What is the Difference Between a GPS Running Watch and Fitness Activity Tracker?

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If you are into fitness, then you might already know there are three basic types of measuring devices:

  1. GPS running watches
  2. Fitness trackers
  3. Smartwatches

But what is the real difference between the three?

Of the three types, let’s eliminate the smartwatch. Not only are they more expensive than the other two types, but they must be paired with a smartphone to work. That gets cumbersome at best and they are not that accurate for measuring pace.

Fitness trackers

Activity trackers have been around in one form or another for several decades now but recent advancements in technology have made these gadgets explode in popularity.

Some of the latest models such as the vivosport feature smart watch technology designed to offer convenience while exercising.

All About Activity Trackers – What They Are and What Do They Do

Activity trackers are small wearable devices that monitor metrics of physical performance in real time. These gadgets may be worn like a wristband watch, armband, or pendant around the neck.

Some are designed to clip onto an article of clothing like a belt.

No matter how fitness trackers are worn, they rely on the same basic technology – motion detection via a built-in accelerometer.

Some devices also have an altimeter, which detects a rise in altitude to compute stair climbs.

Majority of these gadgets are smart enough to know when you are moving with your feet and won’t track activity when the wearer is traveling on a vehicle or train.

Unlike traditional pedometers, modern activity trackers not only count steps taken, but also aspects such as calorie burn, mileage, workout duration, heart rate, sleep quality as well as active and inactive minutes.

Common Features to Expect in an Activity Tracker

Modern fitness trackers feature a digital screen that displays various fitness stats and buttons that allow you to operate the device.

They can even help you set goals and receive reminder alerts that motivate you to keep moving.

The best fitness trackers come with smartwatch capabilities as well.

For instance, you can find fitness trackers that allow you to stream media files from a phone’s playlist. Others receive and display call, text and email notifications from your handset.

Some types of fitness trackers are designed for specific sports.

For example, waterproof models like the Fitbit Ionic built to operate underwater without being damaged are great for swimmers.

There are also fitness trackers known as cyclocomputers, which assist cyclists to track heart rate, pedaling cadence, training duration, distance travelled and speed.

Cyclocomputers may require the use of a chest strap or wrist based pulse monitor to keep track of heart rate.

These kinds of trackers have a magnetic sensors attached to the spoke of either the front or rear wheel to computer distance from wheel revolutions.

GPS enabled models serve up route data and display it on the handlebar-mounted display head.

Most of today’s activity trackers sync with phones and computers either wirelessly via Bluetooth technology or by way of a USB cable to facilitate transfer of recorded statistics to an app or web based service that stores training data for further analysis.

Good tracking software takes fitness activity data and tabulates the logged information into graphs and charts that let you track your progress over time.

Other fitness tracking gadgets use software that supports sharing of information in community networks or social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Such features let friends provide moral support and motivation when you share your results.

Choosing the Right Activity Tracker

Now that you know what an activity tracker is, the function it serves and some of the common features to expect, you might decide to add this gadget to your arsenal of fitness gear.

Fortunately, there many models to choose from, which come in different colors, styles and feature sets. The best activity tracker should be one that captures the kind of data that you want to monitor during your fitness training sessions.

For instance, if you want to simply count daily steps, a basic pedometer will suffice. To track more fitness data, a smart watch would be the best option.

Before making a purchase, remember also to compare brands and read customer reviews to determine whether a desired tracker will provide good value for your money.

Most fitness trackers use an accelerometer to measure steps taken and distance travelled. While this gives the wearer a rough idea of the distance traveled, the actual distance can vary quite a lot with the recorded distance.

This is in part due to the difference in strides between individuals.

While some of the newer models coming out do use a GPS chipset, they don’t compare (yet) to the GPS technology used in an actual running watch.

And they can take a full minute or more to acquire a GPS signal – distance lost unless you acquire a signal before starting your run.

However, fitness trackers do have their place. They are good at step counting for those who walk, for measuring calories expended and if used, calories consumed.

