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I'm hooked on a GPS watch, and it's got me questioning every smartwatch I've used

Two smartwatches on Route 66
(Image credit: TechRadar / Shutterstock)

Part of testing tech means reviewing affordable, feature-sparse products as well as the top-end devices, and in terms of wearables that often means I'm pivoting between super workout-monitoring watches, and low-cost fitness trackers that... well, aren't too good, let's leave it at that.

Where am I?

Route 66 location

(Image credit: End to End)

Column number: 9
Date written: 02/07/21
Days in: 123
Current location: Brush Creek, MO
Distance traveled:  481.45 miles
Distance left: 1,796.55 miles
Current tracker: Polar Vantage M2

There's nothing wrong with cheap fitness trackers, as the low costs makes them accessible to more people, and I used to be a champion of affordable gadgets. But that's started to change.

When I embarked on my Route 66 running challenge, in which I have to run the distance of Route 66 over two years by tracking each workout using tech, my opinion on various fitness gadgets started to change, and in particular, wearable GPS is my newest concern.

Most low-cost fitness trackers and wearables use connected GPS - this means you pair them to your phone via Bluetooth, and the wearable uses that device's GPS as its own. I used to think that was fine for workouts, but now I'm not sure.

Now I've used a good few GPS watches - by that I mean, devices with their own built-in GPS - I'm questioning what I thought about wearables.

Generally Pretty Super

Honor Watch GS Pro

The Honor Watch GS Pro, with the Huawei Health app open besides it. (Image credit: Future)

The more my review schedule has brought me into contact with GPS-enabled watches, the more I've started to notice the subtle differences between dedicated and connected GPS - and regularly recording my workouts for my Route 66 challenge has made this especially important.

Connected GPS isn't inaccurate, and I don't want to be seen accusing it of being 'bad'. But I've found dedicated GPS can be more reliable with distance tracking, whereas connected GPS often returns results in a narrow range.

Take, for example, the last GPS watch I've used, the Polar Vantage M2. My standard workout route is about 8km, and as far as I can see from my records, the Polar watch returns results between 7.96km and 8.39km (a range which is likely due to variations in the run, such as if I decide to cross a certain road at different points in its width, or run up a road a certain distance instead of pausing at a traffic light).

Then let's look at the Honor Band 6. This has recorded the run as low as 6km before, and rarely clocked in the distance as above 8km - sure, I've intentionally chosen one of the worst examples of connected GPS I can find in order to make a point (I gave that tracker a poor review), but it's representative of my experience with connected GPS devices.

I'd say on average, a 'good' connected-GPS device will give me a range of between 7km-9km for this run, which is more than any natural variation would explain. It seems the GPS used in a smartphone isn't necessarily as accurate as the sensors found in a smartwatch, resulting in a small range of returned results for the same route.

I used to be completely happy with connected GPS - it does the job, and ensures a wearable can stay affordable. But I've started to change my mind.

Disconnected GPS

Honor Band 6

The Honor Band 6, after tracking my 8km run. (Image credit: Future)

With my Route 66 expedition, every meter and mile is important, and a slight variance in the distances I log can have catastrophic effects if it's repeated. 

For example, if a fitness tracker under-measures my 8km workout by just 100m, that's 300m if I do the route three times per week, or 1.2km per month, equalling nearly 30km over the two-year venture.

It's almost as bad if a faulty tracker erroneously adds that distance instead of subtracts it - that's 30km on my record that I didn't actually earn, and the mere possibility of it causes me to question the validity of my exercises.

So the slight variations a connected GPS wearable can bring are no small thing on their own, and are something I could forgive before this running challenge. But the more I use GPS watches, and get to enjoy reliable and accurate measurements, the more I've come to appreciate them.

Can't go back 

Xiaomi Mi Watch

The XiaomI Mi Watch, another GPS watch, with its app open besides it. (Image credit: Future)

Accuracy is only one reason that connected GPS isn't quite as good as built-in GPS. With the latter you can work out without bringing your phone with you - I'm in my mid-20s, though, so won't be caught dead without my phone. 

I've found a smartwatch can also 'find' GPS a lot quicker for built-in compared to connected, which lets you start your workout quicker.

Those are useful conveniences, but the increased accuracy of a GPS watch is the real draw to me - it means that, every time I'm logging in my miles into the website that tracks my distance, I can be safe knowing the data is as accurate as possible.

Of course, I'm a tech reviewer, and so I can't enjoy this privilege forever. Sitting on my desk is a non-GPS smartwatch I'm reviewing, and the thought of using it to track a workout gives me the jitters (and no, I'm not going to use multiple fitness trackers at once on a run, that's too much tech (and a really bad look)).

The smartwatch might be okay (though initial testing suggests otherwise). But after all my testing of GPS watches, I can't help but feel I'll get more mileage from them (literally and figuratively).

Tom Bedford

Staff Writer, Phones

Tom's role in the TechRadar team is as a staff writer specializing in phones and tablets, but he also takes on other tech like electric scooters, smartwatches, fitness trackers and more.