If you want serious training and tracking of outdoor sports like running, cycling, swimming, etc., then GPS is an important feature in your fitness tracker, However, if you only need casual everyday fitness tracking like steps and sleep then you can do without it.
According to industry surveys, nearly 70% of tracker owners consider step counting the most important feature. Less than 30% regularly use their device for outdoor sports. And battery life remains the top factor for consumers when choosing a tracker.
Given basic activity tracking remains the prime use case, and GPS shortens battery span, most average fitness band users do not require built-in GPS. Unless you run, bike, or hike regularly and want to accurately record workouts without your phone, GPS provides limited value.
Let’s dig deeper on this topic. By the end of this article, you’ll have the facts to decide if upgrading to GPS is the right call.
Is GPS in Your Smartwatch or Fitness Tracker Worth It
For most people, GPS is not an important feature of a basic fitness tracker. Simple step counting, sleep tracking, and general activity monitoring can all be done accurately without GPS.
GPS becomes beneficial if you specifically want to track outdoor activities like running, cycling, hiking, or golf. GPS provides more precise real-time pace, distance, route mapping, and additional workout metrics for these sports.
If you simply want a fitness band to monitor daily step counts, basic workouts, and sleep quality, GPS is unnecessary. But if you regularly run, bike, or hike outdoors and want accurate speed/pace, mileage, and route data, choose a tracker or sports watch with built-in GPS.
For most people doing general wellness tracking, GPS is not worth the added cost. But it can be incredibly valuable if training for races or tracking outdoor sports. Evaluate your specific needs and fitness routine to decide if GPS is worth the investment for you.
When To Use a Tracker With GPS
Now let’s go deeper and look at some use cases of GPS, and why you would need on in your smartwatch or fitness trackers.
1. Outdoor Running
If you’re a runner, especially those for longer distances or do speed work and tempo runs, GPS is extremely useful for accurately measuring pace, distance elevation gain and routes without needing to bring your smartphone.
Stride length estimation used on non-GPS trackers is unreliable for capturing your true live pace and mileage. GPS also provides value for treadmill running – it allows calibrating the treadmill distance to ensure your tracker isn’t undercounting compared to the treadmill readout.
Serious cyclists know that bike computers with built-in GPS provide many advantages over phone apps for ride tracking. The ability to view real-time speed, distance, total ascent and mapping without draining your phone battery is invaluable. GPS bike computers last up to 24 hours in GPS mode. Handlebar mounting also makes it easy to view ride data at a glance.
For indoor cycling, GPS is not as critical. But when riding outdoors, GPS bike computers transform the riding experience, especially for competitive and endurance cyclists.
3. High-Intensity Interval Training
Another great use case for GPS is high-intensity interval training. You see, GPS allows you to properly time intervals and recovery durations based on the actual distance covered and pacing rather than ballparking it. You can program workouts ahead of time and follow them seamlessly with GPS tracking.
For example, you can create a workout that’s 5x 1 mile at goal race pace with 400m recovery jogs. Based on GPS distance and pacing data, you’ll complete the exact workout as programmed. GPS makes intervals and tempo runs much more structured.
4. Hiking and Backpacking
Avid hikers who cover serious distance and elevation gain can also benefit greatly from GPS on their fitness trackers. Especially when venturing into remote areas without reliable phone service, having a GPS watch allows you to track total mileage throughout your hike or across multiple days on a backpacking trip.
Built-in GPS allows recording exactly where you hiked for mapping later. And if you get lost or injured, the GPS history can prove invaluable for search and rescue. For hardcore hikers tackling challenging terrain, a GPS watch provides assurance and safety.
Swimming with a GPS watch allows you to track metrics like distance per stroke, stroke count, pace per 100 yards/meters, and SWOLF score. SWOLF (short for swimming and golf) measures stroke efficiency by adding stroke count and time for each length swam.
Advanced swim tracking with GPS provides tremendous feedback to refine your technique and speed. You can accurately track intervals and time trials in the pool just like runners do on land. For recreational swimmers, GPS isn’t as necessary, but competitive swimmers can achieve huge benefits.
