Haven't smartphones made these watches irrelevant? No. And the reasons extend beyond the annoyance of training with a phone strapped to your arm. Instant speed, altitude, and heart-rate data shrinks the feedback loop.
With a purpose-built training watch, you can make constant adjustments to ensure you're hitting your targets. Slowing down every few minutes to check readouts on your phone or worse, waiting until you get home to download it, isn't the same. And if you're a swimmer, the waterproof thing matters. Every unit here is fully submersible.
How accurate are they?
These watches will all peg your location to within 10 feet — close enough to discern which side of the road you're running on. Improved software helps these devices figure out missed segments when buildings, tunnels, or other obstacles block your sky view. You're out of luck if you're underwater, though — getting a GPS signal below the surface just isn't physically possible.
Will these work with my heart-rate monitor?
As with any other wireless system, the answer is yes, as long as both devices speak the same language. Learn this term: ANT+ (pronounced "ant plus"). It's the most popular wireless protocol for athletic devices, due largely to the open alliance of manufacturers that back it, which guarantees broad interoperability. There are other formats out there, but the sports world seems to be converging on ANT+ for now.
If you've never trained with a GPS watch, now is a great time to start. The hardware and software interfaces are remarkably refined. Even older GPS watches rarely break down; they might not be as accurate or full-featured as newer models, but if you already have a GPS watch that you're happy with, you might want to wait a couple of years.
Next-gen models will likely connect to cell towers — letting friends track your progress online — and feature Bluetooth Low Energy, a new protocol that will allow these devices to talk to smartphones, which could usher in a new wave of training apps.
Garmin's best device for multisport athletes marries the company's refined GPS interface for running and cycling (speed, distance, heart rate, cadence, etc.) with an accelerometer-based swim mode that counts strokes and your distance. The distance accuracy in the pool is a good bit off — it would often add a full 50-meter lap to any effort of more than eight laps — but the dry-land functions were as precise as we've come to expect from Garmin. An altimeter adds readings for percentage of grade and total feet climbed. We found ourselves reaching for the 910XT over all the other watches in our test.
WIRED Connects easily to ANT+ sensors. Big, bright display. One-button switching between sports for quick transitions.
TIRED Wonky swim-distance guesstimates feel like a novelty. No option to display workout data graphically.
$400 | Garmin Forerunner 910XT
Rating: 8 out of 10
If you set your watch to Mountain time, the Ambit is for you. The rugged composite-and-aluminum body invites abuse, and it houses a GPS sensor, altimeter, compass, and thermometer to help trail runners and mountain bikers track their workouts and the conditions. We loved the graphical interface. Compared with numerical readings, the heart-rate graph gave us especially quick and useful feedback for the recovery phase of our runs. Are you an ultra-endurance athlete? Set the GPS to record at one-minute intervals and the rechargeable battery will last 50 hours.
WIRED Rated to 100 meters underwater. If you can outlast the battery, you already have an equipment sponsor.
TIRED You might need a sponsor to defray the cost. Takes a bit longer than the competition to lock onto satellites. Proprietary standard doesn't work with ANT+ devices. Clunky initial setup.
$500 | Suunto Ambit
Rating: 6 out of 10
True to its name, this ANT+ watch is crammed with features for runners. The intervals function — for adding structured bursts of intensity to workouts — is hyper-configurable, allowing you to train by speed, time, heart rate, cadence, altitude, or any combination of those. Settings can be tweaked using a desktop app and uploaded via USB, which is a good thing because it's much easier than trying to do this with the watch's push-button menus. We appreciated the big readout, but the backlight is woefully dim.
Cyclists beware: There are no functions for cadence or power.
WIRED Customizable reminders for eating and drinking. Price champion. Desktop app includes popular TrainingPeaks coaching software.
TIRED Interface is difficult standing still; good luck tweaking things on the run. No wireless syncing.
$225 | Timex Ironman Run Trainer
Rating: 6 out of 10
The GPS brains of the RCX5 sit in an external unit that slips neatly into a pocket or the included armband. This gives the watch the sleekest form and longest battery life in our roundup — a claimed 11 months. It also means there's a good chance you'll sometimes forget the GPS pod (or lose it altogether). We learned this the hard way when, during a triathlon transition, we left the sensor in our bike pouch. Thanks to Polar's proprietary wireless interface, this watch can monitor heart rate underwater (unique among those we tested), which opened a new area of analysis for our swim sessions.
WIRED Easiest interface in our roundup. Watch vibrates when your heart rate strays from the target range.
TIRED Chest strap moves around during fast swim laps. Not ANT+ compatible. Dim backlight.
$350 | Polar RCX5
Rating: 7 out of 10
More from Wired: