There was a time when the best athletes in the world clocked their runs with palm-sized stop watches, usually held by a tracksuit-wearing coach on the sidelines. Back then, pace per kilometre and real-time running speed — not to mention vertical oscillation and blood oxygen levels — were forcibly left to the imagination. But in this age of data, timing devices have evolved far beyond the $10 hunks of plastic we would fish out form the bottom of a cereal box — sorry, Tony the Tiger. Most running watches on the market are now also heart rate monitors and GPS devices with an array of capabilities; they can pay for stuff, take calls and do mostly everything that a cell phone can. Seriously, I’m convinced that if I were stuck on a deserted island with the Apple Watch Ultra, it would find my way off of it.
Apple Watch Ultra$1,099
Apple Watch Series 8$555
Apple Watch SE$319
Suunto 9 Peak Pro$480$550Save $70
Garmin Forerunner 55$270
Polar Pacer Pro$480
The watch market is now filled with tremendous options that will not only track your time, pace and distance as you walk or run, but also provide you with swaths of biodata to help you understand what your body is doing while it exercises. These marvels of technology come at various price points, and each have their own unique quirks and features. Read on to find out which of these six GPS watches might be a good fit for you.
🍎 Seamless experience for Apple users
🏃♂️ Personalized workout suggestions
📧 Easy access to email, social media, and text
Full disclosure: While I tried my first Apple Watch this year, I’ve used the company’s products for almost a decade. So, for someone like me who has spent the better part of his twenties staring at iPhones, the user experience was seamless because my Siri, iCloud, Apple Pay and Apple Music all synced onto my wrist. The Ultra’s large touch screen, meanwhile, allows me to easily toggle between workout and leisure mode throughout the day.
Historically, I had used Garmin watches for workouts, and was afraid the Ultra would be too complicated to navigate on the run. But I was pleasantly surprised at the straightforwardness of its workout functions: The watch used my fitness data over time to offer personalized workout suggestions, which made sense and were not far departures from what my past coaches had instructed. For that reason, I trust this watch for hard runs, especially on days when I cannot fully disconnect from work and need quick access to email.
The Ultra's 36-hour battery life, its Always-On Retina display, and responsive interface with a crisp OLED screen makes it an absolute powerhouse at work and on the trail. These silky features, however, come at a price: Be ready to dish a solid grand.
🏃♂️ Custom workout feature
🍎 Seamless experience for Apple users
💰 Half the price as the Apple Watch Ultra
The Series 8 occupies the second rung on Apple’s three-watch totem pole, and boasts many of the Ultra’s features for half the price. Like its sister watch, this wrist piece is a fitness data-collecting machine, with sensors for blood oxygen and temperature levels, stride length calculators, and even vertical oscillation measurements that tell you how bouncy you are on the run. Its running power target, which monitors your effort, is helpful to beginners, weekend warriors, and anybody prone to being a workout hero.
With the Series 8, seasoned runners can effortlessly stay on track without pondering over their pace. Its custom workout feature and voice instructions take the thinking out of tough runs and require no screen-checking whatsoever. My recent interval session with it felt as mindless as running watch-less. The bonus? I finished it armed with a comprehensive rap sheet of biodata.
The SE is also a tremendously popular lifestyle watch. While the Ultra’s massive screen makes it a statement, the Series 8 is smaller and understated — perfect for someone who wants Apple’s functionality without drawing too much attention.
🏃♂️ Custom workout technology, minus a few bells and whistles
🍎 Seamless experience for Apple users
💰 Most affordable Apple watch
The SE is for people who want an Apple product on their wrist without paying for all the frills. And yet, this watch is far from being barebones: Save for the blood oxygen detector and a few other sensors, it packs a similar punch to the Series 8. It has all the custom workout technology, stride length and bounce measurements, and cloud integration of its siblings, and loads of other tech that help you race against yourself. Using Apple’s Workout app, which is a fair alternative to popular fitness tracking app Strava, the SE tracks your repeated routes and lets you compete against your previous best results. The automatic track detection technology, meanwhile, makes the watch more accurate at measuring distance when rounding the track than most of its competitors. Yes, tracking the distance on an oval, for most GPS machines, is incredibly hard.
