The days of the simple sports watch are over. Now, outdoor enthusiasts and athletes have a dizzying array of features and functionality to choose from, including fitness and adventure watches that can tell you how far you've run, graph elevation changes or predict the weather during a hike.
Although most manufacturers are focusing on adding functions to their sport watches, there are still some basic models available. These simple sport watches tell time and typically include a chronograph for timing laps or splits; some also come with heart-rate monitors. On the plus side, these watches are slim, lightweight and relatively inexpensive. However, they can't track your distance or upload your workout data to a computer. Still, a basic sport watch is a good choice for minimalists who want to time their exercise sessions -- without all the extra buttons and confusing menus.
GPS-enabled sports watches are becoming increasingly popular because they provide more information than basic sport watches. These watches track time, distance and pace for runners, and, with additional accessories, they can also track speed and cadence for cyclists. The top-rated GPS watches include a variety of training functions, including data uploads, pace and distance alerts, customized workouts and interval training tools. Heart-rate monitors are usually supported, although you may have to pay extra for the chest strap. With a few exceptions, GPS sport watches are also smaller and more watch-like than a few years ago, when the best watches tended to be large and bulky. However, GPS watches aren't cheap, and you can expect to spend several hundred dollars for the best models.
Adventure watches are another option. Designed for outdoor enthusiasts who want tons of data, these watches impress reviewers with their range of options. Most adventure watches include an altimeter to track altitude changes, a barometer to forecast the weather, a digital compass and a chronograph. These watches are bulky and expensive, but their navigation capabilities make them well suited for climbers, hikers and trail runners. Thanks to their many features, most adventure watches take a little time to set up, and some require calibration before they will function properly.
When evaluating the best sport watches, we turn to fitness and outdoor publications like Men's Journal, Women's Adventure magazine, Running Times, Outside and Runner's World. Most of these magazines publish regular gear guides where they discuss the best new sport watches. There are also some highly detailed reviews at sport blogs like DCRainmaker.com and RunTheLine.com. Both sites conduct hands-on tests and write lengthy reviews accompanied by numerous pictures. We also found helpful reviews from a variety of sources, including The Associated Press, Backpacker magazine, TrustedReviews.com and About.com. User reviews are plentiful, especially at Amazon.com, where some sport watches attract thousands of individual ratings.
Fitness watches that are primarily designed to track heart rate are discussed in our companion report on heart-rate monitors.