Best Running Watch, including Garmin, Polar, & Suunto
This article is a concise guide to the best running watches available today at differing prices and functionality. As well as recommendations for the best watch, I also have a few that are worth considering in spite of their flaws, and some to avoid.
- The Garmin Epix has the most features, though its GPS accuracy lets it down a little. It has full color maps for navigation, something that's great when running in a strange town or out in the wilderness. It supports the Connect IQ downloadable apps to make it extensible.
- The Garmin 920XT can be thought of as a cut down version of the Epix, with slightly better GPS Accuracy, but lacking some of the other features (mainly the color map).
- The Garmin 310XT is the best value for money and has all the features you're likely to need. (The Garmin 910XT has more features, but tends to be a little more pricy.)
- If the 310XT is too big and you want something more watch like, then the Garmin 610 is great, and it's often available refurbished at a great price.
- The Suunto Ambit2 and Suunto Ambit3 are both great watches, with excellent GPS Accuracy. For most runners the cheapest of the range (Ambit 2 R/Ambit 3 Run) are the best choice, but for ultrarunners the extra battery life of the (Ambit 2/Ambit 3 Peak) may be worthwhile.
- The Garmin 620 has a lovely usability, but it's more expensive than the 610 and you can't get your current Pace From A Footpod.
- For GPS Accuracy, the Polar V800 is the best, but it falls short in many other areas.
- The Garmin 225 is the only watch that has an optical heart rate monitor that works acceptably well.
- Consider using a Smartphone; if you already have one they are a cheap option and can have outstanding GPS Accuracy.
Here's a table of these features for each of the watches I recommend (all have GPS).
The score is the sum of how well each watch can answer the four basic questions (how far, how fast, where are you, what's your cadence), plus some bonus points. I give 1-2 bonus points for application support and 1-2 bonus points for Optical Heart Rate Monitoring. Value for money is the score divided by the price (at the time I last updated the table.) Your needs may be different, so you might weight the different aspects of the watches differently, or be basing your decision on different criteria totally. Hopefully this table will give you a good starting point for your decision. (Older Reviews: Polar RC3 GPS, Soleus 1.0, Motorola Motoactv.)
|Weight (oz)||Size (CM3)||Display (mm)||Resolution (Pixels)||
| Tested Battery
|Charge on the run?|
|Garmin Epix Review||5.3||3.0||48||29 x 21 (609mm2)||205 x 148 (30.3K total)||Good (50m)||Yes||Yes||Internal/Footpod/Heart Rate Monitor/Alert||Yes||24||17.6||50||Yes||Color Maps, Track Outline, Course Outline, Back To Start, Back To Waypoint, Compass||Yes||Record||Yes||Ant+||Yes*|
|Garmin 920XT Review||6.6||2.2||35||29 x 21 (609mm2)||205 x 148 (30.3K total)||Good (50m)||Yes||Yes||Internal/Footpod/Heart Rate Monitor/Alert||Yes||24||19||40||Yes||Track Outline, Course Outline, Back To Start, Back To Waypoint, Compass||Yes||Record||Yes||Ant+||No (terminates)|
|Garmin 910XT Review||7.4||2.5||49||33 x 20 (660mm2)||160 x 100 (16K total)||Good (50m)||Yes||Yes||Footpod/Alert||Yes||20||20||Yes||Track Outline, Course Outline, Back To Start, Back To Waypoint||Yes||Record||No||Ant+||Yes, but no display|
|Suunto Ambit3 Run Review||7.9||2.5||30||29 (round) (661mm2)||128 x 128 (16.4K total)||Good (50m)||No||Yes||Internal/Footpod||Yes||10||10.5||100||Optional||Course Outline, Back To Start, Back To Waypoint, Compass||Yes||Record||Yes||Bluetooth||Yes|
