The Top Types of Golf GPS Devices

Golf GPS devices provide total course view and accurate distances

Golf ball on tee and golf club on golf course
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Golf GPS devices have evolved from simple distance readouts on modest displays to high-resolution touchscreens with video flyovers of holes, distances to hazards and advanced stats analysis. Costs have come down as well, and not just for the devices. Access to course map databases is mostly free.

Golf GPS devices have split into three categories: handheld, wristwatch and smartphone apps. 

Golf GPS Watches

If all you want is distance to the hole from anywhere on the course, a golf GPS watch might suit you fine. The great thing about a watch is that it's always with you and you don't have to constantly take it in and out of your bag or cart as you would with a handheld.

Garmin offers four golf GPS watches: the Approach S1, S2, S3, and S6. The S3 fits a lot into a small device, including a worldwide 27,000-course database — updates are free online — and a touchscreen display that works just fine with a golf-gloved hand. It shows the distance to the front, back and middle of the green, as well as distances to doglegs and layups. You can also keep score on the S3 and measure shot distances. The S6 offers all this and more: It also measures swing strength and swing tempo. 

Motorola has also jumped into the wristwatch golf GPS game with its MOTACTV Golf Edition. The Golf Edition may be used as a separate, 1.6-inch screen device or clipped into a rugged plastic sports watchband. It's the only golf GPS to wirelessly sync round results and other stats via WiFi to your computer. In addition to basic distance information, the MOTOACTV can keep scores for up to four players and has features such as steps taken and calories burned.

Handheld Golf GPS

Handheld golf GPS devices were where it all started. Handhelds have seen dramatic improvements in features and performance over the years while holding fairly steady or even dropping in price. One of the biggest price differences is the move from costly monthly or yearly subscription plans for access to course databases to free course databases and updates.

Here are the basics. The trend in handhelds is smaller size — the color touchscreen Garmin Approach G6 measures just 2.1x3.7 inches and the Callaway uPro MX measures 4x2 inches. Handhelds can also provide detailed course flyovers, detailed hole maps with distances to hazards and green locations overlaid, the ability to move position with a touch to see distances from various spots on the hole, aerial imagery, detailed stats tracking and graphing, and more.

Smartphone Golf GPS Apps

A number of golf GPS apps exist for iPhone and Android operating systems. They provide much of the same functionality you'd get with a handheld device. Downsides for these apps include the fact that your smartphone is not waterproof and may be damaged in wet conditions, while dedicated handheld devices are usually completely waterproof. They're built to take a beating. Battery life can be an issue with smartphone apps as well because the GPS capability runs by battery. The latest apps do a good job of power management, however, and they easily last a round if you start with a near-full charge.

They all provide accurate distance to the front, back, and center of the green, nice hole maps and aerial views, and other basic information. The key with apps is finding one that has a mix of features that are important to you. We like the Golfshot app because it has a terrific shot stats tracking and graphing feature, and it's easy to input stats when you're out on the course.