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The Best GPS Sport Watches (2021 Recommendations Guide)

It’s that time of year again – the annual Sports Technology Buyers Guides. My goal here being to give my specific recommendations – exactly the same recommendations I’d give to my own friends and family, based on the continual usage of most of these products in product testing and comparisons – as well as just my day to day running, swimming, and hiking.  This list isn’t here to compile every option on the market in an effort to make every manufacturer happy.  It’s a condensed list of my recommendations.

Now this year I’m doing things a bit differently. Previously I had one giant page with everything in it: Running, cycling, swimming, action cameras/drones, sensors, etc… And this year is basically no different, except that I’ve split it apart into a few different guides:

– GPS Watch Recommendations (Running/Hiking/Triathlon/Swimming)
– Cycling GPS Computers (and sensors)
– Action Cams & Drones

The content is the same, just broken out into four shorter guides instead. The reason for this is frankly pretty simple: People don’t search for “Sports Tech Recommendations”, they search for “Best Running GPS” or such. Further, I found the previous guides just got so unwieldly to make and read. These will all pop-out pretty quickly (as in, over the next 24 hours).

Oh, one more thing, if you’re new around here note that I don’t take any money/sponsorships/whatever from any of the companies. That’s just the way I roll. So if I like a device, it’s because it’s a legit good device I want to use. With that, let’s dive into it!

All Arounders:

All-Arounder-Best-Watches2021

Recommended Watches: Apple Watch SE, Fitbit Sense, Garmin Venu 2, Samsung Galaxy Watch 4

This category is aimed at folks that don’t necessarily need the crazy battery life or durability of the other categories. Meaning, if you’re aiming to keep your runs to a few hours or so (even a marathon), then all of these watches will do perfectly fine. The amount of sports and smarts features varies slightly between them. Even more so when you consider the app ecosystems of each. For this guide though I’m mostly just focused on the features as-is in the box. The reason being that we can’t always depend on 3rd party apps supporting each update of the watch, or even being there in a few months. Still, 3rd party apps can often fill some of the feature gaps – even if the experience is slightly disjointed. That’s what makes app platforms so powerful.

For this category, all of these watches float in the $200-$400 range, depending on whether there’s a sale or not. In the case of the Apple Watch SE, you can substitute the Series 7 if you want the always-on screen. But more about that in a second. These are arranged alphabetically.

Apple Watch SE:

Out of all the Apple Watches I’ve used over the past year, the Apple watch SE is the one I’ve tended to use the most. The follow-up being the Apple Watch Series 7 since launch. Both are great units, and both have the finesse that nobody else in the industry has managed to top. The Apple Watch SE in particular has seen some quiet behind the scenes firmware updates over the last year that have pretty substantially improved GPS & optical heart rate performance. I no longer see the issues I saw on launch a year ago. Meanwhile, the Apple Watch Series 7 delivers solid accuracy as well, especially in more recent firmware updates (such as over the past few weeks of usage). The key difference between the two (aside from price) is the always-on display of the Series 7, versus the Apple Watch SE has a display that only turns on when you raise your wrist.

These days with apps like HealthFit, Athlytic, and others, you can easily use an Apple Watch with 3rd party fitness platforms and advanced sports insight and data. While the core Apple Watch workout recording app is embarrassingly basic, there’s literally a thousand apps you can use instead if you want more advanced data field configurations or more features. Those will come with a cost, albeit usually very small, but the world is literally your oyster. Note that with any Apple Watch you’re basically charging it every night – though you can usually get about 1.5 days of battery life, so and every other day flip-flop can work out too. Oh, and finally, remember that the Apple Watch *ONLY* works if you have an iPhone (not even an iPad).

Fitbit Sense:

This one might come as a surprise to some, but the reality is that at Fitbit’s more reasonably pricing as of late, the Fitbit Sense is a pretty good option. And it’s a super well rounded option, especially if you don’t need super structured training or other more serious features (since it largely lacks those). Instead, it makes up for it with the larger Fitbit ecosystem, including both connectivity to friends as well as more activity focused data than you can shake a stick at. While I’m not a huge fan of their shift lately to paywall some of your data-access features that should be free (and are on every other platform), the majority of the Fitbit Premium subscription instead provides plenty of other benefits that if used, are worth the cost. Over the past year, Fitbit has made good progress on making some of the data actionable from the Fitbit Sense, compared to when it first launched.

