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

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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.

Apple Watch GPS tracking explained

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.

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.




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