Apple Watch Series 2: Why GPS tracking for runners is so impressive

A breakdown of how one of Apple's most impressive Watch Series 2 features works
Apple Watch GPS tracking explained

I've been living with the Apple Watch Series 2 for well over a month now and have tried to embrace Apple's new device. As a runner, I've temporarily ditched my TomTom Spark 3 GPS watch to see how the Apple Watch Series 2 works for runners.

But while app support and battery life have left me underwhelmed, I've been blown away by is how quickly the Series 2 picks up a GPS signal. Apple promised seconds and it really is that quick. There's no waiting around whether you're in a built up city or out in the countryside. You wake up the Watch, go to the Workout app, select outdoor run and you're ready to go.

Read this: Top tips and tricks for Apple Watch and Apple Watch Series 2

So how does the Series 2 make it so easy to get out and run? I've been doing a bit of investigation to understand exactly how it all works.

Tracking from high up in the sky

Apple Watch Series 2: This is why GPS tracking is so impressively quick

The first place to start is to understand exactly what happens when your standard GPS running watch tracks your activity. We're talking about what the likes of Garmin, Polar and TomTom do to map your outdoor pursuits. We've covered this comprehensively in our how does GPS actually work explainer, but in its most basic form, it's to do with satellites pinging microwave signals to GPS receivers, which take this data and use triangulation to determine your exact location.

Along with GPS there is also a rival system known as GLONASS, which appears in most top end Garmin watches alongside GPS like the Fenix 3 HR. It uses 24 Russian Aerospace Defence Forces satellites to determine your location. To improve reliability and accuracy of GPS tracking, many wearables pack in both receivers.

GPS tracking on Apple Watch Series 2

Apple Watch Series 2: This is why GPS tracking is so impressively quick

But anyone who's used a Garmin, TomTom or Polar GPS watch knows that waiting for a signal is part-and-parcel of going for a run. And the experience can be frustrating. So how does the Apple Watch Series 2 deliver those speedy GPS signal pick up times?

Well, there's a GPS antenna that lies beneath that rectangular body, but it has a couple of other tricks up its sleeve to improve accuracy.

The first is taking advantage of the built-in Wi-Fi receivers. When the GPS is struggling to pinpoint your position, the Series 2 uses the Wi-Fi support to seek out wireless hotspots to identify your location.

But that's not all, it also taps into locally stored satellite data, and combines with the GPS and Wi-Fi data, to figure out your location before you start running. It's all very impressive.

Out in the field (or on the pavement)

Apple Watch Series 2: Why GPS tracking is so impressively quick

I've spent a good deal of time testing the Series 2 against running watches from Garmin, Polar and TomTom and the Apple smartwatch wipes the floor with those established names for the speed in which it can pick up a GPS signal. When you head back to the Activity app on your iPhone, mapped data is on the money as well.

Right now, the third party running app support for harnessing that location data is not all that great on the Series 2, but the good news is that developers are already working to take advantage of the built-in GPS on the Series 2 to enhance standalone Apple Watch apps. That means that data will soon be pulled into the likes of RunKeeper and MapMyRun. Strava is just one of the companies that has confirmed it is working on a new Strava Apple Watch app, which is expected to drop in 2017.

So there you have it, that's how the GPS tracking on the Apple Watch Series 2 works. If you have any other questions for us, let us know in the comments section below.

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  • Klischeeschwabe says:

    The only app which works already with the built-in gps is nike+run club. But there is no slope coming with the gps data. Really disappointing. A very good and water safe series 2 with built in gps, but the activity datas are smaller than before. Hope that here is a solution in short term.

    • miketan says:

      Nike+ is useless for me because  gpx export and cadence are important. Runtastic on Apple Watch 2 can not even start without iphone. After tried a couple of apps, I switched to RunKeeper, which do gpx export and show cadence well.  

      • HypnoDog says:

        Are you able to export Apple Watch run from Runkeep? I did first test run today with Runkeeper (no iPhone) and on the web site, the export option is not available for that run. Other runs, that were recorded via iPhone app have the export option.

  • Espartak says:

    I think not showing a map in our runs with series 2 is a huge mistake from apple and his app :(

    • Laurent says:

      The last version of runkeeper delivered on dec 05 is a big improvement, it makes the running experience much more interesting... you can see the map of your run now 

  • Rwerbish says:

    I'm on my second Apple 2 Series watch. The ONLY way the GPS works if it location services is on  - on you phone and yo picked the Apple workout app to be on as well as the Nike Run app.  Is this correct for all of you? I turned my first one in because the GPS does not come on without  my phone location services on. Please help. 

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