All About Wearable Tech

Smartwatch vs. GPS Sports Watch: Differences, Pros and Cons


Before getting into the differences between smartwatches and GPS sports watches, let me start first by trying to determine what the definition of each type of watch is. Most people will call a smartwatch to any electronic watch which performs any functionality that traditional analog watches can’t. This definition of smartwatch is pretty wide ranging so let’s try to narrow it.

A smartwatch is an electronic watch which is built to run computing applications of any type. Messaging, communications, health, sports, news, music, productivity, games and entertainment and so on. It runs on an operating system which allows the user to access and install apps from any developer within its app ecosystem. These apps run either natively on the watch or paired with a smartphone. Main brands are: Apple, Samsung, LG and Huawei.
A GPS sports watch, on the other hand, is an electronic watch built with two key purposes: a) providing athletes accurate performance information while training, and ii) collecting, analyzing and displaying as much relevant information as possible about workouts. A GPS sports watch also runs on an operating system (OS), but in this case the OS and the hardware are optimized for its main purpose: tracking sports activities. Main brands are Garmin, Suunto and Polar.

I understand some readers may say: “hey, my Apple Watch can also do all that tracking stuff you say about GPS sports watches. And not only does it have its native Workouts app but I can also install apps from Nike and Strava and Runkeeper which can do the job too”. Yes, that’s right, you can track your training sessions with a smartwatch but as I said the GPS watch is optimized to do that and it does it way better.

Likewise many GPS watches have some type of smartwatch-like capabilities but their functionality in this respect is somewhat limited compared to “true” smartwatches.

So let’s dive into the details and see what the differences are:

1. Screen

The first and most apparent difference is the screen. I will provide some data: an Apple Watch 3 42mm has an OLED 312 x 390 resolution screen which is as crispy and gorgeous looking as the screen of the best smartphones. A very high end sports watch like the Garmin Forerunner 935 has a 250 x 250 resolution screen with up to 64 colors. Big difference, isn’t it? Screens drain a lot of battery life. For GPS sports watches battery life is far more important than a sharper or more colorful screen.

Also most GPS sports watches do not have touch screens while in smartwatches, as in smartphones and tablets, touch control is essential.

2. Hardware

Accuracy of GPS and Heart Rate sensors is critical for sports watches. Other hardware elements like the altimetric barometer and the thermometer are also pretty important. They have to be able to reflect variations almost immediately to properly track activities such as interval training workouts or trail running sessions.

As physical space in watches is limited by design, these hardware elements take precedence to others such as internal storage both RAM and ROM.

On the other hand, internal storage is pretty important in smartwatches. Users need to be able to download and store different apps and having several of them operating in the background. Smartwatches are like mini smartphones in this respect.

As a result, and as an example of how these hardware priorities effect each type of watch, a high end $500+ GPS watch like the Garmin Fenix 5 series has industry leading HR and GPS sensors but lack music storage capabilities which is something pretty basic for many basic smartwatches.

3. Design & User Experience

Traditionally GPS sports watches were bulky and not very stylish. People used to wear them just for training. After each training session the watch just went straight back to the drawer. Things have changed, a lot. Most recent sports watches still have a casual look. But they are slim and absolutely wearable 24/7. As of today, design is not a disadvantage to GPS sports watches vs. smartwatches. Right now, it’s more a matter of personal taste and preferences.

One area where there is a significant difference between smartwatches and sports watches is the way users interact with the watch. A smartwatch is usually controlled through the touch screen, plus some type of rotating crown or any other similar mechanism.

On the other hand most GPS sports watches are controlled though physical buttons. Why this? Because while training you may want to check up metrics which show in different pages or record a lap or mark a waypoint. As a user and reviewer of countless smartwatches and GPS watches I can assure that using a touch screen while running is difficult, irritating and even dangerous! Garmin, the world’s largest maker of GPS sports watches, tried to introduce touch screens a few years ago (Garmin FR 620) and it just didn’t work.

4. Sport Tracking Capabilities

GPS sports watches are built and optimized for tracking sports activities. That includes hardware, software, user experience and battery life. They provide countless tracking metrics and allow a high level of customization which allows athletes to access available information during training sessions in their preferred manner. Also higher end models provide certain advanced performance tests and statistics (i.e. VO2 Max, functional threshold power tests and lactate threshold analysis among others) which are nowhere to be found in smartwatches.

As I said above, you can track your workouts with a smartwatch and you will get very useful information doing so (elapsed time, heart rate, distance, current pace, average pace and some others). But the level of available customization, that is how many metrics are presented to the user and in what manner, and the range of available tracking metrics are much more advanced in dedicated sports watches. As of today (October 2017) the best smartwatches are no match even for budget GPS sports watches when tracking “traditional” sports such as running, swimming and cycling.

