After spending years using general-purpose smartwatches, primarily from Samsung or the myriad of options with Wear OS, it's clear that none of them is up to the task of being a capable running companion. If you care about fitness, you need a fitness-focused smartwatch, in my case a Garmin for running, in order to get the best experience for your core use.
These smartwatches are capable of doing so much that they end up being a master of nothing — and while I appreciate their capabilities overall, my primary focus right now is running, and for that task, there's nothing better than a Garmin. I've been using a Forerunner 245 Music, and I'm not going back.
Consistent GPS accuracy is the most important feature
Of all the features you look for in a fitness-focused smartwatch, GPS consistency is the most important when you're running (or walking, biking, hiking). After months using the Galaxy Watch Active, then Active 2, I just got tired of being frustrated by its inconsistent GPS.
It's not that GPS on the Watch Active 2 is particularly bad in most cases. In a wide-open field or walking path, or running along suburban streets, things were well within a normal margin of error for a wrist-worn GPS tracker. The issues come with how it handles edge cases. Running in a city with tall buildings and tree-lined streets, moving around cars and construction areas, pausing and resuming at various points all introduce problems. The watch's GPS (and software) just can't handle and correct for these grey areas, and the accuracy really starts to drift.
I started to notice it when running the same routes over and over again, getting notably different distance- and pace numbers. I confirmed it when I started running the same route with multiple watches. In one test with my Garmin, Watch Active 2 and Puma Smartwatch, the Garmin was less than 1% off of my pre-mapped distance, while the Active 2 was 6.4% off and the Puma was an absurd 13.5% off — that's unacceptable. On some long runs with friends, my Watch Active 2 has been off as much as 1 mile every 10. That's a lot, and I quickly lost confidence that the numbers I was being shown on my wrist during a run, and eventually at the end, were accurate. That makes comparing run-to-run performance, and training for specific goals, really difficult.
My Garmin is just accurate. Every time. No matter how I run, where I go, how often I pause and resume, or anything else. Side-by-side with a friend wearing a Garmin we're typically accurate to one another in the hundredths of a mile. At worst we've been separated by 0.15 mile (about 800 feet) over a 10-mile run — I can live with that.
Physical buttons really do beat touch screens
I always understood the utility of having physical buttons available on a smartwatch to augment the touch screen experience when needed. And I'm a huge fan of both the rotating side button on Wear OS watches and the physical rotating dial on some of Samsung's watches. But I never understood the value of having only hardware buttons, and no touch screen at all, on a smartwatch until I started running.
When I'm running in the cold, the touch screen barely works with a thin pair of gloves — and doesn't work at all with most pairs. When I run in the rain, I've regularly had the water create accidental touches on the screen and pause or even cancel my runs. I've been sweating profusely in a spin class (as you do) and had the same thing happen — so often that I had to start using "swimming" mode.
There's no way to accidentally press the buttons on my Garmin. No way to pause a run, toggle a screen or change a setting unless I explicitly do so. And at the same time, that physical start/stop button makes pausing runs when I want to — like every time I wait for a street light or stop for a drink of water — incredibly easy. I can pause and resume without looking at my wrist, and control every function in any environmental situation.
A monochrome always-on display is great
The other advantage Garmin gains from not having a traditional touch screen is that the panel is always-on and always visible in harsh lighting conditions. Yes, it's lower resolution, and the colors aren't nearly as appealing at a glance. But you know what's great about it? I can see it, in any weather, with no reflection or glare. With every other smartwatch I'm constantly shading my watch with my hand to see what's on the screen, and that just isn't doable when I'm just trying to get a glance at my pace and distance as I run.
The Forerunner 245's screen is perfectly visible in most situations even without the backlight turned on, but you always get the extra illumination anytime you press a button. For this type of watch and what it's used for, this is the exact kind of screen I want.
Battery life matters
One thing I never really considered when I first started taking my running more seriously was my smartwatch's battery life. But it makes sense: leaving your screen, GPS and heart rate sensor running constantly for 1-2 hours straight can really take a toll on your battery. And if you have a watch like the Galaxy Watch Active 2, which is giving you two days of battery life, you can cut into that substantially by running one of those two days. To say nothing of Wear OS watches that need a charge every night; taking a long run in the morning could mean you don't make it to the end of the day.
On the other hand, my Forerunner 245 gets about a week of battery life, even with multiple hours of run tracking. I've never had to think about charging my Garmin before a run, but I checked my Watch Active 2 every time and often tossed it on the charger for a bit to reassure myself it'd be good to go. This is really just a convenience factor; if I want to have this watch on me for running and daily wear as a smartwatch, I don't want the activities I track to cut into battery life so much that I'm constantly worried about the battery life when I'm not tracking.
