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Tech & Wearables

2020 Running Smartwatch Roundup Review

This year’s river of running smartwatches is not only wide, but very deep. We rate and review six new releases.

With so many solo miles being logged in 2020, and racing reduced to individually-measured time trials, it’s no surprise that new running smartwatches have been arriving en masse. We take a look at six new wrist-top companions that range from fashionable, almost lifestyle-only to high-sci stride dynamic tech wizardry.

Here are the criteria we use in this guide:

Data Depth This rating looks at the depth of data analysis available after the workout. Here, we include data analysis that’s available on a watch’s accompanying smartphone app.
Advanced Run-Specific Features This rating examines how much advanced run data the watch can analyze while in use — either with built-in functions or via connected devices.
Connection Here we rate how well the watch holds a connection, and regains a connection to a paired smartphone when the connection is broken. Points are deducted when the watch’s app must be opened to reconnect the watch after a pairing breaks.
Battery Life Here we simply look at how well the watch holds its charge with a standard amount of daily use and working out.
Accuracy Here we rate how accurate the watch’s GPS and onboard heart-rate monitoring system is.
Lifestyle Functions This rating explores how well the smartwatch makes everyday life easier — ignoring workout features.

Note: While the smartwatches were loaned out by the brands represented, all models were selected independently by the tester without any promotional consideration or brand input.

COROS Pace 2

$200, 29g (nylon band), 30 hours training w/GPS, 20 days smartwatch, 42 × 42 × 11.7mm

Data Depth – 4/5
Built-In Advanced Run-Specific Features – 4/5
Connection – 4/5
Battery Life – 4/5
Accuracy – 4/5 (GPS), 4/5 (HR)
Lifestyle Capabilities – 2/5

COROS might not be a familiar name in the running world — yet — but it’s time to get wise. With the recent release of their Pace 2, COROS has upended the smartwatch world with not only the lightest weight device available, but one packed with features that seemingly beat out watches at twice the price. For $200, the Pace 2 not only has indoor and outdoor running, but also a setting we wish more smartwatches had: track mode.

While track mode does a great job of tallying accurate distance based on what lane you’re running in, the built-in GPS is also just about at the gold standard for on and off-road running as well. The same could be said for the on-wrist heart-rate monitor that is just about as good as you can get without a chest or arm strap (which you can connect via ANT+ or Bluetooth if that level of accuracy is desired). This watch takes it a step further by allowing deep dives into data either by connecting a Stryd footpod or using the on-wrist power meter built into the Pace 2 — which is ironically nearly as consistent as the Stryd.

In terms of the more superficial side of this watch, while the colors, fonts, and watch faces might feel a little dated, the almost-throwback digital knob is actually a surprisingly excellent way to navigate the color screen’s menus and post-run data. If there’s one place this watch struggles—aside from the questionable aesthetics—is in lifestyle functionality. While the rock-solid connection displays incoming calls and smartphone notifications, it doesn’t do music controls, apps like weather, or other smartphone-tethered “tricks.” Of course if you don’t care about those functions, then consider this a streamlined smartwatch that costs probably about $150–200 too little.

Apple Watch SE

Starting at $280 (all specs 40mm version), 45g, 6 hours training w/GPS, 18 hours smartwatch, 40 x 34 x 10mm

Data Depth – 2/5
Built-In Advanced Run-Specific Features – 1/5
Connection – 5/5
Battery Life – 1/5
Accuracy – 2/5 (GPS), 3/5 (HR)
Lifestyle Capabilities – 5/5

It should be no surprise that the Apple Watch SE isn’t exactly the performance watch that some of the others in this review claim to be. The big draw behind this latest version is the size vs. price. Far more affordable than the new Series 6 (both are available with cellular service plans if you want online functions without carrying a smartphone), this is a more basic smartwatch that still gets you into the huge Apple lifestyle ecosystem with mostly a minimum of built-in run functions.

The Watch SE does have indoor and outdoor run tracking that is very basic—and a little tricky to use for the first time—along with other workout modes for cross training. Those used to the old-school way of starting, stopping, and checking laps on your watch while running will find there’s a bit of a learning curve adapting to the “3,2,1” countdown start (pro tip: skip it with a tap), the fact that you need to switch screens to stop or pause, and the lack of an always-on screen.

While you can get more data depth with an iOS app like Stryd (yes, surprisingly, it is compatible with the Stryd footpod for running power), you’ll likely not be impressed with your post-run metrics if you want anything more than just the basics. And even though the Watch SE has fantastic iOS smartphone connectivity, the incredibly low battery life—especially when compared to the rest of these smartwatches — is staggeringly low. Expect to plug this in nightly.

Garmin Forerunner 745

$500, 47g, 16 hours training w/GPS, 7 days smartwatch, 44 x 44 x 13 mm

Data Depth – 4/5
Built-In Advanced Run-Specific Features – 3/5
Connection – 2/5
Battery Life – 3/5
Accuracy – 4/5 (GPS), 4/5 (HR)
Lifestyle Capabilities – 3/5

It’s been a very long time since Garmin updated the 700 series of watches, and we’ve been waiting with baited breath since the 735XT arrived so many years ago. The 700 series is meant to be a more “budget friendly” version of the 900 series that has basically everything you could possibly want in a smartwatch — from all the necessary modes to data for days to apps to lifestyle functions and back.

