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Garmin rules among sport watches with GPS

Garmin is the industry leader in GPS-enabled sports watches, and its line of Forerunner watches earns top marks from experts and athletes. The Garmin Forerunner 210 (*Est. $200; $250 with heart-rate monitor) is deemed the best choice for most users. Reviewers say it is easy enough for beginners to use but has enough training features to satisfy most exercisers. "If you're looking for accuracy and ease of use, this is it," says Michael Lovato, a professional triathlete who tests the watch for Men's Journal.

In addition to tracking pace and distance with the GPS module, the Garmin Forerunner 210 includes customized interval sessions, an optional foot pod for tracking indoor workouts and the ability to upload workout data to a Mac or PC. Other features include a 1,000-lap history, backlit display and auto-lap functionality. If you opt to purchase the Garmin Forerunner 210 with the heart-rate monitor, the watch displays a continuous heart-rate reading and calculates calories burned.

Reviewers say the Garmin Forerunner 210 acquires satellites quickly (usually in less than 20 seconds) and keeps a solid lock throughout their workouts. "The GPS accuracy of the watch is every bit as good as the more expensive version, locking-on to satellites in less than a minute to quickly provide the runner with reliable feedback on speed, route and mileage," says Cliff Jones at TrustedReviews.com. Users also say they love the new current pace statistic, which displays real-time pace information so you don't need to rely on average pace for an indication of your overall speed. The redesigned heart-rate strap also gets high marks. "In my testing, the new version of the soft strap solves about 95% of the spiking/dropout issues I'd previously see -- a significant improvement over the previous soft strap," says DCRainmaker.com, a triathlon blog. The Garmin Forerunner 210 is smaller and less bulky than some of Garmin's other GPS watches, which is appreciated by most users. Battery life is also good, lasting about one week based on one workout per day.

However, the watch can't be used for swimming (it is water-resistant to 1 meter or roughly 3 feet), and the display can't be customized to show different workout parameters. We also saw a few complaints at Amazon.com that the heart-rate monitor stops working properly after several uses.

Although the Garmin Forerunner 210 earns several recommendations, it doesn't include several features that advanced users may appreciate. It lacks Garmin's popular Virtual Partner tool, which tells you at a glance if you are falling behind your target pace. The data upload requires connecting the watch to your computer via a USB cable, while some Garmin watches have a wireless upload. It is a basic sport watch outfitted with GPS.

If these features are important to you, experts recommend the Garmin Forerunner 410 (*Est. $325; $375 with heart-rate monitor) . This GPS sport watch includes plenty of advanced features, including wireless data upload, a customized display, the Virtual Partner function and the ability to record 100 waypoints or locations. You can create personalized workouts and set pace, time or distance alerts. The Garmin Forerunner 410 also supports the optional foot pod for indoor training and the speed/cadence sensor for cyclists.

Reviewers say that serious athletes will love the variety of training features and alerts -- so much so that we made it our Best Reviewed pick for "GPS sports watch for serious athletes." "Where the 410 excels is the training functionality which will help athletes go further, faster," says Cliff Jones at TrustedReviews.com. The customizable display is great for showing only the information you want to see, reviews say, and an auto-scroll feature satisfies those who want to see all their data. Users at Amazon.com say they love the interval -training feature, and they report faster satellite connections than previous versions. "I'm typically picking up satellites before I walk out the door to run," says one owner.

The Garmin Forerunner 410 is an update to the popular Garmin Forerunner 405 (*Est. $200; $250 with heart-rate monitor) . The Forerunner 405 received mainly positive reviews, but users said they were often annoyed by the frustrating touch bezel, which was hard to control when wearing gloves or if the device was wet. The Garmin Forerunner 410 also includes a touch bezel for navigation, but reviewers say it is improved. The bezel is easier to use, especially when you encounter a rainstorm, although it can still be difficult to use while wearing gloves. It's also easy to inadvertently swipe the bezel while exercising, reviewers say. As a result, reviewers say the Garmin Forerunner 210 is a better choice for most users, with the exception of those who can benefit from the 410's advanced training features. "I found that in general the touch bezel simply adds more complexity than is needed," says DCRainmaker.com.

The Garmin Forerunner 405 is still available, as is the Garmin Forerunner 405CX (*Est. $230) . The 405CX adds better calorie calculation and a replaceable wristband for those with smaller wrists, and it comes standard with a heart-rate monitor. However, reviews say the newer Garmin Forerunner 410 picks up satellites more quickly and has a slightly better touch bezel.

None of these sport watches is suitable for swimming, which is a real bummer for triathletes. For these users, experts recommend the Garmin Forerunner 310XT (*Est. $350; $400 with heart-rate monitor) . This GPS sport watch is water-resistant to 50 meters (about 160 feet), so it can be used for swimming, cycling and running. The Garmin Forerunner 310XT has a wireless data upload like the Garmin Forerunner 410, and it includes a Virtual Partner, customized advanced workouts, pace alerts and a multi-sport mode. Reviewers say this GPS sport watch includes all the necessary training features and has good battery life to boot. Backpacker magazine, which tests the watch extensively, says it's a great training tool for all kinds of athletes. "One editor credits the Forerunner for helping him notch his best 10k time ever and fine-tune a training plan that got him to Mt. Rainier's summit," the editors write.