Apps and integrations can be frustrating
I think the biggest frustration I've had with trying to track runs on other smartwatches has been the lackluster third-party app support. I prefer to use Strava as an aggregator of all of my activities, letting me pull in data from multiple sources and platforms so I'm not locked into something like Samsung Health or Google Fit.
Annoyingly, the built-in workout trackers on Samsung and Wear OS watches don't export complete data to Strava. Worse yet, the Strava app is really bad on Samsung's wearables ... and it isn't much better on Wear OS. On Samsung, the app regularly crashes or stops tracking randomly. On both platforms, you're limited in your options for the types of activities you can track, what stats you can view during and afterward, and they don't integrate with either watch's hardware buttons. It feels like you're on a phone using a web app when you really want a native app experience.
This wouldn't be that big of a deal if there were good integrations between the platforms ... but there aren't. After months using a Samsung smartwatch, I could never get the integration to stay connected, making me regularly re-authenticate after I noticed data wasn't sending to Strava. Google Fit is better with data synchronization, I'll give it that, but Fit itself is a rather barebones platform focused on daily activity rather than workouts and training. Garmin's fitness platform is incredibly well-featured, with detailed data analysis and training assistance, and it always syncs to Strava.
The Garmin handles the smartwatch basics, too
Garmin's watches are clearly focused on being a fitness tracker first and foremost — but that doesn't mean they eschew smartwatch features altogether. My Forerunner may not have as good-looking of a screen or the fluid animations of the competition, but it gets the basics done. I have notifications, several customizable widgets, weather, calendar, and a robust ecosystem of watch faces both pre-loaded and available for download. You don't have to give up all of the smartwatch features you're used to — just a lot of the "extras."
And as my friend MrMobile has spoken about with his Garmin watches, using only the physical pushers and no touch screen doesn't really hinder its performance as a "regular" smartwatch either. You get used to it, and after a little while you'll be able to quickly scroll through the interface and get to everything you need by subconsciously remembering the combinations of clicks necessary. It's just a different way to interact — one that's a bit slower and less intuitive, but functional nonetheless.
In the same way that general-purpose smartwatches often fail in specific areas by trying to be good at everything, the Garmin platform can be mediocre in most areas because it's so great at fitness and health tracking. That's simply the trade-off you have to make.
Garmin Forerunner 245
A better choice for running than any general-purpose smartwatch.
When fitness is your top priority, get a smartwatch made for the task. The Forerunner 245 has excellent tracking accuracy, focused software, hardware buttons and a screen visible in all conditions.
Garmin Forerunner 945
When you take things really seriously.
The 945 brings you most of the same base features as other Garmins, but adds more options including altitude for various sports, and triathlon-level tracking.
Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.
Exactly my experience. Switched to a Garmin 945 (I think during last years Black Friday sale), and besides being a much much better fitness/running watch with vastly superior battery, the exclusion of a touchscreen is probably my favorite feature. Watches are too small for touchscreens, anything I need done is easier with buttons. I've always had to turn off "Always on" when using Wear OS or Samsung watches (with Samsung being the overall far better option of the two IMO). I had a significant number of inadvertent touches if I left screens on. Anyways, Garmin is the way to go.
Here, here. My 3 year old Vivioactive 3 shows no sign of flagging and I still get a week of battery life. Best electronic investment I made this decade.
Well, I ain't got that sort of money to spend on smart watch or sports watch. For every day use my old pebble steel time does the job, runs on the rebble app. For exercises, after some research and asking around I went with the Amazfit pace. I downloaded the watch droid apps and apks and it's really has come into its own. Now you can use it as a kinda smart watch too, reply to messages etc. I not too bothered about how accurate the distance is, I'm more interested how many steps, calories etc.etc. I found the pace is pretty darn good at all this. Upto 3 days battery, even with all the apps running. Price wise I got mine off one of those sale sites and only paid £40 as the best offer. I change the strap to leather if going out so as not to be too obvious having a sport watch. As always though YMMV.
I agree completely. I'm using the Vivoactive 3 and the battery lasts a week at least. Its missing nothing that I need, I run pretty much every day. It does have a button plus touchscreen and a slider on the side. Never have to take it off except once a week or so to charge. Showers/swimming no problem. Oh btw Health Sync gives it a decent bridge to Google Fit if you use Fit.
Another area where Samsung is really bad is HR monitoring -- after 2 trips to warranty repair and one warranty replacement my Watch Active still +/- 20 BPM on 140 BPM worth of the heart rate (checked against two independent dedicated HR monitors).
