Ah!! Christmas beckons as you try to decide on the best GPS running watch that money can buy.
If you are treating yourself or a loved one to a new GPS running watch then you’ve come to the right place for our latest recommendations. Luckily for you, it’s a great time to buy a great running watch – prices are competitive and GOOD technology is packed into many devices. For some of the slightly older models that I will cover, you might get a very good deal on Black Friday/Cyber Monday. These will be highlighted in the shop (up there to the right on the menus).
ESSENTIAL READING: Updated Version of this post Top Running Watches of 2017.
ESSENTIAL READING: Top Triathlon Watches of 2017. There’s running watches there too!
A watch for who?
I’m going to cover watches from about $100/£100 upwards to the high-end sport watches at £350/$450. You are lucky in that this year is the first year when you can get a well-featured watch even at the very lower end of that price range.
A watch or an app?
These recommendations only look at running watches not apps. The Runtastic app or the Nike app are as good as any if you want to go down that route.
I’ll be looking at running watches for running! You can use many running watches for other sports too but I ‘ll assume that you want something ‘at least’ vaguely competent to run with. I only say this as I will exclude some of the ‘fitness watches’ and some of these are maybe not accurate enough for my liking. I will also exclude triahtlon watches as they have too much other stuff in them for pure runners.
To train well you will probably consider distance, time speed/pace and heart rate and “effort”. The 2 key features you should look for are:
- Heart Rate
Watches with those 2 features will most likely have all the little bells and whistle that you might also want
Other key features include
- Footpod support or internal accelerometer based speed (indoor winter running in cold places)
- Durability for running in more extreme environments eg fells or getting wet
- Optical heart rate for those unable or unwilling to wear a chest strap
- Workouts and Intervals
- Connectivity to apps, sensors and wifi
This list of recommendations links to individual watch reviews – there you will find the detailed features that I have taken into account when making the recommendation.
It’s an interesting time. Running is growing globally as a activity. Sport watches are becoming part of super-complex apps & online sport-data ecosystems. The traditional distinction between a ‘watch’, a ‘sports/fitness watch’ and a ‘smartphone’ are becoming somewhat blurred. For example where does the Apple Watch 2 fit into those categories? It’s, sort of, all of them. Android Wear watches are the Google equivalent and, in my opinion, represent the longer term future of the technology.
I used to run with an old wrist watch with a ‘second hand’ to manually time various activities. I got reasonably good. The point of saying that is not to brag but rather just to remind you that the technology per se isn’t going to make you any faster. It’s the hours, miles, speed and recovery that will. Indeed if you are well trained you will be quite able to run well by feel alone. It may not have escaped your notice that Mo Farah seemed to be able to manage to win 4 Olympic golds without wearing a running watch. Just a thought…:-)
Categories and Special Categories
- The Run Scientist – you know you want all the bells, whistles and fog horns
- The Adventure Runner – you know what a hill is. It’s rocky and steep enough to fall down
- The Entertained Runner – You run to a beat
- Aspirational Runner – You’ve just got the bug
- Student Runner – Hey you’re fast but you’ve no money (we were all like that once)
- Cool Runner – you probably own an iphone and want some matching high tech running gear
- The Runners’ Runner – This has to be a bit ‘old style’ yet fully supportive of the requirements of your efforts
- Those Who Are Simply, Stylishly Connected – You want a stylish band that links and syncs to your phone, something relatively thin would help.
- SPECIAL CATEGORY: Optical HR
- SPECIAL CATEGORY: Navigation
- RUN SCIENTIST – Garmin Forerunner 735XT
The Garmin Forerunner 735XT can do pretty much everything a running watch needs to do. It works well and still looks cool. I’d call it a tri watch but Garmin say it’s a running watch that also has tri features.
It will give you all the racing, pacing and run training features you will likely ever need. You can use it to follow a certain pace or follow a previous race performance. No other running watch has as many features. No other Garmin running watch yet supports STRAVA Live segments and the STRAVA Suffer Score like the 735XT.
Obviously all the ‘old hat’ stuff like advanced running dynamics are included.
It’s got good GPS and you can run with it on a treadmill without the need for an external footpod.
It has clever physiological metric estiamtes like VO2max, performance condition and stress score.
It will link and sync to your phone, it has an OK battery life lurking under 10 hours in real-world usage.
Garmin’s app and online ecosystem (Garmin Connect) are good.
Comments: The 735XT contains pretty much every Garmin running feature. It is unlikely to be superseded for at least a year, although there is a chance a pure tri watch may take over its mantle as the most feature-full Garmin watch.