|Suunto Ambit3 Peak Review||7.9||3.1||30||29 (round) (661mm2)||128 x 128 (16.4K total)||Good (100m)||No||Yes||Internal/Footpod||Yes||20||10.5||100||Optional||Course Outline, Back To Start, Back To Waypoint, Compass||Yes||Record||Yes||Bluetooth||Yes|
|Leikr Review||7.5||2.4||25||41 x 31 (1271mm2)||206 x 148 (76.8K total)||Fair (IPX6)||Yes||Yes||Footpod||Limited||5||6.5||5||No||Color Maps, Track Outline, Course Outline||No||No||Yes (few hours)||Ant+||Yes, but tricky|
|Garmin Fenix 3 Review||2.9||33||30 (round) (726mm2)||218 diameter (37.3K total)||Good (100m)||Yes||Yes||Internal/Footpod/Heart Rate Monitor/Alert||Yes||20||22||50||Yes||Track Outline, Course Outline, Back To Start, Back To Waypoint||Yes||No||Yes||Ant+||Yes*|
|Garmin 310XT Review||7.5||2.5||63||33 x 20 (660mm2)||160 x 100 (16K total)||Good (50m)||Yes||Yes||Footpod||Yes||20||20||No||Track Outline, Course Outline, Back To Start, Back To Waypoint||No||No||No||Ant+||Yes, but no display|
|Suunto Ambit2 R Review||7.6||2.5||30||29 (round) (661mm2)||128 x 128 (16.4K total)||Good (50m)||No||Yes||Internal/Footpod||Yes||8||7.3||25||No||Course Outline, Back To Start, Back To Waypoint, Compass||Yes||Record||Yes||Ant+||Yes|
|Suunto Ambit2 Review||7.6||3.1||30||29 (round) (661mm2)||128 x 128 (16.4K total)||Good (100m)||No||Yes||Internal/Footpod||Yes||15||50||Yes||Course Outline, Back To Start, Back To Waypoint, Compass||Yes||Record||Yes||Ant+||Yes|
|Polar V800 Review||8.1||2.8||31||23 x 23 (529mm2)||128 x 128 (16.4K total)||Good (30m)||No||Yes||Internal/Footpod||Limited||13||24||50||Yes||Course Outline, Back To Start, Back To Waypoint||Yes||Display||Predictive||Bluetooth||No (terminates)|
|Garmin 610 Review||7.1||2.5||41||25.4 (round) (507mm2)||128 diameter (12.9K total)||Fair (IPX7)||Yes||Yes||Footpod/Alert||Yes||8||8||No||Back To Start, Back To Waypoint||Yes||Record||No||Ant+||Yes, but no display|
|Garmin 620 Review||6.9||1.5||20||25.4 (round) (507mm2)||180 diameter (25.4K total)||Good (50m)||No||Yes||Internal/Footpod/Heart Rate Monitor/Alert||Yes||10||10||No||No||Yes||Record||Yes||Ant+||No (resets)|
|Garmin Vivoactive Review||1.3||13||29 x 21 (592mm2)||205 x 148 (30.3K total)||Good (50m)||No||Yes||Internal/Footpod/Heart Rate Monitor/Alert||Yes||10||10||No||Back to start||No||No||Yes||Ant+||Yes*|
|TomTom Cardio Runner Review||6.7||2.2||30||22 x 25 (550mm2)||144 x 168 (24.2K total)||Good (50m)||No||Yes (optical)||Internal/Footpod||Yes||8||6.3||8||No||No||No||No||Yes||Bluetooth||No (resets)|
|Garmin 235 Review||1.5||19||31 (round) (755mm2)||215 x 180 (38.7K total)||Good (50m)||No||Yes||Internal/Footpod||Yes||11||11||No||Back To Start, Back To Waypoint||Yes||No||Yes||Ant+||Yes, but no optical HR|
|Garmin 225 Review||6.9||1.5||24||25.4 (round) (507mm2)||180 diameter (25.4K total)||Good (50m)||No||Yes||Internal/Footpod||Yes||10||11||10||No||No||No||No||Yes||Ant+||No (resets)|
|Garmin Fenix 2 Review||5.5||3.2||32||31 (round) (755mm2)||70 diameter (3.8K total)||Good (50m)||No||Yes||Internal/Footpod/Heart Rate Monitor/Alert||Yes||15||50||Yes||Track Outline, Course Outline, Back To Start, Back To Waypoint, Compass||Yes||No||Yes||Ant+||Yes*|
|Polar M400 Review||4.0||2.0||24||23 x 23 (529mm2)||128 x 128 (16.4K total)||Good (30m)||No||Yes||Limited Footpod||Limited||8||8||No||Back to start||No||No||No||Bluetooth||Yes, but tricky|
|Garmin 10 Review||5.0||1.3||33||25 x 24 (600mm2)||55 x 32 (1.8K total)||Good (50m)||No||No||No||Yes||5||5||No||No||No||No||No||None||No|
- Color Maps gives you full color maps, rather like a smart phone, with roads and paths marked out.
