GPS Accuracy of Garmin, Polar, and other Running Watches
I evaluated the real world accuracy of GPS watches while running over 3,500 miles/5,600Km and recording over 14,000 data points as part of my evaluation of the Best Running Watches. Under good conditions most of the watches are remarkably good, but when things get a little tough the differences become more apparent. However, none of the watches have GPS accuracy that is good enough to be used for displaying your current pace. For current pace, the only viable option is to use a Footpod, and my review of running watches lists those that can display current pace from a Footpod while still using GPS for your course.
The table below is a simplified summary of the results, where a '10' would be a perfect device. (For an explanation of the ISO 5725 terms 'trueness', 'precision' and 'accuracy', see below.)
|Garmin 910XT with Footpod||8.7||7.1||6.8|
|Garmin 310XT with Footpod||9.4||6.7||6.6|
|Garmin 310XT no Footpod||9.1||6.1||5.9|
|Samsung Galaxy S3||8.7||6.0||5.8|
|Suunto Ambit2 R||8.8||5.9||5.8|
|Polar RC3 GPS||8.4||5.4||5.1|
|TomTom Cardio Runner||6.6||6.3||5.0|
|Garmin Fenix 2||7.6||4.2||3.7|
The values used are simply 10 minus the value for trueness and standard deviation. The overall is 10 minus the standard deviation from true values.
Main article: GPS Testing Methodology
Simply taking a GPS watch on a single run does not provide sufficient data to reasonably evaluate its accuracy. To gather the data for this test I ran the same route repeatedly, recording laps every quarter mile. The course is challenging for GPS, with lots of twists, tree cover, power lines, turn arounds and goes under a bridge. However, I believe that it's reasonably representative of real-world conditions, and probably less challenging than running in the city with skyscrapers.
2 Accuracy, Trueness and Precision
For this evaluation I'll use the ISO 5725 definition of Accuracy as the combination of trueness and precision.
We can look at trueness by measuring the average lap length and precision by measuring the standard deviation. I use the traditional approach to standard deviation (variation from mean) as well as a modified approach that uses variation from the true value. (It is more common in many fields to use "accuracy" to mean closeness to true value and "validity" to mean the combination of accuracy and precision. However, I feel that the meanings used by ISO 5725 are closer to the common usage. If a company sold 'accurate' 12 inch pipes and shipped half of them as 6 inches and half as 18 inches, they would meet the traditional definition of accuracy, but few people would be happy with the product. )
The table below shows summary data for each device. The count field is how many measurements I have for that combination of condition and device, with each measurement being a quarter mile distance. I generally aim for over 1,000 data points to even out the effects of weather, satellite position and other factors. The Trueness is the absolute of the mean, though nearly all watches tend to read short. The standard deviation is provided based on the variance from the mean and the variance from the known true value. The average pace error is shown to give a sense of how much error you're likely to see in the display of current pace. This is an average error not a worst case. The data shown below is a summary the accuracy based on all the sections. If you'd like more detailed information, I've split off the Detailed Statistics for GPS Running Watches for the results under different conditions.
(Average Distance Error)
|Average Pace Error|
|(from 9:00 min/mile)||(from 5:30 min/Km)|
|Footpod (calibrated)||3635||0.18% (9.3 Ft/Mile, 1.8 m/Km)||2.34% (123.6 Ft/Mile, 23.4 m/Km)||2.35% (123.9 Ft/Mile, 23.5 m/Km)||0:13||0:08|
|Garmin 205||1125||0.47% (24.9 Ft/Mile, 4.7 m/Km)||3.14% (166.0 Ft/Mile, 31.4 m/Km)||3.18% (167.9 Ft/Mile, 31.8 m/Km)||0:17||0:10|
|Garmin 910XT with Footpod||725||1.28% (67.8 Ft/Mile, 12.8 m/Km)||2.94% (155.4 Ft/Mile, 29.4 m/Km)||3.21% (169.6 Ft/Mile, 32.1 m/Km)||0:17||0:11|
