A blog by runners. For runners.

From apps to watches, a comparison of GPS run tracking tools

WJR route

Editor’s note: This the WalkJogRun blog so of course the assumption is the WJR app will be at the top of any of our lists of “best” running apps. That said, we recognize there’s some pretty nifty competition out there and told our writer to be as impartial as possible. So while yes, the WalkJogRun app is the most accurate in terms of tracking distance (a fact that this experiment proved once again and that’s been proven by independent articles as well), there’s a lot we can do to make ourselves even better. We encourage you to try our app for yourself and see how it compares to others – and then let us know what you think

GPS trackers for runners have never been trendier, as more and more companies race to provide their own version of a wearable device or an app alternative. But how do all these products compare? Which ones are easiest to use and which give you the most information about your run? Most importantly, how much more accurate is a GPS watch than an app, and among the apps, which ones are the most precise?

I decided to put them all to the test – at the same time. 

I started out by mapping my favorite easy 6K running route on WalkJogRun.net, as a benchmark to compare my tools against. This mapping tool is based on Google Maps data and is about as close as one can get to a true measurement of distance. According to this tool, my route is 6.2K in length.

Next, I fired up my tracking tools:

  • Nike+ Runningby far the least advanced, but nonetheless very popular (and free).
  • RunKeeper, which offers free route tracking but offers more comprehensive insights at cost of $9.99 per month.
  • Strava, which similarly offers tracking for free but offers a “premium” feature with advanced insights and coaching for $6 per month,
  • The TomTom MultiSport GPS Watch with heart rate sensor ($150), which offers insights through its companion app (TomTom MySports).
  • WalkJogRun, of course, which comes at a one-time cost of $4.99 to download, and offers not only tracking but also the ability to map out routes on your phone in advance, as well as training plans, pace coaching, and a series of other training features.

I went for my run as usual, keeping my pace easy and steady. I turned off any voice notifications from any of the apps, to avoid getting bombarded by a cacophony of voices at every kilometer. So the first time I looked back at the tracking tools was at the end of the run, when I opened each app to turn it off and save the track. Below I’ve outlined the way each tool performed, including the smoothness of the user experience before, during, and after.

Nike+ Running

Nike+

  • User experience: Nike’s UX is famously seamless, although sometimes it tries to be helpful but only succeeds in frustrating you. For instance, the option to automatically pause my run while I was stopped was switched on, and while I appreciate the thought, I’m not too concerned over being stopped at a few crossing lights – and besides, it often took the app so long to start up again after pausing that I felt this feature lost a bit of its usefulness. Another example is the option to take a photo within the app environment, which usually crashes my phone (even when I don’t have all the other apps open) – it’s actually lots easier to just take the snap with your phone’s own camera app.
  • Insights: My favorite feature of Nike+ is the ability to see how my pace varies throughout the run, so I can easily judge, for example, whether I managed to do a successful negative split. On the visual above you can see that the even green tone means that I kept my pace very steady.
  • Accuracy: Nike wasn’t quite right, logging my distance as 6.30 KM. Not awful, but not exactly true either.

RunKeeper

RunKeeper

  • User experience: Setting up the run was fine, but to me, this app talks way too much! I quickly got annoyed with all the voice notifications, which I received despite switching off all the toggles I could find that were related to the topic, and which follow you around within the whole app (not just during your run).
  • Insights: RunKeeper (free) offers you the ability to see your timestamp at each kilometer of the way, which is a nice touch but requires you to flex your math chops if you want to find out your time per individual kilometer.
  • Accuracy: Just like Nike+, RunKeeper wasn’t quite on the money, estimating my distance as 6.31K.

 

Strava

Strava

  • User experience: This app is confusing. It uses a lot of language that’s unfamiliar to me in a running tool (e.g. “Feed” instead of “Training log”, “Segment explorer” instead of “Nearby routes”, etc.) Even starting and stopping a workout took me several tries to figure out, as did toggling between running and cycling tracking. Clearly they’ve tried to reinvent the UX of the running app, but it is lost on me.
  • Insights: This app offers splits by kilometer, which is helpful, and the option to compare my performance on the same route over different trials.
  • Accuracy: Like the others, the distance tracked is 6.3K.

TomTom MultiSport GPS:

TomTom

  • User experience: I love that you can just put on this watch and go, but the interface can be somewhat confusing. It takes several minutes to warm up before you can start tracking your run, and the first time I tried this experiment, I realized halfway through that I had missed a button-push and was not actually tracking anything.
  • Insights: During the run, you can see your run time, pace, distance, heart rate, and cadence with the push of a button (which still requires some concentration, but it’s nice to not have to start up your phone to do it). However, it offers you little by way of analysis until you sync up the results with the companion app (via Bluetooth), at which point you can see a whole bunch of handy stats and diagrams, like your heart rate charted against your tempo and of course a breakdown per kilometer.
  • Accuracy: I would expect it to be the most accurate since it was on my wrist, but TomTom said I ran 6.01K. Perhaps there was a slight discrepancy between the route I mapped and the route I ran, but regardless this number is the farthest off from what the map tells me!

WalkJogRun

WJR App

  • User experience: The WJR UX isn’t the smoothest of them all, but it’s pretty straightforward, and I like that there are several easy entr-ypoints into tracking a run, as well as various options for the amount of information you can choose to feed into the app for deeper insights and performance analysis.
  • Insights: Pretty detailed: breakdown of pace and elevation for each kilometer, as well as a cadence estimation. Plus, the pace can keep you on pace throughout your run, and the heart rate monitor integration let’s you track your BPM.
  • Accuracy: WalkJogRun tracked my run as 6.18K – the closest to the actual distance mapped.

Why not take the #WJRGPSchallenge for yourself? 

Just like our writer did, we challenge you to take our app and compare it to other apps – and wearable devices out there – and let us know what you find in the comments below, on Twitter (#WJRGPSchallenge), or by email.

Written by Varia Makagonova.