym equipment. The watch allows for customization of the watch face, color, and widgets (ex. weather, and calendar).
The battery life of the Forerunner 45 is good when it’s paired with your phone to track your movements. It will last up to seven days without using the GPS. When using the GPS continuously, the battery will last up to 13 hours.
2. Garmin Forerunner 245
A moderately-priced GPS watch, the Garmin Forerunner 245 is larger than the 45 and has more features. With more customization options for the face, and it works within outside fitness apps like Strava.
Wirecutter admits this watch wasn’t the most exact during the first test but improved with more usage. The connection times and heart-rate tracking didn’t do as well as in the 45, but the GPS distance was one of the most exact.
A close alternative to the Forerunner 245 is the Coros Apex. It’s lightweight and picks up the GPS signal quickly. Where the 245 out-performs the Apex is in heart rate accuracy and its easy-to-use buttons and dials.
3. Garmin Forerunner 645 Music
The Garmin Forerunner 645 Music has a long list of features that make it comparable to a fitness tracker but with correct GPS recordings. Although slightly larger than the 45 and 245, the 645 is still comfortable enough for all-day wear.
The Forerunner 645 was the most exact across all test fields. Its battery life is comparable, if not better, than the other two despite it having more features. The Forerunner 645 has a music streaming feature and allows for more notifications when paired with your phone.
The activity options on the 645 are lengthy. One feature lacking in the 645 is the ability to record a triathlon.
A GPS watch is a great way to track your activity if you want increased accuracy over a fitness tracker. These watches don’t need the internet, are great stand-alone watches, and Bluetooth capable.
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