Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Tech - ESPN Playbook [Print without images]

Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Golf GPS devices: A comprehensive guide

By Norm Harris and Andrew Baw
Special to ESPN.com

Pebble Beach
Golf GPS devices have grown more affordable and become commonplace for amateur golfers.
In a relatively short time, golf GPS devices have entered the mainstream and become almost a necessity for the typical player -- gone are the days in which you wait while each person marches off the yardage from the closest sprinkler head. The devices have evolved, morphing from large bulky devices into a variety of form factors, including sleek lightweight handhelds, multifunction wristwatches and even tiny voice-enabled units that can be clipped to the bill of a cap.

The guys from Critical Golf, completely unbiased reviewers of virtually every golf GPS device available, offer some opinions on the things you should consider in deciding which unit to purchase, then pick their favorites in each category below.

Things to consider in your purchase decision

How much data do you want?

Golfers differ significantly in how much information they want before any given shot. Some folks want to know the distances to reach and clear every hazard and the layup point on the hole. Others find that too much information leads to “analysis paralysis” and prefer solely the yardage to the center of the green. Knowing how much data you can process helps determine what kind of device is best for you. If all you need are simple front/middle/back of the green yardages, you can look at entry-level (i.e., cheaper) devices, as well as much smaller form factors such as watches and voice-enabled units. If you want everything including the kitchen sink, go with a hand-held device -- preferably one with overhead maps that let you position a cursor to determine the distance to any point on the hole.

Does size matter?

Slim lightweight devices typically command a premium price. The thing to consider is how you typically traverse the golf course. If you amble around the course with a cart, you needn’t feel constrained to a smaller device –- inexpensive and easy-to-use mounts are available that will attach your GPS device to the cart. On the other hand, if you sling a carry bag on your back, you might want to consider a watch or a lightweight handheld that you can quickly slip in and out of your pocket.

Course coverage

The marketing literature for devices is replete with references to the thousands of courses they have mapped, but, if the courses you play most frequently aren’t mapped, you won’t have much love for the device, regardless of how many bells and whistles it has. Thankfully, almost all of the manufacturers have searchable lists of the courses they cover, so < a href="http://www.criticalgolf.com/golf-gps-device-course-availability/">make sure the courses you play most frequently are on the list!

TPC Sawgrass
A detailed overhead map is crucial to factoring in your slice.
Features

The latest golf GPS devices provide a plethora of advanced features, including hybrid devices that combine a golf GPS device with other gadgets (such as laser rangefinders or MP3 players), touch screens, shot distance tracking, video flyovers, scoring, statistics tracking, and uploading of scoring and statistics to Web accounts where you can compare your progress over time and against other members of the golf community. You have to know yourself -– if you’re a gadget freak, load up on the feature set and have a party. If you have a rotary phone and still aren’t quite sure this whole Internet thing is going to catch on, you might want to go with something simpler.

Cost

If you've found just the device you are looking for, don't forget to take a look at how much the golf GPS device is going to cost over time. For many devices, the cost doesn't stop at just the price of the unit but rather entails additional fees for downloading course information or keeping your course information up-to-date. Many devices include all courses at no extra fee, but some still charge annual or per-course fees.

Below are some of the best golf GPS devices available in each category -- golf GPS watch, handheld, voice-enabled GPS and hybrid -- as ranked by Critical Golf.

Best Golf GPS Watch: Garmin Approach S3

Garmin Approach 53
The Garmin Approach S3 never leaves a golfer's side with interactive maps and graphics.
Golf GPS watches are extraordinarily easy to use, with distances available at the twist of your wrist. Our favorite in this group is the Garmin Approach S3, which is Garmin's second-generation golf GPS watch. The Garmin Approach S3 not only provides distances to near, center and far points on the green but also enables the player to keep score and map custom points, such as hazards. It is also the only watch to feature any graphics, providing users with a graphic of the green and allowing them to move the flagstick as desired, which in turn will update the displayed distances. A subtle but distinct point here -- Garmin fully maps the green edges, so players get distances to green points relative to where they are on the course, as opposed to the fixed front, center and back green points on most golf GPS devices.

A dark horse option is the Motorola MOTOACTV Golf Edition -– we loved the hardware (which includes fitness monitoring apps and an MP3 player that syncs with iTunes) and touch screen, but buggy software and the potential for errors from the user-mapped course database left us a little spooked.

Best Hybrid Golf GPS Device: Bushnell Hybrid Laser-GPS

Laser
The Bushnell Hybrid Laser-GPS is the only device to combine both GPS and laser technology.
Manufacturers have tried mating golf GPS devices with a variety of other gizmos, including video screens, MP3 players, auto navigation systems and our favorite, laser rangefinders. The Bushnell Hybrid Laser-GPS is the only device that combines laser and GPS in a single, albeit somewhat bulky, unit. The Hybrid provides precise distances through the laser rangefinder when you have line of sight to a flagstick or a hazard, as well as GPS distances to hazards/targets and the front, middle and back of greens and hazards/targets when you have a blind shot. The two sets of features are entirely independent, so you can operate it as just a laser, just a GPS, or swap back and forth depending on the situation. It's a high-priced unit, but, if you are looking for just one device to carry with GPS and laser capability, the Bushnell Hybrid Laser-GPS is the only option.

Best Voice-Enabled Golf GPS Device: GolfBuddy Voice

Voice-enabled golf GPS devices became widely available on the market in 2012. These simple units literally speak the distances to you at the touch of a button. The downside is that, to date, distances have been limited to either just the center or front/center/back of the green. If you are looking for distances to hazards, this isn't the class of device for you. These are nifty gadgets for folks who aren’t that comfortable with fancy technology or are simply tired from staring at a computer screen during the work week and want to give their eyes a break.

Within this group, the standout is the GolfBuddy Voice, which provides not only distances to the near, middle and far points of the green but also shot distance measurement and is the only voice-enabled device with a (tiny) screen, which has a graphic image of the green that rotates based on player position. For those who are worried about bothering their playing partners, fear not, as the GolfBuddy and other voice-enabled devices have volume controls you can adjust so you are the only person hearing the distance readings.

Best Hand-held Golf GPS Device: Garmin Approach G6

G6
The Garmin Approach G6 is light and makes good use of its interactive touch screen.
Hand-held golf GPS devices keep getting smaller in size, but their feature sets keep getting bigger. Garmin has done a great job of making successive generations of its golf GPS devices even better, and the latest offering, the Garmin Approach G6, puts a touch screen, overhead hole maps, scoring, statistics and more into a thin and lightweight unit that is preloaded with more than 26,000 courses. Users can touch any point on the screen to receive distance readings, and the G6 will also provide distances to pre-mapped hazards, although not as often as some might like. Graphics are bright and clear, and a simple interface accessed through the touch screen as well as hard buttons allows users to quickly navigate menus.

The Callaway upro mx+ similarly packs a full feature set, including satellite images (one of the few devices that offers this), in a sleek form factor. The upro mx+ also has an online portal for players to track their scores and statistics and compare them with the community.

Pricing of these high-end units keeps heading in a consumer-friendly direction, but those looking for something more cost-effective should consider the Bushnell neo+ hand-held device, which provides simple functionality at a reasonable price.

Given the variety of golf GPS units on the market, there is a device to match whatever the player's desires, from the simplest distance information to satellite images with hazards and targets mapped. GPS devices offer a great way to be able to quickly access distance information, keep scores and statistics, and track your progress online.

And then, once you have the device that covers your needs, there's just the matter of golf lessons…

To read detailed reviews of the above products, check out Harris' and Baw's work at Critical Golf.