With the Fitbit Sense, I’d mainly be buying this watch if you’ve got friends and family on the Fitbit platform, or, if you’ve already got a Fitbit. Unlike the other three entrants in this category, I wouldn’t be buying the Fitbit Sense in hopes of 3rd party apps. With Fitbit declaring that Wear OS will be their future for smartwatches, the FitbitOS has basically been abandoned by developers (not that it was a hotbed before anyway). Still, that doesn’t take away from all the built-in features, that with the lower price are far more appealing than the launch price more than a year ago (then at $329).

Garmin Venu 2/2S:

As one might suspect from this lineup of four watches, the Garmin unit is the most sports-focused one of the bunch. Yet, with the Venu lineage, it means that the AMOLED screen is closer to that of the fancier displays from Samsung, Fitbit, and Apple. In the Venu’s case, you can chose whether you want the display in always-on (with less battery life), or in a raise-to-wake configuration (closer to a week of battery life). From a daily monitoring standpoint the watch has all the activity tracking essentials like steps/distance/calories, plus more advanced features like SpO2, breathing rate, and VO2Max tracking.

Garmin’s main thing in life is all the sport modes, as well as structured training options (be it for yoga or running a marathon). Everything from race training plans to animated step-by-step gym workout are included (whereas other companies oft charge for this). Still, as I’ve said in the past, I think this watch makes more sense at the lower price points than the higher ones. So right now it’s on sale for $349, whereas it’s a more challenging buy up against the Apple Watch Series 7 at $399, unless you’re looking for those sport-specific features or longer battery life.

Samsung Galaxy Watch 4/Classic:

The Galaxy Watch 4 is easily the best smartwatch that Samsung has ever made, and also notably, the first one on Wear OS. It’s probably no coincidence those two are tied together. With Wear OS, Samsung now has access to far more apps than before. And not just more apps, but now better maintained apps than on Tizen, where things mostly languished. While I tested both the Watch 4 and Watch 4 Classic, my personal preference was actually the classic edition, which has the rotating bezel. It felt more ‘complete’ versus the smaller bezel-less Watch 4.

Now I’d caution that I’d really only recommend the Galaxy Watch 4 to Samsung users. Not even really Android users. The reason is that many of the newer features are locked to only being available when paired with a Samsung phone. So you won’t get the same experience without it. Further, unlike in the past, Samsung is not permitting the Watch 4 to be paired with an iOS device either. Setting those limitations aside, I found this a good all-arounder watch, though it did struggle slightly more than the other three in this category when it came to GPS & HR accuracy. Some users have reported that these issues have been resolved in more recent firmware updates, but I can’t confirm that.

A Runner’s Watch:

BestRunnersWatch2021

Recommended Watches: Garmin Forerunner 245, COROS Pace 2

This category is mostly about simplistic in a smaller form factor with the most you can pack in that’s really just focused on the runner. Certainly, any of the higher end watches could fit here too. But right now both these watches are $200 during the holidays, and normally the Forerunner 245 is only $50 more at $249. The point being that if you’re data focused or duration focused, both of these will easy fit the bill from structured training to plenty of data metrics afterwards. Or, you don’t have to be all about the data. If you just want a sleek running watch, both of these do that too with minimal fuss.

COROS Pace 2:

Arguably the single unit on this entire post with the most bang for the buck, the COROS Pace 2 is a full multisport watch that can do swim/bike/run/triathlon, but even more than that – it does running very well. It’s got a built-in track running mode, but also has native running power inside the watch itself – so no need for secondary sensors or the like. This can be used for pacing instead of native running pace. The watch recently got increased structured workout support from TrainingPeaks, as well as numerous watersport modes for stand-up paddle boarding and more. Oh…right, one last thing: It’s only $199. This watch easily competes with far more expensive watches from Garmin, Polar, Suunto, and Wahoo.

