Great GPS running watches for any budget
If you are a dedicated runner, there is no shortage of GPS running watches to choose from. They track everything from calorie burn to VO2 max. The feature packed devices are on the expensive side, while others are more affordable.
Built-in GPS is important as it provides for more accurate location and distance information. It also renders you free from your phone. Such devices cost a bit more but are a real step up from most ordinary fitness trackers. These watches have built-in heart rate monitors and some will assist you with your swimming and cycling needs, too.
Below you’ll find our pick of the top GPS running watches. We’ve also included quick descriptions of some of the many features they offer.
Garmin Forerunner 245 | Garmin Fenix 6 | Garmin Forerunner 945 | Polar Vantage | Apple Watch | Fitbit Versa 3 | Garmin Vivoactive 4 | Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2
Best for runners
Garmin Forerunner 245 and 245 Music
The Garmin Forerunner 245 is a great option if you are looking for a value for money GPS running watch. In addition to keeping tabs on your runs, the device provides you with some more advanced features. This includes VO2 Max and current training status to indicate if you’re under-training or overdoing it, recovery time and more.
Forerunner 245 features Garmin’s Elevate wrist heart rate technology. This will help you to heart-rate zone train, and like most Garmin devices, it will keep tabs on the all-important resting heart rate.
The timepiece can also be used for 24/7 activity tracking and will count steps, calories and distance throughout the day. The move bar with vibration alerts motivates you to get up from the sofa when you’ve been chilling for too long.
You’ll also find some smartwatch features such as smart notifications and audio prompts, as well as customization options and excellent battery life.
All in all, this is a well rounded device for the price that will easily meet the needs of most runners. You can also opt for Forerunner 245, the exact same watch but with local storage for up to 500 songs.
Garmin Fenix 6
The Fenix range is perfect for those who are into multi sports and want to be able to track absolutely everything. The Fenix 6, Fenix 6S and Fenix 6X variants come with an optical heart rate sensor, GPS and GLONASS, a bunch of multi-sport activity modes, daily activity tracking, and smartphone notifications. Another interesting feature is the wrist-based Pulse Oximeter.
There’s also the option of a more pricey, special Solar variant, a first for Garmin. This features a transparent solar charging lens that sits on top of the watch face which helps to extend battery life.
The regular iteration has a diameter of 47mm. The 6S variant is designed with the female sports enthusiast in mind. It sports a smaller footprint for smaller wrists – 42mm diameter. The Fenix 6X has a 51mm diameter to accommodate those with large wrists.
You can use the watches for cycling, open water swimming, cross country skiing, climbing, indoor run/bike/swim, hiking and much more. In addition to heart rate tracking from the wrist, they provide many advanced running metrics.
With this edition, Garmin has also introduced something it called Dynamic PacePro. This is “grade-adjusted pace guidance throughout your activity”. Put simply, it adjusts a runners pace based on terrain – the steeper the grade, the larger the adjustment.
For those that like to leave their phone behind when training, the Fenix 6 comes with built-in storage for music. You can also make payments on the go thanks to an NFC chip.
Garmin Forerunner 945
This GPS multisport watch is for athletes who want in-depth data as they train and compete. It features a Pulse Ox sensor and new performance monitoring tools some of which you won’t find on the Fenix 5 Plus.
Training status now has adjustments for heat and altitude acclimation status. There is training load focus which separates your training load into different categories based on the intensity and structure of each activity recorded and other new Firstbeat features.
The watch also sports Garmin’s new Body Battery function. Its aim is to help people make better training, rest and sleep decisions. The feature uses a combination of stress, heart rate variability (HRV), sleep and activity data to give you an indication of your body’s energy levels.
Just like the Fenix 5 Plus, the watch comes with full-color, onboard maps that guide you on your run so you never get lost. There is on-board storage for music that stores up to 1,000 songs, as well as NFC for Garmin Payments on the go.
All things considered, Garmin’s latest wearable is a nice marriage of style and functionality. It offers a slightly lower price and smaller form-factor than the Fenix 5 Plus series, while not compromising on features.
Polar Vantage range
Featuring an improved heart rate monitor, advanced performance metrics and smart coaching, the Polar Vantage V and V2 are geared towards the serious fitness enthusiast. M is a slightly stripped back version that also comes with a much lower price-tag. The company says the watches are the most advanced in its history.
The Vantage range comes with improved heart rate accuracy thanks to Polar Precision Prime. While wrist based fitness trackers deliver good stats for resting heart rate and low intensity activity, they struggle to match the accuracy of chest straps at high intensity activity. With this new technology Polar hopes to narrow the gap.
The more high spec V benefits from a metric called Running Power. Vantage M doesn’t have this because it lacks a barometric altimeter. This is a single digit for runners that accounts for terrain, form, and fatigue and tells them how hard to move.
