Finding the Right GPS Watch for You-Part 2

How far away is camp?

 

GPS watches, fitness watches, smart watches, activity trackers…when it comes time to consider getting into the wearable technology market for your outdoor pursuits it’s a crazy and confusing world. In Part 1 of this blog series, I laid a foundation for evaluating watches that considered practical elements such as comfort and size in equal measure with specific features. In this installment, I will look further into the features themselves and the major categories of wrist-worn devices as defined by those capabilities. Next time we will look at top devices in each category and offer some final words of wisdom to help you make a confident purchasing decision.

It’s Time to Prioritize

In Part 1, I suggested that it was important from the very beginning to choose your primary objective. Do you want a personal assistant on your wrist that can also make your activities more enjoyable, or a training/adventuring partner that truly enhances the efficiency, productivity, and safety of your chosen pursuits? While the lines are not set in stone, deciding on your primary purpose will immediately narrow your focus and set you down one of three very different paths. After all, if you don’t know where you’re going then any of these devices will get you there, so the clearer your understanding of how you will use your watch the easier it will be to get past the mind-numbing overload of options at the beginning.

If you’re still having trouble with this step, here are some things to think about:

Do you want to be carrying your phone while engaged in your activities?

  • “Smart” devices that notify you of calls, texts, calendar appointments and admittedly an almost unlimited number of other things require you to also be carrying your phone to provide many of these features. Without it, they’re mostly just watches. If part of getting away for you is disconnecting electronically then do you really want your phone with you at all? If you are leaning towards a smart device figure out how you will carry your phone?

How important is GPS?

  • GPS is a Global Positioning System that uses satellites to pinpoint your location on the earth.  For watches, it provides the most accurate distance data and is necessary for any kind of wayfinding and mapping functionality. Many units have onboard GPS, but smart devices may use your phone’s GPS capability, which is less accurate and reliable across all environments. Fitness trackers may not have GPS at all but rather rely on high-tech pedometers, called “accelerometers”, to approximate distance traveled. If you prioritize accuracy and mapping capabilities then opt for a device with stand-alone GPS. Keep in mind too that GPS only works outside so if you want to use your device for biking as well as running laps in the gym you’ll need something with an accelerometer anyway, which many GPS units also have.

How Important is Heart Rate?

  • Only basic fitness trackers no longer offer heart rate monitoring, and wrist-based readers have become standard across sport watches, but if you are looking for more accurate heart rate data either as part of your training plan or because of a medical condition say, then you might want to consider a unit that links to a chest-strap instead. Sometimes these come included, sometimes you purchase them separately. The downside of greater accuracy, though, is having to think about and wear an accessory that many people find uncomfortable.

Are you a Tech Junkie?

  • Don’t get me wrong, all of these watches are absolutely loaded with cool technology, but if your thing is to explore unlimited possibilities for incorporating this device into your life then a unit whose main purpose is running Android or Apple applications has far greater appeal. Is this something you will strap on for activities or something you’ll be geeking on all through your day?

Do you engage in many activities or primarily the one for which you want this device?

  • A running watch is focused on running. The size, weight, band, interface, features…all optimized for that sport. Same with a watch made for diving, or golf, or sailing. If you have one true outdoor obsession that you want to take to the next level then a sport-centric watch will definitely make you the happiest. If not, that same watch may overburden you with loads of useless-to-you information that just gets in the way.
Now Choose Your Path

If you’ve done your homework since Part 1 of this topic, you should be feeling pretty clear by now about your goals, and ready to choose the category of device that’s right for you. Here are the main features of the three major groups we’ve been talking about:

Fitness Trackers:

  • Measure movement with accelerometers rather than GPS
  • Less accurate than GPS, no mapping
  • Work indoors or out
  • Small, lightweight, least obtrusive devices
  • Track distance, steps, calories burned, sleep quality and other movement-based metrics
  • May have wrist-based heart rate monitoring

Smart Watches:

  • Link via Bluetooth to a user’s phone
  • Apple watches only link to Apple phones while a large number of devices are compatible with the Android operating system
  • A multitude of available models from phone manufacturers such as Apple, Samsung, Motorola and the like, but many tend to be designed for looks over practicality in demanding environments   
  • Devices combine limited onboard capabilities with compatible Android or Apple applications when linked. In addition to the basic features of a fitness tracker, this provides a rabbit hole of possible ways to use these devices in your life including a plethora of apps for sports and outdoor activities

GPS and Adventure watches:

  • Measure distance by use of internal GPS (outdoors only)
  • May have accelerometers for indoor use
  • Tend to be rugged, waterproof, and designed for hard knocks
  • Models geared towards a wide variety of specific activities
  • In addition to the basic features of a fitness tracker, onboard capabilities may also include:
    • A touchscreen interface
    • Wrist-based and/or remote heart rate monitoring
    • Heart rate zones and alerts
    • Goal-based alarms
    • A timer and stopwatch
    • Run and bicycle cadence
    • Vertical oscillation, stride length and ground contact time for running
    • VO2 max
    • Training plans
    • Virtual training partner
    • Gym workout metrics
    • Music storage
    • A digital compass
    • A thermometer
    • Total ascent and descent and route altitude profiles
    • A barometric or GPS based altimeter
    • A barometer
    • Sunrise and sunset times
    • A moon phase calendar
    • Tide tables
    • Point-to-point navigation
    • Breadcrumb trail
    • Distance to destination
    • Storm alert
    • A weather trend indicator
    • Pool swimming metrics
    • Open water swim metrics
    • A depth sensor and dive modes and metrics
    • Golf modes and metrics
    • A red backlight and night vision compatibility
    • Ability to make payments at retail stores with Apple or Google Pay
So which watch is for you?

Wow, it’s a lot to take in, but you if you have followed the series this far you should feel confident that you have done your homework and are in a good place from which to make a decision. You have considered the most relevant issues, decided which type of device will best meet your needs, and you can now start comparing a manageable number of options…which is where we’ll head in Part 3 as I look at some top contenders in each category.

Has this been helpful so far? Ask me a question, leave me a comment. Thanks for visiting and come back soon!

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 🙂