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I want to love smartwatches, but I can't replace my GPS watch
The original Samsung Galaxy Watch Active turned me into a “watch guy.” Not a Rolex and Omega type of watch guy, but a smartwatch guy. I realized how nice it was to have notifications and music controls on my wrist. Then, I picked up a serious running habit, and my wearable needs began to shift. You can use a smartwatch to track runs and record workouts, but I ultimately made the switch to a GPS watch — the Coros Pace 2. It wasn’t a perfect switch, but I learned to love the slightly different set of features. Now, I don’t see myself going back.
See also: The best running watches you can buy
The battle for battery life and notifications
Smartwatches are seldom known for their battery life. It’s tough to stretch the Apple Watch beyond a day’s usage if you’re taking advantage of its most impressive features. The Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 fares a bit better, lasting about 40 hours before you need to set it on a charger. My Coros Pace 2? Days. Weeks. I’m charging it maybe twice a month, and that’s hard to turn down.
If you wear it as just a watch, the Pace 2 can handle around 20 days of battery life. Tapping into the GPS will sap the juice faster, but you can still crank out about 30 hours of running or other tracked activity before you need a charger. On the average non-running day, the battery drops about 5% in my experience.
My GPS watch can handle a vacation away from outlets. The Apple Watch or Galaxy Watch? Not so much.
I won’t pretend that I love the proprietary charging for my GPS watch. In fact, the USB-A cable with a unique end is probably the least convenient part of the whole setup. I have to keep a compatible charging brick on hand for the times I eventually have to charge. However, I’ve never once had to take my charging setup with me for a week away. I can head for vacation and know that my GPS watch has enough juice for runs and hikes on top of daily life. The Apple Watch? Not so much.
Where the Apple Watch and Galaxy Watch pack a little more punch is with powerful notifications. I’ll admit that my GPS watch doesn’t offer the most in-depth notifications. I can read texts, and I get alerts for new emails and phone calls, but then it’s time to pick up my phone. Honestly, I don’t mind it. It’s nice to take calls on an Apple Watch from time to time, but have you ever tried to type an entire message on one? There’s a reason that phones are phone-sized and watches are watch-sized.
I gave typing on an Apple Watch the good old college try, but I ended up frustrated every time. My fingers simply aren’t small enough to make the keyboard work. Before long, I was pulling my phone out to respond to messages — the same as I would with a trusty GPS watch. If I could, I’d bring Apple’s Walkie Talkie feature to my GPS watch, but that’s about it. Otherwise, simplicity has become bliss.
One area where both types of watches seem to excel is in navigation. However, my Coros Pace 2 and Apple Watch tend to go about it differently. The Apple Watch integrates perfectly with Apple Maps, and acts as a heads-up display to show your next turn as it approaches. On the other hand, my GPS watch packs plenty of room to download trail maps and other running routes so that I always know where I am and how many miles I have left to go. If you want similar functionality with a traditional smartwatch, you’ll have to download an app and often pony up for a monthly subscription.
Ready to shop? The best smartwatches you can buy
I’ll also give traditional smartwatches the edge when it comes to music playback. My Pace 2 doesn’t offer music controls, but the Apple Watch and Galaxy Watch 4 pack plenty of control over your Spotify selections. I’ve even used the Galaxy Watch to control music during a wedding ceremony before, which I have to admit was a cool feeling. Of course, there are GPS watches that offer Spotify integration — like the Garmin 245 Music — I just chose to go a different route.
Operating system disharmony
One of the most significant issues I have with smartwatches is the need for exclusivity. Every time I bounce from an iPhone to an Android device, I switch to a different smartwatch for a smoother experience. That usually means keeping an Apple Watch and a Galaxy Watch close at hand for easy access. On the other hand, my GPS watch doesn’t care what phone it’s paired to. The experience is identical, whether I’m rolling with a Pixel 6 Pro or an iPhone SE. It really makes you sit down and wonder why it can’t always be this easy.
Need inspiration: The complete Fitbit buyers guide
All I have to do to pair my Pace 2 to a new device is download the Coros app — something I already have to track my runs. It works like any other wearable app, offering control over watch faces and carrying software updates. You could probably get a similar experience with a Fitbit and its companion app, and it just makes life easy. Samsung, however, locks some of its most highly touted features to its own Galaxy lineup. If you’re hoping to measure an ECG or take your blood pressure with a Galaxy Watch 4, it simply won’t work without a Samsung Galaxy phone. Sorry, Pixel users, you’ll have to hold out hope for the Pixel Watch.
My GPS watch doesn't care if it's paired with Android or iOS, the experience is the same.
To make life even more complicated, some Android smartwatches don’t play nicely with other Android devices. I was nearly able to put down my GPS watch for HUAWEI’s Watch GT Runner. It delivered impressive battery life — around 14 days — and charged back up in no time. HUAWEI’s large display made reading notifications a breeze, but the pairing process was a nightmare. Before I could pair the watch, I had to download a suite of HUAWEI software to my Pixel 6 Pro, and there were even more hoops to jump through to export health data to services like Strava.
See also: The best running apps for Android
Given a choice between a smooth but slightly limited experience across all platforms and a curated experience for each different device, I’ll take the former. I’ll take weeks of battery life over the ability to watch a 30-second video on a tiny display any day. I’m hopeful for the future of smartwatches — here’s looking at you, Google — but it’ll take some more growth before I’m ready to dive back in.