6. Geotagging and Location Tracking
Some fitness trackers with built-in GPS allow you to geotag photos. By syncing timestamps on photos and GPS watch data, you can view exactly where photos were taken based on the GPS coordinates at that time. Geotagging adds powerful location-based context.
GPS can also allow friends and family to view your live event or race tracking online via sites like Garmin Livetrack. They can follow your real-time location on the course map and see split times for longer events. GPS brings a social, connected element to training and competing.
Lastly, golfers who play regularly benefit greatly from GPS golf watches. Instead of manual yardage books or approximations, you can get exact distance measurements from your shot location to the pin or any hazard or bunker. Mapping each shot provides powerful post-game analysis. Golf GPS watches eliminate frustration and allow dialing in distances with confidence.
Which Type of GPS Do You Need?
Once you determine GPS will benefit your fitness pursuits, choosing the right type comes down to built-in GPS or connected GPS via your smartphone. Here are the key differences:
Fitness Tracker GPS Comparison
|Feature||Built-in GPS||Connected GPS|
|Functionality||Integrated GPS module within the fitness tracker.||Relies on a connected device (e.g., smartphone) for GPS data.|
|Independence||Works autonomously without the need for an external device.||Requires a paired device with GPS capabilities.|
|Battery Life||May consume more power due to the built-in GPS hardware.||Can be more energy-efficient as it leverages the connected device’s GPS.|
|Accuracy||Typically provides more accurate location data directly from the tracker.||Depends on the GPS accuracy of the connected device.|
|Cost||Potentially higher cost due to the inclusion of built-in GPS technology.||May be more cost-effective as it utilizes the GPS capabilities of existing devices.|
As the name suggests, built-in GPS watches and trackers have the actual GPS receiver chip and antennas inside the device itself. This allows them to connect directly to satellites without needing a phone.
- Provides the most accurate and consistent outdoor tracking
- Works independently of the phone – leave your phone behind!
- Never risk losing signal mid-workout if the phone battery dies
- Typically, longer battery life in GPS mode than in phones
- Allows functions like geotagging photos and live event tracking
- Increased cost compared to non-GPS watches
- Reduced battery life compared to everyday activity tracking
- Larger device size and weight to accommodate components
- Does not work indoors where the satellite connection is poor
Connected GPS watches lack the built-in GPS chip. Instead, they use Bluetooth to pair with your smartphone’s GPS for workout tracking. Think of your phone’s GPS augmenting the watch’s motion sensors.
- Less expensive than built-in GPS watches
- Excellent battery life since the GPS power burden is on the phone
- Smaller and slimmer watch design without GPS
- Provides strong GPS signal when the phone is nearby
- Must carry your phone to every outdoor workout
- Risk of losing signal if phone battery dies
- Accuracy can suffer if the watch loses connection to the phone’s GPS
- No advanced functions like geotagging photos or live tracking
Advantages of GPS in Watches and Trackers
Let’s take a look at the key benefits provided by GPS watches and fitness trackers:
1. Highly Accurate Distance and Pace
Without question, the number one advantage of GPS watches is receiving highly precise real-time pace, distance, and speed data for outdoor workouts. This level of accuracy is impossible to match using stride length estimates on non-GPS watches. You will know exactly how many miles or kilometers you covered and the exact pacing for different segments.
2. Mapping Workout Routes
With GPS, you can map out the exact route you covered for activities like running, cycling and hiking. Retracing routes is easy. Mapping trails in remote areas helps with navigation and safety. And you can discover new paths you haven’t run before just by looking at the GPS history.
3. Proper Timing for Intervals and Laps
We briefly touched on this earlier, but GPS makes properly executing interval and lap workouts much simpler. Just program the workout with desired distances and target pace ahead of time. The watch will beep and auto-lap at the right spots based on GPS distance and live pace rather than you guessing when to pick up the pace or when to slow down and rest.
4. Heart Rate Zone Training
Pairing GPS pace and distance data with heart rate zones allows you to train smarter. You can accurately monitor how hard you are working at different points in the workout based on live pace vs. heart rate effort. This helps prevent overtraining by showing when you are pushing too hard versus dialing it back.