ESSENTIAL READING: Garmin Forerunner 735XT Review
2. ADVENTURE RUNNER – Garmin Fenix 3
Suunto’s AMBIT 3 PEAK is a near equal contender but Garmin’s Fenix 3 wins on aesthetics AND features, for me.
If you read this in 2017, Suunto’s SPARTAN Ultra may have taken over the mantle for adventure runners. But not for now. The Suunto Spartan is certainly prettier though…
The main problem with the Fenix and the Suuntos for the adventure runner is that they don’t contain a ‘proper’ map. For a proper map based watch you might consider the LEIKR, see later.
The new TomTom Adventurer is a cheaper option but lacks some navigational features.
For various reasons (statability/features), the Fenix 3 would be the only one I feel comfortable recommending in this category for Christmas.
The Fenix 3 is very much as feature-full as the Garmin 735XT from the previous section. It has virtually every feature you can think of. As well as that, and just like the 735XT, it can also morph into a multisport & triathlon watch.
Comments: Some prefer the accuracy of the AMBIT3 range and also some of the specific features offered by the AMBIT. The Fenix 3 already comes in an optical HR version for those of you looking for that. It IS due for a 2017 replacement and the fledgling Suunto SPARTAN ULTRA may well become a preferred platform in 2017 once its feature-set develops.
ESSENTIAL READING: Garmin Fenix 3 Review
3. ENTERTAINED RUNNER – TomTom Runner 3 / SPARK 3
There is only one winner here. The TomTom Runner 3/ SPARK 3 has music playback built in to the watch. You’ll obviously need bluetooth headphones but you DO NOT need a smartphone. It has optical HR, it has navigation. If these are key features for you there is no other choice.
It only lacks a little on some more advanced running metrics and features.
Comments: This is a new watch, improved on the 2015 version. There won’t be a replacement for a while. It is a very striaghtforward device that works. Tomtom have specifically kept superflous functionality to a minimum to avoid over-complicating the device. But it does its job very well. The app and online platform are still work-in-progress but are now more than OK. Polar’s M600 might be a challenger.
ESSENTIAL READING: TomTom Runner 3 / SPARK 3 Review
4. ASPIRATIONAL RUNNER – TomTom Runner 3 / SPARK 3
Again the TomTom wins here as well. It has enough bells and whistles to support you as you get faster. But not so many that you will be distracted by them away from your training.
Running close behind is Polar with the old M400 and new M600. I know the former well and it is a great device. It has some issues with GPS accuracy and the charger is not great. The polar app and online platform is superior to TomTom’s. Their M600 may well have everything to beat the Runner 3….on paper it looks like it might. I’ve just not had enough hands-on time yet to give a recommendation on that. Garmin’s 230 and 235 are, of course, also worth a look but I think a little over-priced although perfectly competent.
ESSENTIAL READING: TomTom Runner 3 / SPARK 3 Review
5. COOL Runner – Polar M600
Despite saying, above, that you’ll probably own a iPhone- to be THIS PARTICULAR cool runner you probably won’t own an iphone. YOU will have the Polar M600.
Polar’s M600 is the world’s first ‘proper’ running watch based on Android Wear. Android Wear is stable so there won’t be a huge risk going with Polar’s technology built on that. There is also a great upgrade path to the new features in the impending upgrade to Android Wear 2.0.
Being built on Google’s Android Wear, you’ll get notification, maps, music AND the kitchen sink. Unlike most other sports watches there is a REALLY good chance this baby will actually work with your Android Smartphone in the real world – ie other than only with a top-end Samsung! In my tests the M600 performed very well with oHR for running but less so when swimming. Similarly the GPS accuracy was fine for normal usage but in demanding environments it struggled a little, as do many sports watches.
BTW: The Apple Watch 2 is more of a fitness watch than a ‘proper’ runners’ watch IMO. Perfectly fine, of course. Now you know.
ESSENTIAL READING: Polar M600 Review
6. The Runners’ Runner – EPSON SF810
It’s not so old and it ticks many ‘functional boxes’ from a pure running perspective. It is a bit old school in that is a running watch for running. It won’t make you an espresso and it won’t sync to a fancy smartphone app that you will never use.
ESSENTIAL READING: Epson SF810 Review
It’s pretty enough, rugged enough and well made enough to win this award. It has the metrics you need and has good, all-round accuracy. The SF810 is Epson’s top-end watch with optical HR but you can skip that and buy the 710 – currently at a bizarre price of £80 on Amazon. Synchronise the data WELL AWAY from Epson’s RUNSENSE platform and you will be fine.
