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'Watch' out for these new golf GPS devices and laser rangefinders

Mike BaileyBy Mike Bailey,
Senior Staff Writer
GolfBuddy golf watches and wristbands
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The future is now with golf watches and wristbands offered from companies like GolfBuddy. (Mike Bailey/TravelGolf)

If you've been thinking about getting one of those fitness watches or bands -- like the Fitbit or Jawbone -- you're in luck. The golf industry is on board with the trend, and there are plenty of options that not only give you yardage and track and record stats, but also include a fitness feature or two.

At the recent PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, it seems most every company that features GPS distance-measuring devices had some sort of golf watch.

And unlike a decade ago when these golf watches were first introduced, they're no longer bulky, difficult to use and they hold a charge for longer than a few hours.

They also come pre-loaded with golf courses so you don't have to download the maps before you head to the course.

Best of all, they're not upwards of $500.

The company GolfBuddy, for example, has several offerings in this department, including the new GolfBuddy BB5 ($300), a slick GPS band that recognizes more than 37,000 golf courses. It's also a watch, of course, and pedometer. GolfBuddy also offers a more traditional looking watch -- the GolfBuddy WT-5 ($250).

SkyGolf's SkyCaddie LINX watch ($180) comes with Bluetooth technology that allows you to connect to a complimentary app on your smartphone. With the free subscription, it gives front, middle and back yardages to the pin, but you can also upgrade (for a fee) to get more detailed information such as distance to hazards and trees and layup distances.

And there's more: Companies like Magellan, Mobile Tech, Bushnell and Callaway are also offering golf watches with various features and connectivity with smartphones for around $200 or less, so there's plenty from which to choose. And while these golf watches won't last on battery power for a year like a regular quartz watch does, they will go three or four weeks in watch mode and up to 12 hours or so in GPS mode -- a vast improvement over early golf watches.

Handheld GPS units

While the new watches are intriguing, and perhaps represent the future of GPS devices, there's still something to be said for handheld GPS units with easy to read color screens with accurate depictions of the holes. Since they're bigger, of course, they can hold more data and probably work a little faster.

SkyCaddie, which claims to be the most accurate because of the way the SkyGolf maps its courses, offers several hand-held units, led by its SkyCaddie Touch ($300), which features an easy to use touch screen and can be paired with SkyCaddie's mobile app. GolfBuddy, Callaway, Izzo and Garmin, just to name a few, also offer hand-held GPS units. There are even units that talk to you, like the I'm Caddie and Voice Caddie. The latter has a hybrid watch with readouts as well as voice.

The advantages of GPS devices are that the information appears without effort, they give more information than just distance to the pin and they show you what the holes are. Plus you can get maps of the holes and you can even keep score and stats.

The disadvantages are that you have to charge them, often you have to pay for a subscription (at least for the premium service), some companies' products are more accurate than others, and like any technology, it can become dated after a few years.

Laser rangefinders

Laser rangefinders are certainly more popular with tournament players. By and large, they're the most accurate, you don't have to pay subscription fees and a battery can last a year or two so there's little or no maintenance. Plus, you don't have to download any courses (which is the case for the new GPS devices as well), and you get the exact distance to the pin. For the most part you don't get that with a GPS device unless it's on the golf cart and calibrated by the course.

So what are the disadvantages? You have to have line of sight. In other words, you have to be able to shoot the target, like you would a gun. If you have to go over a tree, you're sort of out of luck.

Some are easier to use than others, and it helps if the pins have reflective bands on them, but they're not necessary with most modern laser rangefinders.

It's also difficult to shoot how far it is to carry a hazard; you usually have to look for a tree or some other landmark on the other side to figure it out. But the biggest disadvantage, perhaps, is that when you shoot a pin, you can't really tell how much green is behind or in front of the pin. That's why pairing a laser device with a pin sheet works pretty well. Or you could pair it with a GPS device. In fact, Bushnell has one unit that contains both, its Hybrid GPS/Rangefinder ($500).

There are many good ones on the market, including Bushnell, Laser Link, Leupold and Nikon. And many are about the same price as GPS units, ranging from around $150-$300 (Nikon, which made Callaway's laser rangefinders over the last decade, uses its binocular and camera background to offer three terrific CoolShot models). You can, however, spend as much as $600 on some units, such as the Bushnell X7 Jolt Slope Rangefinder, which can compensate for elevation changes, can read from more than 500 yards and magnify your targets by a factor of seven.

Of course the most economic option is to simply download an app, which range from free to fee based, all of which are far less expensive that buying new hardware. Some golf facilities even offer free downloads for their courses.

The downside, though, is that they eat the battery life on your phone (you have to use your screensaver feature to get through a round) and do require a little more work. Still, the technology of these apps is amazing, and the price is certainly right.

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SkyCaddie golf watchBushnell Tour X rangefinderSkyCaddie Touch GPS deviceNikon laser rangefinders

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in the Houston area. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 20 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @Accidentlgolfer.

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