While COROS introduced some running training load metrics this past spring, they’re a fair bit more limited in reality – especially if you run on any hills, or if you do any cross training. So they’re primarily suited at flat-land road running, versus anything else. Still, it’s a good start. And plus, COROS continues to prove they’re adding feature after feature to the Pace 2, such as the GoPro integration just last week.

Garmin Forerunner 245/245 Music:

While this Garmin watch lacks some of the triathlon features the COROS Pace 2 has, it makes up for it with added running features like PacePro and in the case of the 245 Music, well, music. Offline music specifically, including Spotify and Amazon Music. Garmin’s most current mid-range Forerunner  encompasses almost all of the higher end stats found on what was previous highest-end watches. Of course, as always, there are new higher-end stats in the land – which you’ll find on the FR745/945/Fenix 6 (I cover those later).

But for most people, you’ll find you get everything you could possibly need for running or racing with a Forerunner 245 or 245 Music. PacePro being one of the big additions, which allows you to get dynamic pacing information based on grade and splits. You’ll also get the newer safety/tracking assistance features as well as more data fields/page layouts than years prior. Last year it also got Garmin’s new Track Running mode, which snaps your workouts to the track to get flawless GPS tracks and distances.

The Triathlete:

Triathlon-BestWatches2021

Recommended Watches: Garmin Forerunner 945, COROS Pace 2, Polar Vantage M2

This category is for what the industry calls ‘multisport’ watches, but that typically just translates to triathlon watches.  They track your time/distance/etc… within the three sports – swim/bike/run.  From a non-triathlon multisport aspect, these watches are often used by everyone from windsurfers to skaters, mostly because of their versatility and flexibility in configuration and display customization.

Note that the minimum requirement to be a multisport watch is specifically a multisport mode, which allows you to record multiple sports (e.g. swim/bike/run) in a single activity/file. If you have to stop the workout to change modes (like on a Fitbit), that’s not a multisport watch. That’s just a watch that happens to have multiple sports (at least by commonly accepted industry definitions).

Overall Best in Class: Garmin Forerunner 945

I know, I know, you think the Fenix 6 should be here. But I don’t. Mainly because a heck of a lot of triathletes want something that has a quick-release kit, so they can move it to their handlebars. But if that doesn’t bother you, then go forth – you can absolutely scratch out ‘Forerunner 945’ and replace it with Fenix 6 above. They’ve got virtually identical everything, from software to internal hardware (with Fenix 6 having a handful more features).

Still, as for the FR945 – both myself and y’all seem pretty darn happy with it since it came out two years ago – and nobody’s screaming yet. It’s got more metrics than you’ll frankly ever need – and continues to get more update (even just last week). But I have found the Training Load Focus/Balance bits useful for remembering when to mix up the intensities a bit. And if I want to do offline music, I can do that too – it can connect to Bluetooth Smart headphones and cache my Spotify playlists. Also, if you can’t make the FR945 fit budget-wise, just grab the FR745 instead – it’s what I primarily use as my main watch, it’s basically (roughly) a FR945 without maps, saving you $100+.

Best Budget Option: COROS Pace 2 or Polar Vantage M2

In some ways, it’s really a disservice to assume that because these are budget options that they’re somehow bad. After all, the COROS Pace 2 is an incredibly powerful triathlon watch – easily way more feature-rich than the $379 Wahoo RIVAL. The same goes for the Polar Vantage M2, which packs in tons of features, especially around structured training and training load (slightly better training load than the COROS Pace 2, as it encompasses all sports). However, the Pace 2 isn’t limited to just Bluetooth Sensors, and has full ANT+ support too – ideal for those with potentially older ANT+ power meters. Still, both are great options if you’re getting into triathlon and aren’t sure what to get.