5. Elevation Tracking
The barometric altimeter sensors in GPS watches let you track elevation gain as you hike, run trails or bike uphill. See total ascent for the workout or over multiple days. Use elevation profiles to find the most challenging trails.
6. Calorie Tracking
GPS data enables much more accurate calorie burn estimates since distance and pace are factored in. Without GPS, calorie tracking is unreliable. You get a better sense of true energy expenditure for running, cycling, etc.
7. Live Event Tracking
GPS tracking allows friends and family to follow your progress in real-time during races and events. The live online tracking once required expensive tracking chips, but now GPS watches provide the same capability. Very useful for endurance events like marathons!
8. Geotagging Photos
As mentioned earlier, geotagging photos allows you to embed location data including GPS coordinates into images or videos at the time they were captured. When traveling or hiking, photos become much more meaningful when you know precisely where they were taken.
Disadvantages of GPS in Watches and Trackers
While GPS delivers significant upside, there are also some potential downsides:
1. Reduced Battery Life
Continuously using GPS shortens battery life significantly compared to basic activity tracking. Expect to charge GPS watches more frequently, especially after long outdoor workout sessions. Battery technology continues to improve, but be prepared for more frequent charging.
2. Cost a Premium
Built-in GPS still comes at a premium cost versus activity bands without it. You’re paying extra for the components and more advanced tracking features. Determines if the benefits warrant the price for your budget and needs.
3. Overreliance on Metrics
Some athletes become overly obsessed with GPS data like pace, distance and elevation during workouts. Don’t become so fixated on the numbers that you ignore your body’s signals. Listen to your body first!
4. Difficulty Indoors
GPS simply does not function as well indoors since satellite signals have trouble penetrating solid walls and roofs. You’ll need an alternative form of tracking for treadmill runs or stationary bike workouts. Consider a foot pod or cycling sensor to augment GPS.
5. Accuracy Issues
While GPS accuracy is generally great, buildings in cities and dense tree cover on trails can interfere with satellite connection, leading to errors in distance and pace. Bad weather may also impact GPS precision. Overall GPS is very accurate but not bulletproof.
6. It’s Another Gadget
For those looking to minimize distracting technology, adding a GPS watch can feel like another gadget taking attention away from simple training. The metrics can be powerful if used properly, but they aren’t necessary for all athletes.
While GPS tracking offers clear benefits for runners, cyclists, swimmers, golfers, and outdoor athletes, it is not super important for more casual fitness tracker users focused on step counting and basic activity metrics. Consider your personal fitness goals and training needs.
GPS delivers the most value when you run, bike, or hike regularly and want to accurately track distance, speed/pace, elevation, and workout routes without bringing your phone. The high accuracy of built-in GPS provides powerful performance insights and motivation when training for events or aiming to improve. But for general wellness tracking, GPS is tougher to justify due to added cost and shorter battery life. Hopefully, this guide gave you clarity on whether GPS could benefit your next wearable purchase.
Is GPS required for basic activity tracking?
No, GPS is not needed for simple step counting, sleep tracking, idle alerts, and basic daily activity monitoring. These features use internal accelerometers. GPS becomes useful when you want to accurately track live speed/pace, distance, and routes for outdoor workouts.
Don’t music controls and GPS quickly drain the battery?
Yes, using GPS and playing music from your watch are two of the most battery-intensive functions. Combine them together for outdoor runs and your battery will drain much faster than usual. Plan accordingly for shorter battery life if you regularly use both music and GPS.
Can I turn off GPS when I’m not using it?
Absolutely, always disable GPS when you do not need real-time location tracking to conserve battery life. For example, turn it off after finishing an outdoor run rather than keeping it active all day. Create battery-friendly habits to maximize usage between charges.
How can I improve GPS accuracy?
Accuracy is usually great but buildings, trees, and weather can interfere. For best results, calibrate your compass periodically in the device settings. Ensure the watch face points up towards the sky and avoid covering with long sleeves. Troubleshoot interference through trial and error.
Can I use GPS hiking without cell service?
Definitely, GPS satellites provide location data directly to the watch so you can track hikes in remote areas without cell service. Some GPS watches also allow downloading maps for navigation and breadcrumbing. Pair it with a rescue beacon for backcountry safety.