I agree with pretty much everything you have said in this write up. However the one wrench is this... Garmin I would argue is better for ANDROID. For the iPhone the Apple watch is really the best all around watch. It rivals Garmin in GPS accuracy, optically based HR (can also connect Bluetooth hr for more accurate information), gives you VO2 data, can use Heartwatch app to get load, sleeping info and other metrics. Dont get me wrong Garmin is GREAT at what it does and most definitely trumps the android alternatives but not iphone. I wish this wasnt true but because of it I have switched back to iOS just because of Apple watch. Only place Garmin really wins is battery. Cant argue that
Dude Apple Watch still doesn't come close to Garmin, Suunto or Polar for real activity tracking. The battery is awful and can't be used for any kind of distance with GPS and Bluetooth music streaming simultaneously never mind being able to sleep track because it needs charged overnight every night. My Fenix 5 Plus battery lasts almost a fortnight, ACCURATE GPS, has sleep tracking every night and onboard music AND Spotify, contactless payments and all my notifications etc. Apple Watch is a great everyday smartwatch (I've had 3 of them) but is just as average as Samsung and Fitbit when it comes to being a real activity tracker
I can't speak to Apple Watch daily usage personally, but I can relay my running friends' experiences. They all have iPhones, and they all use Garmins. Apple Watch still isn't as accurate for GPS tracking, and has the same issues of the touch screen vs. hardware buttons, screen clarity outdoors, and battery life. I'll agree that the general consensus is that the Apple Watch is a great all-around smartwatch and can handle some fitness duties, but based on everything people tell me, it still isn't good enough to replace a dedicated running watch for these activities.
Exactly my experiences. I have been using a Forrunner 35 for the last year.
I would disagree with this in the context of the article - about a fitness-first device. I have had 3 generations of Apple Watch, and you are correct that they are the 'best all around' device, and an incredible smartwatch. BUT - it is very limited what you can extract from the sensors compared to Garmin, and everything about it is 'not quite as good as Garmin' when it comes to being a runner. Ironically one of the biggest things for me as a year-round outdoor runner is that the touchscreen requires me to do extra stuff to control random contact from my gloves or long sleeves. Even with the 'water lock' I have occasionally managed to re-enable the touchscreen under multiple layers. Not worth the hassle. If you are an actual runner, the Garmin is just a better watch, period. I love my 245 Music, and ended up loaning out my Apple Watch 5 (and giving away the mediocre Galaxy Watch Active 2).
I disagree with this. I've been using Garmins with Android phones for years (with a brief break when I used a Suunto for a couple years). I switched to an iPhone 11 this year and haven't noticed any real change in how well my 935 interacts with the phones. I think maybe the watch has reduced ability to delete emails directly from the watch? Previously I could delete emails as they came in, just using my watch, and now I can only clear the notification. Otherwise, it all works pretty similarly for me...
Have to agree. I've tried wear OS and Apple and I will only ever wear a Garmin going forward. I have a Fenix 5X Plus and dont miss touch screens etc. I have Bluetooth and Spotify integration for my runs. I get all my notifications to glance at. Its the perfect watch for me.
The Suunto 7 does the job for me. I do just shorter workouts, sub two hours and then it's just perfect. And good looking.
Very good points. I love physical buttons and e-ink (rip pebble)
I don't run outside as much mostly on a treadmill, but most of all gym exercises.
And I'm very satisfied with my galaxy watch and especially Samsung Health.
The most critical thing for me is loooong time trends. I've been on Samsung Health and it's watches for 3-4 years. And I feel all the other alternatives except for the tech behemoths stand a risk from being bought up or getting bankrupt.
And last thing; the watch has to use the standard for bands. I have a myriad of steel, leather and sporty stuff
Nothing, NOTHING, beats a Forerunner if you are a serious runner. I've got the 245 and the battery live is sufficient for me as an ultra runner. I've just bought my wife a 45S as she is a casual runner and I'm impressed at how good the most basic version is.
I swap out the active for my Garmin when golfing. Things that excel at specific tasks are better IMHO.
I feel like the Garmin is less cumbersome for golfing as well. Lightweight, band wicks sweat better, and the screen is easy to see in direct sun.
Exactly. Mine is a few years old, no touchscreen, it's an S10, but once gps locks in it just works. It's so old it only beeps, no vibrate option. Side note I have a Garmin Dashcam. Garmin products just work. Great company.
Wow you described my experience with wear OS watches which I had the original Huwaei watch and the To watch S2 and the battery, GPS reliability and experience in general has been very poor. Last Black Friday I upgraded to a Garmin Forerunner 645 Music and never looked back. The experience has been so great I'm just sad I didn't do this sooner.
I actually liked my budget Ticwatch, and the GPS and step count were pretty accurate. Recharging is a pain though, and since I'm working from home, I powered it off for when things return to normal. Although I'm positive the Garmin will be more accurate, I still appreciate taking calls on the watch, listening to music, weather radar, remote camera control and viewfinder, maps, Google Translate, etc.
