Should You Get a GPS Running Watch, Fitness Tracker, or Smartwatch?

18 Jul.,2022

All these wearables can get notifications, track runs, and monitor fitness level, but each type is best suited to only one task.


smart watch manufacturers

Until the early 21st century, tracking your fitness meant using a stopwatch, charting your progress on graph paper, and, if you were devoted, walking around with a small box chained to your hip. Nowadays you pretty much have to ask your smartphone not to track your steps, and McDonald’s recently gave away step trackers in Happy Meals (until they gave kids rashes).

We currently cover three types of devices that can keep you informed about how much you’re moving and push you toward your fitness goals: GPS running watches, fitness trackers, and smartwatches, both for Android and iPhone. They all perform three basic functions:

  • Track your day-to-day activity (steps, flights of stairs, increased-heart-rate work, sleep)
  • Measure your distances in running, biking, hiking, and other outdoor activities
  • Alert you to phone calls, notifications, and alarms from your smartphone

We’ve previously answered a reader question about smartwatches versus fitness trackers. But these devices keep adding features and getting smaller, and their makers are increasingly selling them as all-in-one solutions. After a discussion among Wirecutter editors who have tested and researched these devices, we concluded that a true all-in-one doesn’t yet exist. All three devices do all three tasks, but each of them can only do one task really well. Although it’s tempting to say, “I want it all!” and opt for a “fitness smartwatch” such as the Garmin Vívoactive or Fitbit Surge, in our opinion these devices are not yet great choices for most people. They’re more expensive than a fitness tracker, they’re much bulkier than you might expect, and they don’t excel at any one task. So it’s best to pick one main priority and stick to that. If you’re not sure where you stand, here are three questions that can clear things up.

Do you want accurate distance tracking and instant pace feedback?

If you care about accuracy for pace and distance and don’t want to run with your phone, choose a GPS running watch. A GPS watch will provide you with the most accurate look at how far you’ve gone and how fast you’re going, both while you’re running and after. You can leave your phone at home, and the wrist-top location of a GPS watch generally offers more secure synchronization with satellites than the phone you tuck into an armband, pocket, or backpack. And the watch lets you know if it loses its GPS connection, whereas trackers, phones, and smartwatches might not alert you at all, merely showing a glitched-out map once you’re done.

A watch’s interface is also easier to use while you’re running. Many of them dedicate buttons to commonly used functions, and those can be easier to use than a touchscreen while you’re sweating. You can see your pace and distance at a glance, so you can pick up the pace or scale back. The best ones let you display up to four total stats at once for quick feedback on other important measures such as heart rate (if paired with a chest strap or optical sensor), split time (per mile or other measure), and total time elapsed. Most fitness trackers and smartwatches are limited to showing one or two of these stats at a time, so they aren’t as useful during an actual run. GPS watches also offer more advanced metrics, like step cadence or VO2 max score, that don’t matter to most people but can be helpful to track if you’re training for a marathon or other race.

A GPS watch can also work for other sports—such as cycling, hiking, distance swimming, or cross-country skiing—where distance tracking is an important goal. Most GPS watches even offer a switch in their settings to prefer cycling over running, and the more expensive triathlon-oriented watches have swimming modes, too. And because they have built-in ANT+ receivers, you can add things such as a dedicated heart-rate monitor strap (which is more accurate than built-in optical sensors while you’re exercising) or cycling sensors for displaying cadence and speed. (However, most serious cyclists who don’t also run might prefer a dedicated, handlebar-mounted bike computer.) GPS watches also work fairly well for hiking and cross-country skiing, and have apps purpose-built for those activities.

Why not a fitness tracker? A fitness tracker typically estimates running distances using your steps and an accelerometer, usually after you signal to it that you’re starting a workout. It’s a rough estimate.

My wife wears a Fitbit Charge HR and recently started running. In the sessions where she has brought along an iPhone (which has a GPS chip) and used Runkeeper to track her run, while also letting the Fitbit track the workout, the results have varied notably. Her splits, or individual times per mile, can be a minute or more apart according to the two devices. The total distance can differ by as much as a quarter of a mile, which seems small—unless you’ve ever been seconds away from beating a personal record.

Some newer fitness trackers, such as the Garmin Vívosmart HR+ and the Samsung Gear Fit2, contain GPS circuitry despite their smaller size. But the tiny chipsets squeezed into these trackers don’t compare to the established and reliable (not to mention larger) hardware inside a GPS watch. In our testing, both trackers regularly took a minute or more to acquire a GPS signal, whereas our running-watch pick took just a few seconds. Making matters worse, the Gear Fit2 lost GPS connectivity and did not offer any indication of that while we were running. We lost data on a few workouts as a result.

Why not a smartwatch? If you run with your phone and use a smartwatch to display your pace and distance, that’s an okay, if cumbersome, compromise. You’re now running with two expensive, fragile gadgets instead of one. Otherwise, tracking your run with just a smartwatch is better suited for people running for fitness, not pace. Some Android Wear watches, and the Apple Watch Series 2, have built-in GPS functions, which can markedly improve their distance-tracking accuracy. Still, with these you face the most common exercise challenge: sweat. The devices themselves are usually waterproof, but the bands you wear for daily fashion might not be. You either swap out bands every time you want to exercise, wear a rubberized, sweat-resistant band at all times, or destroy your leather and metal bands, one after another. Smartwatches also typically lack ANT+ compatibility, which means they won’t work well with cycling sensors or more-accurate heart-rate sensors, diminishing their appeal to serious athletic types.