The SE also works well as a round-the-clock watch. Its activity rings, which track movement, exercise and standing time over the course of a day are a visual reminder to stay moving. It also conceals more powerful speakers than its predecessors, and is the best choice of all Apple Watches on this list for people who like a simple, obvious user interface.
🏔️ Best pick for long, remote and hardcore trail runs
🌊 Water-resistant up to 100 metres
🔋 170 hours of battery life
While the connectivity of the Apple Watches is tough to rival, the Suunto 9 Peak Pro dominates on long, remote and hardcore trail runs. Its rugged skeleton, water resistance up to 100 metres deep, and staggering 170 hours of battery life makes it the ideal gift of your friend who is taking on an ultramarathon — or going on Survivor.
And yet, the beauty of this watch is that behind its ready-for-war exterior hides a fleet of sophisticated bio-tracking technologies. The Peak Pro uses algorithms to detect its owner’s sleep quality, stress levels and estimated heart rate variability, and then offers workout and lifestyle suggestions for optimal recovery and performance. It then delivers all of this information on a crisp interface that regularly monitors altitude and steps taken in a day.
I’ve enjoyed the Peak Pro for running and cycling workouts so far, because the actual exercise settings are front and centre; and not slightly buried under other functionalities like with the Apple Watches. This one retails at a similar price point to the Ultra, and I consider it to be as versatile. Here is how to choose between the two: An Apple consumer who can sync data across devices will get more out of the Ultra. If you’re not on Team Apple, the Suunto gets you everything you need, with an added bonus of needing barely one charge per week.
👍 Durable, affordable and reliable
🧠 Simple, user-friendly settings
🏃♂️ Best for pre-existing Garmin users
If you don’t really care to know your blood oxygen levels when walking to the grocery store in the morning, and primarily value a GPS watch for being a GPS and, well, a watch, the Garmin Forerunner 55 is your jam. I bought one of its predecessors, the Forerunner 35, back in 2017, and it still works perfectly. The 55 is cut from the same cloth: Durable, affordable and reliable.
It’s not that Garmin’s product doesn’t offer many of the same glitzy features as its competitors — it measures heart rate, stride length, cadence, and bounce; and comes with built-in training plans and can link to your smartphone for calls and texts. Rather, the 55 feels like a running watch first, and a smart device second, in the best way. I never get lost in the settings, or have my run interrupted by extraneous notifications or data: On the road or track, it’s just me and my stopwatch.
I’d encourage Garmin users who are looking to upgrade their model to try the 55. That way, they can stick to the user-friendly Garmin Connect app, which allows you to set goals and join challenges with other runners of similar speeds.
🏃♂️ Personalized workout and training plan options
🫀 Built-in heart rate monitor
⌚️ Similar quality to Apple, Garmin & Suunto
In the 2020s so far, I've seen four companies consistently come out with top of the line GPS watch products year after year: Apple, Garmin, Suunto and Polar. The latter tends to be overshadowed by Apple's "wow" factor and Suunto's apocalypse-ready machines, but the Pacer Pro comfortably keeps up with its rivals.
It features all the expected garnishes like an accurate GPS, personalized workout and training plan options, and an interactive sister app that helps you store your workout data and set goals. I've particularly enjoyed its Training Load and Recovery Pro features, which track your effort levels and offers workout suggestions of appropriate difficulties. To make sure it nailed down my fitness level, I underwent the watch's performance test that assessed my current shape, and found the workout options to match what I could do.
As a bonus, the Pacer Pro also has a built-in heart rate monitor, which allows Polar users to move away from the company's classic but at times cumbersome chest strap. If you invest in the Pacer Pro, expect to pay a middling price point for a top-notch device.