Top GPS devices for trails

Jack Hart and Karen Warren tried out some of this year's GPS devices. Here are their verdicts.

GARMIN FENIX 5 SAPPHIRE
87g  www.buy.garmin.com
£590

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Can watches be scary? The brand-new Fenix 5 Sapphire is certainly intimidating, and not just because of the price tag. Its processing power is frankly beyond our own. With different modes for a wide range of sports – including SwimRun, which makes it the first watch to reference this growing sport – the Fenix 5 will track your activity down to the most minute details, even distinguishing between aerobic and anaerobic training, along with VO2 max testing and a feature to detect your heart-rate variability. If that all sounds a bit beyond you, Garmin has got the standard features nailed too: GPS tracking, calorie burn, sleep tracking, smartphone compatibility – even down to a barometer, compass and thermometer. We could harp on for hours about its features – honestly, we could – but how the watch performs is a different matter. On the trails, the Fenix 5 is reliable and accurate; the display isn’t as flashy as other watches, but you can count on it to work. It’s like the special forces of watches: understated but effective. One thing that did bug was the constant reminders to get up and ‘clear the move bar’ – if you’re sat down in an office for hours on end like us, you won’t appreciate the reminder that it’s bad for you, especially when that reminder comes in the form of a violently abrupt vibration on the wrist. Being deafened by a cacophony of data streams and measurements isn’t so alluring as it is daunting. Ultimately, however, Garmin has cemented its place at the top of the GPS watch food chain with the Fenix 5 Sapphire. It’s utter brilliance is both a blessing and a curse.
VERDICT
Garmin storms ahead on tech and style – a watch for pro athletes. But that’s also reflected in the price.
9/10


SUUNTO SPARTAN SPORT HR
70g www.suunto.com
£359

 

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Haters gon’ hate. When it comes to something as big, chunky and, let’s face it, garish as the Spartan Sport, not everyone is going to be taken by the style. But, you know what? We kind of like it.
The bright blue strap and steel rim draws the eye, whether you’re out for a run or reaching for a pint. And once that conversation starts (usually with something like, “bloody hell, that’s a big watch”) you can start to reel off the extensive list of attributes that mean this incarnation of the Spartan can afford to be so in-your-face. Such as the digital compass, route navigation – with a real-time breadcrumb trail – and altitude tracking. Paired with a heart-rate strap (there is a heart-rate version of the watch now available) you receive accurate measurements across a huge variety of sports and disciplines. The Spartan Sport is waterproof to 100m and has specific triathlon and swimming settings, along with separate GPS tracking for off-road running. Once connected to Sunnto’s Movescount app, you can analyse long-term progress, though the watch itself will provide a 30-day summary of your training.
You can plot routes within the app and transfer them to your watch to follow in real-time, and you’ll soon be able to chase your personal bests on screen. The display is one of our favourite features; with such a wide screen, you can track multiple metrics at once. It really is like running with a small, user-friendly computer on your wrist. And that’s the conclusive point about the Spartan Sport – you trust it. It feels both intelligent and user-friendly.
VERDICT
A great choice for mountain adventurers and parkrun addicts alike, with a great array of technical features. 
10/10


TOMTOM ADVENTURER
55g www.tomtom.com
£267

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We tested the Adventurer for the best part of six months, so can say with some certainty: this is a damned good watch. And we’re not the only people to think so – TomTom were awarded the IF Design Award 2017 for the Adventurer.
The sleek orange and black aesthetic is attractive but gives no hint of the technology within; a crisper display on-screen would maybe have improved the overall user experience. That, however, is near enough the only criticism we can think of. The Adventurer’s GPS tracking is impressively accurate – its combination of GPS, compass and barometer provide real-time stats for ascent, distance and speed, which TomTom advertise mainly for snow sports but is also ideal for trail running.
The accompanying TomTom Sports app allows you to plan routes – or download existing ones – and follow them on-screen; an invaluable addition if you’re liable to get lost. One thing that sets the Adventurer apart from the competition is the integrated music player, which can hold up to 3GB of songs and connects seamlessly with wireless headphones. This was one of our favourite features, as it means you can leave your phone at home and still listen to music on the move. TomTom’s display is simple to navigate – though the single controlling button does seem to have become less sensitive with time – and real-time stats on the move are simple to flit between, including the route mapper. We were impressed by the Adventurer’s sturdiness too, as it looks and feels like it can handle rough terrain or obstacle courses. It’s also water resistant to 40m, making it ideal for adventure races or SwimRun races.
VERDICT
A hardy GPS watch with a distinctive style. It’s more affordable than the Suunto but not quite as crisp. 
8/10


POLAR M200
40g www.polar.com
£130

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A water-resistant watch with integrated GPS and 24/7 activity tracking, the Polar M200 has been ‘designed with runners in mind’. And seemingly so; with its lightweight, slim-line design, it’s comfortable to wear and easy to use, via two simple navigation buttons either side of the clock face. Style has been kept at the forefront of the M200’s design – its watch pops out of the casing, allowing an easy switch between interchangeable coloured wristbands. The choice of colours, though, doesn’t quite negate the plain design that kept the M200 from breaking into our everyday wardrobes, ensuring that it remained a running watch rather than the daily activity tracker it could be. The pop-out watch insert does, however, remove the need for additional cables, plugging directly into a USB port for charging. Its heart-rate measurement does away with chest straps and an at-a-glance training overview is displayed clearly on the clock face. Despite the user-friendly interface, the M200 is hugely benefited by the Polar Flow app. Set-up is easy, even for technophobes, and the app syncs instantly with the watch to transfer data. Also available on here is Polar’s Smart Coaching function, which creates a customised training plan according to event distance and the user’s fitness level, and gives feedback – a massage for the ego and a boost to motivation! The M200 does come in at the cheaper end of the GPS scale, which makes it a bargain as far as value for money is concerned, but this does also result in slightly pixelated graphics on screen – not a point of concern for most.
VERDICT
An easy-to-use design makes this a great entry-level watch, but it can’t keep up with the competition.
7/10

  • The above reviews appeared in the June/July 2017 edition of Trail Running