Finding the Right GPS Watch for You- Part 1

Only 7,592 more feet of climbing left today…thx Garmin!

When I was hatching Adventurebabble one of the first things I thought about exploring was the confusing process of selecting a GPS or multi-function watch for outdoor adventuring. Why? Because I talk with people all day about these gadgets and know first hand how lost most people are when it comes to choosing the best device for their needs. Considering that the price tag on some of this wrist gear can travel north of $800, being confused and perhaps ignorant is not the best place to be.

So, I’m going to launch this trip into the blogosphere with a look at these super cool gadgets and how in the world you’re supposed to decide which one is right for you…should you feel a sudden urge to have one…which you will.

In this post, I will lay out the basic questions to ask yourself when starting your search in order to help narrow the field and move past the initial product overload.  Next time around I’ll concentrate more on specific features and get you imagining all the ways these devices might enhance your outdoor fun.  Finally, in a future post, I’m going to create a simple decision matrix that you can follow to zero in on a selection of top choices that you’ll want to consider.

But first things first, and the first thing here is: avoid getting sucked straight into a feature comparison.  So let’s back up and address a couple of things initially that tend to get lost in all the hype and tech-speak. Get straight on these two points and you could save yourself lots of time, money, and frustration off the bat:

Are you looking for a media assistant or a training partner?

A helpful decision to make up front is what you primarily want this purchase to do for you…and the answer tends to fall into one of two main categories.  The first is a quiver-killer of a gadget that will provide basic performance metrics while staying connected to the media grid during a midday workout and still look awesome paired with cufflinks.  The other camp is looking above all for a training-focused tool that improves the safety and/or performance of a chosen activity, be it triathlons, mountaineering, or whatever.  Decide which type of user you are, and you will immediately gravitate towards the products that are designed generally to meet your needs best and are thus more likely to do so.

Most people don’t use half the features on their devices

Are you really going to work on your vertical oscillation and ground contact time balance to lower your time in the next 5K? Biomechanical metrics like these are offered on some higher-end devices and can improve your running form, true, but this is YOU we’re talking about. Yes, what these watches can tell you will blow your mind, but think realistically about what capabilities you will actually use, and consider that even the most basic units may give you everything you need (and don’t require a Ph.D. to operate either)

NOW Ask Yourself These Questions

Here is a short-list of considerations when shopping for an adventure watch that will narrow your focus and bring the best options the surface.

  1.  Is it Comfortable?   You may be wearing this thing a lot, and perhaps under strenuous circumstances, so it should melt into the background during your activity.  Does the band encircle your wrist smoothly and without gaps? Does it feel excessively heavy?  Is the interface easy to see and use? If you get too wrapped up in features you may ignore the most basic truth: if it doesn’t feel good to wear and interact with you just won’t like it.
  2. Is it Your Size?  This goes along with general comfort, but it’s good to know that these things come in a range of sizes.  While the most common are large and larger,  there are some options better suited to small wrists also. Keep in mind that more features usually mean increased size and weight…another reason to be realistic with your needs.
  3. Is it Compatible?  Are you Apple or Android? Will you be syncing to a laptop or a phone? Do you use Strava? Do you have Spotify playlists you want to work out to?  The Apple watch is an IOS device while the Samsung Gear only works with your Android, they are both great choices provided you are on the proper side of that fence. Other devices are indifferent to operating systems and work well for anyone. Additionally, different brands offer more and different apps than others, so a product that supports your favorite workout, music, or media app can be a deal-maker.
  4. What’s the Battery Life?  It’s getting better all the time, but battery life is still a major consideration. How long are your workouts? Is plugging your device into the wall every few days a big deal for you, maybe not?  Perhaps you will regularly be off-grid and re-charging with solar.  Keep it in mind.
  5. Does it Have the Right Core Features?  The devices in your wheelhouse will come with core capabilities that suit most of your needs right off the bat.  For instance, any watch that targets the backpacking crowd will have an altimeter while a basic running watch eschews that for an accelerometer.  One reason you want to name and claim the type of user you are up front is that you will get more of what you want at a lower price point with the models geared towards you.
  6. Are the Additional Features You’re Paying For the Ones you Want?  Except for the most basic, all of these gadgets will likely do all sorts of things that you couldn’t care less about, even if they are targeted to your activity. Perhaps there are special features that you really would like, however, or even consider must-haves. In that case, limit superfluous excess as much as possible and be sure the value of what you’re getting is worth the cost of the dozen other ridiculously over-the-top capabilities that come along with it.
  7. What Will You Do if You Have a Problem?  The ferocity of competition in this category pushes it onward at a breakneck pace.   Hardware and quality problems have plagued many players in the industry, and then there are the customary glitches inherent in any high-tech product.  It’s no surprise that I see adventure watches returned all the time for both defects and dissatisfaction.  So while you have a great chance of loving your purchase after reading this blog series,  a small but significant number of you will experience a problem that requires good customer service to resolve happily.  This is only to suggest that you gain full confidence in your seller’s return policies before typing in your card number, or better yet just stick with a local brick and mortar with an iron-clad reputation for satisfaction, such as REI or the like.

Are you shopping for a GPS watch? Do you have one you love? What were the big decision-makers for you? Contact me and follow my page on Facebook 🙂