The 745 is extremely similar to the 945 that was released last year — the 745 has only slightly less storage, a substantially smaller battery, and is actually smaller in size — but it’s the lack of built in maps, which are included in the 945, that might push trail runners toward the more expensive Forerunner.

Of course, this smartwatch comes with the whole host of Garmin sport modes and apps — including a track workout mode that works very well — and a decent amount of data for display and post-run analysis, along with recovery functions and performance monitoring. You can also use a foot pod like the Stryd for power or an external heart-rate monitor as well. If you have the 735XT and want to upgrade to something with built-in music for your runs — along with a few other minor features —this is the watch for you.

Fitbit Sense

$330, 47g, 12 hours training w/GPS, 6 days smartwatch, 40 x 40 x 12.35mm

Data Depth – 1/5
Built-In Advanced Run-Specific Features – 1/5
Connection – 3/5
Battery Life – 3/5
Accuracy – 3/5 (GPS), 2/5 (HR)
Lifestyle Capabilities – 4/5

The big news behind the brand-new touchscreen smartwatch from Fitbit is definitely the amount of sensors packed into this tiny and fashion-forward device. Everything from ECG functions (promised but not yet available at time of writing), skin temperature, SpO2 levels, tons of sleep tracking metrics, sport tracking, menstrual tracking, and a ton more are baked into something that looks eerily similar to an Apple Watch. The only issue here, right now, is that it’s tough to wade through all of the sensors’ data in a way that makes sense and actually lets you do something about it.

The Sense also has the same standard smartwatch “lifestyle” features that other models in the Fitbit lineup do pretty well: answering calls, checking notifications, music, and more. Along with a nice-looking touchscreen display and some very cool watchband options that are actually on par with Apple’s, this is an attractive watch for runners who want to stay connected and check on their biofeedback in a more general overall “health” sense.

Much like the Apple Watch, you’re only looking at the most basic run/GPS functions, with very little customization or deep dives in data. The Sense is made for someone who is just trying to be (or become) more “active” — definitely not someone who is looking to get more out of their run training. Basics aside, the touchscreen on this watch wasn’t perfect, with a few bugs that made it lag and sometimes even freeze, and the single button awkwardly located on the lower left of the screen is not super intuitive—especially with sweaty hands.

Polar Vantage V2

$500, 52g, 40 hours training w/GPS, 7 days smartwatch mode, 46 x 46 x 13 mm

Data Depth – 5/5
Built-In Advanced Run-Specific Features – 5/5
Connection – 2/5
Battery Life – 3/5
Accuracy – 3/5 (GPS), 3/5 (HR)
Lifestyle Capabilities – 2/5

While this is considered a relatively minor upgrade to Polar’s Vantage V for data-hungry runners, this is the watch you want if you’re extremely into analyzing every part of your run without any external sensors or extra apps. With built-in running power, running dynamics, and a staggering host of recovery and performance metrics, and now even very clever run testing functions that will help you automatically set your training zones, this watch could almost replace a coach if you used every one of the many features. For example: Using either a maximal or submaximal test, the V2 will accurately find your maximal aerobic power (MAP), maximal aerobic speed (MAS), and an estimated VO2 max — and it automatically plugs that data in where it needs to be when setting up workouts and training plans.

This update also introduces some lifestyle features like smartphone music control (no built-in music, however) and weather, while still boasting kind-of-ok notifications for text and calls. While the touchscreen is good enough for scrolling through menus and post-run data (which is presented in an excellent way on the watch itself), it’s not nearly in the same ballpark as the Apple Watch, and you’ll find yourself using the buttons more often than not.

The Vantage V2 also borrows the trail functions from Polar’s more “trail friendly” Grit X, like the hill splitter feature that tells you how many hills you ran, along with breadcrumb-level route mapping (no built-in maps, however), and some very interesting fueling functions for those who are going very long. While this is not the perfect lifestyle watch—due to its spotty connections and frustrating notifications—this is probably the top of the pile when it comes to upper-level data crunching for runs, performance, and recovery.

Suunto 7

$500, 68g, 12 hours training w/GPS, 2 days smartwatch mode, 50 x 50 x 15.3 mm

Data Depth – 3/5
Built-In Advanced Run-Specific Features – 4/5
Connection – 3/5
Battery Life – 2/5
Accuracy – 4/5 (GPS), 2/5 (HR)
Lifestyle Capabilities – 4/5

The Suunto 7 is an interesting mix of sports and lifestyle from a brand with a tradition in hardcore GPS devices. It does a decent job of displaying and harvesting run data on a very good (and pretty) touchscreen. You can connect a Stryd footpod for running power via the WearOS app ecosystem (which is actually very good if you own an Android), but the on-wrist heart rate on this watch leaves a lot to be desired. You can also find a lot of the running dynamics, recovery metrics, and performance stats similar to other watches in this price range.

The Suunto 7 also has excellent offline maps on that big, pretty touchscreen. You’ll also get great lifestyle capabilities — better if you have an Android — and built-in music storage, along with apps for days. Also, the heat mapping is a great way to find new on- or off-road running routes when you travel to a new area.

For people looking to do more “outdoor” activities like hiking or even just trail running in new places, the Suunto 7 and its nice screen in a fairly burly looking package is a good choice, but bear in mind the battery life isn’t humongous compared to other outdoor watches like Garmin’s meaty Fenix series.