However, the watch cannot collect heart-rate data while swimming, and several reviewers at Amazon.com say they are disappointed to discover that the GPS signal doesn't work well in the water. Garmin acknowledges this fact, but it says that the Forerunner 310XT "estimates" swim distance and speed based on time and the GPS data it is able to collect. In addition, the Garmin Forerunner 310XT is significantly larger and heavier than the watches discussed above, and it's not a watch you would want to wear to the office.

Garmin also makes an entry-level GPS sport watch, the Garmin Forerunner 110 (*Est. $200; $250 with heart-rate monitor) , which experts say is a good pick for those who want a basic, easy-to-use watch. The Forerunner 110 is one of the smallest of Garmin's sport watches, but it offers few features other than basic speed and distance tracking, along with an optional heart-rate monitor. The watch is not compatible with Garmin's speed and cadence sensor for cyclists, and you won't find high-tech features like the Virtual Partner, pace alerts, interval training or wireless upload here. Unlike the Garmin Forerunner 210, the Forerunner 110 displays only average pace rather than current pace.

Even so, the Garmin Forerunner 110 earns positive reviews, including an Editor's Choice award from Women's Adventure magazine. Editors say it is the best choice for anyone who wants GPS tracking and heart-rate monitoring in a streamlined package. "Setup was quick, easy, and very intuitive and the sensitive GPS accurately records distances so it's great off the road when you still want to track your miles," they write. Anick Jesdanun, a technology writer for The Associated Press, agrees. He says it was the fastest at locating GPS satellites (of the three GPS watches he tests), even around tall buildings. "The device is small, with limited functionality, but you get value for the price. It's a good choice if you want something really simple to use," he says.

Users are generally pleased with the Garmin Forerunner 110, but many owners at Amazon.com say the lack of current pace information is a dealbreaker. "I couldn't believe that a $250 GPS running watch wouldn't have current pace," says one owner. "This might be vaguely interesting for casual jogger (who wouldn't spend $250), but it's completely useless for any semi-serious runner."

If all these options haven't made your head spin yet, Garmin has a new GPS sport watch that features the line's first touch screen. The Garmin Forerunner 610 (*Est. $350; $400 with heart-rate monitor) includes a customizable touch screen that can display up to four data fields, and it recognizes gestures such as tapping or swiping. It also includes all of Garmin's advanced features, including custom workouts, interval training, auto lap and Virtual Partner. Plus there are some new features like vibration alerts, a Virtual Racer that lets you race against previous times or friends and a Training Effect tool that analyzes your workout data to determine the impact on your aerobic fitness.

Although the Garmin Forerunner 610 won't hit store shelves until spring/summer 2011, DCRainmaker.com has the first detailed hands-on review. The blog's author says the sport watch takes less than 10 seconds to connect to satellites, and the sleek design makes it suitable as an everyday watch. Although the Garmin Forerunner 610 is geared towards runners, it does support speed and cadence sensors, and DCRainmaker.com has no problems using it for cycling workouts. Unlike the Forerunner 310XT, however, the watch isn't suitable for swimming.

Runner's World magazine also takes a quick look at the device and says the touch screen is easy to use, even while wearing gloves. More reviews for the Garmin Forerunner 610 will be added in a future update to this report.

Garmin alternatives

Of course, Garmin isn't the only manufacturer of GPS sport watches, but it certainly is the most popular. It is facing increasing competition, however, from the likes of Timex and Nike, two fitness powerhouses that have added more GPS-enabled watches to their lineups.

The new Timex Ironman Global Trainer (*Est. $250) tracks speed, distance, pace, altitude and heart rate with the included chest strap. The watch, which is water-resistant to 50 meters (roughly 160 feet), is also compatible with optional cadence and power sensors for cycling. A USB cable is included for uploading workout data to a Mac or PC computer. The display can be customized to show different workout parameters. Other features include a 20-workout memory, waypoint and route recording, auto splits and customized interval training.

Reviewers find a lot to like about the Timex Ironman Global Trainer. Even though it is packed with training features, experts say the button-based navigation system is easy to use while exercising. "It has seven big, easy-to-press buttons (three on either side and a start/split button on front) that makes using it while running a breeze -- which isn't always the case on some competing watches," says Donald Melanson at Engadget.com. Durability is another plus. Reviewers also like the multi-sport mode, which records different types of exercise (cycling, running, etc.) without restarting the watch. "For the triathlon training I do, this was my favorite," says Michael Lovato, a professional triathlete who tests the watch for Men's Journal. It should be noted, however, that the Timex Ironman Global Trainer can only track time for swimming -- the GPS tracking and heart-rate monitor don't work underwater.