|iPhone 4s||956||0.90% (47.3 Ft/Mile, 9.0 m/Km)||3.12% (164.9 Ft/Mile, 31.2 m/Km)||3.25% (171.6 Ft/Mile, 32.5 m/Km)||0:18||0:11|
|Garmin 310XT with Footpod||3635||0.64% (34.0 Ft/Mile, 6.4 m/Km)||3.32% (175.1 Ft/Mile, 33.2 m/Km)||3.38% (178.4 Ft/Mile, 33.8 m/Km)||0:18||0:11|
|Garmin 610||2085||1.77% (93.3 Ft/Mile, 17.7 m/Km)||3.14% (165.9 Ft/Mile, 31.4 m/Km)||3.61% (190.3 Ft/Mile, 36.1 m/Km)||0:19||0:12|
|Garmin 310XT no Footpod||1945||0.94% (49.8 Ft/Mile, 9.4 m/Km)||3.94% (208.0 Ft/Mile, 39.4 m/Km)||4.05% (213.9 Ft/Mile, 40.5 m/Km)||0:22||0:13|
|Samsung Galaxy S3||832||1.28% (67.7 Ft/Mile, 12.8 m/Km)||4.00% (211.4 Ft/Mile, 40.0 m/Km)||4.20% (222.0 Ft/Mile, 42.0 m/Km)||0:23||0:14|
|Suunto Ambit2 R||1025||1.15% (60.9 Ft/Mile, 11.5 m/Km)||4.08% (215.7 Ft/Mile, 40.8 m/Km)||4.24% (224.1 Ft/Mile, 42.4 m/Km)||0:23||0:14|
|Footpod (uncalibrated)||3635||2.50% (132.2 Ft/Mile, 25.0 m/Km)||3.83% (202.5 Ft/Mile, 38.3 m/Km)||4.58% (241.8 Ft/Mile, 45.8 m/Km)||0:25||0:15|
|Polar RC3 GPS||1433||1.65% (86.9 Ft/Mile, 16.5 m/Km)||4.62% (244.2 Ft/Mile, 46.2 m/Km)||4.91% (259.2 Ft/Mile, 49.1 m/Km)||0:27||0:16|
|TomTom Cardio Runner||946||3.42% (180.6 Ft/Mile, 34.2 m/Km)||3.65% (192.8 Ft/Mile, 36.5 m/Km)||5.00% (264.2 Ft/Mile, 50.0 m/Km)||0:27||0:17|
|Garmin 10||1042||3.89% (205.4 Ft/Mile, 38.9 m/Km)||4.37% (231.0 Ft/Mile, 43.7 m/Km)||5.86% (309.2 Ft/Mile, 58.6 m/Km)||0:32||0:19|
|Garmin 620||2470||3.29% (173.5 Ft/Mile, 32.9 m/Km)||5.19% (274.2 Ft/Mile, 51.9 m/Km)||6.15% (324.5 Ft/Mile, 61.5 m/Km)||0:33||0:20|
|Garmin Fenix 2||2895||2.39% (126.4 Ft/Mile, 23.9 m/Km)||5.83% (307.8 Ft/Mile, 58.3 m/Km)||6.30% (332.8 Ft/Mile, 63.0 m/Km)||0:34||0:21|
3.1 Progress of newer watches
I expected GPS watches to improve with time, but the opposite appears to be happening. With the Garmin devices especially, you can see that the older watches generally do far better than the newer ones. I suspect this is due to compromises to get better battery life and smaller packaging and the cost of GPS accuracy.
3.2 Interpretation and Conclusions
What do these statistics mean? This is my interpretation:
- Under normal conditions the GPS accuracy is quite good for most devices.
- The accuracy of a calibrated Footpod is far better than any GPS device. Without calibration the Footpod is more accurate than any watch currently on the market with the exception of the 310XT/910XT with a Footpod backing up the GPS.
- The Garmin 620 and Garmin 10 are noticeably poorer than the other devices. I found the accuracy of the 10/620 in general usage to be rather grim, and I did some testing pairing them up with the 610 or the 310XT. In all cases the 10/620 would have poor accuracy compared with the 610 or 310XT on the same run. On one run, the 620 lost over a mile over a 28 mile distance. When Garmin replaced my 620, the new watch would lose over a mile on a 16 mile run!
- The results of the Garmin 610 indicate the problems with the 620 & 10 are not inherent in a smaller device.
- The accuracy of all devices is better in a straight line than on curves or bendy routes. My course is a tough test for GPS devices with many curves and only a few relatively straight sections.
- Not surprisingly, accuracy drops going under the bridge.
- More interestingly the trueness just after the bridge is even lower, suggesting that the GPS watches are struggling to reacquire the satellites.
- The turnarounds are even less accurate than going under a bridge, but Power Lines do not seem to impact accuracy noticeably.
- The Footpod improves the accuracy of the 310XT.
- Note that I'm intentionally using an uncalibrated Footpod (factor = 1.000) to gather data for a comparison of Foodpod and GPS.
- The Garmin 205 does remarkably well.
Here are some recommendations for GPS watches.
- GPS watches are accurate enough for casual running.
- The better devices are accurate enough for most runners if their limitations are understood.
- None of the devices were accurate enough for a runner to trust the display of current pace for training or race pacing.
