How GPS Watches Work

The Right GPS Tool for the Job

You wouldn't buy a sailboat if you wanted to run whitewater rapids. In the same vein, you'll want to make sure a GPS watch meets your anticipated needs before you spend your hard-earned money on it. Will you be using the watch for one sport, or do you want one that's useful for a variety of activities? Are you more concerned with having data you can download to your computer and track over time, or would you prefer a device that gives you information as you need it in the field? Do you go places where getting lost could be dangerous, or do your activities keep you on well-marked trails and roads? Your answers to all of these questions will narrow your watch choices.

Take that last question, for example: If you're an avid hiker or cross-country skier who likes to wander into the backcountry, it would certainly be helpful to have a GPS watch with a moving-map display, which shows you where you are in relation to other waypoints. The trade-off for this is size: The bigger display necessary to show map details means this type of watch may be too cumbersome for you if you mainly want something light and sleek to track splits in your next marathon [source:]. Likewise, a rugged-sport athlete such as a skier or mountain biker might want to avoid a watch with a touchscreen interface, exchanging the sleek, button-free look for something that won't get recalibrated if it's unexpectedly whacked by a tree branch. A runner, on the other hand, might find that a touchscreen is perfect for quickly checking data.

GPS watch manufacturers list their models' features on their Web sites, giving you a quick, easy way to compare features and price across the entire market. As you narrow your search, though, it helps to get a live perspective. Talk to the folks at your local bike shop, running store or hiking outfitter, and don't be afraid to pester friends about their GPS watches. The first-hand tips and real-life reviews you'll get will leave you well prepared to make the right purchase to complement your chosen activities.