Although it gets high marks in professional reviews, user ratings are not as positive. Only a dozen owners comment at Amazon.com, but the Timex Ironman Global Trainer has a 2.5-star rating (out of 5). Numerous owners complain that the watch takes a long time to acquire a satellite signal, and the map routes it creates have a tendency to be inaccurate. "It takes forever to acquire a signal. Sometimes I'll be in my front yard for 5 minutes waiting for a signal," says one owner. Others complain that their workout data can only be exported to TrainingPeaks.com. The watch is also very large. "Buyers should really spend a moment to understand the sheer size of this watch, it is huge," says one reviewer. 

Nike is also expanding into GPS sport watches with the new Nike+ SportWatch GPS (*Est. $200) . The Nike+ watch uses an integrated TomTom GPS module, but you can also use it with the Nike+ shoe sensor for indoor workouts. It tracks time, speed, distance and heart rate (although a chest strap is not included). The large, easy-to-read display gets high marks, and the watch includes data upload capability, lap tracking and a lightweight design. "If you've been holding out for a GPS watch that you can actually wear all day, this is it," says Mathew Honan at Wired.

However, the GPS signal is inconsistent, and at least one reviewer reports problems with accurate tracking. "The cardinal sin of a GPS watch is to fail during the duration of a run and this watch has committed that sin too often for me to recommend it without serious reservations," says John Biggs at CrunchGear.com.

Polar also gets high marks for its GPS-enabled watches. The Polar RS800CX G3 (*Est. $450) is a multisport watch that can be used for cycling as well as running with the addition of optional speed or cadence sensors. A chest strap is included for heart-rate monitoring, and this bundle includes the G3 GPS Sensor W.I.N.D. to track speed and distance. Reviewers at Amazon.com say the Polar RS800CX G3 is accurate and acquires a satellite signal quickly. Battery life is excellent and lasts up to one year, according to reviews, largely because the separate GPS sensor takes some of the strain of the watch. However, the small display can be hard to read, according to Fred Zahradnik at About.com.

Budget GPS watches

The top-rated GPS watches are pretty expensive, but if you don't need tons of features or a sleek design, you can find a GPS sport watch that won't break the bank. Although it has been around for a long time, reviewers say the Garmin Forerunner 305 (*Est. $130) is an excellent value. Unlike the streamlined Garmin sport watches discussed earlier, the Garmin Forerunner 305 is big and bulky, but it has excellent performance. The watch tracks pace, distance, calories burned and heart rate, and it is compatible with optional cadence or speed sensors for cycling and a foot pod for tracking indoor runs. It also features a Virtual Partner, auto-lap functions, a multi-sport mode, customized workouts, pace alerts and interval training.

The Garmin Forerunner 305 attracts 1,800 user reviews at Amazon.com, where the watch enjoys a 4.5-star rating (out of 5). Owners call it reliable, accurate and easy to use. Most users admit that it's bulky, but they find the impressive functionality outweighs this drawback. And of course, it costs a lot less than competing GPS sport watches. "For the price, this is an amazing piece of technology that is fairly easy to use and really works for its stated purpose of recording work-out data," says one owner. Triathlete Mathew Honan finds the Garmin Forerunner 305 highly accurate, and it is the only GPS watch that never loses its satellite signal during his testing. However, multiple owners posting to Amazon.com complain that, while the GPS watch may hold a satellite signal well, it takes several minutes to initially acquire satellite reception.

The Polar RS300X G1 (*Est. $130) is another top pick among budget sport watches. It doesn't have an integrated GPS module like the Garmin Forerunner 305, but this bundle includes the G1 GPS Sensor to track speed and distance. The watch has a variety of heart-rate features, including a fitness test, training zones and alerts. Automatic lap recording and a 99-lap workout history are also included.

Women's Adventure magazine gives the Polar RS300X an Editor's Choice award. Testers particularly appreciate the included fitness test and various workout modes. "Testers loved the multiple and easy-to-read display modes showing heart rate and timing features and the RS300X was a favorite for track and tempo workouts where testers wanted to switch modes or enlarge the feature of their choice (HR, Stopwatch, or Lap time) while keeping the other numbers visible but smaller," the editors say. The heart-rate strap is comfortable, according to Runner's World magazine, and the watch has plenty of settings that help you make the most of your workout.

However, Women's Adventure magazine notes that the watch is large, especially for petite women. We also saw a few complaints at Amazon.com that the display can be hard to read.

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Garmin Forerunner 405, Black
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from Amazon.com
Average Customer Review:  
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Garmin Forerunner 310XT Waterproof Running GPS with USB ANT Stick
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New: $249.99 $163.99   
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Garmin Forerunner 210 GPS-Enabled Sport Watch with Heart Rate Monitor
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New: $249.99 $199.99   
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Average Customer Review:  
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Timex Global Trainer Speed and Distance GPS Watch
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from Amazon.com
New: $300.00 $133.00   
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Average Customer Review:  
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Polar RS300X G1 Heart Rate Monitor Watch with G1 GPS Sensor (Black)
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New: $249.95 $229.99   
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Garmin Forerunner 610 Touchscreen GPS Watch With Heart Rate Monitor
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from Amazon.com
New: $399.99   
In Stock.
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