Worldwide, 1.75 billion smartphones were sold in 2012. That’s billion, with a “B”. Chances are you have one in your pocket or bag at this very moment. Smartphones are the 21st century Swiss army knife, part phone, camera, camcorder, game console, and web surfer. And fitness apps – utilizing the smartphone’s GPS sensor – have been firmly creeping into GPS watch territory.
Garmin’s Fit app, for example, can track speed, distance, time, and calories. It works with accessories like heart rate monitors, foot pods, and bike speed and cadence sensors. You can even share activities with your Facebook and Twitter friends.
You might wonder why you should even consider buying a GPS watch? After all, if your smartphone can do the same thing – and at a fraction of the cost – what’s the difference?
At Athlete’s GPS, our business is to sell GPS watches, so you might assume we look down on smartphone fitness apps. But the truth is that these are perfectly fine for certain types of runners and athletes. The key is to figure out if using one is right for you.
The purpose of this article is to delve into the pros and cons of using a smartphone in place of a dedicated GPS watch. If you come away from this article thinking that a GPS watch is a better choice, we’ve put together a buyer’s guide to help you with your decision.
GPS Fitness apps generally cost anywhere between nothing and $5. Compare that to standard GPS watches – which start at $100 – and it’s a no brainer. (Of course, we are assuming you already own a smartphone, which itself can be expensive.)
2) Non-Fitness Smartphone Apps
There is comfort in knowing that your smartphone can make phone calls, should an emergency strike. And they can play music, podcasts, and audiobooks. They can tell you the weather. They can take pictures. For the highly skilled, you can send and read texts, but we don’t recommend it. These are all great features to have with you while exercising.
3) GPS Watch Features
As we mentioned, many fitness apps have the same attributes as GPS watches. They track speed, distance, and time; work with accessories like heart rate monitors; and some support more advanced features like interval workouts.
1) Size and Weight
An iPhone is 4.8 inches long, 2.3 inches across and weighs 3.95 ounces. The average GPS watch is 2.1 inches high, 1.8 inches across, and weighs 2 ounces. Essentially, a GPS watch is about half the size of a smartphone.
But what’s really important is how each is worn while exercising. A GPS watch sits on your wrist, secure and easily viewable. You have two options with a smartphone: hold it or use an armband. Holding it can be tedious, especially on longer runs. An armband is good, but the problem – and this is where a GPS watch excels – is that it’s hard to view while exercising.
One other solution is to use the Magellan Echo. This watch wirelessly syncs with your smartphone and displays the fitness app information on the watch. The Echo also acts as a remote control for your smartphone, allowing you to start, stop, pause, and even control the music without having to touch your phone.
2) Battery Drain
Estimates are that smartphones last about 3 to 4 hours per charge while using a GPS fitness app. A GPS watch typically last up to 8 hours per charge; and some watches will go as long as 20 hours or more. Knowing that a smartphone will continue to be used post-exercise, battery loss becomes an even larger issue.
The problem with smartphones is that they sacrifice in certain areas to make room for everything else. A cell phone camera will never produce images as high-quality as an SLR.
So it is for smartphone GPS sensors. While these vary from phone to phone, the sensors are usually substandard compared to GPS watches. This means they are less accurate in terms of recording your speed and distance. This accuracy issue is less apparent when it’s averaged out over longer distances (like driving in a car). But when running, especially shorter distances, it can be glaring.
All GPS watches are rain and sweat-proof. Some can be taken swimming. Would you feel comfortable using your smartphone in the rain? Swimming? That’s what we thought.
5) Ruggedness & Replaceability
One advantage with fitness apps is that you probably already own a smartphone. But in the same breath, what would you do if something happened to it? Suddenly, it’s a more costly venture if it’s accidentally dropped or ruined when you got caught in a thunderstorm.
The advantage GPS watches have is that they are pretty secure on your wrist. And most have good manufacturer warranties in case something does go wrong.
Let’s summarize. Basically, smartphone GPS apps are great for beginners and new runners who aren’t ready to shell out some cold, hard cash for a GPS watch. Assuming you are ok with holding your smartphone or wearing it on your arm, and aren’t worried about breakage, smartphone apps are fine tools for exercising.
Because of its greater accuracy, number of features, and it’s worn on your wrist where it’s secure and easy to read, we recommend a GPS watch for most athletes.
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By Ben Drew
Smartphone photo by LGEPR
All prices are in USD