- For interval training, use a track or measure out the distance using some other mechanism.
- For general training or for races, use a device that supports displaying pace from the Footpod while using GPS for distance.
- Adding a Footpod to the Garmin 310XT improves its GPS accuracy.
- For the Garmin 610 there was no difference with and without the Footpod. (Trueness was 3.33%/3.32%, Precision was 3.54%/3.68%, with/without).
- It takes time for the GPS watches to acquire the satellites. Some watches tended to say they are ready to go before they have an optimal lock. Therefore, to improve accuracy try to give them a little more time. Note that some newer GPS watches such as the Garmin 620 have the ability to be preloaded with the satellite positions, reducing this startup time and start up in accuracy dramatically.
5 Footpod Accuracy
The accuracy of a Footpod is far higher than GPS, as well as more consistent and quicker to react to changes in pace. For any given run, the average pace error from the Footpod is only 7 seconds/mile (at a 9:00 min/mile pace) or 5 seconds/Km (at a 5:30 min/Km pace). In practical terms, I've found that I always have to use a Footpod to pace a marathon or for critical speedwork. For details of how the Footpod calibration was done, see GPS Testing Methodology.
6 Even GPS Watches have Bad Days
While it's tempting to take the various GPS watches on a single run and simply compare the totals, this is a flawed approach. Evaluating the devices GPS accuracy on the basis of a single sample does not tell you much. It's a bit like evaluating an athlete's ability on the basis of one event; everyone has good days and bad days, and that applies to GPS watches as well. To illustrate this, the images below are from two runs, recorded on 9/20 and 9/22. In each run I recorded data on both the 310 and 910 watches, hitting the lap button on both at as close to the same time as is humanly possible. On 9/20 the 910XT was far more accurate than the 310XT, but on 9/22 the situation is reversed. If you were to have evaluated the two watches on the basis of a single run, you would conclude that one is much better than the other. But which device would win would depend on the particular day. This is why I've accumulated a lot of data to do a statistical analysis to work out which is really better.
7 Some Devices Are Better Than Others
Below is a section of two runs showing the same section of the course, both taken at the same time, one from the Garmin 310XT and the other from the Garmin 620. These give a good indication of the accuracy problems I've seen with the Garmin 620.
8 GPS Short and long measurements
As you can see from the images below, the GPS track tends to take shortcuts around bends, reducing the length of the measured track. This cutting of the corners indicates the devices are doing some post-hoc smoothing to try to overcome the GPS errors. The more smoothing they do, the better the accuracy is likely to be in a straight line and the worse it is around corners or twisty courses.
Often GPS measurements of races, especially marathons record a longer distance than the race. This is partly because the USATF technique for measuring the distance takes a path that is no more than 12 inches away from the tangent (corner), and few runners are able to run that close. In a large marathon you can be forced to take a line that is a long way from the tangent. The other factor is that on a straight line, the GPS error tends to give a slightly longer measurement.
9 Garmin 620 Issues
The Garmin 620 has become rather notorious for its poor GPS quality. I raised the issue with Garmin support and they kindly sent me a replacement device, but as you can see below, the replacement is actually worse than my original unit. I've also broken down the readings by firmware version, and you can see some slight improvement going from V2.90 to V3.00, but it's only slight. I also tested the 620 without EPO data (see below for details).
(Average Distance Error)
|Average Pace Error
(from 9:00 min/mile)
|Average Pace Error|
(from 5:30 min/Km)
|Garmin 620 (original v2.80)||818||2.38% (125.6 Ft/Mile, 23.8 m/Km)||3.96% (209.0 Ft/Mile, 39.6 m/Km)||4.62% (243.9 Ft/Mile, 46.2 m/Km)||0:25||0:15|
|Garmin 620 (original v2.90)||480||2.11% (111.4 Ft/Mile, 21.1 m/Km)||3.87% (204.4 Ft/Mile, 38.7 m/Km)||4.41% (232.9 Ft/Mile, 44.1 m/Km)||0:24||0:15|
|Garmin 620 (replacement v2.90)||421||5.31% (280.6 Ft/Mile, 53.1 m/Km)||6.00% (316.6 Ft/Mile, 60.0 m/Km)||8.02% (423.3 Ft/Mile, 80.2 m/Km)||0:43||0:26|
|Garmin 620 (replacement v3.00)||426||4.81% (253.9 Ft/Mile, 48.1 m/Km)||6.34% (335.0 Ft/Mile, 63.4 m/Km)||7.96% (420.5 Ft/Mile, 79.6 m/Km)||0:43||0:26|
|Garmin 620 (replacement v3.00, NoEPO)||325||2.68% (141.7 Ft/Mile, 26.8 m/Km)||5.62% (296.6 Ft/Mile, 56.2 m/Km)||6.23% (328.8 Ft/Mile, 62.3 m/Km)||0:34||0:21|
I have come to suspect that the 620 has two issues.
