What to look for in a Watch

Now – almost every watch you see does more than just tell the time. It can track steps, heart rate, activity, calories burned, and many other features. Here is what I look for when selecting a new watch:

Accuracy: All watches lose accuracy under heavy tree cover or around tall buildings. However, some have more features than others and are more reliable. Some brands can only track via GPS, while others use GPS and GLONASS combined. GLONASS and GPS can have better accuracy, especially in high latitude locations. The type of antenna used and where the antenna is in the watch determines how strong of a GPS signal it will have. Almost every watch will have some margin of error. When running a race, almost always the watch will say something like 10.3k for a 10k run, 13.4 miles for a half marathon etc. There are multiple reasons behind this: starting the watch when you start running in the group vs. crossing the start line adds distance, it is almost impossible to run the shortest course route during a race, running with other people, water stations and high fiving friends and family along the course will all add distance onto the ideal race line.

Features: Does the watch track everything you currently do – and could see yourself doing in the future?

Heart rate monitoring - Optical or wrist sensor heart rate monitoring is not accurate. If I am doing something, I wear a chest strap monitor. To me, an optical sensor in a watch is a waste of money and space. It is a reason why I still use the Fenix 3 with a Garmin tri heart rate monitor. I also get better feedback about my vertical oscillation when running, stride cadence, and balance with data coming from the chest strap rather than the wrist.

What can the watch monitor? Running, biking, hiking, trail running, swimming (open ocean and pool), circuit training, general fitness, etc – does the watch monitor all the activities you have an interest in? does the company make a compatible waterproof heart rate monitor? Can you see the data such as pace – elevation – climb – and map tracking on the watch itself during the activity or only on the app after the activity is completed? All of these are questions to ask when looking for a watch.

How does the app integrate with your phone or computer? How easy is the data to see and learn from? Garmin has one issue I wish they would fix: I can see my elevation and elapsed time on a graph but I cannot see my elevation over distance on the app, but I can see it on the watch. This is a flaw which I wish Garmin would fix ASAP and is the only complaint I have about the watch. I can see many other graphs, information, maps and other data at a scroll and the app is easy to read and understand.

How does the watch interact with your phone? For me, I can read notifications, text messages and answer or decline calls from my watch. I can also get the weather, and start, stop or adjust music at any point my phone is connected to my watch. For some people, they need more of a smart watch and for others – less is needed. Personally speaking – I have found the Garmin to be an activity watch which tries to be a smart watch, compared to the apple watch is a smart watch which tries to be an activity watch.

Fit:  Is it obnoxiously big, or is it so small you can’t read anything? Does the watch scream data nerd – or can it be worn with dressier clothes as an everyday watch? Some watches have the ability to change the band. On my Garmin, I can change the band in seconds from a utility silicone band to a leather or stainless-steel band in seconds.

Battery: a low battery warning is never a good message – especially 10 miles in to a 50-mile bike ride. Constantly recharge batteries, change batteries or even ship the watch off can determine how useful the watch is. I typically get two weeks at a time out of my watch between activity monitoring and everyday use. GPS usage is the hardest on battery life, however most of my training just involves heart rate monitoring.


Here are my top three brands in no particular order: Garmin, Suunto, and Polar. 

George CullenComment