I tested the Garmin Forerunner 165 against the two best cheap fitness trackers

The Garmin Forerunner 165, COROS PACE 3, Fitbit Charge 6, and Polar H10 sitting together on a table.
(Image credit: Michael Hicks / Android Central)

Finding a cheap fitness tracker with reliable accuracy and all the key features you need is a challenge. On paper, the Garmin Forerunner 165 looks like a solid option that costs hundreds less than most Garmin watches. So after receiving my review unit, I set out to see how it compares against my two favorite cheap fitness trackers: The COROS PACE 3 and Fitbit Charge 6.

First, I walked 5,000 steps and ran 1,000 steps wearing all three devices, while counting my steps with a manual pedometer. Then I ran five miles to test their GPS accuracy, while also wearing a Polar H10 chest strap to judge their heart rate accuracy. Lastly, I finished off with a sprint workout on a local track to double-check GPS and heart rate accuracy in more vigorous conditions. 

Here are the results, comparing the Garmin Forerunner 165, COROS PACE 3, and Fitbit Charge 6 for accuracy!

Step accuracy

A pedometer held in hand with the number 5,000, a Garmin Forerunner 165 (5,062 steps), and a Fitbit Charge 6 (4,812 steps).

(Image credit: Michael Hicks / Android Central)

When I did my original step-tracking accuracy test, the Garmin Forerunner 265 beat the other brands, with the flagship COROS watch coming in third and the Fitbit Sense coming in last for accuracy. But I wasn't sure if Garmin's advantage would persist with a watch model that costs $200 less. 

I wrote down the incidental steps for all three watches outside my front door, then tracked 5,000 steps of walking while counting every step with a pedometer. I then ran another 1,000 steps while counting, to see if the accuracy changed. After that, I stopped tracking each step, but I still wrote down my final step count for each fitness tracker, to see how far apart they were. 

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Number of stepsGarmin Forerunner 165COROS PACE 3Fitbit Charge 6
5,000 steps walked5,0115,0844,801
1,000 steps run1,0051,0071,011
Total steps21,60321,46020,809

Interestingly, my results mirrored my last test: Garmin did exceptionally well at avoiding false-positive steps at just 11 over estimate, compared to 14 last time. COROS over-estimated my count my 84, while the APEX 2 Pro was 70 steps off. And once again, Fitbit significantly undercounted my steps: 199 off this time, 284 off last time. 

A pedometer showing "6,000" and a COROS PACE 3 worn on a wrist with the step count 6,102.

(Image credit: Michael Hicks / Android Central)

While tracking running, Fitbit and COROS did much better, which makes sense because the accelerometer can detect larger motions more easily. Garmin still won for accuracy, though it did better on average for walking. 

I can't tell you my actual step count for the day, but I'm inclined to believe that Garmin's number remained the most accurate. If we assume that, then COROS' count (143 short) is within a reasonable margin of error for such a long distance, whereas Fitbit (794 short) is less forgiveably erroneous. 

Heart rate accuracy

I wore the Polar H10 chest strap, one of the most popular and respected heart rate monitors out there, to see how the Garmin Forerunner 165 compared to it in accuracy and responsiveness. 

For my first five-mile run, only the Forerunner 165 matched the Polar H10 for average heart rate at 158 bpm, while the Fitbit Charge 6 and COROS PACE 3 came close at 157 bpm. The same goes for minimum heart rate, with Garmin and Polar showing 96 bpm while COROS and Fitbit listed 95 bpm. As for the maximum, both Garmin and COROS registered a max heart rate of 176, while Polar only hit 175 and Fitbit topped at 174. 

The Garmin Forerunner 165 vs. the Polar H10 for HR accuracy across a five-mile run. (Image credit: Michael Hicks / Android Central)

The heart rate chart above shows how the Garmin Forerunner 165 and Polar H10 compare directly. As with any wrist-based optical HRM, the Forerunner 165 lags slightly behind the chest strap, climbing at a slower pace and keeping the same heart rate readings after the H10 has already begun to dip back down. 