Why not your phone? A phone is a decent run companion if you don’t want to buy a dedicated GPS watch, especially if you use it with a good running band. Checking your pace mid-run can be difficult if you’re wearing it on your arm, however. And GPS accuracy varies quite a bit from phone to phone (just ask this writer, who has used more than a dozen Android phones over the years).

Do you want to track your daily activity level and motivate yourself to keep moving?

Fitness trackers are best at tracking, well, fitness: walking, stair climbing, gym sessions, and jogs where accuracy isn’t all that important. Although the other devices also do a good job of this, most fitness trackers last a full work week between charges (which means you can wear them to bed to monitor your sleep) and are fully waterproof (so you can wear them in the shower). This means you’re less likely to have gaps in your data, so you’ll get a more complete picture of your fitness level. The latest models even have built-in activity sensing for activities such as yoga, swimming, or weightlifting. The best fitness trackers also use software, social media connections, and progressive goals to keep pushing people forward in their fitness level.

Finally, while fitness trackers can’t blend in as watches the same way smartwatches (with the right face) can, they are much more discreet than GPS watches. As a result, they’re usually acceptable as business-casual dress accessories.

Why not a smartwatch? If you’re okay with wearing a sweat-resistant band all the time, or swapping out bands, a smartwatch can be okay-ish at fitness tracking. The Apple Watch does the best at this task, and the watchOS 3 update bakes in some social competition. But smartwatches still have to be charged every day, so you can’t wear them to track your sleep or take them on a trip without a charger. They’re not cheap, unless they’re older—in which case they may be obsolete sooner. They’re usually not totally waterproof either, so no showering or swimming. Smartwatches buzz quite a bit during the day, passing along your phone’s notifications, and that’s a pain to manage if all you really want is your fitness statistics. So unless you need those features, you can pay less and get more with a fitness tracker.

Why not a GPS watch? Newer GPS watches, such as one we like, the Garmin Forerunner 230, look … well … okay as day-to-day watches. They have gotten smaller over the years, but they still look big on most wrists and usually come in bright colors, and they don’t look great with most outfits as a result. Although they advertise their ability to pick up notifications from a phone while connected via Bluetooth, they’re often built to do that only while in active running mode. As with fitness trackers, your options for controlling and limiting notifications from an iPhone are all or nothing. And you’ll usually pay more for a GPS watch than a fitness tracker.

Why not your phone? iPhones and Android phones running Google Fit can track your daily steps, using built-in accelerometers and other chips and hardware. Beyond steps, though, you’ll need to enable constant location monitoring on your phone, which entails more battery drain. Phones are a bit of a nuisance to use for tracking running, sleeping, exercise, or other activities. And you have to have your phone on you, always, whereas exercising without a phone can be a welcome reprieve from connectivity.

Is receiving and interacting with notifications your main goal?

If notifications are your primary concern, get yourself a smartwatch, whether an Apple Watch for iPhone or an Android option. Apple Watches, Android Wear, and Pebble watches are passable at tracking steps and (with Pebble) sleep, but they’re typically limited by a short battery life. Smartwatches are good, however, at passing along notifications and letting you act on them by dismissing, responding, liking, retweeting, and the like. While the other wearables can receive notifications, they typically don’t let you interact with them. With a smartwatch, you can also customize which notifications you receive, whereas with the other devices, it’s usually everything or nothing.

Smartwatch makers are focusing more on the fitness crowd these days, too. Apple went as far as to collaborate with Nike on a custom Apple Watch that has special running-related Siri commands and built-in Nike+ app integration. That’s in addition to the built-in GPS chipset, 50-meter waterproofing, and swimming-tracking features just added to Apple Watch Series 2. If all of that works as well as Apple claims, an Apple Watch will make for a very attractive all-in-one device. But at $370 for the cheapest model, it still costs as much as a fitness tracker and running watch combined. You’re still paying a big premium for the notification functions.

Why not a fitness tracker? The screens on most fitness trackers are not big or clear enough to convey more than a few letters of text, let alone the two paragraphs your significant other just texted you. And you can’t act on the notifications you receive, just see them or (sometimes) dismiss them.

Why not a GPS watch? The latest GPS watches from Garmin have a limited app store (mostly fitness oriented) and can display the weather, as well as phone notifications when you’re not using them for running. But wearing a GPS watch all day with all the smartwatch features turned on can drain its battery, to the point where it won’t be ready for a long run later in the day. This defeats the purpose of having such a watch. And in our experience, the screen and buttons of a GPS watch make notifications cumbersome to read or act on.

Why not your phone? The purported purpose of owning a smartwatch is to be free from retrieving, unlocking, and getting lost in your phone, so many times per day. Although a phone can show notifications, and do a reasonably okay job at step tracking, it’s an object that calls for your focus anytime you check it.