Some can track heart rate so you can stay in the fitness zone you want.

However, many do not give an accurate readout until synched with a smartphone via an applicable app.

When using it, you may only get a series of lit lights giving you a rough estimate of measurement. For the non-competitive fitness buff, they are probably the better choice.

GPS running watches

If training to run competitively where accuracy is paramount, a GPS running watch is the most accurate of the three devices. Because it uses a more pronounced GPS technology, instead of an accelerometer, distance travelled is much more accurate.

GPS running watches are not dependent on synching with a smartphone so you can get instant stats while on a training run.

If you are not on track for the pace you want, you can make modifications while still running.

What Should You Look for in a Running Watch?

While you can easily upload an app onto your Smartphone that allows you to track your runs, nothing compares to the performance and benefits of an actual running watch.

Running watches offer more features than running apps and provide vital real-time tracking information that is easy to view.

They also happen to be more reliable and accurate than running apps. So, if you are looking for the best way to improve your runs, a running watch is the way to go.

Like selecting a pair of running shoes, shopping for a sports watch requires a lot of careful consideration to ensure you end up with the perfect fit.

So, what should you look for in a running watch?

To answer this question, take into account your specific fitness training needs.

For starters, what are your running goals? How often do you go for runs? Do you want to track your runs for motivation or performance improvement purposes?

To ensure you choose the best option for you, make to consider the following essential points while hunting for a good running watch.

Features and Tracking Metrics

There are many running watch brands in the market these days, each one offering various models with a myriad of features.

Some watches perform the simple task of logging your time, pace, and distance while others such as Charge2 offer more detailed information like your heart rate, the number of times your feet hit the ground, how many calories you burn, and so on.

Then there are those high tech gadgets that provide a spectrum of top notch features ranging from inbuilt compasses and accelerometers, to display and recording of elevation gain (sum of all gains in a physical activity), to built-in sensors, to GPS function, water resistance like the Lintelek, and more.

With the diversity in features, it is essential that you first determine what you need in a running watch before you head out to shop for one.

Make a list of all the must have features as well as those features that will enable the running watch to grow with you.

By doing so, you will be able to avoid spending too much money on features that you will not even get to use.


In most cases, running watches sync data with a smart phone or computer app that allows for detailed analysis of your training statistics.

Some sports watches only work with iOS Smartphones, while others are built for the android platform.

Therefore, if you decide to go for a running watch that synchs data with a mobile app, you need to find out whether it is compatible with your current hand-held device.


If you are a devoted runner who runs almost every day of the week, you will need a running watch that can live up to the wear and tear of regular use.

So, make it a point to shop from trusted brands and look out for things like a long-term warranty, durable materials, and in built water resistance, to ensure you end up with a good quality running watch.

Reading customer reviews can also help you determine the quality of a running watch.


Since the leading reason for buying a running watch is to improve your runs, you should go for a gadget with long-term memory.

The higher the watch’s memory, the more helpful it will be at aiding you improve running performance, avoid overtraining, and ward off injury.

Running watches that enable you to transfer your running data onto phones and computers are also a good buy as they provide you with the benefit of being able to monitor your progress over months and even years.

Long Battery Life

The last thing you want as a runner is to have your running watch die in the middle of a run. So, make sure the watch you choose has enough battery life to suit your running habits.

With options ranging from 5 to 50 hours of battery life, finding the ideal running watch will not be hard even if you will be training for a marathon.

With the wealth of information offered by running watches, these gadgets can easily become the best training partner for a runner.

However, that is only if you pick the right match.

By looking out for the things discussed in this article, you will able to make the perfect buy that will ensure compatible features, great savings, and long term durability.

Note however that most of the highly-rated GPS running watches will cost you more than a fitness tracker.

When highly accurate data available in real time is paramount in your training plan, then a GPS running watch is worth the extra cost.

However, if general fitness tracking is all you need, then a fitness tracker will serve you well at less money.

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