7. Student Runner – Polar M400
We’ve all been there. Money is tight. You want something that works, maybe last year’s model could well be in the sale. You know that a second hand sports watch is a risky endeavour.
For a ‘known brand’ I’d go for the Polar M400, last year’s TomTom Runner 2 is also worth a punt. For an even cheaper option the Epson Runsense range are going for silly prices – mainly because no-one buys them. BUT the Epsons ARE GOOD; with the added advantage that when you wear one your watch will still have some rarity value and you can pretend it’s a brand new watch that no-one has yet had chance to review – avoid their online platform though, it sucks. link the data automatically from there to ANYWHERE else. Even to a spreadsheet.
ESSENTIAL READING: Polar M400 Review
Comments: I found Polar’s GPS accuracy Ok, others haven’t. Don’t swim with this watch more than once. Dodgy micro-USB charging port, gently does it. The Polar flow online service and app, IMO, are very good.
8. Those Who Are Simply, Stylishly Connected – Polar A360
I love the A360. It’s a little temperamental at times and the optical HR could be more accurate and the strap a little more strapping. Putting that aside, it is VERY pretty. On the whole it now mostly links well to a smartphone. It has a great Polar app with the stats you need. If you have a Samsung Phone then you could consider the Gear Fit 2.
But with a bit of luck you’ll get the A360 for just over £100. It has a really nice screen & display, it feels comfortable and it actually looks better than most others anywhere near the same price point.
ESSENTIAL READING: Polar A360 Review
9. SPECIAL CATEGORY: Navigation – Not awarded
The problem is maps. Sort of important for navigation, I’ve heard. If you want navigation then it might be easier to use your car’s satnav or a top-end cycling computer!
Most of the watches that offer ‘navigation’ really only mean that you can follow a pre-determined route or go in a straight line to some point or other eg a POI or back to the start either directly or by re-tracing your route. TomTom Runner 3, Fenix, Suunto AMBITs/SPARTAN… they are all similar in that respect.
Proper navigation with turn-by-turn instructions requires a digital map. This: takes up storage space; requires a decent screen to comprehend it; a decent processor to make it work smoothly; and a decent battery to power the screen. Consequently the options are limited when it comes to buying something good. Furthermore there can’t be so much demand for this kind of device as not many models are being developed and surviving. So there are not likely to be that many more new entrants who are not based on Apple/Google/Bing in some way. So you are left with a tiny handful of options.
Out of the Garmin EPIX and LEIKR GPS you have a hard choice. Support for both and further development of both will be limited. Garmin would be the safer bet of the two. Other than from the manufacturer you might even find the LEIKR hard to buy.
Bizarrely the Android Wear/Google Maps of the Polar M600 might let me make the ‘Navigation Award’ soon to the Polar (Nov 2016 – still testing). I suspect there will be drawbacks though (eg battery!) for many of you who will want to take such a watch into the wilds.
Although I have always liked the EPIX, I never quite got around to buying one.
Personally I’d strap a Garmin Edge 820 to my wrist with Duck/duct Tape or steal my partner’s satnav for a few days/hours or, heavens forbid, use one of those new fangled smartphone thingies. They have maps on too apparently 🙂 Just a thought, carry a USB charging stick.
10. SPECIAL CATEGORY: Optical HR – not awarded
I’m not going to award this one yet either. Garmin’s 235, Polar’s M600 (running) and TomTom’ Runner 3/Spark 3 are mundane recommendations for watches with generally good optical HR performance. However I want something SPECIAL.
Suunto’s upcoming optical version of the SPARTAN SPORT (2017) has uber-awesome VALENCELL optical tech inside. But, you can’t buy one…yet.
Let me know what sort of person you are and I will consider expanding the list for groups I have missed.
|Garmin Fenix3 (Sapphire)||£379.00||Link||$569.00||Link|
|Garmin Forerunner 230||£160.00||Link||£250.00||Link|
|Garmin Forerunner 235||£215.00||Link||£330.00||Link|
|Garmin Forerunner 630||£255.00||Link||$378.00||Link|
|Suunto Spartan Ultra||£475.00||Link||$699.00||Link|
|Suunto Ambit 3 PEAK||£249.00||Link||$336.00||Link|
|TomTom Runner 2/SPARK||£99.00||Link||$130.00||Link|
|TomTom Runner 3/SPARK 3||£190.00||Link||$247.00||Link|