There are a number of other advanced training features including Training Load and Recovery Pro. These will allow you to reach the ideal amount of training and avoid injury. For overnight recovery measurement there’s Nightly Recharge and Sleep Plus Stages. The latest V2 comes with the addition of some new performance metrics and music control.
Apple Watch Series 6
The Apple Watch Series 6 may not be the best running watch, but it is the best all-rounder and is therefore a popular choice. There are a number of models to choose from including a cheaper SE edition. Alternatively, you could go for an earlier generation.
The latest version comes with a quicker S6 chip, SpO2 sensor and more. Apple has also finally introduced sleep tracking to the watch as part of watchOS7.
In terms of fitness, the GPS-enabled device comes with an accelerometer, gyroscope and excellent heart rate sensor. In addition to dishing out accurate fitness tracking stats, this allows the watch to identify and send out alerts if you fall or trip.
Other useful functionality includes high and low heart rate alerts. Series 4,5, and 6 also intermittently analyse heart rhythms and send alerts for atrial fibrillation. And let’s not forget the FDA-approved ECG sensor that lets you know if your heart rhythm is normal or there are issues.
For 24/7 activity tracking
Fitbit Versa 3
If you’re after something that tracks your fitness and sleep around the clock and is a decent run tracker, Versa 3 is a great choice. Unlike its predecessors it comes with built-in GPS.
The other upgrade is the larger 1.58 inch display. This makes it easier to read your stats while moving. The physical button is now recessed, something along the lines on what you would find on Charge 4.
Under the hood you’ll find the usual fitness tracking sensors including the latest PurePulse 2.0, so you’ll get better heart rate data. This is an important metric and you want it to be as accurate as possible.
When it comes to features, this is a smartwatch that puts fitness first. It offers everything you would expect from a Fitbit device, along with capturing real-time stats on different types of activities including swimming.
For use as an every-day watch
Garmin Vivoactive 4
Vivoactive 4 is Garmin’s take on an all-purpose smartwatch. The predecessor came only in one size but there is now a 45mm stainless steel and a 40mm model for small wrists (4S) to choose from. There’s also a more pricey Venu option which comes with a fancy AMOLED display.
Features include all the fitness tracking essentials including built-in GPS. There’s NFC for on-the-go payments and music storage so you can leave your phone behind. This generation also slaps on a Pulse Ox sensor for tracking your blood oxygen automatically during the night, and on-demand during the day.
Other than that, the watch features the Body Battery function, abnormal heart rate alerts thanks to the upgraded heart rate sensor (which also tracks heart rate under water), as well as Yoga workouts, Pilates workouts and on-screen workout animations. Battery life is about a week, depending on the model chosen. That’s not bad considering the thing has an always-on display.
Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2
Launched last summer, Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 comes just 6 months after the original. It arrives with a fresh new look, design and size options, ECG sensors, an LTE variant and more.
There are full eight photodiodes on the rear side now, to improve on the heart rate monitoring capability. The better precision is coupled with alerts when their heart beat goes above or below normal levels.
Swimming has been added to the list of exercises automatically tracked. This brings the total up to seven (walking, running, cycling, rowing, eliptical training, “other workout”). For other types of workouts you will need to choose the manual option.
The rest is pretty standard stuff and includes the usual 24/7 activity and stress tracking. You also get breathing exercises to help you chill. Like the previous generation, there’s NFC for mobile payments, as well as GPS for tracking workouts without a phone.
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6 thoughts on “Great GPS running watches for any budget”
The Forerunner is my favorite. Very user friendly and smartphone pairing works flawlessly. It has really helped me learn my pacing by distance and keep track of important metrics.
935 is my option. Same features of Fenix 5 but adding wi-fi on a smaller body and at lower price.
I must be missing something on the Garmins – I had one for a while and returned it. The screen was horrible indoors. I couldn’t read it at all. The backlight reminded me of a $10 Casio and was mostly useless.
My screen looked nothing at all like the Snow White backgrounds and sharp colors I see on the ads and images.
Am I missing something?
I can’t agree more, they sacrifice the display quality for battery life. Great watches with great features but the screen made me unhappy. I returned my Fenix 3 Hr for that reason.
I had a similar issue with the Vivoactive HR. When reviewing the manual, there is a way to increase the brightness of the screen which fixed the problem.
I had a Fenix 3 and the display was subpar. The Garmin ads always show the display as bright and easy on the eyes. I returned it and purchased through Garmin the D2 Charlie to use its features. The display is a little better but not brilliant. I think the reason for the poor display is that Garmin watches are always one and the display is a power saving feature. I do wish the Garmin could do a display similar to Samsun Gear 3s.