There is no better way of getting fitter, stronger or faster than - well - training. And training gets a lot more effective if you can accurately measure the distance you travel, and at what speed. There are myriad wearable devices out there that purport to do this, but most activity-trackers are little more than souped-up pedometers, neither particularly accurate nor consistent.
That is not to denigrate activity trackers. If your goal is simply to nag yourself into burning more calories each day, a Fitbit or Jawbone will definitely be a good purchase - cheaper than any of the GPS-enabled devices we review here. You can find out the pick of the activity tracking wristband crop in our article, 23 best Activity Trackers of 2017. The FitBit Surge makes the cut because it includes built-in GPS. Critical if you want to accurately measure performance as you go, with a glance at your wrist.
Best GPS watch for running: smartwatches vs activity trackers
And at the other end of the wrist-bound scale is the full-blown smartwatch, such as the Apple Watch and the Moto 360. Such devices are smartphone add-ons, which may offer GPS in addition to a raft of productivity, communications and entertainment features (although most pair with and use your smartphone's GPS, which is hardly fit for this purpose. The Apple Watch is in this camp).
Again, a smartwatch may be your perfect training companion, but we would wager that it will cost more than you are prepared to pay for *just* a GPS watch. We have included the two best smartwatches for exercise here, in the Microsoft Band, and the Sony Smartwatch 3. But if it is specifically a smartwatch you want, check out: 17 best smartwatches of 2017.
This feature, however, focuses on the GPS-enabled wristwatches that are intended purely for training hard. Watches that can track time, speed and distance traveled, as well as your heart rate and calories burned. Here are the best GPS watches for running you can buy right now.
Best GPS watch for running: GPS watch reviews
Microsoft Band 2
- RRP: £199
It is very difficult to score the Band 2, because it is such a specific product with a unique feature set. But let's unpack it: it is definitely good value, as the combination of sensors and features is much greater than any comparable product at this price. And it is well made if not the last word in elegance, nor with perfect battery life.
If you are looking for a GPS runner's or cyclist's watch it is a good one at a good price, and it also offers the productivity and sleep tracking. And if you want a smartwatch you will like what the Band 2 does, but you may hanker after the ability to compose and send messages. Simply, I don't. I like to wear my dumb watch, and I like for my phone to stay in my pocket rather than on my wrist. So for me the Band 2 is a winner.
Read our Microsoft Band 2 review.
Apple Watch Series 2
- RRP: £369, US$369
The new Apple Watch Series 2 takes the main complaints about the original - slow operation, lack of GPS, lack of official waterproofing, short battery life - and solves or at least improves them systematically. If you're into fitness tracking with a sprinkling of notifications and superb integration with the iPhone, this is an almost perfect wearable for you... although, being greedy, we'd still like an even better battery life, and the price remains pretty steep.
We thought long and hard about whether to give the Apple Watch Series 2 five out of five, and it was a close-run thing. But those two issues are still, just, keeping it from a perfect score. Great wearable, though, and the only one we've seen that feels like it has any chance at all of taking wearables into the mainstream.
Read our sister title Macworld UK's Apple Watch Series 2 review.
TomTom Multi-Sport Cardio
- RRP: £199
We like the TomTom Multi-Sport Cardio, although it is far from perfect. It is built to last, and comfortable to wear, without being stylish. Critically, the built-in GPS and heartrate monitors are great, and battery life is good. But connectivity options aren't all that good, and it isn't cheap. But if you are sports mad, it is a good choice.
Read our TomTom Multi-Sport Cardio review.
Epson Runsense SF-810
- RRP: £200
A full-featured watch for runners, the Epson Runsense SF-810 will be the perfect companion for those serious about shaving times of long-distance runs. It is limited only to that function, and it isn't cheap. But battery life is great.
Read our Epson Runsense SF-810 review.
- RRP: £169, US$199
The Microsoft Band is the most Microsoft product imaginable. It does useful stuff. And mostly it does that stuff well. But it is ugly and uncomfortable and no-one is ever going to point at a Microsoft Band and say 'I want one of those'. Which is a shame, because having used it for a while - and despite issues with battery life and distance measurement - I like it and will probably keep using it.
Whether that is enough to make people drop £169 inc VAT to get one when they can buy an Android Wear watch for an additional £100 is the key question. I suspect they won't.
Read our Microsoft Band review.
- RRP: £109.99, US$149.99
TomTom knew exactly who it was targeting when it designed this smartwatch, and that's why it works so well despite lacking features you'd find on most other smartwatches like a touchscreen, colour display and notifications from your smartphone. This device is designed for fitness fanatics that simply want a brilliant way to track their activity and improve their workouts without complicating things with additional features. GPS makes a huge difference to the quality of fitness tracking, and with the ability to store music right there on the watch it's the only tech you'll need to take with you on your run or bike ride.
We're looking forward to spending more time with the TomTom Spark in the near future to bring you our full review.
Read our TomTom Spark review.
- RRP: £199.99, US$249.95
The Fitbit Surge is an activity tracker for the serious fitness enthusiast. We’re not saying a more casual user wouldn’t appreciate its good looks and features, but the level of functionality and price put it properly in the market for the power user. The larger, swipeable display is a revelation of on-wrist stats. If you wish to wear a tracker and your regular wristwatch then the Surge may be too large, and you should consider other more minimalist bands.
The everyday user who wants a tracker to push them to exercise more is catered for with the Fitbit Flex and Charge. If you’re just interested in the heart-rate monitor you could consider the cheaper and very capable Fitbit Charge HR, but if you want to see dedicated heart-rate stats during performance-based workouts, and map your routes with built-in GPS - the Fitbit Surge has it all.
Read our Fitbit Surge review.
Sony SmartWatch 3
- RRP: £189
The SmartWatch 3's biggest strength is its built-in GPS, but you'll still need a smartphone for driving directions. It's also great to see a standard USB charging port. The transflective screen is a good idea, but in practice battery life is no better than other smartwatches with better-looking screens.
Ultimately, unless you're on a fixed budget, the G Watch R is the better choice. If you can't afford that, wait a few months: the price is bound to drop.
Read our Sony SmartWatch 3 review.
- RRP: £215
We love the Wellograph’s dressy looks and superb display graphics, but you do pay for these in terms of price compared to other more sporty wristbands. We did find the syncing to be a bit of a pain, and the battery tends to switch to watch-only mode even with noticeable juice to spare.
We prefer a fitness watch to keep going till it or you runs out. As a very fancy, classy watch that tracks your exercise and heart rate the Wellograph is maybe more suited to the more affluent, fashion-conscious wearer rather than the sporty fitness fanatic.
Read our Wellograph review.
- RRP: From £189.99
For me, Garmin's Edge remains a delight but while the Vivoactive hasn't won me over, it's an affordable and attractive option for swimmers, runners and golfers. There are better 'general' activity trackers, and it's a shame that Garmin didn't integrate a heart-rate monitor. But if the information on offer is what you're after - and you need GPS - it's not a bad deal.
Read our Garmin Vivoactive review.