- Track Outline is a display of where you've run, rather like a breadcrumb trail. If there are maps, the outline is superimposed otherwise this is just the outline on its own without any context.
- Course Outline is an outline of a route that can be downloaded. I've found this useful during ultras or in unfamiliar cities where I've needed to know where to go.
- Back To Start is a simple arrow point to your starting point, so it won't help you backtrack.
- Back To Waypoint returns you to a previously marked location using a simple arrow to point.
- Compass. A magnetic compass can help you orient yourself or the map. Without a magnetic compass you have to be moving for the GPS to give you a sense of direction.
3 What to Look for in a Running Watch
A modern running watch often has a huge number of features, but I think it's best to focus on its ability to answer these basic questions.
- How far did I run? This is probably the key feature that most runners are looking for, and it requires good GPS accuracy. How much the accuracy of a watch will impact your running will depend on the course. Overall, most watches do pretty well in straight lines, but suffer when things get twisty. My testing is a tough challenge for GPS, so it highlights the differences between the great and the appalling.
- How fast am I running? While you can work out your average pace from your distance and time, you'll often want to know how fast you're currently running. Unfortunately, GPS is rather poor at answering this question, so you need Pace From A Footpod. An accurate indication of your current pace is important for any training program that requires running at a specific pace, and for success in racing at many distances.
- Where am I? It's not unreasonable to expect a GPS enabled watch to tell you where you are or how to get back to the start. Navigation varies from a simple compass needle showing the direction to return to the start to a display of the route you've just run or a preloaded course. The Motoactv and Fenix 2 can display preloaded maps showing roads and names, while the Epix and Leikr show full color maps.
- What's my cadence? A display of Cadence is a critical training tool and newer watches are able to use an internal accelerometer to provide Cadence without any accessories. Other watches may need a Foodpod or the newer Garmin watches can use the running dynamics heart rate strap. A Cadence alert will help you stay in the right cadence range, and is a useful feature.
There are several additional features to you could consider, though I'd argue none are as important as the above questions.
- Weight. None of these devices weigh enough to have a noticeable impact on running performance, but the weight can be noticeable.
- Size. The size of these devices varies widely, and the larger devices can feel a little bulky, especially if you have a smaller wrist. I've provided the size as the volume in cubic centimeters to give a single number to compare.
- Waterproofing. Even if you don't swim, having good waterproofing is important to prevent your watch being destroyed by the rain or sweat.
- Heart Rate Monitor. Heart Rate is important information when training, though it is important to understand the limitations of heart rate based training. Having a Heart Rate Monitor that will record your heart rate is particularly valuable for evaluating your training.
- Optical heart rate monitoring is more convenient, but does not work very well.
- While the chest strap based monitoring is remarkably reliable, you can have problems with chaffing and poor reception in some situations, but there are Fixes for Heart Rate Monitor Problems.
- Data Upload. The ability to record your workout and store it in a training log such as Dailymile or SportTracks is vital. All of the recommended watches here have that ability. I'd strongly advise even a new runner to store their data so that they can look back over the months and years to understand their progress. A watch that can upload to a PC makes recording your workouts much easier.
- Battery Life. How much battery life you need depends on how long you run for. It's best to have a watch that will last quite a bit longer than your longest run.
- Charges On The Run. For ultrarunners, one option to use a watch for longer than the built in battery lasts is to charge the watch while running. This involves connecting the cable and carrying a USB battery pack. It's cumbersome, but it can work. A value of "Yes" means that the watch will accept charge while recording and displaying as usual. Some watches have a "yes" with a caveat, such as the display not functioning or difficulty in connecting the cable while wearing the watch. An asterisk after the yes indicates a Garmin device that needs to be set with the USB mode to "Garmin" not "Mass Storage". A value of "no" means that charging is impossible.
- Altimeter. An altimeter will measure the atmospheric pressure and give you altitude. This is more accurate than GPS, but will require calibration to adjust for weather related pressure changes.
- Training Effect. This is a measure of how hard a training run is as a numeric value of 1.0 to 5.0, based on an analysis of Heart Rate Variability.
- Heart Rate Variability. There is a growing interest in the possibility of using Heart Rate Variability (HRV) to evaluate training stress. While only one device will display HRV, there are several that will record HRV for later analysis.