- Firstly, Garmin has compromised GPS accuracy for size and battery life. This is then compounded by high levels of smoothing in an attempt to compensate.
- I believe that the newer Garmin watches have changed from a SiRFstar chipset to a MediaTek chipset. This is backed by the way the newer Garmin watches support the pre-caching of satellite position data using an "EPO.BIN" file that is a MediaTek trademark. I wondered if problems in the EPO (Extended Prediction Orbit) data could be causing some of the problems, so I ran a test without any EPO data. To do this, I did a factory reset and did not connect the watch to the internet while testing. The obvious impact was that the 620 now takes an age to acquire a satellite signal. As you can see from the accuracy above, the 620 appears to be slightly more accurate without EPO data. However, one run I did without EPO data recorded only 19.5 miles on a 21 mile run, and analyzing the file shows a general poor quality rather than a specific section of the run being bad. (If that run is excluded, the 620 without EPO showed Trueness of 2.68% and SD of 5.62%).
I thought that the 620 had a problem with its WAAS processing, but I have it on good authority that no Garmin Forerunner has WAAS support. Below are a couple of examples where you can see that it appears that the track has been offset, rather than the 620 simply becoming 'lost', which I'd attributed to WAAS error.
10 Garmin Fenix 2 Issues
I've had similar GPS accuracy issues with the Fenix 2. In fact, the Fenix 2 is the only device I've ever had that has given the "lost satellite reception" message on my usual running route. Because of these issues Garmin replaced my Fenix 2 under warranty, and below are the results for the original and new watches.
(Average Distance Error)
|Average Pace Error
(from 9:00 min/mile)
|Average Pace Error|
(from 5:30 min/Km)
|Garmin Fenix 2 original 2.50||1511||1.72% (91.0 Ft/Mile, 17.2 m/Km)||5.98% (315.5 Ft/Mile, 59.8 m/Km)||6.22% (328.4 Ft/Mile, 62.2 m/Km)||0:34||0:21|
|Garmin Fenix 2 replacement 3.10||404||3.29% (173.5 Ft/Mile, 32.9 m/Km)||5.36% (283.2 Ft/Mile, 53.6 m/Km)||6.29% (332.3 Ft/Mile, 62.9 m/Km)||0:34||0:21|
|Garmin Fenix 2 replacement 3.20||641||3.32% (175.4 Ft/Mile, 33.2 m/Km)||5.68% (300.1 Ft/Mile, 56.8 m/Km)||6.58% (347.6 Ft/Mile, 65.8 m/Km)||0:36||0:22|
|Garmin Fenix 2 replacement 3.20 (No WAAS)||339||2.57% (135.8 Ft/Mile, 25.7 m/Km)||5.61% (296.0 Ft/Mile, 56.1 m/Km)||6.17% (325.7 Ft/Mile, 61.7 m/Km)||0:33||0:20|
11 GPS Accuracy and Pace
There have been reports of GPS accuracy changing with pace, but as you can see from the graph above, my testing does not show this.
12 Device Specific Notes
For those interested in some of the details of how devices are configured for testing, here are some additional notes.
- Garmin devices are set to 'smart recording'. I did try an informal test with the 620 using 1-second recording, but it appeared to make no difference.
- For details of the calibration of the Footpod see GPS Testing Methodology.
- The Fenix 2 had WAAS support activated, which should provide better accuracy.
13 Next Steps
This is an initial analysis of the data I have, and there are a number of further evaluations to do.
- Gather data from some other GPS Running Watches.
- Test Fenix 2 without WAAS.
- Test Fenix 2 and 620 with footpod to see if that helps.
- Test Fenix 2 and 620 to see if there is any variation in accuracy with the satellite pre-cache data.
- Add in more graphs of the distribution of accuracy, and possibly a Q-Q plot (which shows reasonably normal distribution).
- Check how GPS accuracy changes over the course of a run, as I've seen a distinct tendency for the watches to say they are good to go when they don't really have an optimal lock on the satellites. I wait for 5+ minutes between the watches saying they have sufficient satellites locked in, so this should not be a problem with the data shown here, but I could do some tests where I turn on the watch from a cold state, then start running as soon as they claim they have a lock.
- Look at how accurate the GPS watches are for measuring elevation, and compare with barometric data.
- Look for any correlation between accuracy and the use of Heart Rate Monitor. The radio signal from the heart rate monitor could interfere with accuracy.
- Write up general GPS accuracy.