For the most part, the Forerunner 165 remained within 1–2 bpm of the chest strap at all times, and usually corrected itself fairly quickly. It explains why they ended up with the same average, despite the differences. That said, it did seem to struggle a bit in one context: on hills, it would climb up to the right reading fairly quickly but lag in terms of dropping back down on the downhills. 

The Fitbit Charge 6 vs. the Polar H10 for HR accuracy across a five-mile run (Image credit: Michael Hicks / Android Central)

Looking at the other two comparison charts, it's difficult to say if COROS or Fitbit are necessarily better or worse. Both brands consistently underreported their heart rates by about 1 bpm, which is annoying. However, they didn't have quite as much difficulty adjusting to quick heart rate changes. 

The COROS PACE 3 vs. the Polar H10 for HR accuracy across a five-mile run. (Image credit: Michael Hicks / Android Central)

We know Fitbit has Google's HR algorithm to thank for that, while COROS just did a good job on its own. 

Moving on to the results for my track sprint workout, it's more difficult to determine accuracy because my Polar H10 had bizarrely deflated results for about 15 seconds early on (as seen in the graph above). So, while the Forerunner 165 and Charge 6 (173 bpm) were higher than the H10 and PACE 3 (172 bpm), I think Garmin and Fitbit might be on point this time.

The Garmin Forerunner 165 vs. the Polar H10 for HR accuracy across a one-mile track run. (Image credit: Michael Hicks / Android Central)

That part aside, the Forerunner 165 was once again close but always lagging slightly behind the chest strap as I switched from sprints to jogs and back. It averages out well enough in my mind, but if you're someone fixated on exact specs, you might not be fully satisfied.

The Fitbit Charge 6 vs. the Polar H10 for HR accuracy across a one-mile track run. (Image credit: Michael Hicks / Android Central)

Looking at the competing options, the Fitbit Charge 6 impressed me. The chart shows how it reacts almost in lockstep with the Polar H10 to changing heart rate data. It did read slightly low in most cases, but this could be in part because I was wearing it higher up my wrist than normal to make room for the Forerunner 165. 

Heart rate chart comparing the Polar H10 strap and COROS PACE 3 watch

The COROS PACE 3 vs. the Polar H10 for HR accuracy across a one-mile track run. (Image credit: Michael Hicks / Android Central)

The PACE 3 did adequately enough, but had more issues than the Forerunner 165 with lagging data. There are a few major discrepancies where it rose higher than it should have, or failed to rise at all. That said, it did hit a very reasonable average HR, so I wouldn't be too disappointed with the results. 

GPS accuracy

The Garmin Forerunner 165 doesn't have the dual-frequency GPS tracking of the more expensive Forerunners, but it does have an "All-Systems mode" that pulls from GPS and another satellite system like GLONASS or GALILEO simultaneously for better results. Meanwhile, the COROS PACE 3 does have top-tier dual-band tracking, while the Fitbit Charge 6 only uses GPS or GLONASS individually, with some help from your smartphone GPS if you use "Dynamic GPS" mode. 

Also, COROS and Garmin gave their respective running watches an altimeter to judge elevation, something the Fitbit Charge 6 lacks — so it estimates based on GPS data. 

Swipe to scroll horizontally
CategoryGarmin Forerunner 165COROS PACE 3Fitbit Charge 6
Distance5.00 miles5.02 miles5.05 miles

Garmin and COROS were relatively close to one another, while Fitbit's GPS-only results seemed to overestimate how far I'd run and my pace as a result. That especially applies to my elevation gain: My route had hills, but Fitbit's estimate really exaggerated how high they were. 

Looking at the actual GPS satellite map, the Fitbit Charge 6 was predictably inaccurate, straying wildly off the path. So, I focused instead on the two watches that I could actually count upon to be reasonably accurate: the Forerunner 165 and COROS PACE 3. In the screenshots below, Garmin's path is pink, while COROS' route is orange. 

