GPS on the Apple Watch: Runners, cyclists can leave the phone behind

Prior to the release of the new Apple Watch Series 2, I was worried that adding GPS would detract from the real focus of the best smartwatch. I was wrong.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer

The first generation Apple Watch was my favorite Apple device ever. The Apple Watch Series 2, check out Jason Cipriani's full review, adds GPS, enhanced water resistance, a brighter display, a faster processor, and more, which should make it even better than the first model.

Data shows that the primary uses for the Apple Watch are reading the time, tracking activity, managing notifications, and interacting via Siri. So while apps and other advanced functions are often advertised, people seem to be using the Apple Watch primarily for notifications and fitness.

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    The addition of GPS was a natural fit given the heavy use for fitness tracking, but with a one day battery life I was worried that the battery impact of GPS would make the new Apple Watch a frustrating experience. I just purchased my new Apple Watch a couple of days ago so only have limited testing, but the folks at Runner's World took it out and tested it against my favorite (and expensive) GPS sport watch, the Garmin Fenix 3 HR, and came to the conclusion that it is a solid option for the typical runner and cyclist.

    CNET's Apple Watch Series 2 review: This time, a better smartwatch

    GPS enhances the Apple Watch experience and is providing fairly accurate data, enough for most casual runners and cyclists. You can connect Bluetooth heart rate straps if you are not satisfied with the wrist-based monitor on the Apple Watch, but I don't train to specific heart rate zones and just use that information on a historical basis after my workout to track trends and better understand my health.

    Currently, GPS data is only available while using the Apple Workout app. Fitness app developers are working on updates that will also be able to access and use the GPS radio and I can't wait to try these. The Apple Workout app is fine and works well, but I prefer to have my run data captured and stored with RunKeeper and Strava where I can upload data collected from other devices, such as bike computers.

    It just so happens that Apple Health is a fairly open system with the ability to sync data in and out of Health with a vast number of services. GPS data sync is currently not supported, but that may be due to apps not yet having that capability enabled. Stay tuned to further updates from Apple and third party developers as this may make the Apple Watch a universal fitness device.

    Apple will be launching the Nike+ version of the Apple Watch in October, but you can download and install the Nike+ Run Club app now for current Apple Watches. Like the other fitness apps, GPS data is not yet collected by the NRC app.

    Apple Watch as a GPS sports watch: in pictures

    Bike speed and cadence sensors are currently not supported by the Apple Workout app. Since the Apple Watch has Bluetooth, I am hoping that Strava's app will support these sensors, but if not one can always mount and use an iPhone to capture this information.

    A few months ago when I purchased the Garmin Fenix 3 HR, I had grand plans that I would do more than run, bike, and hike so I needed all of that power in one of the world's best GPS sports watches. It turns out I use the Fenix 3 HR for basic GPS run tracking, rarely switching between different views of my data while running. I also use it to track my speed and cadence when I bike, but there are other options to capture this as I mentioned earlier.

    The Garmin Fenix 3 HR is an incredible device for the multi-sport athlete who wants to train for races, improve performance, and track all the fine details of workouts, but I may be perfectly satisfied with the GPS performance of the Apple Watch. The Apple Watch also serves as a fantastic smartwatch while the Garmin Fenix 3 HR provides just basic notifications.

    Battery life on the Garmin Fenix 3 HR is fantastic, easily getting me through a typical week with a couple runs and bike rides. The new Apple Watch Series 2 can track your GPS activity for up to five hours and in smartwatch mode will go a couple of days. Since I don't get much value out of sleep tracking, charging up a device in the evening is not that burdensome. It is made even easier when you use a bedside Apple Watch and iPhone charging solution like the Belkin Charge Dock.

    How can I find an Apple Watch right now?

    By the way, I did not preorder an Apple Watch and understand that many who did are still waiting for their orders to ship. If you have an Apple Store near you, I highly recommend that you visit the iStocknow website that is frequently updated with the latest stock of both iPhones and the new Apple Watch Series 2.

    Since I'm traveling all next week, I wanted an Apple Watch this week so I refreshed iStocknow until I saw a 42mm model available. It turns out it was the 42mm stainless steel with link band model, priced at $1,199, but I really wanted one so headed to the Bellevue Apple Store to pick it up. While there I asked the Apple Store employee if they had any other 42mm watches in stock. Turns out they had the 42mm stainless steel black one with black sport band, priced at $599. That was exactly what I was looking for so I made that purchase.

    My advice is to check iStocknow first and then go online to the Apple Store and confirm availability. You may also want to visit your local Apple Store as new Apple Watch stock changes daily and you may just get lucky. I still have a Nike+ one on pre-order, but given that it is aluminum and the only real difference is Nike+ complications I won't have access to I am likely to cancel that order and stick with this black stainless steel model.

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