Strength training is the one sport where traditional sports watches are on par with smartwatches. If you want your watch to track your gym or crossfit sessions, then I recommend you look at each watch individually regardless of which type of watch it is. In fact the LG Watch Sport is quite possibly the best watch in this matter.

5. Smartwatch Functionality

Smartwatch functionality means the ability of the watch to run multi-purpose apps either natively or paired with a smartphone. Smartwatches are already well ahead of GPS sports watches in this aspect. And this gap is likely to keep widening in the future.

Many smartwatches already have standalone cellular connectivity, can storage and stream music, receive notifications and respond to messages on several messaging apps, use Apple Pay, Android Pay and other similar payment apps, play watch-adapted games and in summary run an ever growing number of watch specific apps. Most smartwatches run on operating systems similar to those used in smartphones (watchOS for Apple, Android Wear and Tizen for Samsung), which facilitates the work for developers to keep adding new apps.

But watch out! The user experience with many of these smartwatch apps is still far from perfect. We’re still in the early stages of app development for watches. While some apps may work flawlessly, others are pretty bad. And other apps you may be willing to use do not even exist yet (i.e. you may already order an Uber from your watch but other companies like Spotify or Whatsapp still do not have a native smartwatch app). It almost feels like a few years back when the smartphones app ecosystems were taking shape. The time when the App Store and the Google Play Store were starting to become what they are today.

The development of the smartwatch industry has been somewhat slower than what many experts expected. As of today some people believe that only health, fitness and sports tracking apps provide “good value” to smartwatch users. Some even claim smartwatches are a big bust and that the sector will never advance beyond its current state. I disagree. I strongly believe in the future of smartwatches in particular and of tech wearable in general. Developers and watch manufacturers will refine their products to cater to the specific usage and size of watches. My forecast is that in a not so distant future they will be as ubiquitous as smartphones.

With regards to smartwatch-like capabilities in GPS sports watches, the first aspect to bear in mind is that these watches run on their specific OS which are not as “open” as the OS in smartwatches. As a result, and although GPS sports watches manufacturers try to keep adding smartwatch capabilities to their new models (i.e. music playback, notifications, payment services), I believe that as external app developers focus on the top smartwatches app ecosystems, and these entities continue to grow, sports watches will stay well behind in this field.

6. Fitness Tracking

Fitness tracking (i.e. step counting, calories burnt, sleep tracking and other similar stuff) is an area which does not require as much software and hardware specialization as sports tracking does. Nowadays both smartwatches and (most) GPS sports watches perform some kind of daily activity tracking.

While at this moment dedicated fitness trackers still have some advantages over both smartwatches and sports watches in terms of analyzing your daily activity, and Fitbit is the leading brand in this segment, I believe this gap will narrow pretty quickly in the next few years.

Daily activity tracking in smartwatches currently has two main drawbacks. First, short battery life in most models almost “force” a daily recharge overnight. This does not bode well with regular sleep tracking. Second, fitness trackers have been around for longer and they have a more developed social sharing angle and more “refined” software (though I personally like very much the ring approach to daily exercise goals which is used in the Apple Watch series). Same can be said with regards to GPS watches with the exception of the battery life issue which is generally as good as it is in dedicated fitness trackers, if not better.

7. Battery Life

Battery life in most smartwatches usually ranges between one and two days of real life use. In GPS sports watches it can extend up to 6-10 days, while training 3-4 times a week. Why the difference?

Smartwatches have better, crispier screens and this comes at the expense of sucking battery life in a big way. Other intrinsic capabilities of (many) smartwatches like cellular connectivity, music streaming and having multiple apps running in the background also have a significant effect on the battery.

GPS usage is, together with screen time, the heaviest consumer of battery life. Many casual athletes who might prefer a smartwatch worry that it may not last last for their longer training sessions. And that was a true concern a few years back. Initial generations of smartwatches did not last enough to track a marathon while streaming music through bluetooth. However, new optimized processors and improved batteries now allow that many smartwatches can last  4-5 hours of GPS usage. This will be sufficient for most athletes though it still is no match to top high end GPS watches. These may last up to 24+ hours of continuous GPS usage.

In summary, battery life is still a weakness for smartwatches. Daily charging for smartwatches is definitely a pain and may even be a deal breaker for many users. If you are only interested in tracking sports you may be better off with a dedicated sports watch. Or a fitness tracker if you want to track your general fitness data,. Both have better battery life. A smartwatch only make sense if you feel it provides you with “value” beyond its health related functionalities.