In each case, Garmin "won" the accuracy battle. I generally stayed on the right side of the path in both directions. In Garmin's measurement, it showed me closer to the middle in both directions, while COROS consistently showed me running in the grass and dirt alongside the path. 

Does this matter? Given the similar overall distance, it's hard to say. If GPS inaccuracy of any kind frustrates you, you'll want to look at a more expensive, higher-end Garmin watch like the Forerunner 255 or higher. I'm personally satisfied that these results are trustworthy compared to GPS-only watches. 

(Image credit: Michael Hicks / Android Central)

Turning to my track workout, I ran my four laps entirely in the third lane so I could compare the watches' fidelity in satellite view. Garmin, COROS, and Fitbit have pink, orange, and blue lines, respectively. 

With the Garmin Forerunner 165, the watch would show me in the second or third lane on curves and the beginning of straightaways, then drift closer to the inner lanes over time. I suspect this was the watch filling in gaps in coverage, pulling my actual location to the left because I would eventually turn left. The tracked distance was exactly right at 1,660 meters, but that's probably because I marked myself as in the third lane in the pre-activity settings. 

(Image credit: Michael Hicks / Android Central)

COROS' track results mirrored what I noted in my original PACE 3 review: They're not as accurate as expected. My GPS map showed me way off in the right-side lanes for most of the run and cutting across the inner track on one of the turns. Even though its 1,658-meter result was accurate, that's (again) because COROS has a Track Run activity that lets you set a lane. 

On the other hand, at least the PACE 3 and Forerunner 165 were consistent in their slight inaccuracies. The Fitbit Charge 6 wavered wildly across lanes as if I was purposefully doing sidesteps (or slightly drunk). The distance (1,625 meters) was more noticeably off, even after I forgot to turn it off and walked off the track to cool down. The GPS-only tracking and the lack of a Track Run activity mode hurt Fitbit's ability to compete, here. 

Interpreting the results

The Garmin Forerunner 165 and Fitbit Charge 6 worn on one wrist, showing a post-run summary.

(Image credit: Michael Hicks / Android Central)

The Garmin Forerunner 165 deserves its place among the best fitness watches for frugal runners, right alongside the COROS PACE 3 and Fitbit Charge 6. Each has its respective strengths, however.

The Fitbit Charge 6 has reliable heart rate results and does more with that data. Garmin and COROS do support HRV data for stress and recovery, but only the Charge 6 measures AFib both actively and passively, along with skin temperature. It's the lightest and cheapest watch of the three — though Fitbit Premium will close the gap after the 6-month free trial and one annual subscription — and has a few Google app perks you'll appreciate, like Maps and Wallet.

The COROS PACE 3 has a fantastic 24-day battery life, 38-hour GPS, and 15-hour dual-frequency GPS, crushing the 7-day Charge 6 and the 11-day Forerunner 165. The trade-off is its dull MIP display, which makes it less enjoyable to look at in non-fitness contexts. What matters more for runners is that it gets the full extent of COROS' training analysis, like Training Load and Status, while the Forerunner 165 is artificially restricted from certain metrics to upsell you to the 265. 

The Garmin Forerunner 165 won for step and GPS location accuracy, despite not having the most accurate satellite tech that Garmin offers. It also held its own for HR accuracy, even if it could have been better. I simply wish that Garmin had given the Forerunner 165 the Training Load metric. I can make do without Training Status or Readiness, but it's hard not knowing whether you're staying consistent on activity level compared to past weeks.

Overall, I'm really happy with the results for my three favorite fitness trackers, and feel comfortable recommending the Forerunner 165 if you can make do without the upgrades that the Forerunner 965 or 265 offers.  

Michael L Hicks
Senior Editor, Wearables & AR/VR

Michael is Android Central's resident expert on wearables and fitness. Before joining Android Central, he freelanced for years at Techradar, Wareable, Windows Central, and Digital Trends. Channeling his love of running, he established himself as an expert on fitness watches, testing and reviewing models from Garmin, Fitbit, Samsung, Apple, COROS, Polar, Amazfit, Suunto, and more.