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

I've been living with the Apple Watch Series 2 for a while now and it's still in my opinion the best smartwatch to own right now. As a runner, I've been switching between Apple's smartwatch and the Garmin Forerunner 935 GPS sports watch to see how the well the Watch Series 2 works for runners.

But while fitness app support and battery life have still 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 5. 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. We've already seen standalone apps from Strava and RunKeeper, with more expected to follow before the end of the year.

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·

    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·

      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·

        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·

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

    • Laurent·

      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·

    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. 

  • Runnergirl·

    I received the series 2 Apple watch for Mother's Day. I run 3-5 days a week and have had multiple Garmin watches throughout the years. The Apple watch, by far, is the worst for tracking pace/distance. Today, I took my cell phone to compare distance and the Apple watch was off by 1 --2.5 minutes per mile! I love the heart rate function, but am truly disappointed with the so-called 'GPS functionality' of this watch.

  • RunnerInNZ·

    I like my Apple Watch Series 2 for a bunch of reasons but as a semi-serious running watch it's nowhere near good enough. As a casual running watch though it's fine (if I'm not tracking pace at all and just want to know roughly how far I went) so will fit the needs of most non-serious running people.

    I've done about 15 runs here in New Zealand wearing both the Series 2 and my old Garmin 610 and compared the data, splits and maps. The main things I've found... 1. Generally, by the end of a run they are usually within 1% to 2.5% of each other for distance. That might not sound too bad but it can be significant when looking at average pace if you're working to a target. 2. I've noticed that it's very typical for the Series 2 to either be 100m-200m different to the Garmin within the first 1km. I suspect this is because it's not locked onto GPS and is just bad at estimating my distance from arm-movement. The "instant-start" feature described by the writer is good in concept but deeply flawed I feel. 3. Most problematically for me, as someone that likes to track mid-run pace accurately, it often lurches around erratically mid run. So if, for example, it's 200 metres behind for the first 1km and then suddenly gets 100m ahead of the Garmin in the 3rd km then my pace times it reports for those kms are ridiculously far out. I don't feel like I can trust it at all to measure the pace of the km I just run. 3. The Workout app has no Pace-For-Current-Kilometre metric displayed. That's a pretty basic metric not to have available. The "current pace" metric is no replacement sadly as it's garbage - it goes all over the place. 4. Related to previous point, the maps are sometimes a total mess with the start point shown about 2kms into the run and then a lot of wavering about wildly. 5. The lap-alert beep/buzz is far too subtle. 

    Obviously, I accept the Garmin might sometimes be the inaccurate part of the equation and no doubt it occasionally is. But the two things make me give it the benefit of the doubt are - 1) that the maps it produces are spot on 9 times out of 10 and 2) Most importantly, the lap times for each 1km I run generally feel accurate with the Garmin where the Series 2's do not. I have a decent feeling for my own pace in any given km and the Garmin lap time almost always reflects the effort I put in for the lap whereas the Series 2 is sometimes laughable - like it gives me a much slower laptime for a downhill 1km vs the previous uphill 1km (because of the GPS issues I think. 

    So, for pace-geeks it's rubbish and you need to strap your Garmin onto your other wrist and put up with people mocking you! Ha ha, i'll put up with it because as an overall fitness tracker and lots of other things it's a really great device. Just a shame they stuffed up the running part!