Thanks for this article. As I consider a smartwatch one of my thoughts was that it could replace my Garmin. Not so much I guess. I'm thinking the smartwatch will have to wait.
Yep. My start was pebbles with their limited functions but week long battery and fool proof buttons. Even now I often try to turn my stereo up and down with imaginary buttons on various watches. Being able to navigate basic functions by feel with the watch under a gore Tex jacket in the snow... I've seen this tech movie a few times now. Enthusiastic whiz kids trumpet the amazing new thing that trumps all that came before. But they let important features and capabilities go. I own 5 pebbles that cost me less than $50 usd each. Despite the advancements, nothing has just worked like those pebbles. Fitbit could have leveraged a massive fan base and good ergonomics into one device to rule them all...
I still have a pebble that still works. I prefer physical buttons over touch screen!
I've tried several of the galaxy watches but keep going back to my Fenix 3. Great battery life and can take a beating
Thanks Andrew really great article. I've been considering trying a Forerunner 245 for months so I'm going to order one today. Might also encourage me to lose a bit of lockdown belly and get back on the road again...
Great article and exactly how I feel about my Garmin 245. I have been using a Garmin Forerunner for almost 3 years and love the experience. Occasionally I have FOMO of the latest smartwatch with all of the latest little toys BUT when it get's down to it when I'm on an hour+ run I want:
* not have to worry about the battery (will it last for my run, did I charge it last night)
* information to be consistently accurate
* easy to see in all conditions
* easy to start/stop when I want it (no rain/weather false touches)
* independent of what smartphone I use. I'm an Android users, but if I switched to/from an iphone, I still want the above. My running history is FAR more important than the walled garden.
* running over fashion over novelty features that my phone can also do.
Can anyone here speak to how this Garmin does with other activities? For example on my Apple Watch, because of my user profile, if I hop on my bike to bang out 50-100 on a trail my AW will actually fire up under cycling even of I forget to tell it to do so. That being said, if I ride/run/hike/swim or lift hard for a day long event (more the first 3) the AW does provide a touch of battery anxiety. I'd love to have the kind of batt life AM is talking about here. This was a good article Andrew, thanks!
Hi Andrew, that was a really good article. Did you find the GPS accuracy on the Active Watch 2 improve after the update late last year, or has it been consistently not good? Thanks
I did find accuracy to improve after the OS update and a Strava app update (when I was tracking directly with the Strava app on the watch). But obviously it's still not spot-on with the Garmin.
Great article, and I think this perspective makes a lot of sense. The Samsung Galaxy Active2 makes sense for casuals like me who are looking for basic fitness tracking, but if you have a serious use case then you need to get the right tool for the job. 👍
This article is brought to you by the Garmin Corporation.
Garmin isn't a Corporation
Nope, don't care about running... Notifications and driving directions on my watch.... And yes, telling time. I use a Fitbit for work where I need to know the time, and it can take a beating from - 40 to +30C on my wrist... It replaced my solar G Shock because I could read the display easier. And a Samsung Galaxy... Whatever, the nice big metal one, everywhere else in my life. How on earth did runners ever run prior to run specific watches, lololol.
They still ran but could only guess how far or how fast they were running and didn't really have a good idea if they were improving or not until they ran a specific race from one year to the next. Garmins aren't run specific anyhoo, they do hundreds of activities all on one device and can even do multisport and all accurately. I'd love to see a Shitbit do that lololol
How is the accuracy for elevation gain, and speed? I tried Samsung Health with my Note 9 last night, and the maximum speed said 4.5 mph, and I was walking.
you gave up because all android watches are 100 miles behind the Apple watch.
Apple watch is 80% of the reason why I went iPhone. the other 20% is 5+ years of guaranteed software updates and iMessage
Someone here simply has to explain why 'Of all the features you look for in a fitness-focused smartwatch, GPS consistency is the most important'...? Why is GPS important? 'While running the same routes...' So, you know where you are and where you're going; what do you need GPS for?!? The only thing my running watch needs to do is store and play music directly to my Bluetooth earbuds, so I can leave the phone at home...
GPS is literally the single most
important feature of a sports tracking device. It's not there for navigation purposes (although it is an additional feature on the higher end watches) but to accurately measure your speed/pace and distance and also to track your route to view on an app afterwards. Massively important to anyone looking to improve their running/cycling or whatever sport they do. Unless you're running solely in the same lane of a running track between 2 known and measured points everytime you run then you've no real idea what you've done
Another one that looks interesting is the new Timex Ironman R300, has a lot of feautres with a killer battery life for under $150.
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