Note: For *triathlon* I do NOT recommend the Garmin Vivoactive/Venu series or Garmin Instinct:

I want to be really clear on this.  The reason I don’t recommend these watches is twofold, but mainly centers on the fact that they don’t support a multisport mode.  Yes, it supports running, and cycling, and indoor swimming.  But you can’t tie all those together in a race or training.  Further, while the Garmin Instinct series does support openwater swimming, it doesn’t support multisport mode. Finally, for lack of anywhere else to put it, some will ask about the Wahoo RIVAL. While the company continues to make good strides in the watch, it’s pretty hard to justify it’s price given it’s limited feature set, especially in comparison to COROS. As I noted at the beginning, my goal here isn’t to list every watch – it’s to list the ones I’d actually recommend buying to friends and family.

Hiking/Adventure:

Hiking-Best-AdventureWatch

Recommended: Garmin Fenix 6 Pro or COROS Vertix 1

This category is all about hiking and adventure, and in 2021 it’s my opinion that needs to have mapping built into it, and it’s gotta have good battery life. I’ve let this category include non-mapping players for a number of years, but I think it’s time to cut that off. As COROS has more recently proved, you can easily put maps on devices that are affordable. Sure, the mapping level differs from device to device. The map set that COROS has is substantially less featured than that of Garmin, but we can dive into those nuances below. As such, that requirement knocks watches like the new Suunto 9 Peak, Garmin Enduro, and Polar Grit X Pro off the list – despite their long adventure focused battery life. And sure, if you really don’t need maps, then those three units are great options that I’d happily recommend. But in the context of the COROS Vertix 1 and Garmin Fenix 6 Pro both being substantially cheaper right now than those watches (and even at regular prices), it’s hard to recommend them.

Garmin Fenix 6 Pro Series:

There’s still really no competition here. If you’re looking for the most feature-packed higher-end watch, it’s going to be the Garmin Fenix 6 Pro Series. Ok, I guess technically it’s the MARQ Athlete, but I’d prefer to spend that near-$2,000 elsewhere.

For this section I’m specifically recommending the Fenix 6 Pro variant (of any size), since it includes maps (and music, but I’m mostly focused on the maps here). While Garmin has Solar now in all the variants, all my testing has shown that in the Fenix 6 implementations, it’s minimal in usefulness at best (whereas on the Garmin Instinct Solar it’s actually quite meaningful). But ultimately, you’re not buying this watch for its tiny solar panel – you’re buying a Fenix 6 Pro because it does everything you could ever imagine a sports or outdoor watch doing, and generally speaking it does it pretty darn well. It continues to get major new features, including just in the past few weeks, and that added with the pricing down to a mind-blowing $449USD (or 409EUR), it’s hard to ignore.

COROS Vertix:

Ok, right out of the gate – why not the newer COROS Vertix 2? Well, it’s silly overpriced. It was overpriced in August at launch at $699 (even with dual-frequency GNSS which in my continued testing is shrug), and it’s even more overpriced now with the Fenix 6 Pro $250 cheaper. However the COROS Vertix 1? Now that’s more like it. Right now priced at $499 it’s still a bit higher than the Fenix 6 Pro given the current sales, but eventually the sales will go away and things will even out. More importantly though, it just got landscape and topo maps in a firmware update this past Monday, which is kinda insane. I mean, which other watch on the market casually gets flipping full-scale maps 2 years after launch like it’s no big deal?!?

If price were equal, the main reason you’d pickup the Vertix over the Garmin Fenix 6/6S specifically would be longer battery life for endurance events. I mean, yes, the Fenix 6X has great/equal battery life, but the COROS Vertix 1 has that 60 hours as standard. Whereas the Fenix 6S & 6 Pro have 24/36 hours of base GPS battery life. Also, final side note for those eagle-eyed among you: I can’t find my Vertix 1 at the moment, so I used a Vertix 2 in the photo above – though, they look near identical from a distance.

The Swimmers:

Swimmers-BestWatches2021

Recommended: Garmin Swim 2, COROS Pace 2, Apple Watch SE/6/7

Ok, stop what you’re doing for a second and go read my massive test from this summer on the best openwater swim watches. Then come back here.

Essentially this category is mostly focused on openwater swimming more so than pool swimming, though realistically they cover both. I’ve just found that while many swim watches get pool swimming fairly right (including virtually every watch on this list), that when it comes to openwater swimming, it can quickly reach dumpster fire status. So, this quick section aims to rectify that.

