This post contains affiliate links.
I was about to buy a new watch to track my running but I’m confused about whether I should get a real GPS watch or just a smartwatch. So I did some research.
In general, GPS watches are designed to track distance with high accuracy; smartwatches are designed for getting notifications and accessing your phone’s apps through your wrist.
But you may have noticed some features of the former overlaps the latter and vice versa. In this article, we will discuss them in detail so you can decide which one to get.
What’s The Difference Between a GPS Watch and a Smartwatch?
|Distance tracking accuracy||Very accurate; usually uses multi-GNSS||With GPS: Somewhat accurate |
Without GPS: not accurate
|Notifications||Limited to some compatible apps||Compatible with a lot of apps|
|Fitness tracking||Has the basics; gives more useful data for athletes||Has the basics|
|Overall design||Usually has a tough and rugged look||Usually looks clean and streamlined|
|Battery life||Longer battery life but sacrifices screen display quality||Shorter battery life but have a high definition screen|
|Durability||Very durable; built for harsh environments||Durable but not built for the extremes|
Smartwatch, GPS watch, sports watch, and running watch, to an untrained eye, all these things can be used interchangeably. Some even think they are one and the same.
But that’s a big lie! I used to believe that too. But after doing research on the topic, I found some key differences between a GPS watch and a smartwatch.
A GPS running watch is used to track distance with high accuracy. They are also equipped with technology that can give you data on important running metrics such as your cadence, your stride length, ground contact time, and VO2 Max.
To an untrained individual, these things might seem useless, after all, recreational runners rarely look at those data.
But to someone who’s trying to improve their running performance, those are the key data they need to help them improve.
What about a smartwatch? Some of them have those too… Yes, they do, but they usually aren’t as accurate as a real running watch and most of them don’t show all the data a runner needs.
I understand that this topic is confusing to some because both GPS watches and smartwatches are trying to overlap each other when it comes to features. But there will always be a gap between the two where one does it better than the other. Let’s explore those gaps below.
Distance Tracking Accuracy
Probably the biggest difference between a running watch and a smartwatch is the accuracy of tracking distance.
GPS running watches are equipped with highly accurate global navigation satellite systems. And some of the best ones use more than one GNSS.
Let me explain. GPS is a global navigation satellite system (GNSS) owned by the United States. To most people, GPS seems to be synonymous with GNSS.
But there are already other GNSS that if used with the GPS provides a more accurate location. Some examples are GLONASS (Russia), BeiDou (China), and Galileo (Europe).
GPS watches often use more than one GNSS to give a more precise location at a faster rate. While most smartwatches only use an accelerometer to give you a rough estimate of how far you’ve gone (With the exception of some high-end smartwatches that use GPS).
Take the Garmin Forerunner 245, for example. It uses GPS, GLONASS, and Galileo as its built-in navigation system. Using GPS with GLONASS or Galileo increases the number of satellites that, in turn, pinpoints your location faster and with higher accuracy.
Aside from that, GLONASS is known to be more precise in mountainous regions while Galileo is known to be better in urban areas. So whether you’re trail running in mountain ranges or running around a big city, you can be sure your watch is giving you accurate data.
Another use of a GPS watch is looking at maps. When you’re running on an unknown road or trail, some GPS watch can provide you a detailed map as to where you are.
In general, because GPS watches uses a combination of the different global navigation satellite system, it is more accurate at tracking distance than most smartwatches.
Smartwatches are built to become an extension of your phone. It’s literally a phone attached to your wrist.
So when it comes to notifications, nothing does that better than a smartwatch.
Sure, some GPS watches have some smartwatch features such as notifications, but it’s usually limited to a few apps.
Both GPS watch and smartwatch offer the basics such as heart rate and calories burned, but GPS running watches offer a little bit more of the stuff athletes can use.
Some GPS watches determine whether or not you’re overtrained or undertrained and a rough estimation of your recovery time.
