Though packed with features, new GPS-enabled advanced sports watches are easier to use and more comfortable to wear.

It wasn’t long ago that these devices were so cumbersome, both in style and functionality, that consumers opted for handheld devices. Northern Lights hardgoods buyer, Vince Close, points out that while many GPS customers are still veering toward handhelds for sheer battery power, advanced watch sales have increased steadily over the past three or four years.

“The GPS functions in watches are coming along, but the size and price of handhelds just outweighs having a wristwatch,” notes Close. He adds that it’s also hard for watches to compete with the four-day battery life of a handheld GPS. However, with Garmin’s release of the Forerunner 405, this may change very quickly.

Garmin launched the Forerunner 405 in April, spinning the category in a new direction with increased functionality. Although initially embraced by fitness wonks, this unit offers most adventure features found in a handheld GPS-minus weather-based info-in a sleek design, with a new touch-sensitive bezel (think iPhone). In terms of battery life, the GPS works for an active eight hours, or up to 12 weeks in the Power Save mode.

Advanced watches have made strides in providing simplified, intuitive interfaces, which in turn have driven sales. Frank Camp, Summit Hut’s marketing manager, notes that unlike in years past, the company has seen a significant decrease in returns. “Most customers are taking them home and figuring them out themselves,” he says.

While initially vendors thought that more functions were better, Tech4O’s brand manager, Rob Marcello, reports that consumers are instead requesting more core features. “Early models were loaded with unique technology and extensive feature lists that made them difficult to use,” he explains.

High Gear’s international sales manager, Ryan Hamsho, agrees: “Consumers are requesting core products in terms of function, and concise features so you don’t have to scroll through screens.”

Summit Hut’s Camp adds that expandability, which allows users to customize and potentially increase the device’s capabilities, is another strong selling point. Being able to download data onto a computer, wirelessly if possible, is a nice benefit that provides the opportunity to map the data using Google Earth or a similar program.

Not only are interfaces becoming easier to use, but designs are slimming down, making the watches more comfortable for users, especially women. “One thing we’ve been asked for, domestically and internationally, is more women’s products, but without giving up features,” explains Hamsho. He adds that minimalist styling, women’s-specific models, and modular components are all key selling points, as is the use of lightweight materials such as titanium.

Looking ahead, Hamsho foresees more development in sport-specific features, GPS-compatible products, wireless components and-say hello to the Jetsons-integrated soft pixel screens and smart apparel.