This category remains unchanged from last year, save updating the Apple Watch versions, which I’ve checked again since release.

Best All Around Swimmers Watch: Garmin Swim 2

In a category that actually has no formal competitors, I guess it was bound to win. Like showing up on race day and being the only one in your age group. But in actuality, it really is the best swim watch out there – even taking into account all of the multisport watches that mostly do swimming just fine. The reason it’s the best is rather simple: It’s got more features, and does all of those features better. There’s a pile of new indoor features, especially around automatic rest tracking.

But I think the real star of the show is the openwater swim accuracy. It’s consistently borderline scary how accurate it was. Check out my full review for all those side by side track comparisons.

Budget Swim Watch: COROS Pace 2 or Apple Watch Series SE/6/7

If you’re looking for both a pool and openwater swim watch on a budget and don’t care about as much of the fancier smartwatch features, check out the COROS Pace 2. It’s simply a full-featured triathlon watch that also happens to do swimming pretty well.

Similarly, the Apple Watch Series SE/6/7 all spits out fantastically accurate openwater swim tracks, as well as really strong indoor swimming. Sure, it doesn’t have the most full-featured swimming functionality – but if you’re mostly looking to just track laps and splits, it’ll more than do the trick.

Honorable Mention: FORM Swimming Goggles

It’s hard to categorize the FORM Swimming goggles. It’s not a watch obviously, but it does have openwater swim support if you have a Garmin or Apple Watch. But even if you don’t have one of those, if you’re primarily pool bound, it’s incredibly good at tracking your swim without ever requiring a glance at your wrist or a touch of the display. It just does it all automatically while displaying the stats in real-time on the inside of the goggle, heads-up display like. Sure, it’s a bit pricey at $199 (but is again on sale for Black Friday at $180). Note, do be sure that if you’re specifically getting FORM for openwater use that you pick a Garmin or Apple Watch that’s compatible, as not all Garmin watches are compatible (such as the Garmin Swim 2, because it doesn’t have Connect IQ app support).

Best External HR Sensors:

Sensors-Recommendations

If you’re getting any of the units listed above, you may be in the market for accessories.  Obviously, some bundles include accessories, while others do not.  Here’s what I recommend based on having entire buckets worth of accessories to test with.

No matter which sensor you get, ensure it’s dual ANT+/Bluetooth Smart. It’s virtually impossible to buy something that isn’t that these days, but just want to note that. Ideally, you’d also buy something that’s multi-channel Bluetooth too (like the latest sensors from Polar, Garmin, and Wahoo), just in case you need to connect multiple things to that sensor at once (such as Zwift and a watch).

Heart Rate Sensor (Chest strap): Polar H9/H10 and Garmin HRM-DUAL

Looking for a non-optical HR strap? I almost exclusively use the Garmin HRM-DUAL and the Polar H9/H10 these days, with a side of the Garmin HRM-PRO if I’m doing some running stuff. I generally use the Polar H9 at home for trainer workouts, and the Polar H10 at the DCR Cave (and then by extension, workouts leaving from those locations). There’s no logic to that other than me bringing home the H9 one day and it staying there. The H10 simply has the ability to record the workout itself, if you want. I almost never use that feature since it’s kinda cumbersome.

While the Wahoo TICKR has been on this list for years, and it’s still generally a much-loved strap by many – I (and my wife) have been having some frustrating times with a few of the newer units lately (dropouts namely, both TICKR & TICKR-X). This seems mirrored by friends I know. Therefore at the moment, it’s in the penalty box.

Finally, it’s worth noting that there are dozens of chest straps out there. And yes, most of them will work just fine. However, I’ve found long-term that buying from one of the well-known brands tends to produce the best results. For example, it’s almost unheard of to hear a complaint about a Polar H9 or H10.