One GPS watch I researched, the COROS Pace 2, even has a muscle heatmap feature that shows you what muscle group was mostly used during the week to help you create your next training block. That’s a fantastic feature if you’re serious about improving as an athlete.
I’m really impressed with the Coros Pace 2. For such an affordable price, they manage to pack all these features into a very light watch. That’s why the Coros Pace 2 is next on my to-buy list. You can check the price of Coros Pace 2 on Amazon.
In general, both GPS watches and smartwatches offer the basics of fitness tracking. However, if you want a more detailed approach to your training and go beyond just heart rate and calories burned, a high-end GPS watch is for you.
Well, I don’t want to say that GPS latches look ugly, but man the Apple Watches look beautiful.
When it comes to design, a GPS watch will always be a sports watch. Yes some of them you can use for casual events but generally speaking, they’re bulky and they are minimized to sports use.
Not to mention, most GPS watches don’t have a high-definition screen display (to save battery, of course). Some of them aren’t even touchscreen.
Smartwatches, on the other hand, have a great display, are clean and streamlined design, and it’s just something nice to wear with just about anything.
For long-distance runners, battery life is such an important feature of a running watch. Especially ultrarunners who usually run for more than 10 hours at once.
Because smartwatches often have a fully colored and high definition screen display, a plethora of notifications, and apps that all take-up battery life, they usually have a shorter battery life than most running watches.
GPS watches, however, sacrificed some of that screen display for longer battery life.
Because GPS watches are built to be used in harsh environments, they are often more durable than your standard smartwatch.
They are often equipped with extremely durable materials for the lens and the body that allow them to handle the occasional stumble of the trail.
Smartwatches, on the other hand, are not built to withstand extreme environments so in general, smartwatches are considered to be less durable than GPS watches.
So, Should I Get a GPS Watch Or a Smartwatch?
Well, this really is a question only you can answer. But I could give you some questions that might help you come to a decision.
Are You Serious About Tracking Your Performance?
Are you someone who’s serious about getting better or are you just running for its health benefits?
If you want more data that could help you improve your running performance such as recovery and a more accurate distance tracker, then a GPS watch is for you.
Sure, you can get a smartwatch with a built-in GPS and just install fitness apps to try to mimic some of the features of a GPS watch, but how much can you really rely on that?
When you’re serious about being a better athlete, you want data you can rely on.
By the way, I created a list of fitness apps that are compatible with your GPS watch, check it out in this article.
Do You Just Want Something To Wear That Does A Little Bit of Both?
Maybe you’re not too serious about winning races and just want something that could give you the basics.
Then I suggest you get a smartwatch. It’s fairly reliable for basic things like heart rate, calories, and short distance tracking. But you get a plethora of apps along with the convenience of having a phone on your wrist.
You can opt for a smartwatch with a built-in GPS to at least get more accurate data on distance.
Do You Run On Trails?
If you run on trails, I highly recommend you get a reliable GPS watch.
It’ll give you more accurate data on elevation and distance in mountainous ranges which is a big thing in trail running.
Plus, you can save routes in your GPS watches and send them to a friend. It makes trail running more fun and convenient.
A reliable GPS watch is a great tool for serious athletes looking to improve their overall performance. Although smartwatches have a lot of features, it usually lags in providing detailed data specific on what athletes need.
Choosing a wearable depends on a few key questions: (1) how often will you use the features of a GPS watch? If you’re someone who relies on accurate distance, cadence, and step length for your activity, then having a GPS smartwatch is ideal.
In contrast, if you’re just a recreational athlete looking to squeeze in a 30 min run 3 times a week, then you’re probably fine with your smartwatch.
(2) What will you use the watch more, as a sports device or as an extension of your phone? If you’re buying a watch because you want to use it for running, then there’s no question, you should get a GPS watch.
But if you want to make checking your phone more convenient but you also want a little bit of something you can use for running, then a smartwatch is the best one for you.