- GPS Pre-cache. Some newer watches will download the predicted positions of the GPS satellites for faster initial acquisition. This pre-cache works remarkably well, and the data is usually downloaded automatically when the watch is connected to the internet. However, the data is only valid for a few days, so after that time the device will fall back to the usual approach of scanning for satellites.
4 GPS Accuracy
5 Using a Smartphone
Main article: Running With A Smartphone
Most smartphones have a GPS built in and support various applications that allow them to function as sports watches. These phones can have remarkable levels of GPS Accuracy as well as many other advantages.
6 Watches for Ultrarunning
Choosing a watch for an ultramarathon requires some tradeoffs and there's no simple answer. The main factor is battery life, and some runners will want navigation.
6.1 Battery Life
- The claimed battery lives don't hold up in the real world, with some watches going longer, others much shorter.
- If you want the maximum battery life, you have to avoid the backlight, the use of map/course displays, and don't press the buttons unless you have to.
- In my testing, the longest battery life that's available with good GPS is 24 hours with the Polar V800, then 22 hours with the Garmin Fenix 3, 19 with the Garmin 920XT, and 17 with the Garmin Epix.
- Of the watches where I've not tested the battery life, there's 20 hours for the Suunto Ambit3 Peak, Garmin 310XT and Garmin 910XT.
- If you need much longer than 20 hours, which is common in 100 mile races, you end up with some compromises.
- Some watches can extend the battery life by only taking a GPS fix less frequently. This can be acceptable on a straight course like the Keys 100 or Badwater, but it can be appalling on twisty trails.
- The Garmin Epix gives 50 hours in extended mode (UltraTrac), but its GPS accuracy is lacking and the map display tends to eat the battery life. (UltraTrac appears to use a variable recording frequency.)
- The Suunto Ambit3 Peak has 20 hours with normal GPS recording, and 30 hours at 5 second sampling, which is great. It will go as high as 200 hours with 60 second sampling. There is some course display capability, but it's not as good others. There's also the cheaper Suunto Ambit3 Run that gives 15 hours at 5 second sampling, or 100 hours at 60 second sampling.
- The Garmin 920XT gives 40 hours in extended mode using UltraTrac and variable recording frequency.
- The Suunto Ambit2 R gives 20 hours in extended mode (60 second GPS sampling) and the more expensive Ambit2 gives 50 hours. There is some course display capability, but it's not as good others.
- The Polar V800 has a stated battery life of 13 hours, but without Bluetooth I found it lasted for nearly 24 hours! The extended mode increases the rated life to 50 hour (I got just over 50 hours), and you can charge it on the run. The V800 has no map or course display.
- The Garmin Fenix 2 will give 50 hours in extended mode, but it has mediocre GPS Accuracy even in normal mode and it has the occasional "lost satellite reception" problem.
- You can turn off GPS and use a Footpod, which boost the battery life of most Garmin watches to several days. Obviously you lose navigation and while the accuracy of a Footpod can be better than GPS, the Footpod does not do so well if you're taking Walking Breaks or running on twisty single track.
- You can extend the battery life a little by avoiding using the backlight or changing the display. Showing the course outline or the map seems to drain the battery quite fast. I've had 37+ hours out of the Suunto Ambit2 R in extended mode with these tricks.
- You can charge some watches on the run (see table above). This is awkward at best, as you need the cable attached and to carry a USB battery pack, but some runners find this acceptable. I'd highly recommend something like this small battery pack that fits nicely in the hand - Anker PowerCore+ mini $21.99 USD at Amazon.com
- Another option, depending on the race, is to have two watches and swap part way through.
Some runners will recharge their watch during a race, but that seems to be more hassle than it's worth as you have to carry a battery pack and the cable. (You can't charge the Garmin 920XT while it's in use, but you can charge the Garmin 310XT and Garmin 910XT.)
- The Garmin Epix has a display that shows full color maps, so for navigation, nothing else comes close.
- The Garmin 310XT, Garmin 910XT, and Garmin Fenix 2 will show an outline of your run and allow you to load a course outline to follow. The Garmin 920XT will also display an outline of your run, but Garmin has crippled the 920XT by removing the ability to zoom the display.
- The Garmin 920XT has some mapping capabilities, but the lack of zoom cripples this functionality.