For Garmin users who also run/tri: Garmin HRM-PRO:

If you’re looking for running dynamics with your Garmin device, that’ll require an HRM-TRI, HRM-RUN, HRM-PRO, or RD-POD – or, more recently the Wahoo TICKR X 2020 can do that too. The HRM-PRO is the only one of that group from Garmin that’s dual ANT+/Bluetooth Smart, and despite being pricey, it’s what I’d recommend if you’re a Garmin user that wants Garmin Running Dynamics. While the TICKR X does transmit the Running Dynamics standard, just be aware that it lacks a few fields that the Garmin straps do.

So to that end, if you’re a Garmin runner or triathlete that wants the added metrics while running (or caching of chest HR during a triathlon), then I’d recommend the HRM-PRO. It gets plenty of use to around here, so I’ve got no problems recommending it. It’s basically the newer version of an HRM-TRI and an HRM-DUAL combined together.

Similarly, if you’re planning to be a Wahoo RIVAL user, I’d veer more towards the Wahoo TICKR X than the Garmin straps, since the TICKR X transmits additional Running Dynamics data that the RIVAL doesn’t yet see from the Garmin straps.

Heart Rate Sensor (Optical): Polar Verity Sense

If I’m using a standalone optical HR sensor, it’s almost undoubtedly the Polar Verity Sense, which is basically a slightly updated version of the Polar OH1+. Not only does it broadcast dual ANT+/Bluetooth Smart, but a simple extra button push will record the workout to memory and then sync easily into Polar’s Flow app/platform (and onwards to platforms like Strava, if you want it to).

While in years past I’ve recommended the Scosche Rhythm/Rhythm 24, the app experience just isn’t what Polar’s is. Little things like having only a handful of hours of onboard storage for that is tough – whereas I can record boatloads of workouts to the Polar Verity Sense and it happily syncs them all down the road. Plus, you get the entire Polar training analysis ecosystem along with it.

Wrap-Up:

Wearables-Recommendations2021

Phew, that’s quite the list! One of the good parts about the wearables side here, and in particular this slate of watches, is that most of these watches are unlikely to be replaced in the near term with newer units. For example, both Apple and Samsung have fairly predictable refresh cycles, and thus the next step for them would be next August/September for these units. The COROS Pace 2 is only a year old, and I can’t imagine we’d see a new iteration for at least another year, or at least till next fall.

Meanwhile, watches like the Garmin Forerunner 945 and Fenix 6 Series are undoubtedly due for a refresh. Garmin has historically timed the triathlon Forerunner launches to the spring and fall time periods, but with pandemic related switches, who knows. Same goes for the Fenix 6, which by most metrics is overdue for a refresh. Again, historically in recent years Garmin has tied Fenix series refreshes to the summer timeframe, while in the earlier days they were tied to the CES/January timeframe.

I think the bigger picture thing to remember is that in the case of both of those watches, they easily stand on their own today competition-wise in their categories. Meaning, there’s no player in the industry right now that’s going to magically release a true Fenix 6 Pro competitor anytime in the next few years (with the same full depth of music, contactless payments, navigation, physiological stuff, etc…). COROS and in different way Polar, are undoubtedly closest in that pursuit from a sports standpoint, but as they themselves will admit, areas like offline streaming and contactless payments will be impossible to implement given their unit volumes. Those technologies require many millions of units per year to even get a seat at the table to have those discussions with payment processors and streaming companies.

Still, that doesn’t mean they aren’t great watches in the areas they focus on. As I’ve noted in this post, COROS has made incredible strides in this area. And they’ve benefited from all that work in the form of both attention and sales. Similarly, as I look towards 2022, what Fitbit could do on a proper Wear OS watch is super appealing. That’ll free them from the limitations of the less-adopted FitbitOS platform (app-wise), and open up their watches to some incredibly cool apps, especially if Fitbit/Google can crack the battery life nugget. Fitbit’s thing in life, since the beginning, has been smartwatch battery times in the 5-7 day range. If they can manage that with a Wear OS unit – that’d be a game changer.

In any case, it’s easy to think and overanalyze about what might come over the course of 2022, but all of the watches outlined above are here today, shipping today, and usable today. And most importantly, they’re all really good, and all can make you faster and healthier…today.

With that – thanks for reading!

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